Habeas corpus: the old taboos are the best ones

[This article was originally posted on Electric Review on 28 November, 2002.]

How one hesitates to add to the publicity already garnered by Professor von Hagens and his enterprising display of flayed human beings, currently on display at a third-rate East End art gallery, or the public ‘autopsy’ that took place at there last week and was soon thereafter beamed into thousands of British homes through the agency of Channel 4. Surely something that feels this guilty ought, at least, to be a pleasure? Conversely, it would be gratifying to think that — despite, or perhaps even because of the enormous wealth of media attention given to this wretched man — Britain’s leading High Tory webzine could stand forever above the fray, oblivious as we are implacable, ignoring a subject as distasteful as it is banal. For surely, all reasonable people think as one on this particular, loathsome, and wildly over-hyped topic?

Well, no — and therein lies the sole reason I’d even consider writing about Gunther von Hagens, purveyor of plastic-coated cadavers to the curious. Over the weekend, as we sat cosily reading the papers, someone for whose moral as well as intellectual qualities I have literally boundless regard surprised me by announcing that he had some sympathy for Hagens, if only because the enemies ranged against him were ‘all the usual suspects’ — the British Medical Association, the befuddled denizens of Scotland Yard and the odd if plangent voice from deep within the tabloid press. Strange to say, this bothered me to the extent that I ended up spending far more time anatomising — if that’s the right word — my objections to Hagens than I have ever hitherto done. As it happens, the longer I thought about it, the more Hagens’ friends seemed at least as remarkable than his enemies, and the thinner their arguments sounded — and the less argument per se seemed to matter, in the face of the enormity of Hagens’ grisly project.

Hence the article that follows. Do, though, feel free to skip it. Read something else instead. As far as I’m concerned, what Hagens does is so unpleasant that it falls into the same category as the published evidence from the Rosemary West trial, or Channel 5 documentaries about serial killers, or — well, you know the sort of thing I mean, and if by some chance you don’t, I want nothing to do with delivering you from that happy state. There are, after all, moments when decent people should not be ashamed to turn away out of sheer disgust, and this is just as true when it comes to the pornography of death as it is in the context of livelier forms of pornography. Honestly, there are better things for you to be thinking about than Hagens! He does not deserve the attention he’s getting, and if I thought that ERO would add to that in any material way, you wouldn’t be seeing a word of this.

An evening at the theatre
Obviously, however, not all journalists feel the same way. The civilised, decent and impeccably well-mannered Simon Jenkins sat through the protracted mutilation of the corpse of a 72-year old alcoholic and resourcefully gleaned from it at least two columns, one in the Times and one in the Evening Standard. I wonder how much money he made from that? Jenkins, though, is a great beacon of liberalism, and made a spirited case for what he had seen — a case that is worth examining in some detail, if only because it touches on virtually all of the points made in Hagens’ favour.

Consider, then, Jenkins’ Evening Standard piece and its disparate ingredients. First we were flirted at from behind the strangely old-fashioned veil of populist appeal, as Jenkins announced that ‘half a million people have visited [Hagens’] Body Worlds display, most of them respectable’. Hence Hagens ‘rates a hearing’. If one wanted to score a cheap point here, it would be possible to ask how many ‘respectable’ people engage in domestic violence, child abuse or low-level racism, and thus whether the case for these also ‘rates a hearing’ — but let it pass. Jenkins’ main argument appears in the next paragraph, where he states that although the ‘autopsy’ was ‘mildly shambolic’, it nevertheless ‘seemed a genuine attempt to bring anatomy to a public audience’ — and anyway, more to the point, ‘this is a free country. Why should anyone want to stop it?’ Again, cheap points loom temptingly here — surely even Jenkins could see why someone might ‘want’ to stop something that another individual was notionally free to do? — but I’ll hold off for a moment longer.

Jenkins next sets off for an attack on the medical profession and the ‘anatomists’ monopoly on dissection’. He quotes that racist eugenicist Shaw with approval: ‘all professions are conspiracies against the laity’. (Other than op-ed journalism, obviously.) And here, the conspiracy is against popular knowledge:

Von Hagens may be a showman and a little gauche, but his technique of combining education and sensation seems wholly admirable. Body Worlds must have done more for public understanding of science in six months than the Department of Health and the Royal College of Surgeons have done in sixty years.

Jenkins goes on with some deeply confused and frankly off-putting material about Georgian London, before returning to his main point:

A corpse is not a living person. It is private property. These corpses are donated voluntarily and used only with permission of next of kin. I found last night’s show unsettling, a throwback to the seventeenth century. But to upset sensitive doctors and their ministerial friends is not a crime in Blair’s Britain — or not yet.

And that, I think, is the important line, if for no other reason than because it encapsulates, more or less, the point that my companion made to me as we read the papers together. The argument seems to be this: that Hagens’ exhibition is admirable not despite the fact that it upsets people, but because it upsets them — and, more to the point, people like Jenkins are admirable because they are prepared to tolerate in the name of ‘freedom’ something that they find ‘unsettling’ and perhaps even atrocious.

Up from liberalism
It has taken me a very long time indeed to realise that instinctive responses, however mute, should not invariably be banished in the face of rational, verbal argument. As you’ll have gathered, I disagree profoundly with those who feel even the slightest sympathy for what Hagens is doing. Yet, strange to say, for some time my objections to Hagens were held in check by the sheer force of my instinctive revulsion. In the same way that one does not stop to reason before dragging an absent-minded friend from the path of an oncoming automobile, or hesitate before startling at the sound of an explosion nearby, it was in that same visceral sense that I felt sickened by the whole idea of displaying corpses as a form of entertainment — sickened to the point where argument seemed both inadequate and unnecessary. Obviously, though, my instinctive response was clearly far from universal. And that, too, had a sort of silencing effect. Surely — to crib Jenkins’ point — if so many respectable people, my own near and dear included, find this stuff tolerable, than the problem is mine, not theirs?

In general, the leader-writing classes have embraced Hagens’ cause with unsqueamish zeal, almost as if doing so provided unarguable evidence for their own rationalism, sophistication and tolerant liberalism. Fifty years ago, educated people were puzzling anxiously over Theodore Adorno’s claim that art was simply impossible after Auschwitz — today, Time Out art critic Sarah Kent happily reviews a display of actual corpses in the ‘art’ section of the magazine. On the ‘is it art’ issue she hedges her bets, as it happens, denying that what she is describing is art, while concurrent treating it as if it were art — hence the disclaimer that ‘this is education at its very best’, accompanied by a somewhat confused protestation that it ‘is not art, it’s anatomy, but be sure not to miss this splendid display’. I suppose that until Time Out develops a ‘ghoul’ section, ‘art’ is the obvious place for such stuff. More alarming, though, because so much more seriously confused, is her reassurance that

since most donors have their facial features removed so that they are not recognisable, one thinks of them as examples of homo sapiens rather than individuals. This allows you to concentrate on the subject — whether it be the functioning of the liver of the astounding complexity and beauty of our arteries and blood vessels.

So that’s all right, then — although the notion of the full richness of human individuality being subsumed into ‘examples’ of a particular ‘subject’ might induce a shiver or two in those with longer historical memories than are apparently thrive at Time Out. There is nothing new about the subordination of human sympathy to an intellectual scheme that makes it look silly, soft and embarassing — the schemes change, but the sense of queasiness remains.

All the same, perhaps it’s worth pausing for an instant to examine whether the bodies exhibited by Hagens can be considered as ‘art’, at least in the practical, modernist sense of something valued primarily for its aesthetic or formal qualities. Whether or not Hagens realises it, his exhibition certainly echoes a much older corpus of work which teetered on the brink between ‘art’ and something else. One influence is the meticulous ecorchés of eighteenth and nineteenth-century anatomy books — flayed figures holding open flaps of flesh in a lively, spirited manner, displaying what lies within. These skilful engravings were made for the benefit of gentlemen amateurs as much as medical specialists and at their best can be strangely moving. Closest of all, though, was the French anatomist Honoré Fragonard — cousin of the far more talented artist — who, like Hagens, found a way of preserving flayed human corpses — foetuses included — posed in fanciful stances and displayed as gruesome curiosities.

Does the fact that Hagens’ exhibition is not very innovative make it better or worse? Are these things art? To my mind, they are not, any more than a prepared joint of meat is art. But the sober truth is that there are strands of post-modernist thought which would not only look enviously on the shock-value of Body Worlds but would also embrace its allusions, however unconscious they may be in practice, to the Wunderkammer-fodder of ages past. But since this is something less than a popular doctrine, most commentators have nervously tried to have it both ways, bringing in the concept of ‘education’ as well, for all the world as if two flawed arguments were somehow better than one. Hagens, I think, has a showman’s pragmatic understanding that liberalism will licence things under the banner of ‘art’ that would result in criminal charges in any other context, but is otherwise not much interested in art. Kent, I think, recoils from the naff staginess of the poses in which the corpses are displayed, and thus really means not that Hagens’ exhibit is not art, but that it is bad art that she nevertheless feels honour-bound to defend.

Let’s talk sternocostal articulations
What, though, of the ‘educational’ justification? How real is that? Well, all I can say is that for all the comments I’ve read about how ‘educational’ the exhibition and onscreen ‘autopsy’ were, I have yet to hear a single specific instance in which anyone’s knowledge of anatomy was in any way advanced by what they witnessed. Nor is this surprising. Dissection is not a good way to learn basic anatomy. Neither is looking at freakishly-posed cadavers. Medical students invariably spend a long time studying anatomy from textbooks before they are allowed anywhere near an actual corpse, for the simple reason that actual bodies are much messier, more confusing and less ‘average’ than a good set of labelled illustrations. I suspect, as with much display technique these days, even the figures in Body Worlds are intended mostly to produce a vague yet potent sensation, rather than real understanding — which after all requires time, effort and application, and hence is largely inappropriate for popular exhibitions. Perhaps, of course, I’m wrong, and Sarah Kent and Simon Jenkins will surprise us in the future with their enhanced grasp of the working of the adrenal system or the intricacies of skeletal structure. Perhaps it is helpful to have flayed corpses enacting the roles of ‘goalkeeper’ or ‘basketball player’ in order to comprehend at a deep level the way in which the human body works. Perhaps, indeed, it is useful to have such an exhibit in a shop window at Piccadilly Circus — an obvious venue for scholarly application. On the other hand, perhaps this is all just an opportunistic freak-show, there to titillate rather than educate? If the next few decades see a renaissance of anatomical understanding in this country, I shall happily admit I was wrong, and this wasn’t simply an essay in extremely callous, dehumanising entertainment.

But actually I don’t think that’s the sort of ‘education’ people such as Jenkins really mean to invoke. More likely, really, they are saluting the way in which Hagens brings the living face-to-face with death. At one level, such a endeavour may, indeed, seem entirely admirable. It is true that most of us in Britain are oblivious to the realities of death to an extent that would have shocked our own great-grandparents. In our world, death is something best handled by professionals, whether in hospices, hospitals or funeral-parlours. We no longer lay out, wash and dress our own dead. Instead of burying them in our midst, we exile them to bleak and distant suburbs or reduce them to ash. As a society, we focus our attention on the appearance of youth, health and vigour, as if to contemplate anything else was to court it. Thus when a young person dies suddenly — one thinks, unavoidably, of Diana, Princess of Wales, but sadly there are plenty of other examples closer to home, no less poignant for their lack of celebrity — it seems a terrible affront. More gradual if no less tragic deaths are couched in terms of ‘losing the fight’ with whatever disease is to blame. Anything, after all, is better than admitting that death is less an adversary than virtually the only inevitability in life. Surely cosmetics, exercise, medical care will protect us? I suspect few of us really, in our heart of hearts, believe that we are ever going to die.

So is Hagens’ work a much-needed memento mori held up in the face of a culture that has forgotten too much? Well, no. In the first place, Hagens has enough commercial sense to provide the frisson of death without exposing his punters to any of its more rebarbative aspects. Corruption is the concomitant of death, but Hagens’ display corpses apparently have a shiny plasticky sheen, vivid colours and no smell. Their active poses are entirely at variance with the postures more usually assumed by the dead. Flayed and faceless, they don’t — as Sarah Kent points out — look much like dead people at all. In fact, what they look like is anatomical models (c.f. Damien Hirst’s polychrome bronze in Charles Saatchi’s collection), except that they happen to be constructed out of dead people. Meanwhile the so-called ‘autopsy’ — and the televised nature of the event belied the whole idea of an autopsy, in the sense of seeing with one’s own eyes — while marginally more indebted to the realities of death, was so theatrical, so mediated with the murmurings of Christina Odone & Co., as to have very little to do with real death. If that sort of education is what Channel 4 wanted, why not leave an hour of normal news footage unedited, so as to depict the dead as open-eyed, contorted and frightening as they actually are? No, if Hagens’ show is a memento of anything, it is a monument to human arrogance or obviousness in the face of the end that awaits us all.

Rest in peace
And this, I think, is why I was instinctively so repulsed by the idea of setting up a show of mutilated corpses as a commercial proposition. As a Christian, I don’t regard this earthly body as very important, since whatever becomes of me after death, I know there will come a day when I am re-embodied. Though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. Yet this body is also, for all its inadequacies and failings, a God-given thing that deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. And this brings us to an elementary point of anthropology so basic it is remarkable that it needs to be stated at all. Put simply, if you love someone, or feel some sense of kinship or sympathy with them, it is a basic human instinct to show for their dead body a measure of the regard you’d have shown towards the living person. As far as I know this has been true from the dawn of time, amongst all people everywhere. Of course the converse is also true, which is why bodies of enemies are so often mutilated, exposed or otherwise mistreated — and why such behaviour is invariably regarded as a serious affront to the memory of the dead. Think here not only of the bodies of Simon de Montfort or our own regicides, but more recently the bodies of Mussolini, the US soldiers killed in Somalia or James Bulger — in each of these cases, the way in which bodies were treated after death was both intended and understood as a grave and terrible insult. There are different ways of explaining why this should be the case, but in the present case, it hardly matters. The instinct is there, it’s universal, and even today, it retains its potency.

Yet if this is true, why do so many ‘respectable’ people flock to see an exhibition in which their fellow creatures are encased in plastic, naked and anonymous? Why do they peer guiltily at the mutilation of a fellow human on television, in the lonely hours after midnight in the comfortable fastness of their suburban homes? Here, I think the answer lies in combination of factors. The first is the absolute unfamiliarity and hence the obliviousness of death that I mentioned a moment ago, and the second is the lack of any metaphysical equipment with which to handle the concept in the unlikely event that one has been forced to engage with it. The culture that delivered the material prosperity necessary to delay death, to treat it as an embarrassment and to tidy it away into ghettos of professional specialisation, has concurrently stripped away the theological understanding that made death both more acceptable and comprehensible to earlier generations. Simon Jenkins, after all, loves our parish churches, but has to explain away his guilty secret by glossing them as a sort of secular shrine to social history, rather than as — well, what the people who worshipped in them for centuries thought they were.

But to return to the subject at hand, if you don’t think you’re going to die, and if you think that everything ends once you die, then why not achieve ‘immortality’ — after all, we all remember what we watched on television at midnight on a Wednesday evening a few weeks ago, don’t we? — by donating your corpse to the first passing charlatan? We also, I suspect — although if true, this contention is the most grisly thing in this article — feel much less connection with the people around us than we once did, and hence are relatively more indifferent to seeing our fellow creatures’ corpses served up as light entertainment. And then there are those, like Jenkins, for whom a lofty disregard for long-established proprieties is almost an end in itself, signalling as it does so many encouraging things about his sophistication, clear-headedness and general superiority. Finding something ‘unsettling’ and yet advocating it — what more fitting sacrifice can be laid on the altar of liberal fundamentalism?

Indeed, instinct seems a world removed from Simon Jenkins’ frankly glib ‘free country’ arguments. For Jenkins, the main issue wrapped up with Hagens’ exhibition seems to be one not of casual cruelty and callousness, but of personal freedom. Jenkins appears confident that a person should have the right to do what he wants with his or her own dead body. After all, a corpse isn’t a living person — it is private property, isn’t it? Well, yes, up to a point. In law, human corpses remain private property of a very specialised kind, and a moment’s reflection suggests why such laws are challenged far more rarely than Jenkins implies. Most people, it turns out, are happy enough with the idea that their lifeless bodies, or those of their lovers or kinsmen, will not be sold off and dissected in public by showmen. This is not entirely an abstract point, either. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the urban poor lived in terror that ‘body-snatchers’ would tear them from their modest final resting places and sell them to anatomists. This is where most of our present legislation on the treatment of corpses originates. In general, people value their right not to live in a world where such things happen more than they value some subjunctive right to do such things if they wish. This may not be a particularly libertarian stance, but then most people are not particularly libertarian when it comes to the matters closest to their hearts — matters like love, altruism or grief, as close study of libertarians in action makes clear. Conventions, like professional qualifications, are often handy shortcuts towards making life work smoothly. Jenkins may talk grandly about professions being a conspiracy against the laity, but does he seek medical advice, legal opinions and help with his accounts from random amateurs?

Pretend, though, for a moment, that this is a point best settled by rational argument. How far is Jenkins willing to push his rights-based case? Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that corpses really are private property, just like any other commodity, as if they had no other significance. Would he be happy for corpses, say, to be sold on the open market — perhaps in specialised shops — for any random use? To be sold for their value as spare parts, genetic material, fertiliser, components of household furnishings or items of personal adornment? Would parents be able to sell off the bodies of their children in this way, or could children thus dispose of the bodies of their senile parents and grandparents? What if someone apparently wants to be made into a handbag or a pair of brogues? Where does one draw the line? Simon Jenkins is making an absolute sort of argument, but I strongly suspect he would not be willing to follow it to its logical conclusion, because at some point a sense of common decency would kick in, wrapped up perhaps in arguments about the sort of abuses and inconveniences such practices might encourage. There would come a point where freedom would have gone just that little bit too far for liberal good manners to bear it. But that, I suppose, is exactly the point. It isn’t that Jenkins doesn’t want limits — he wants the limits to be set by himself, and people like him. And I think he is also, ultimately, just as moved by those instinctive proprieties as the rest of us are. It’s just that he’s a little bit more callous about the exact didactic manner in which they ought to be applied.

Some dead are more equal than others
And here, perhaps, is the most squalid aspect of Hagens’ London sojourn. The corpse at the centre of Hagens’ ‘autopsy’ was, apparently, that of a 72-year old failed businessman who had turned to the bottle and who ‘donated’ his body to be publicly dissected after his death. His family apparently gave their ‘permission’ for the dissection to take place. We are meant to be reassured, I suppose, by both these assertions. Yet if Simon Jenkins really thinks this whole business is so ‘admirable’, as he puts it, why is he not donating his own body to be hacked apart on stage in front of television cameras, or to be gaped at, skinless and naked, in a lucrative exhibition? Does he wish that those closest to him — his family, his friends — should do so? Would he enjoy seeing his own grandparents or children, for instance, subjected to this treatment? Again, I suspect he would not. I also suspect that Channel 4 would not have embraced this project if the body were that of a child, or an attractive young woman, or someone from an ethnic minority group. After all, we like children, attractive young women, and coloured people, don’t we?

Thus our public dissections, like those of the seventeenth century, enshrine their own morality tales, even if Simon Jenkins is too squeamish to spell these out. In the past, those consigned to dissection were the outcasts of society — hanged criminals, for the most part, for whom public mutilation was simply one final gesture of society’s contempt. Last week in Brick Lane, it was possible to watch a poor old drunk — he was a heavy smoker too, apparently —being sawed to bits, his face fully visible. Some of us might have felt that such a person deserved pity, a bit of Christian charity and respect someone who, though a sinner like all of us, was likewise a child of God. Some, indeed, might have doubted that the decisions that an old drunk was making by the end of his life were necessarily wise or sound ones, and hence might feel there was a moral case to be made for holding back from offering him this sort of choice. Some might likewise recall that since families are perfectly capable of disliking, harming or even murdering their own, the permission of next-of-kin might encapsulate a good deal of resentment and desire for revenge, rather than benevolent concern. Liberalism, with its mantras of ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’, gets a good press; obviously, the alternatives can sound patronising, arbitrary and repressive. Yet there are moments when the fruits of liberal permissiveness can taste very bitter indeed, and the night of Hagens’ autopsy was one of them.

Obviously, however, plenty of people will continue to disagree with me in my distaste for this exhibition, my nearest and dearest included — a sign, if one were needed, of the extent to which we live in a pluralistic society where literally nothing can be taken for granted as a common belief. Some people find this exciting, while others find it destabilising, alienating and more than a little bleak. In the end, alas, there is perhaps no line of argument on subjects such of these that will succeed in bringing liberal beliefs — I choose the word carefully — safely into port alongside their Tory equivalents. There have been questions raised about the ways in which Hagens has recruited his ‘volunteers’ — especially some that appear to have been posthumously volunteered by the proprietor of a Russian crematorium — and these remain to be answered. But let’s assume for a moment that all the dead bodies he displays come from willing donors and that his work really does have some sort of educational or perhaps even aesthetic value. Would I be happy with it then? No, not at all. I’ve examined my own revulsion, turned it over in my own mind and tried to understand why it is there, but in a sense the sheer fact of it speaks for itself. What Hagens is doing is simply wrong, in the same way that murder or torture or extreme indifference to human suffering is wrong. If ever innate moral sense told us anything, this would be it. If I had to make arguments to defend my opposition, however, I suppose I’d argue that treating dead bodies in the way that Hagens does not only indicates a lack of respect for the living as well as the dead, but that it can only serve further to coarsen the moral sensibilities of those who countenance such treatment, with frankly frightening implications for the future. Great apes, apparently, treat their dead with a sort of forlorn and puzzled concern, until gradually they grow bored of their lifeless companion, turn and amble away. It’s hard to think of any creature that uses its dead fellows for fun. Maybe my friend is right, the conservative voices are wrong, and this is where liberal progress has led us. If so, though, it leaves me feeling more Tory than ever.
Bunny Smedley, ERO’s arts editor, not only has not seen Body Worlds but cannot imagine the circumstances in which she ever would.

November 28, 2002 11:23 AM

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