Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Memento mori

I read in the paper this morning that a Body Worlds exhibit is opening for the holiday season at Boston's Quincy Market, ground zero for family shopping and tree lighting ceremonies, This is one of those exhibits of flayed and displayed real human cadavers, in lifelike poses, showing muscles, tendons, blood vessels, nerves, organs, bones, and so on, all preserved in infused plastic. Real human corpses. It all seems a little incongruous, with sleighbells ringing and children singing and Santas going Ho, Ho, Ho. Plasticized cadavers and body parts have previously been exhibited at The Museum of Science, which seems a more appropriate venue, but what do I know.

All of which reminds me of an essay in the most recent New York Review of Book on "Man vs. Corpse" by the author Zadie Smith. Smith tries to imagine herself as a corpse and admits failure. "Death is what happens to everyone else..." Oh, we read about mountains of corpses every day: typhoons, tsunamis, collapsing facories in Bangladesh, car bombs in Baghdad, poison gas in Syria. That's them, not me, says Zadie. Even when death strikes closer to home, we tend to shun the corpse and speak of "the dearly departed." Smith has a hard time imaging herself either as a slab of rotting meat or dearly departed for some more permanent shore.

At one point in her essay, Smith make reference to this 1542 portrait by Titian of twelve-year-old Ranuccio Farnese, scion of a famous Italian family (click to enlarge). She writes:
To look into the tender, unformed face…and see a boy whose destiny it was to become a corpse! And this despite his red doublet's intricate embroidery, the adult sword hung about his narrow hips, the heavy weight of inheritance suggested by that cloak his father surely insisted he wear…All the signs of indelible individuality are here, yet none sufficient to stop the inevitable.
Ah, yes. A twelve-year-old boy. Those were the days. Still supported by parents but with the freedom to roam. Feeling the incipient stirrings of sexuality, but not yet faced with any of the complications. And nary a thought of mortality. Who can imagine this boy's sweet, confident face putrefying in the grave?

As it happened, Runuccio died at the young age of 35, which was not unusual for his time. He was created a Cardinal at age 15, a Prince of the Church. I can't speak for his virtues or vices. But inevitable "corpsification," as Smith calls it, can focus a mind on how to live a life "worthy of an adult," as Smith would have it: more present, more mindful of ourselves, and of others.