La Morgue, yesterday and today

Regarding the Western taboo about death, much has been written on how its “social removal” happened approximately in conjunction with WWI and the institution of great modern hospitals; still it would be more correct to talk about a removal and medicalization of the corpse. The subject of death, in fact, has been widely addressed throughout the Twentieth Century: a century which was heavily imbued with funereal meditations, on the account of its history of unprecedented violence. What has vanished from our daily lives is rather the presence of the dead bodies and, most of all, putrefaction.

Up until the end of Nineteenth Century, the relationship with human remains was inevitable and accepted as a natural part of existence, not just in respect to the preparation of a body at home, but also in the actual experience of so-called unnatural deaths.
One of the most striking examples of this familiarity with decomposition is the infamous Morgue in Paris.

Established in 1804, to replace the depository for dead bodies which during the previous centuries was found in the prison of Grand Châtelet, the Morgue stood in the heart of the capital, on the île de la Cité. In 1864 it was moved to a larger building on the point of the island, right behind Notre Dame. The word had been used since the Fifteenth Century to designate the cell where criminals were identified; in jails, prisoners were put “at the morgue” to be recognized. Since the Sixteenth Century, the word began to refer exclusively to the place where identification of corpses was carried out.

Due to the vast number of violent deaths and of bodies pulled out of the Seine, this mortuary was constantly filled with new “guests”, and soon transcended its original function. The majority of visitors, in fact, had no missing relatives to recognize.
The first ones to have different reasons to come and observe the bodies, which were laid out on a dozen black marble tables behind a glass window, were of course medical students and anatomists.

This receptacle for the unknown dead found in Paris and the faubourgs of the city, contributes not a little to the forwarding of the medical sciences, by the vast number of bodies it furnishes, which, on an average, amount to about two hundred annually. The process of decomposition in the human body may be seen at La Morgue, throughout every stage to solution, by those whose taste, or pursuit of science, leads them to that melancholy exhibition. Medical men frequently visit the place, not out of mere curiosity, but for the purpose of medical observation, for wounds, fracturs, and injuries of every description occasionally present themselves, as the effect of accident or murder. Scarcely a day passes without the arrival of fresh bodies, chiefly found in the Seine, and very probably murdered, by being flung either out of the windows which overhang the Seine river, or off the bridges, or out of the wine and wood-barges, by which the men who sell the cargoes generally return with money in their pockets […]. The clothes of the dead bodies brought into this establishment are hung up, and the corpse is exposed in a public room for inspection of those who visit the place for the purpose of searching for a lost friend or relative. Should it not be recognised in four days, it is publicly dissected, and then buried.

(R. Sears, Scenes and sketches in continental Europe, 1847)

This descripton is, however, much too “clean”. Despite the precautions taken to keep the bodies at low temperature, and to bathe them in chloride of lime, the smell was far from pleasant:

For most of the XIX Century, and even from an earlier time, the smell of cadavers was part of the routine in the Morgue. Because of its purpose and mode of operation, the Morgue was the privileged place for cadaveric stench in Paris […]. In fact, the bodies that had stayed in the water constituted the ordinary reality at the Morgue. Their putrefaction was especially spectacular.

(B. Bertherat, Le miasme sans la jonquille, l’odeur du cadavre à la Morgue de Paris au XIXe siècle,
in Imaginaire et sensibilités au XIXe siècle, Créaphis, 2005)

What is curious (and quite incomprehensible) for us today is how the Morgue could soon become one of the trendiest Parisian attractions.
A true theatre of death, a public exhibition of horror, each day it was visited by dozens of people of all backgrounds, as it certainly offered the thrill of a unique sight. It was a must for tourists visiting the capital, as proven by the diaries of the time:

We left the Louvre and went to the Morgue where three dead bodies lay waiting identification. They were a horrible sight. In a glass case one child that had been murdered, its face pounded fearfully.

(Adelia “Addie” Sturtevant‘s diary, September 17, 1889)

The most enlightening description comes from the wonderful and terrible pages devoted to the mortuary by Émile Zola. His words evoke a perfect image of the Morgue experience in XIX Century:

In the meantime Laurent imposed on himself the task of passing each morning by the Morgue, on the way to his office. […]When he entered the place an unsavoury odour, an odour of freshly washed flesh, disgusted him and a chill ran over his skin: the dampness of the walls seemed to add weight to his clothing, which hung more heavily on his shoulders. He went straight to the glass separating the spectators from the corpses, and with his pale face against it, looked. Facing him appeared rows of grey slabs, and upon them, here and there, the naked bodies formed green and yellow, white and red patches. While some retained their natural condition in the rigidity of death, others seemed like lumps of bleeding and decaying meat. At the back, against the wall, hung some lamentable rags, petticoats and trousers, puckered against the bare plaster. […] Frequently, the flesh on the faces had gone away by strips, the bones had burst through the mellow skins, the visages were like lumps of boned, boiled beef. […] One morning, he was seized with real terror. For some moments, he had been looking at a corpse, taken from the water, that was small in build and atrociously disfigured. The flesh of this drowned person was so soft and broken-up that the running water washing it, carried it away bit by bit. The jet falling on the face, bored a hole to the left of the nose. And, abruptly, the nose became flat, the lips were detached, showing the white teeth. The head of the drowned man burst out laughing.

Zola further explores the ill-conealed erotic tension such a show could provoke in visitors, both men and women. A liminal zone — the boundaries between Eros and Thanatos — which for our modern sensibility is even more “dangerous”.

This sight amused him, particularly when there were women there displaying their bare bosoms. These nudities, brutally exposed, bloodstained, and in places bored with holes, attracted and detained him. Once he saw a young woman of twenty there, a child of the people, broad and strong, who seemed asleep on the stone. Her fresh, plump, white form displayed the most delicate softness of tint. She was half smiling, with her head slightly inclined on one side. Around her neck she had a black band, which gave her a sort of necklet of shadow. She was a girl who had hanged herself in a fit of love madness. […] On a certain occasion Laurent noticed one of the [well-dressed ladies] standing at a few paces from the glass, and pressing her cambric handkerchief to her nostrils. She wore a delicious grey silk skirt with a large black lace mantle; her face was covered by a veil, and her gloved hands seemed quite small and delicate. Around her hung a gentle perfume of violet. She stood scrutinising a corpse. On a slab a few paces away, was stretched the body of a great, big fellow, a mason who had recently killed himself on the spot by falling from a scaffolding. He had a broad chest, large short muscles, and a white, well-nourished body; death had made a marble statue of him. The lady examined him, turned him round and weighed him, so to say, with her eyes. For a time, she seemed quite absorbed in the contemplation of this man. She raised a corner of her veil for one last look. Then she withdrew.

Finally, the Morgue was also an ironically democratic attraction, just like death itself:

The morgue is a sight within reach of everybody, and one to which passers-by, rich and poor alike, treat themselves. The door stands open, and all are free to enter. There are admirers of the scene who go out of their way so as not to miss one of these performances of death. If the slabs have nothing on them, visitors leave the building disappointed, feeling as if they had been cheated, and murmuring between their teeth; but when they are fairly well occupied, people crowd in front of them and treat themselves to cheap emotions; they express horror, they joke, they applaud or whistle, as at the theatre, and withdraw satisfied, declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day.
Laurent soon got to know the public frequenting the place, that mixed and dissimilar public who pity and sneer in common. Workmen looked in on their way to their work, with a loaf of bread and tools under their arms. They considered death droll. Among them were comical companions of the workshops who elicited a smile from the onlookers by making witty remarks about the faces of each corpse. They styled those who had beenburnt to death, coalmen; the hanged, the murdered, the drowned, the bodies that had been stabbed or crushed, excited their jeering vivacity, and their voices, which slightly trembled, stammered out comical sentences amid the shuddering silence of the hall.

(É. Zola, Thérèse Raquin, 1867)

In the course of its activity, the Morgue was only sporadically criticized, and only for its position, deemed too central. The curiosity in seeing the bodies was evidently not perceived as morbid, or at least it was not considered particularly improper: articles on the famous mortuary and its dead residents made regular appearance on newspapers, which gladly devoted some space to the most mysterious cases.
On March 15, 1907 the Morgue was definitively closed to the public, for reasons of “moral hygiene”. Times were already changing: in just a few years Europe was bound to know such a saturation of dead bodies that they could no longer be seen as an entertainment.

And yet, the desire and impulse to observe the signs of death on the human body never really disappeared. Today they survive in the virtual morgues of internet websites offering pictures and videos of accidents and violence. Distanced by a computer screen, rather than the ancient glass wall, contemporary visitors wander through these hyperrealistic mortuaries where bodily frailness is articulated in all its possible variations, witnesses to death’s boundless imagination.
The most striking thing, when surfing these bulletin boards where the obscene is displayed as in a shop window, is seeing how users react. In this extreme underground scene (which would make an interesting object for a study in social psychology) a wide array of people can be found, from the more or less casual visitor in search of a thrill, up to the expert “gorehounds”, who seem to collect these images like trading cards and who, with every new posted video, act smart and discuss its technical and aesthetic quality.
Perhaps in an attempt to exorcise the disgust, another constant is the recourse to an unpleasant and out-of-place humor; and it is impossible to read these jokes, which might appear indecent and disrespectful, without thinking of those “comical companions” described by Zola, who jested before the horror.

Aggregators of brutal images might entail a discussion on freedom of information, on the ethics and licitness of exhibiting human remains, and we could ask ourselves if they really serve an “educational” purpose or should be rather viewed as morbid, abnormal, pathological deviations.
Yet such fascinations are all but unheard of: it seems to me that this kind of curiosity is, in a way, intrinsic to the human species, as I have argued in the past.
On closer inspection, this is the same autoptic instinct, the same will to “see with one’s own eyes” that not so long ago (in our great-great-grandfathers’ time) turned the Paris Morgue into a sortie en vogue, a popular and trendy excursion.

The new virtual morgues constitute a niche and, when compared to the crowds lining up to see the swollen bodies of drowning victims, our attitude is certainly more complex. As we’ve said in the beginning, there is an element of taboo which was much less present at the time.
To our eyes the corpse still remains an uneasy, scandalous reality, sometimes even too painful to acknowledge. And yet, consciously or not, we keep going back to fixing our eyes on it, as if it held a mysterious secret.

 

Balthus’ adolescents

Art should comfort the disturbed,
and disturb the comfortable.

(Cesar A. Cruz)

Until January 31 2016 it is possible to visit the Balthus retrospective in Rome, which is divided in two parts, a most comprehensive exhibit being held at the Scuderie del Quirinale, and a second part in Villa Medici focusing on the artist’s creative process and giving access to the rooms the painter renovated and lived in during his 16 years as director of the Academy of France.

In many ways Balthus still remains an enigmatic figure, so unswervingly antimodernist to keep the viewer at distance: his gaze, always directed to the Renaissance (Piero della Francesca above all), is matched by a constant and meticulous research on materials, on painting itself before anything else. Closely examined, his canvas shows an immense plastic work on paint, applied in uneven and rugged strokes, but just taking a few steps back this proves to be functional to the creation of that peculiar fine dust always dancing within the light of his compositions, that kind of glow cloaking figures and objects and giving them a magical realist aura.

Even if the exhibit has the merit of retracing the whole spectrum of influences, experimentations and different themes explored by the painter in his long (but not too prolific) career, the paintings he created from the 30s to the 50s are unquestionably the ones that still remain in the collective unconscious. The fact that Balthus is not widely known and exhibited can be ascribed to the artist’s predilection for adolescent subjects, often half-undressed young girls depicted in provocative poses. In Villa Medici are presented some of the infamous polaroids which caused a German exhibit to close last year, with accusations of displaying pedophilic material.

The question of Balthus’ alleged pedophilia — latent or not — is one that could only arise in our days, when the taboo regarding children has grown to unprecedented proportions; and it closely resembles the shadows cast over Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, guilty of taking several photographs of little girls (pictures that Balthus, by the way, adored).

But if some of his paintings cause such an uproar even today, it may be because they bring up something subtly unsettling. Is this eroticism, pornography, or something else?

Trying to find a perfect definition separating eroticism from pornography is an outdated exercise. More interesting is perhaps the distinction made by Angela Carter (a great writer actively involved in the feminist cause) in her essay The Sadeian Woman, namely the contrast between reactionary pornography and “moral” (revolutionary) pornography.

Carter states that pornography, despite being obscene, is largely reactionary: it is devised to comfort and strenghten stereotypes, reducing sexuality to the level of those crude graffiti on the walls of public lavatories. This representation of intercourse inevitably ends up being just an encounter of penises and vaginas, or their analogues/substitutes. What is left out, is the complexity behind every sexual expression, which is actually influenced by economics, society and politics, even if we have a hard time acknowledging it. Being poor, for intance, can limit or deny your chance for a sophisticated eroticism: if you live in a cold climate and cannot afford heating, then you will have to give up on nudity; if you have many children, you will be denied intimacy, and so on. The way we make love is a product of circumstances, social class, culture and several other factors.

Thus, the “moral” pornographer is one who does not back up in the face of complexity, who does not try to reduce it but rather to stress it, even to the detriment of his work’s erotic appeal; in doing so, he distances himself from the pornographic cliché that would want sexual intercourse to be just an abstract encounter of genitals, a shallow and  meaningless icon; in giving back to sexuality its real depth, this pornographer creates true literature, true art. This attitude is clearly subversive, in that it calls into question biases and archetypes that our culture — according to Carter — secretely inoculates in our minds (for instance the idea of the Male with an erect sex ready to invade and conquer, the Female still bleeding every month on the account of the primordial castration that turned her genitals passive and “receptive”, etc.).

In this sense, Carter sees in Sade not a simple satyr but a satirist, the pioneer of this pornography aiming to expose the logic and stereoptypes used by power to mollify and dull people’s minds: in the Marquis’ universe, in fact, sex is always an act of abuse, and it is used as a narrative to depict a social horizon just as violent and immoral. Sade’s vision is certainly not tender towards the powerful, who are described as revolting monsters devoted by their own nature to crime, nor towards the weak, who are guilty of not rebelling to their own condition. When confronting his pornographic production with all that came before and after him, particularly erotic novels about young girls’ sexual education, it is clear how much Sade actually used it in a subversive and taunting way.

Pierre Klossowksi, Balthus’ brother, was one of Sade’s greatest commentators, yet we probably should not assign too much relevance to this connection; the painter’s frirendship with Antonin Artaud could be more enlightening.

Beyond their actual collaborations (in 1934 Artaud reviewed Balthus’ first personal exhibit, and the following year the painter designed costumes and sets for the staging of The Cenci), Artaudian theories can guide us in reading more deeply into Balthus’ most controversial works.

Cruelty was for Artaud a destructive and at the same time enlivening force, essential requisite for theater or for any other kind of art: cruelty against the spectator, who should be violently shaken from his certainties, and cruelty against the artist himself, in order to break every mask and to open the dizzying abyss hidden behind them.

Balthus’ Uncanny is not as striking, but it moves along the same lines. He sees in his adolscents, portrayed in bare bourgeois interiors and severe geometric perspectives, a subversive force — a cruel force, because it referes to raw instincts, to that primordial animalism society is always trying to deny.

Prepuberal and puberal age are the moments in which, once we leave the innocence of childhood behind, the conflict between Nature and Culture enters our everyday life. The child for the first time runs into prohibitions that should, in the mind of adults, create a cut from our wild past: his most undignified instincts must be suppressed by the rules of good behavior. And, almost as if they wanted to irritate the spectators, Balthus’ teenagers do anything but sit properly: they read in unbecoming positions, they precariously lean against the armchair with their thighs open, incorrigibly provocative despite their blank faces.

But is this a sexual provocation, or just ironic disobedience? Balthus never grew tired of repeating that malice lies only in the eyes of the beholder. Because adolescents are still pure, even if for a short time, and with their unaffectedness they reveal the adults inhibitions.

This is the subtle and elegant subversive vein of his paintings, the true reason for which they still cause such an uproar: Balthus’ cruelty lies in showing us a golden age, our own purest soul, the one that gets killed each time an adolescent becomes an adult. His aesthetic and poetic admiration is focused on this glimpse of freedom, on that instant in which the lost diamond of youth sparkles.

And if we want at all costs to find a trace of eroticism in his paintings, it will have to be some kind of “revolutionary” eroticism, like we said earlier, as it insinuates under our skin a complexity of emotions, and definitely not reassuring ones. Because with their cheeky ambiguity Balthus’ girls always leave us with the unpleasant feeling that we might be the real perverts.

Skeletons and young girls

Come! let the burial rite be read – the funeral song be sung! –
An anthem for the queenliest dead that ever died so young –
A dirge for her, the doubly dead in that she died so young.

(E. A. Poe, Lenore, 1831)

Paul_Delaroche,_La_jeune_martyre,_1855_(5658755020)

She will never be able to count her whitening hair, nor the lines that years and experiences impressed on her face; she shall not know the joys of marriage, she shall never be a mother: she is the dead maiden.
Whenever death strikes those who have not even had a chance to live, we are filled with a sense of injustice. “It’s not fair”, we then say, “that’s a crime, it’s not natural”, because the order of things wants the father to go before the son (or so we believe).
The innocence and sweetness of the young lady’s face, who didn’t deserve such a tragic fate, makes us think of a sacrilege.

But, in stopping the maiden’s heart, death has saved her from the ruins and aberrations of time, he has spared her from the melancholy of old age and from the weight of a decrepit body. He fixed her image in her brighter and most gracious instant: the memory she leaves behind is sublime. All vanishing beauty, is actually the highest and most excruciating beauty.

For these reasons the figure of the dead maiden has always known a certain success in the literary and visual arts; it combines sorrow with the subject’s attractiveness, and has an incomparable emotional appeal.

The virgin girl, in fact, has encountered Death in many forms since the classical era, from the abduction of goddess Persephone by Hades, the god of the underworld, to the self-immolation of Iphigenia. Then, right in the middle of XIV century, when plague, epidemics and wars were ravaging Europe, death became the central obsession of those dark times: and in almost all representations of the danse macabre, at least one of the skeletons invites a splendid dame or a sweet-looking maid to the disturbing ball.

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But at the end of XV century an unprecedented, stunning depiction of the encounter between these two characters begins to appear; if, until then, they had somehow unexpectedly crossed their paths, the birth of a specific iconographic theme (called “Death and the Maiden”) shows a truly epochal transition taking place in mentality.
Yes, because the rendezvous between the two, surprisingly enough, begin to show open sexual tones.

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If in the danse macabre, or in portrayals of the “three ages of life”, no sign of eroticism was present, here the female figure is indeed seduced or molested by Death. Often the decaying corpse kisses her on the mouth, sometimes he touches her breast — if his hands don’t push themselves even further. The whiteness of the maiden’s skin contrasts with the brown complexion of the mummified body, and the sense of repulsion is intensified by the obscenity of their embrace.

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Of course, the moral behind this kind of depiction clearly aims at exposing the ephemeral aspect of life, the vanity of beauty and pride. But beyond this facade, this theme evokes darker thoughts, amid visions of crawling worms and putrid blood flowing. The frailty of beauty gives way to a fascination with the macabre: as will happen in Baudelaire‘s Flowers of Evil, it seems that death and ugliness are already contained, in seed form, in the maiden’s sensual appearance.
And in fact this is the first time we see recognized, and so overtly expressed, the relationship between Eros and Thanatos – a cultural theme which will become essential, for poets and thinkers alike.

Valente Celle Tomb, 1893, The Staglieno Cemetery, Genoa - Italy

Clutched by his skinny fingers, the Maiden surrenders to Death’s seduction.
The embrace we are witnessing becomes, through allegory, one between life and death: to associate the attractive Venus to the dreadful skeleton means to redefine sexuality. Ever so distant from the shyness of courtly love, this image of a new eroticism predates the idea of sex as a return to wholeness (after the “section” occured with birth), which Freud will write about, or the annihilation of the Self into the Other, as Bataille‘s work points out, or even that mix of death and life impulses which will so much fascinate the romantics and the maudits.

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Even today, Death and the Maiden, depicted together, have lost nothing of their morbid and unsettling charm. And they still speak to the most hidden part of our souls; on one hand reminding us of the fleeting nature of the body, but suggesting on the other hand that there’s a secret complicity between beauty and repulsion, between light and shadows, between love and death.