Sunday 24 February 2013

Anatomies; or looking inside ourselves

How much of an expert do you have to be to write a book about something? Recently we’ve had physicists writing about biology; chemists writing about history of science, suggesting that if you’re a scientist, you’re qualified to write about something which isn’t your usual field. Is this because scientists are inherently curious? Or is it because a history or personal exploration of a ‘new to them’ area is perceived to be lighter, softer and more popular than their usual specialism? Or are we so consumed by interdisciplinarity that no subject is beyond reach if you have contacts in the right places, access to an excellent library and the confidence to carry it off? I’d still like to know where all the excellent history of science specialists are though.

Anyway I’m going to suspend cynicism in this case and take this new book at face value. Hugh Aldersley-Williams’s engaging and very personal book ‘Anatomies: The human body, its parts and the stories they tell’ is a brief history of the body as seen through various lenses of art history, culture, literature, anecdote and historic scientific obsessions and developments. His interest in the body arose through a gap in his knowledge – like many of us at school, if you wanted to do physics and chemistry, then biology fell by the wayside. Thanks to people like Adam Rutherford, we are aware of the technological advances in biology, genetics, the genome project and so forth, however, as Aldersley-Williams’s points out ‘it doesn't tell us about ourselves in the round’ (p xix). His interest is in looking at the way the body interacts with the world has a whole, the raft of meanings, and taking a wider view of the parts.

After setting the scene, with chapters on flesh and bones, the second part of the book takes the body apart to investigate it piece by piece. The chapter on the foot covers such connected yet diverse topics such as movement and dance, literature from ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, fossils, godly procreation empathy and archaeology. All that starting from a single appendage; of course any of these could be expanded, and the chapter enlarged. For example using religious art, where the feet of Christ seem to be fetishised. Or even classical learning techniques, where people would learn from sitting at the foot of the philosopher teacher. This is not a criticism but I enjoy his take on the subjects he embraces and want to read more.

Using this same connecting technique he looks at the brain, face, heart, blood, hand and stomach, ending with the most fascinating section, the skin. He cleverly uses this as a smooth transition into the final part where he talks about the future of the body; as the skin is the most visible part of the body it is something that we can all control to a certain extent. Whether we paint it, mark it, pierce it – or cover it entirely so that remains a mystery – the skin of the future has already been broached/breached with cosmetic treatments, xenotransplantation, and other science based enhancements.

His journey begins with an art lesson at Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, the only art college to do drawing from death. Our insulation from the sight of death is thorough so what he encounters is initially quite shocking and unnerving, despite death being a very natural state. In the clinical antiseptic surroundings of the university, he says the dissected prepared bodies are not gruesome but appear to have their own beauty and purpose. Every organ has its place and the internal workings are shown to be as complex and individual as the person to whom they once belonged. 

Recreation of the Anatomy Lesson
For instance the tattooed male cadaver with vestigial body hair presented to the art student group becomes a person with a history because of these details. Knowing that the lady’s clean lungs meant she was from the countryside ensures that there is a connection with a life lived. The correct and ethical requirement for absolute detachment, anonymity and eradicating the human from human remains is clearly important. And yet, why does this removal trouble me so much? So much of our history is finding context, similarity, a connection so perhaps this scientific disconnect is something that has to be learnt. However when we do have these details, our experience of these artifacts is enriched. Exhibitions such as the Hunterian’s Narrative Remains have shown the interested public the importance of personal stories behind faceless preserved remains.

From an art history point of view, I enjoyed his dissection of the Rembrandt painting ‘The Anatomy Lesson’ (1632). It was a useful collation and summary of a large bank of research. Dr Tulp of the Amsterdam School of Surgeons demonstrates the nerves of the cadaver’s hands to his learned friends and the viewer. I’m not relating the details here but he examines the artist’s recreation of scientific and divine revelation, as well as the licence to falsify the scene to fit the decorous circumstances of the commission. The recreation of the scene under the dramatic chiaroscuro lights of the Royal Institution lecture theatre was also rather beautiful, and demonstrated a connection with science, audience and theatrical make believe.

Interestingly performance group dreamthinkspeak inspired by Da Vinci and the Book of Revelation recently made an exploratory foray into science and the impact of technology of the human body. Their imagining of a world where machines are invented to do mundane human tasks such as make tea, fire rings or humans engaging with special machines to let off emotional steam suggests not a bright future but a troubled one. We could potentially become so enraptured with the technology that we withdraw into ourselves and become as robotic as the computers we've devised. At the climax of this whirling artificiality, the human body suddenly erupts in all its beauty and the centre stillness of the performance is captured as people rediscover themselves. As Aldersley-Williams concludes, our minds are not computers, they are  biological residing and dependent on our bodies. Therefore like the body, the mind needs sustenance and exercise in the form of ideas, dreams, imagination.

The point of books like this, flawed and lacking in specialist detail though they may be, is that they make you think. As a conversation point they are invaluable. As a way into a topic they are a useful spring board into the deeper literature mentioned in the bibliography, as well as making visits to the Wellcome, Huntarian and other things far more meaningful.

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