Of Dogs, Dreams, and Human Skin, Part One

September 26th, 2010 · 12:47 pm  →  the blog

As I mentioned, I’ve been returning to some material I discovered in researching my piece on cemeteries for Lapham’s Quarterly, material which wasn’t suitable for the essay but which nonetheless captivated me. I had already wanted to write something about the history of dog burial when David B. Metcalfe shared a very excellent post from the blog The Eyeless Owl, under the heading “If You Dream of a Dog and He Bites You…

This heading, along with the great material that followed, reminded me once again of one of the more stellar infographics I came across while researching cemeteries, from an article on Roman burial in England. The article, “Dedicating the Town: Urban Foundation Deposits in Roman Britain,” was written by Peter and Ann Woodward, and appeared in World Archeology in Mar. 2004. In order to test various hypotheses regarding Roman Britain’s burial practices, the Woodwards turned to archeological evidence in Greyhound Yard, Dorchester, where various pits and shafts had been excavated over the years. In order to demonstrate the contents of these various pits, they included a graphic of the recovered remains in three shafts, prepared by Henry Buglass:

Buglass’s image is for me one of those unintentional moments of art, disguised through this schematic depiction of bodily remains in the earth. It’s analogous, for me, to those early Sumerian tablets, some of the earliest extant writing by human hands, which record simple business transactions (such as the buying and selling of sheep), but yet which radiate, over the span of years, what Walter Benjamin would call an aura.

The appearance of actual human remains was quite rare, with only one of the three shafts containing a human cranium. Instead, what they found were copious quantities of animal remains. Some of these—rodents, birds, and frogs—were classified by the Woodwards as “pitfall victims”; that is, animals who were not deliberately buried but were trapped in these pits or were otherwise accidentally buried in them.

What I found of most interest was the high number of dog remains that were found in these pits—burials which were definitely deliberate. Shaft 6 contained the remains of at least 17 dogs, and shaft 13 had 9 dogs and 4 puppies.

What accounted for this prevalence of ritual dog burial? The Woodwards explain:

Dogs held a special place in the rituals and iconography of Iron Age and Roman Britain. Depictions of such creatures occur commonly, usually in the form of small figurines, and the skeletal remains of the animals themselves often were deposited in auspicious places. Such places included temples and shrines, and also deposits located in deep shafts or wells. Several systems of symbolic referencing seem to have been involved. First, dogs were traditionally associated with healing and aspects of fidelity and protection of humans—the guarding instinct. The association with health appears to have been linked to the fact that dogs could induce rapid healing by licking their own wounds, and those of humans. A somewhat contrasting group of associations included those with death and hunting, and links with chthonic themes and the underworld.

The dog, then, as a Roman symbol, is closely linked to our bodies in any number of ways, and seems poised to accompany us through various stages of life—the dog provides bodily protection to keep us out of harm, offers an almost supernatural ability to heal us through its bacteria-killing saliva, and finally accompanies us on the final journey to the underworld.

To this one could add one more association with dogs and healing: early anatomists could not dissect actual human corpses, and so their understanding of the human body was limited to the animal kingdom. Galen in particular, the founding father of anatomy, regularly dissected both apes and dogs in an effort to understand human anatomy better.

It’s hard for me to think of our own dog’s saliva as particularly healing, especially after watching the various trash he roots around in and eats whenever we take him walking in the park. So it’s nice to be reminded—through a rather beautiful graphic of some excavated burial plots in Dorchester from fifteen hundred years ago—that as he methodically and seriously goes about licking my hand every night, he’s watching out for me.

Vampires and Beans

September 13th, 2010 · 12:08 pm  →  the blog

While I was working on my piece on cemeteries for the upcoming “Cities” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, I came across a number of random facts and other historical detritus that caught my eye—while none of it was suitable for the Lapham’s piece, a couple of interesting finds stayed with me, and with a little more time on my hands, I’ve been going back and following up with some of those finds.

Among other things, one fascinating piece of cultural belief turned up in an issue of The Classical Review from 1921 that I turned up while trying to find more information on Roman burial practices.

After an article by W. R. Halliday on the likelihood of adult burial within cities in Roman practices, came another piece titled “Quaestiones Romanae,” written by F. A. Wright; the first such “quaestione” was this: “Why are beans taboo?”

As you can imagine, this caught my attention. The answer was even more bizarre: the Greek word for “bean” was κναμος, which Wright points out, is a noun derived from the verb κνεω, “to be pregnant.” In other words, a bean is, literally, a “pregnant thing,” or “the thing big with life.” As he explains, “anyone who has watched the rapid and mysterious pushing forth of the young bean from the parent womb will understand why the bean was a symbol of sexual fertility.” This is perhaps a matter of some debate, though I’m willing to grant Dr. Wright this point, I suppose.

He also points out that the Pythagoreans, who were vegetarians, also abstained from eating beans, since “in its growth has almost the vitality of the animal kingdom”—beans, it could be said, were viewed as something of a hybrid creature, part vegetable, part animal—the classical world’s equivalent to slimemold, I suppose.

The bean, then, is an object which suggests an uncanny sexuality, and in the same way that pregnant women would have been seen to be unclean, so too were beans.

As a final note, though, it appears that beans, by virtue of this anomalous appearance, had a very specific usage: they could be used to deceive vampires, who would mistake beans for humans, or pregnant women….

So to the stake, the garlic, the mirror and the cross, one can also add…the bean.

Sexy Skulls

September 7th, 2010 · 11:00 am  →  the blog

Along the lines of my previous post, someone sent this image to me–god knows where she found it. They just don’t make album covers like this anymore, do they?

The Skull on the Bookshelf

September 5th, 2010 · 10:52 am  →  the blog

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Around this time last year, the book was about to come out, and it was my birthday, which meant I was getting a lot of skulls. This not-entirely-unwelcome phenomenon seems to happen to anyone who develops a fondness for a certain object, animal or piece of pop cultural ephemera. If you tell people you like Elvis, for example, you’re going to get a glut of Elvis paraphernalia. My mother has always liked pink flamingos, and once her co-workers realized this, they began to flood her office at any gift-giving opportunity, with flamingos, so now it’s nigh-crammed with pink birds.

And so people knew that I liked skulls, and the skulls came pouring in. now my bookshelf is crammed with them, of various sizes, materials, and quality—along with a few phrenological charts and busts that have also come my way.

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Of course, having a skull on a bookshelf is an old tradition, something that gets discussed in the book, particularly in relationship to the poet Friedrich Schiller:

When the German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller’s body was exhumed in 1826, twenty-one years after his death, the Duke Carl August had the skull mounted on a velvet cushion in a glass case and displayed in his library. In order to keep the duke from being confused with the religiously superstitious or macabre treasure hunters, much was made of the fact that the skull was to be kept in the library—the proper place for a skull of genius, which could be read phrenologically, almost as if it were another book on the shelf. As a private, special book, it was not for everyone. As the director of the duke’s library put it, the skull was to be made available only to those “of whom one can be certain that their steps are not governed by curiosity but by a feeling, a knowledge of what that great man achieved for Germany, for Europe, and for the whole civilized world.”

If anyone had that feeling, it was this librarian, no less than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who would become the bedrock on which much of Germanic literature was based. Either way, after a year the Duke got nervous about the skull and ordered it reinterred with the body. Respectable sources simply could not be relied on; if you wanted a skull, you had to steal it yourself.

So while I have no actual human skulls in my house, famous or not, it was great to be able to decorate my bookshelves with skulls, even if they were a bit more kitschy, such as the acrylic paperweight that my in-laws got me from Disneyland.

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But by far my favorite of these skulls is the one that my mother bought me. I had, as a joke, asked her for an authentic human skull, one onto which a phrenology chart had been inscribed. Such skulls do exist; the Wellcome Museum has one, and Hari Kunzru writes about it in The Phantom Museum, a really great and inspiring text for anyone interested both in esoteric weirdness and good writing. In the tradition of the memento mori and Hamlet’s soliloquy, Kunzru imagines/traces the history of this skull:

Most of my body eventually found its way into the Cross Bones graveyard in Southwork, but my skull went into the anatomist’s collection, where it stayed, locked in a cupboard, for many years. At length, with the rise of the phrenological theories of Doctor Gall, it was marked out with the good German’s divisions of the mental faculties and converted, much to my pleasure, into a teaching aid.

One of the great things about Kunzru’s piece for me is his highlighting of that tension between the skull’s immortality and phrenology’s very limited shelf life:

Those were the glory days. I was handled, scrutinised, debated and argued over in a most flattering manner. I was most disappointed when the doctor’s theories were superseded. People had the nerve to call him a charlatan! I was rather relieved to be purchased by the collector. I am part of something permanent, something that does not change with the seasons. For (alas!) I believe it will always be my fate to fall out of fashion.

But anyway, my mother, alas, was unable to track down a similar skull for me. Instead she sent me this unbelievably tacky skull, a squeezable stress ball no doubt intended for junior high boys or elementary school classrooms come Halloween.

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It’s garish and ridiculous, to be sure, but the amazing thing happens when you squeeze it hard enough, and out of a small, trepanned flap at the top of the cranium, a pouch filled with bloody rats oozes out.

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And with due respect to Goethe and Schiller, to the Wellcome Museum and Kunzru, I think it’s safe to say that this skull, too, is one to be treasured…

Gustave Flaubert & the Demons of Masturbation

September 2nd, 2010 · 7:26 pm  →  the blog

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In his final, unfinished novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet, Gustave Flaubert satirized the writing process (among nearly every other pursuit, artistic or otherwise) through his two bumbling protagonists, who struggle first for a subject on which to write before realizing that the main problem is that they have no taste. But if Bouvard and Pécuchet have no subject on which to write, Flaubert himself had an opposite problem through much of his life: a single subject that he spent three decades trying to write about, which consumed him and nearly destroyed both his writing career and himself.

It was while traveling in Italy in 1845 that Flaubert had first seen Bruegel’s Temptation of Saint Anthony, a painting that resonated deep within him, and which sparked in him a desire to retell the desert saint’s tribulations for the modern age. He worked on it for four years, and, in the fall of 1849, assembled his two closest friends—Louis Bouilhet and Maxime du Camp—for a reading of what he believed was to be his masterpiece. The 30 year-old writer was excited to finally share it with the two men whose opinion he trusted more than anyone else, and Bouilhet and du Camp were likewise excited: even though Flaubert had yet to publish anything, they both knew of his extraordinary potential, and were anxious to hear this masterwork that had so fully consumed him.

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Flaubert told them beforehand that he wanted their honest appraisal of the work, but then, just before he began, Flaubert waved the manuscript pages in the air above his head and exclaimed, “If you don’t howl with pleasure at this, you’re incapable of being moved by anything!” Settling down, he began to read.

And read. He read the entire five hundred and forty-one pages straight through: eight hours a day in uninterrupted four-hour blocks of time, for four solid days. During that entire time, these people that he loved and trusted more dearly than anyone else—Maxime Du Camp, Louis Bouilhet—sat in silence as he read his opus.

They would later remember it as the most painful days in their lives, as they listened to an endless morass of words that was alternately incomprehensible, banal, repetitive, childish, and plain boring. “As he read,” du Camp later recalled, “Flaubert warmed, but we, though we tried to share his enthusiasm, remained cold as ice. Words, words—harmonious phrases expertly put together, full of noble images and startling metaphors, but often redundant, and containing whole passages which could have been transposed and combined without changing the effect of the book as a whole. There was no progression—the scene always remained the same, though played by different characters. We said nothing, but Flaubert could easily perceive we were not favorably impressed, and from time to time he interrupted himself to cry: ‘Wait! Wait! You’ll see!’”

After it was over, they did their best to put a good face on it and let him down easy. But it was difficult, as they felt clearly that the last four years had been wasted on something that was completely unsalvageable. Bouilhet, with as much tact as he could muster, told Flaubert simply, “We think you should throw it into the fire and never speak of it again.” Finally, du Camp, struggling to put a good spin on things, explained to Flaubert, “You proceed by expansion. One subject sweeps you toward another, and you end up forgetting the point of departure. A droplet becomes a torrent, the torrent a river, the river a lake, the lake an ocean, the ocean a tidal wave. You drown, you drown your characters, you drown the event, you drown the reader, and your work is drowned.”

It was du Camp that finally, to rescue the situation, suggested that Flaubert adopt a different strategy: “choose a down-to-earth subject,” he told Flaubert, “one of those incidents in which bourgeois life abounds, something like [Balzac’s] La Cousin Bette or La Cousin Pons….” Ultimately du Camp’s advice took the form of Madame Bovary in 1857, which finally redeemed the promise of Flaubert’s talent.

And though he deeply identified with the bored, provincial housewife he’d created (“Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” he famouly quipped), Flaubert never gave up Anthony, and spent the rest of his life working on different drafts, before finally publishing the third major version in 1874. And though the final product would in time have its admirers (including Mallarmé, Freud and Foucault), it was almost universally panned upon publication, sending Flaubert further into frustration and depression.

Flaubert’s Anthony is the ecstatic version of Emma Bovary. Whereas Emma loses herself amidst the reverie of books, Anthony is assailed by actual demons—retreating to the desert for contemplation, the Devil tempts him with hordes of fantastical creatures. Some attempt to seduce him through lust and vanity, but many try to play on his fear of physical death through savage beatings and attacks.

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The decades-long, tortured writing process that produced The Temptation of Saint Anthony veered between the sublime, the goofy, and the obscene, and ultimately, given the medical climate of the time, was curiously circular: Flaubert was drawn to Anthony because he had epilepsy, and he developed epilepsy because he masturbated, and he masturbated because he could not write his masterpiece, The Temptation of St. Anthony.

Flaubert worked on the Temptation, off and on, for thirty years, and it was a constant struggle. Often, out of frustration he turned to masturbation, which he was fairly casual in describing. “I’m gnawed by anger, impatience, impotence,” he confided to a friend. “There are moments when my head bursts with the bloody pains I’m taking over this. Out of sheer frustration I jerked off yesterday, feeling the same bleakness that drove me to masturbate at school, when I sat in detention. The ejaculate soiled my pants, which made me laugh, and I washed it off. Ah! I’m quite sure Monsieur Scribe never stooped so low!” Masturbation was a foil to good writing both literally and figuratively; in his letters to female friends, he likened to the frustrations of writing to “masturbating” his head in order to “ejaculate” a few sentences at a time. And in 1855 he wrote, “We take notes, we embark on voyages…we become scholars, archeologists, historians, doctors, cobblers and people of taste. But what about heart and verve and sap? We’re good at licking cunt. But humping? Ejaculating in order to make a child?” Above all, Flaubert wanted to make something, to be a productive member of literary society through a great and popular work. Nothing threatened this more than Saint Anthony—his obsession with the hermit was too esoteric, too idiosyncratic. The nineteenth-century wanted the realism of Balzac; it had no taste for the romance Flaubert sought to create. His was a perverse, solitary obsession, masturbatory in its scope and taste—no wonder it drove him to self-pollution.

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Flaubert was playing a dangerous game; in the nineteenth-century masturbation had far more serious dangers in store than simply bad writing; it was, quite simply, lethal. Larousse’s Grand Dictionnaire noted in the 1875 edition that “We find in the annals of medicine plenty of cases of five-, six-, and eight-year-old children dead as a result of masturbation.” As Samuel Tissot, one of the foremost fighters of self-pollution, noted, “Too great a quantity of semen being lost in the natural course produces dire effects; but they are still more dreadful when the same quantity has been dissipated in an unnatural manner. The accidents that happen to such as waste themselves in a natural way are very terrible, those which are occasioned by masturbation are still more so.”

Why did masturbation lay at the root cause of so much suffering? As Thomas Laqueur explains in his exhaustive history of masturbation, solitary sex was dangerous because “it was motivated not by a real object of desire but by a phantasm; masturbation threatened to overwhelm the most protean and potentially creative of the mind’s faculties—the imagination—and drive it over a cliff,” and because, “while all other sex was social, masturbation was private, or, when it was not done alone, it was social in all the wrong ways: wicked servants taught it to children; wicked older boys taught it to innocent younger ones; girls and boys in schools taught it to each other away from adult supervision. Sex was naturally done with someone; solitary sex was not.”

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It was chiefly in this private, unnatural manufacture of fantasies and images that had no grounding in reality that the masturbator was liable to get him or herself in trouble. Masturbation could lead to consumption or any number of nervous disorders, including epilepsy, which plagued Flaubert throughout his life. He suffered his first attack when he was twenty-one, riding in a carriage with his brother. With the onset of the seizure, Flaubert lost consciousness for ten minutes, in what he later described as “torrents of flame” sweeping him away. He was to suffer from these episodes regularly throughout his life, and they so horrified him that he would never once use the word “epilepsy” to describe his condition.

Epilepsy no longer was seen in terms of divine or demonic possession; Flaubert was a long way from St. Anthony’s body wracked and tossed about his cave in a cataclysmic spiritual battle. Convulsions and spasms like Flaubert’s were better understood as the result of a serious moral failing, an ethical rather than divine transgression. Flaubert himself seemed to agree with Tissot’s diagnosis—he confided to a friend once how “Madness and lust are two realms I’ve explored so deliberately…. But I’ve paid a price for it. My nervous malady is the scum of these little intellectual pranks. Each attack has been a kind of hemorrhage of innervation.”

Epilepsy, after all, is not just one of many illnesses that could result from the solitary vice, it is in many ways the most emblematic. The epileptic suffers from the nightmare form of the masturbator’s plethora of fantasies: attacked by an endless series of hallucinations from which he cannot escape. Here’s how Flaubert explained it: “At twenty-one I nearly died of a nervous illness brought on by a series of irritations and troubles, by late nights and anger. It lasted ten years. (I have felt, I have seen everything in Saint Theresa, in Hoffman and Edgar Poe; people visited by hallucinations are not strangers to me.)” Flaubert was not Emma Bovary, in love with the fantasies and phantasms found in novels; he was Anthony, plagued by them, tormented by them. In the 1849 draft of the Temptation, Anthony speaks for his creator, describing his temptations in the language of the epileptic: “I felt desperately unable to control my thought; it slipped the bonds with which I had tied it and escaped me.… Like a rogue elephant, [my mind] would race beneath me with wild trumpetings. Sometimes I’d lean back in fright, or else boldly try to stop it. But its speed stunned me, and I’d get up broken, lost.”

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It was this sudden excess of imagination this plethora of fantastical images, that drove Flaubert the masturbator, just as it terrified Flaubert the epileptic. But it also sparked Flaubert the writer. As the anti-masturbating crusader Dr. Tissot noted, “The self-polluter perpetually abandoned to his obscene meditations is in this regard, something in the case of the man of letters, who fixes all his attention on one point.” So too was Flaubert, like a hermit in the wilderness, alone with his thoughts, writing his misunderstood masterpiece.