Washington State University
It seems appropriate that Gunter von Hagens held his London exhibition Bodyworlds in the same neighborhood where Jack the Ripper took his victims. When I attended the 2002 exhibition at the Atlantis Gallery on Brick Lane, I was both fascinated and freaked out. It progressed from body parts to full corpses, in postures that mocked their lifelessness. One was a horseman, one held what looked to be a cape but turned out to be his entire skin, while others mimicked athletes: a runner, a basketball player, a swimmer, and a pole-vaulter lodged half-way between floors. Then there was a room dedicated to the development of the baby in embryo.
Not surprisingly, the media has taken to calling von Hagens a Doctor Frankenstein, saying his techniques recall a “pre-Victorian past,” but that “in the end it is a freak show.” However, marriages of science, art, and monstrosity are not all that rare. Much has been made, for instance, of Diana Arbus’s photographs of the deformed body. Arbus has photographed Russian midgets, Siamese twins, transvestites, and a Jewish giant, among many others who stood out because their bodies were not seen as conforming to a proper norm. Talking about monstrosity, Arbus famously said, “there’s a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle.”
It struck me when I was reading Paul Youngquist’s exciting book, Monstrosities: Bodies and British Romanticism, that von Hagens’s science is the absurd end-point of the late eighteenth-century surgeon John Hunter, while Arbus’s photographs find an echo in early nineteenth-century tabloid descriptions of figures like the Irish Giant. In Monstrosities, Youngquist takes readers on a tour of various forms of nineteenth-century fleshly disfigurement—from obesity to amputation—and introduces them to the ghoulish doctors, writers, and artists who pickled, dissected, and fetishized the monstrous, Hunter foremost among them.
Clearly, Youngquist has spent much time in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inns Fields, which he describes in the book’s opening chapter, highlighting some of the displays—from whale skeletons to human body parts—among the 13,000 specimens. Youngquist also uses some of the period’s quirky print sources, such as Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum; or Magazine of Remarkable and Eccentric Characters, which ran from 1802 to 1920. Kirby was a London printer who specialized in profiles of the strange and deformed. He ran stories about an enormous hog, a trout of remarkable size, a gigantic rat, and human giants such as James Toller and Patrick O’Brien. There were accounts of monsters, mermaids, some people born without limbs, and others born with horns.
In fact, within the book’s overall argument, Youngquist digs up a lot of historical detail, some of it quite fascinating, such as the stories of Daniel Lambert, who was extraordinarily obese, and Sarah Biffin, who had no hands or arms, as well as the strange narratives behind Mary Wollstonecraft’s placenta and Lord Byron’s club foot. Youngquist bolsters this historical detail with reference to a range of theoretical works, from contemporary Romantic sources such as Emmanuel Kant, to later thinkers such as Frederick Nietzsche, and contemporary theorists such as Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, Gilles Deleuze, Julia Kristeva, and Michel Foucault, all of whom help him push the idea of monstrosity in fascinating directions.
For Youngquist, monstrosity is metaphorical as well as literal, and it has applications to Romantic writers: Wordsworth’s poetry and Coleridge’s addictions, to take two examples. Through his many illustrations, Youngquist implicitly shows how monstrosity was an integral part of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century visual culture as well.