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.
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.
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.
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.
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…