When I was in high school, I spent a day in the office of a pathologist at a small, drab hospital. It was part of a class in human physiology taught by an earnest, devoutly Christian and very pregnant teacher. The course was mostly a celebration of the miraculous perfection of the human body and the way the sum of its myriad parts, from specialized cells to organs to systems, added up to more than the whole: a living, breathing human being. What I experienced over the course of eight largely idle hours at the hospital that day was something completely different. Apart from the desolate hallways with their brittle yellow wallpaper, the preponderant smell of urine, hospital food and disinfectant, the hum of life-support machines and the hushed, dimly lit rooms I did my best not to look into, what struck me most were the huge jars set on shelves on one side of the pathologist’s cluttered and windowless basement office. They were filled with formaldehyde and diseased organs—brains, hearts, lungs, livers, kidneys and things I could not begin to identify; all of them had once been part of one of the perfectly integrated living beings we had been studying in class.
Jack Burman, Untitled #6, 1999, 154 x 116 cm. Image courtesy the artist.
The organs afloat in those large glass bottles, which resembled the pickling jars you might find in your grandmother’s kitchen, were, of course, simply specimens—instances of the effects on the human body of disease, and often bad habits. Lungs blackened by years of cigarette smoke, hearts damaged by clogged arteries, livers and brains wrecked by lifetimes of heavy drinking. But the lesson I ended up taking home was slightly different, more philosophical: that the body, which as a healthy and athletic 16 year old I had only experienced as immaculate and inviolable, a pure form of the kind ancient Greek sculptors idealized in their kouros boys, was in fact porous, permeable and subject to dramatic change and transformation, and that its outward beauty could transfigure from within into something strange, anomalous, maybe wondrous, maybe monstrous. Gradually, a very ordinary pathologist’s office—he was in late middle age with thinning grey hair, thick glasses and a grey complexion, no doubt from spending all his time under fluorescent light among those jarred organs—turned into a kind of cabinet of curiosities, a Kunstkammer in Berlin or Vienna or Saint Petersburg, which included not only works of art and mechanical curiosities but also wonders of nature, strange plants, bizarre animals and mythical creatures.
Deep into what is sometimes called the “secular age” (though no one really knows what “secular age” means here—Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age goes on for well over a thousand pages on the topic and never satisfactorily resolves the issue), we remain deeply ambivalent—confused might be a better word—about the relationship between mind, self, value, meaning and our bodies, and more broadly the physical world. Following the lead of Descartes, we mostly want to believe that the substance of a person rests in her mind and consciousness, the way she relates to and comports herself in the world. Yet, like the ancient Greeks, we find it difficult to wholly disassociate beauty from goodness and truth, ugliness, deformity and anomaly from something false, sinister, horrifying and depraved. And while most of us believe that physical processes are governed by laws that mean nothing in and of themselves, and that certainly have no moral or spiritual significance, we also have trouble resisting the idea that natural anomalies—the birth of two-headed calves, rare diseases, even earthquakes and tsunamis—are signs of something of greater significance, are in some way symptoms of our moral failures. We can, I think, still feel the pull of magical, archaic beliefs, of the idea that the world is haunted by spirits, and that our lives are governed by fate.
The idea that physical wonders and monstrosities are expressions of a moral, spiritual and cosmic dynamic is, of course, nothing new…