Sunday, June 22, 2014


Put out the light, and then put out the light.
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore
Should I repent me. But once put out thy light,
Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume.

Othello, V. 2

There will be judgment on the land;
Judgment on the land.

Cedric Myton, Congo Man

Precisely in the middle of the flock of Southdowns tenure in the Sheep meadow, one human lifetime before the opening of the Stout Hall, visitors to the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, would have seen tableaux similar to that of the Ainu or the studious inhabitants of Korea I had just observed, except that their centerpieces not only involved actual human tissue but were, in fact, alive.  As had been done at previous World Fairs and at other expositions in Europe already, the organizers incorporated individuals and even entire families which were held to be representative of various supposedly primitive cultures, and kept them in enclosures with objects and vegetation meant to simulate their "natural" habitat.  There was an extended family of Inuit, a "giant" from Patagonia who competed with American cowboys in horsemanship, Geronimo himself, aged 60, and, to celebrate the recent American conquest of the Philippines, about 1,100 people representing various tribes from that archipelago, among whom the most popular are said to have been the dog-eating Igorot.  Records indicate that they were supplied with twenty dogs per week, and that, as one historian notes, this was insufficient to their needs.

There was also a much smaller exhibit containing several young men of short stature from a tropical region still dominated at that time by a small, wet country in western Europe which was a small fraction of its geographical size, whose ruler had claimed it as his personal fiefdom, and, despite this, would never actually set foot upon it during his lifetime.

I learned from John Ashton's Curious Creatures in Zoology (1890) that Homer is the locus classicus of the idea that pygmies are in perpetual conflict with cranes.  Ashton cites Pope's translation of Illiad III.1.3-6, which is worth full rehearsal:
So, when inclement winter vex the plain
With piercing frosts, or thick descending rain,
To warmer seas, the cranes embody'd fly,
With noise and order, through the midway sky;
To pigmy nations, wounds and death they bring,
And all the war descends upon the wing. 
Ashton goes on to note that it is well known that "a race of dwarves" live in their thousands along the southern branches of the Congo, and that while Wolff found them affable and kind-hearted, Stanley, on the contrary,
found them very annoying, and had a lively recollection of their poisoned arrows - but, at the present writing, he not having returned, and we, having no record but his letters, had better suspend our judgment as to the habits and tempers of these small people.  
Visitors to the Fair at St. Louis could were under no such embargo.  Stanley be damned, the five men in the exhibit were there to be judged.  Four were of the Batwa people, and one was an Mbuti named Ota Benga.  Benga was particularly popular on account of his teeth, which had been filed to points, and for his generally amiable disposition.  He had been "collected" in the Congo by the thirty year-old anthropologist and Africanist Samuel Phillips Verner, for the purpose of exhibition at the Fair, while on his way to recruit the Batwa.  Verner had bought Benga for a pound of salt and a bolt of cloth in a slave market en route to the Batwa village, whence the latter had fetched up after his family had been slaughtered by the Force Publique, the gendarmerie founded by King Leopold II of Belgium to subjugate the native populations of the Congo in his rapacious exploitation of that region's natural resources; the Force Publique captain of the station at Stanley falls, noted by a contemporary European correspondent ot have kept the heads of Africans killed in punitive expeditions in his flower-bed, and is alleged by some to be the model for Colonel Kurtz in Conrad's 1899 novel Heart of Darkness.

The exhibition of Benga and his hapless cohorts earned Verner a "Gold Medal in Anthropology" from the Fair's organizers.  After the Fair was over, they all returned to Africa with Verner.  Benga attempted to start life anew with another pygmy tribe, but his integration was compromised by the death of his second wife by snakebite, and, without any means of support and bereft of connections in local society, he sailed again with Verner for New York.  The pair arrived in 1906, and Benga took up residency in the American Museum of Natural History, along with a pair of chimpanzees and a variety of artifacts which Verner had brought back from the Congo, the good doctor being forced by straitened finances to sell his collection to the museum and return to his home in the American South.  In this development his story paralleled thematically, and very nearly chronologically, that of Ishi, the last of the Californian Yahi, who was a resident of the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco from 1911 until he and Benga both died in 1916.

It is written that Benga was transferred to the New York Zoological Park, along with Verner's chimpanzees, because his behavior became unacceptable to Harmon Bumpus, the Director of the Natural History Museum (he allegedly threw a chair at Florence Guggenheim).  Whatever the case, he was enthusiastically received by William Temple Hornaday, expert taxidermist; conservator of the American bison; graduate of Augustus Ward's Natural Science Establishment; and the Park's first Director.  In September of 1906, visitors to the Park found Benga in the Monkey House, accompanied by a placard which read
The African Pigmy, "Ota Benga."  Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches.  Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Exhibited each afternoon during September.
The Evening Post reported that
[Benga] has a great influence with the beasts — even with the larger kind, including the orang-outang with whom he plays as though one of them, rolling around the floor of the cages in wild wrestling matches and chattering to them in his own guttural tongue, which they seem to understand.
Benga's exhibition immediately provoked outrage, primarily from clergymen, who objected to the implied equation of an adult African man with monkeys both on the grounds that it violated the essential dignity of man, and also because "The Darwinian theory is absolutely opposed to Christianity, and a public demonstration in its favor should not be permitted."  Benga's story is, in fact, still used by contemporary Creationists as an illustration of what evolutionary theory makes possible.  At the time, however, most saw nothing wrong with an adult human being confined to a zoo enclosure with a heterogenous assortment of apes; in the flurry of public commentary which immediately succeeded Benga's exhbition, an editor of what Americans refer to as a "newspaper of record" wrote that
Ota Benga ... is a normal specimen of his race or tribe, with a brain as much developed as are those of its other members. Whether they are held to be illustrations of arrested development, and really closer to the anthropoid apes than the other African savages, or whether they are viewed as the degenerate descendants of ordinary negroes, they are of equal interest to the student of ethnology, and can be studied with profit.... As for Benga himself, he is probably enjoying himself as well -as he could anywhere in this country, and it is absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation he is suffering. The pygmies are a fairly efficient people in their native forests....but they are very low in the human scale, and the suggestion that Benga should be in a school instead of a cage ignores the high probability that school would be a place of torture to him and one from which he could draw no advantage whatever. The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date. With training carefully adapted to his mental limitations, this pygmy would doubtless be taught many things. . .but there is no chance that he could learn anything in an ordinary school.
Hornaday himself was unapologetic, writing to the Mayor, in a letter also signed by Madison Grant, secretary of the New York Zoological Society and future author of The Passing of the Great Race, that it was "imperative that the Society should not even seem to be dictated to" by critics of Benga's supposed degredation.

Nonetheless, Hornaday arranged for Benga's transfer to the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, whence he was sent shortly afterwards to Lynchburg, Virginia, to live with a local family and attend the Lynchburg Baptist Seminary.  A benefactor paid for his filed teeth to be capped, so that he might more easily integrate into African-American society.  He improved his English rapidly, and after a short time left his studies, supporting himself through farm labor and by working on tobacco plantations.  He is said to have been a favorite of local boys, for whom he fashioned bows and arrows and whom he would take on expeditions into the woods, hunting for small game.  

The traditional explanation, although it is scarcely more than conjecture, for the fact that Ota Benga shot himself in the heart with a borrowed revolver in 1916, is that he had learned the price of a steamer ticket to Africa, and compared it with the wages he earned as a laborer.  It was noted by those who found his body that, before ending his life, he had removed the caps from his pointed teeth.  

On the occasion of Benga's suicide William Hornaday, the man who had put him in the monkey house to begin with, included an item in the New York Zoological Society Bulletin of May, 1916, in which he called attention to "the closing chapter in the life history of a savage who tried vainly to leap from savagery to civilization, over the intervening stage of barbarism," before moving on without evident remorse to discuss the meteorological import of anomalies observed that year in the migration of birds, and the intractability of the Zoologic Park's collection of beavers, which insisted on obstructing the spillways carefully built into their dam by the zoo's workmen.

Monday, June 16, 2014


Here I sit, forming humans
In my image;
A people to be like me
To suffer, to weep,
To enjoy and delight themselves
And not to attend to you
As I.

Goethe, Prometheus

In our confusion, we moved on to the Sanford Hall of North American Birds.  As one enters the room, immediately one's the left hangs a giant oil painting of the La Brea tar pits as they might have looked several million years ago.

The picture is dominated by a giant and obviously malevolent animal, which, it is explained, is a teratorn, a type of enormous and fortunately extinct creature of the air whose fearsome remains have been discovered in the pits.  As I stood transfixed by this monster the French children wandered off, presumably to further confirm their antipathy towards the avian world, or perhaps to search, (in vain, they likely suspected,) for something redeeming among the stiff loons, cranes, ducks, geese, hawks, kites, and eagles which lined the walls behind me.

The dioramas of this Hall were smaller than those of the one I had left, but similarly themed.  Salient differences in behavior were faithfully represented, specifically the practice, widespread among birds, of feeding their young by regurgitation.  Almost every diorama contained an animal frozen in the performance of this act of self-sacrifice, with its chick's head halfway down its distended gullet, which gave me the disagreeable impression of being the sole, unsuspected witness to an orgy of infanticide and cannibalism.  I imagined the teratorn disgorging whole human bodies, their lacerated limbs slipping over the sides of its enormous erie as the blind, featherless chicks, already the size of large cats, shrieked and clacked their beaks and tore at unseen flesh amidst a forest of reeking bones.  I thought of a film I had seen, I think, in the British Museum, although this now seems implausible because it was so horrifying, of a Tibetan sky-burial.

As I remember it, the filmmaker followed a group of men in a Land Rover onto a desolate hillside.  Flocks of huge griffon vultures, apparently recognizing certain signs, poured down from the sky and surrounded them, kept at bay by a boy with a stick, their bald heads bobbing on thick, muscular necks which undulated like serpents.  The men unwrapped a stiff bundle, revealing the corpse of an elderly man who had recently died, we were reassured, of natural causes.  Using heavy cleavers, they cut the body into pieces small enough for the maned birds to swallow, and as they retreated the vultures rushed in, squawking and pecking one another.  Nothing of the body could be seen amidst the mass of seething feathers, and at length they retreated, leaving only a crimson skeleton.  The coroners then returned to pound the bones into a wet powder, which they mixed with an enticing substance I cannot recall and fed to the crows and other, smaller carrion birds which had been straining at the periphery against the seething bulk of their betters.  I was so affected that I cannot recall anything else about seeing the film; the reactions of the other audience members, who I was with, or even the year in which I saw it.  My only memory of environing events is emerging into the great central hall of the Museum, blinded by the diffused light streaming through the round glass canopy over the Reading Room, and even this may be confabulation.

The practice of sky burial in Tibet has led some to conjecture ancient cultural connections with the analogous Zoroastrian practice of exposing the dead on what a British Orientalist once called "towers of silence" for the same purpose.  These were circular edifices, of which many ancient examples remain in central Iran, surmounted by a round, walled platform on which corpses were placed (but not dismembered, as in Tibet) by a specialist who lived in a nearby outbuilding.  The platform incorporated a central well, and the dessicated remnants disdained by the lowland vultures were periodically swept into it to make room for new occupants.   I remember being shocked, on several levels, when I read several years ago that this practice is still current in parts of India, but that it is becoming untenable because the local carrion birds have been all but exterminated due to the widespread use of the analgesic compound diclofenac, which is apparently poisonous to them, by veterinarians and farmers eager to assuage the mortal sufferings of the livestock on whose corpses they commonly feed.

Ruminating on the themes of dismemberment and extinction, I was suprised to see, clinging to a dead tree in a small, neglected vitrine, a complete example of the bird whose forlorn and mysteriously solitary head Rachel had noticed in the gutter the day before.

It had been, I learned, a yellow-bellied sapsucker; but the label said nothing else, and so if its identity made intelligible or, perhaps, necessary, the fact of its recent decapitation, the import was lost on me.

I passed out of the Sanford Hall of North American Birds, and was momentarily confused to find myself in an exhibit dedicated to the indigenous peoples of the American Northeast; I had not appreciated thusfar that for the museum's architects and curators anthropology remained a province of natural history.  I wandered through this exhibit and into an impressive collection of artifacts from the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica.  I stood for several minutes before a colossal Olmec granite head before reading its label, which informed me that it had been found vandalized and buried in the ground and that archaeologists believe that this was done by the very people who created it.  I could not decide whether, given this, I should view it as an object of unspeakable malignity, or a pitiable victim, or both.  Confused, I wandered on, unaware of my surroundings, and when I regained  my equilibrium I found myself in the Stout Hall of Asian Peoples.

The symmetry of this exhibit's name with that of those I had previously passed through was striking, and the impression of the continuity of Asian peoples with with African mammals and North American birds was born out as I moved through the exhibit.  It consisted of a series of dioramas strikingly reminiscent of those in the Akeley African hall, in that they depicted type specimens in what were allegedly characteristic poses, set against luxuriant background paintings of their natural environment; the salient difference was that the specimens on display in the Stout Hall were mannequins rather than mounted skins.  Whether this was simply because of conventions surrounding the appropriate disposal of human remains, or, rather, a positive choice made because sculpture is a more plastic medium than taxidermy and allows the naturalist a freer hand in the representation of ideal types, was not explicitly addressed.  However, it is possibly relevant to recall that in later life Carl Akeley turned to sculpture to represent men and anthropomorphized apes, since it is known that in many instances ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.

The dioramas also attempted to convey important particulars respecting the environment and behavior of the specimens depicted, in much the same tone as the one I had seen earlier which dispassionately described the trials of the warthog.  I was told, for instance, that

The Ainu may once have been spread over the Japanese islands but were dispossessed byt the japanese and now occupy only part of the island of Hokkaido.  They differ from neighboring Asians physically and in language.  Their economy has centered on hunting deer, seals, whales and fishing carried on by the men, while the women maintain gardens of barley, millet, peas and beans.  Ainu women have their lips tattooed blue at 17 to show their eligibility for marriage and to protect the mouth from being entered by evil spirits.  The Ainu organize their society around elected chiefs, who keep their posts into old age.
Another diorama depicted a Korean scholar, seated in his study laboring over a Confucian text, while his wife amuses herself with womanly pursuits in her "sanctum."  The description shared the odd, atemporal register of that of the Ainu, as though its subjects could be reasonably expected to remain basically the same for the duration of the present geological epoch.  I noticed throughout that when historical developments were referred to, such as the displacement of the Ainu by the Japanese or the integration of aspects of Chinese culture by Koreans, they invariably referred to past interactions between Oriental peoples, never to their current relation to other cultures in the East, or, for that matter, with the West.  The overall impression conveyed was of a world divided, or own realm of diachrony limned by a pleasingly exotic and unchanging archipelago populated by fascinating beings superficially resembling humans.

The teaching script offered by the Museum to educators bringing classes to view the Stout Hall offers some points of reference, reminding us that "there is no one 'Asian' country,"  and suggesting that prior to visiting teachers "familiarize students with the vocabulary."

The terms defined, for easy reference, are: ancestor venerationBuddhism; caste system; Confucianism; divination; dowry; dynasty; extended family; Hinduism; Islam; matchmaker; monsoon; nomad; Shamanism; Shinto; Taoism; terracing; and wet-rice cultivation.  I had the impression that I was viewing some kind of forgotten outpost of the 1950s.  This place, I thought, must have been constructed long ago, and curiously neglected by the Museum's modern creators; perhaps out of nostalgic reverence for the enormous amount of work which had obviously gone into it, or perhaps because they were more concerned with the magisterial fossil exhibits I was to visit later that afternoon, as being of greater relevance to Natural History than whatever it was that was going on here.

Later, I learned from a back issue of the Christian Science Monitor that the Stout Hall of Asian Peoples had opened to public acclaim, and at a cost of $2.8 million, only a few months before the Sheep Meadow was restored to pristine splendor, in the fall of 1980.  The article's title was "Hall of Asian Peoples; Orienting the Americans." It began with an anecdote about the archaeologist and anthropologist, Walter Ashlin Fairservis, who had led the Hall's design over most of the preceding decade.

Little account of Fairservis' life survives beyond his work and his many obituaries.  I was able to learn that he began his peregrinations in Asia in 1945, as an Army Intelligence Officer assigned to General MacArthur's staff aft
er the Japanese surrender.  In 1949 he led the First American Expedition to Afghanistan under the auspices, and with the funding of the American Museum of Natural History, which consisted of himself, Louis B. Dupree (archaeologist) and Henry W. Hart (surveyor).  He returned in 1951 with a somewhat larger team including his wife, Jan Fairservis, whom he thanks for "her accurate field drawings."  He opens his monograph catologuing their findings in the region of Seistan with tributes to Hafizullah Khan, the Afghan who accompanied his party, and quotations from his wife's journal.

 He closed with "the final and most heartfelt word of thanks for making so much possible then, now, and always," to his mother.

During the first expedition Fairservis and his associates endured daytime temperatures of 115 degrees Fahrenheit, which fell to only 85 at night, and constant winds between 30 and 40 miles per hour.

The second expedition, which was more felicitously scheduled during the Afghan winter, was nonetheless enlivened by harrowing circumstances.  At one point, Fairservis recounts in the remarkably frank introduction to his monograph on the archaeology of the region, they found themselves on the brink of an important discovery 60 miles from the nearest source of fresh water.   All members of the team agreed to limit themselves to half-rations, "virtually lived off a colloidal solution of mud, and completed three additional days of field work."  On the way back, they ran out of fuel and were forced to walk miles to the village of the Baluch chief Mohammed Omar, who kindly took in this band of what, where I in his position, I would have assumed were potentially dangerous lunatics.

In addition to innumerable technical drawings of geologic formations and ancient artifacts discovered on the two expeditions he made to Afghanistan, Fairservis included a number of photographic plates at the end of Archaeological Studies in the Seistan Basin of South-Western Afghanistan and Eastern Iran.  These depict primarily landscapes and artifacts, the latter always accompanied by Fairservis'  knife, presumably for scale.  The only expedition member pictured in any of them is Jan Fairservis.

This was the beginning of an illustrious career for Dr. Fairservis at the American Museum of Natural History.  In 1960 he lead an expedition to a desolate region of Pakistan near the Seistan basin, reportedly discovering the ruins of an imperial complex forgotten by history and lost in the desolate waste.  It may be on the strength of this account that he acquired the distinction for which he is primarily known today, to those who know him at all, which is that of being the alleged model for the fictional archaeologist Dr. Henry Walton Jones Jr., played to much acclaim by Harrison Ford in a film released shortly after the opening of the Stout Hall.  When questioned later in life, Fairservis could only recall that a filmaker had once asked him what he typically wore into the field; my sources do not record whether or not his answer involved a whip.

Fairservis wrote mainly on ancient history, but travelled widely in Asia in the course of his researches.  His writings evince deep respect for his guides and friends on these expeditions, and he remained closely interested in contemporary Asian cultures and political developments.  It must have been difficult for him to accept the Museum administration's inflexible prohibition on representing anything Asian after 1920 in the Stout Hall, a bizarre decision apparently motivated by a desire to avoid any reference to the Cold War generally and, specifically and emphatically, any evocation of the United States' recent and ignominious defeat by a poorly equipped but evidently superior army of agrarian patriots in Indochina.  He spoke to the Christian Science Monitor correspondent, just before the opening of the Hall, with evident regret and ambivalence:

One of our biggest problems was to come up with an answer to the cliches most people have about Asians.  There is the feeling that Asia is either a land of exotic mysteries or suffering masses. This is the great misconception we tried to dispel. I'm not sure we succeeded.
New York Magazine reported on October 20th that Fairservis might not even attend the gala opening of the Stout Hall, citing longstanding tension with the Museum's Director, Dr. Thomas D. Nicholson: "There has to be a balance," Fairservis is quoted as saying, "between commercialism and scholarship, and he goes to far.  He goes for a public that doesn't read, one that responds only to colorful things."  I have not been able to establish whether he attended the gala or not, but shortly after the opening Walter Fairservis resigned from the American Museum of Natural History, after nearly forty years.  The Monitor attributes his decision to what the correspondent calls a "philosophical" dispute over the handling of certain contemporary Communist posters from China, and a copy of The Quotations of Chairman Mao.

I learned from the January, 1979 issue of the Eugene O'Neil Newsletter that two years before his resignation, Fairservis had adapted, produced, and directed a production of O'Neil's now obscure comedy Marco Millions, a Broadway show famed for its extravagant sets and huge cast, and which has generally been interpreted as a satire of Western materialism, although I can make no judgment since I have never seen nor read it.  Fairservis' version starred his daughter, Elf, who is said to have "captured the beauty and ideality of the East," and was apparently performed on a minimalist set and with the addition of a new part, which Fairservis wrote himself in blank verse.

Within the ambit of Fairservis' first expedition to Seistan stands the Kuh-e Khwaja, which is the only natural height in the region. It is an immense mass of congealed lava rising out of Lake Hamun, and when the lake swells the Kuh-e Khwaja is cut off, and and becomes an island in the lake's center.   It is thought that the prophet Zoroaster dwelt there at some point during his life, although it is really impossible to know since contemporary authorities agree that he flourished one hundred and seventy-five generations ago.  Amongst the ruins of the Ghaga-Shahr, however, which is the oldest complex on the Kuh-e Khwaja, are the remains of a Zoroastrian fire temple which are thought to pre-date the later Islamic ruins and burial sites by many centuries.

It is written in the Denkard that near the ending of the world, a maiden will bathe in Lake Hamun, where is miraculously preserved the seed of Zoroaster himself, and that she shall have knowledge of it.  She will give birth to Saoshyant, who will be Ahura-Mazda's agent in the rectification of the world.  Then the metals of the hills will run molten into the hollow place, and all the souls of earth will have to traverse the burning sea.  The Bundahishn tells us that then 
all men will pass into that melted metal and will become pure; when one is righteous, then it will seem to him just as though he walks continually in warm milk; but when wicked, then it will seem to him in such manner as though, in the world, he walked continually in melted metal.

Monday, June 9, 2014


Fertur Prometheus addere principi
limo coactus particulam undique
desectam et insani leonis
vim stomacho aposuisse nostro.

Prometheus, forced, they say, to add
To his prime clay some favorite part
From every kind, took lion mad
And lodged its gall in man's poor heart.

Horace, Odes I.XVI (Trans. John Conington, 1865)

I had wanted for many years to visit the American Museum of Natural History, initially because I had heard that it contained an enormous scultpture of a cachalot battling an architeuthis, and subsequently because of an essay on the Carl Akeley Hall of African Mammals by the biologist Donna Harraway, of which my friend Geoffrey Shullenberger had sent me a recording years before.  I had meant to bring the recording so that I could listen to the essay while viewing its subject, but I realized with some frustration and anxiety that I had forgotten it and would thus have to be content with my faulty memories of the essay and distorted impressions of the Hall, and the overheard conversations of children and tourists.    

I thought of something I had seen the day before, as Rachel I walked by the Grand Central Station.  She had noticed the head of a small bird lying in the gutter.  The rest of the animal was nowhere to be seen, and the head was remarkably intact without visible trauma or bloodstains, as though it had been surgically removed for some unfathomable purpose before being carelessly discarded by the sated celebrant of some clandestine rite.  I wished I could remember some of what I used to know about Roman augury, in order to determine the import of this apparition for my visit. 
I left the park and crossed the street, heading for the full size equestrian statue which projects from the facade like a ship's prow.  It depicts the son of one of the incorporators of the museum, astride a charger and flanked by an African and a Native American, both clad in what I suppose the sculptor imagined to be their antelapsarian traditional dress: a scant arrangement of rags, hides, and savage ornaments.  At the foot of the statue was an empty bottle of Leroux Blackberry Flavored Brandy.  The cap was lying close by, suggesting that it had been finished near where it lay, although whether the statue had been the inspiration and site of its consumption or merely a waystation on its previous owner's journey to some other place was not apparent.
The steps swarmed with tourists, schoolchildren, and New Yorkers, and I was buffeted about in my attempts to gain the entrance.  I found myself at last in the enormous atrium, where it took me several minutes to figure out how to purchase a ticket.  I looked around, and saw the great inscriptions I had heard about.  What I had not expected, because I had forgotten that Harraway mentions them, was the collection of murals flanking the northern and southern entrances to the Museum itself.  These are enormous, stretching all the way to the ceiling forty or fifty feet above, and depict Theodore Roosevelt's achievements with reference to an symbolic and ethnographic history of the human species.  The brightly colored figures, executed by an artist not untouched by the Pre-Raphaelite movement, practically burst off the walls in a profusion of activity, each whorl of energy centering around Roosevelt, who is typically wearing a white linen suit and often a pith helmet.  I learned later from a 1944 museum pamphlet authored by one William Andrew McKay, who turned out to be the artist, that the quotations from Roosevelt bolted to the wall in bronze letters are not actually continuous passages, but excerpts from letters, commencement speeches, and other writings which have been strung together according to their theme.  I was unable to deduce from what I saw whether this was done because suitable passages of continuous prose could not be found, or for some other reason.

I wanted to spend longer examining the murals, but the African Hall exerted an insuperable attraction on me and I was drawn towards its tenebrous doorway like a celestial body falling into a black hole.  

The Hall is very dark, as befits a place of worship in the Anglo-Saxon tradition.  It is lit only by the lights of the vast dioramas which radiate from its sides like the chapels of Westminster Cathedral, and a few dim orange bulbs which cast their ghostly light on the group of elephants which loom incomprehensibly large in the center of the room, frozen in the act of fleeing through the main entrance as though, like Lot's wife, they had cast a forbidden glance back at the artfully re-arranged slaughter of their fellow Sodomites.  I began my circuit of the main Hall in a counterclockwise direction, pausing in front of each diorama for as long as it took to obtain a view unobstructed by the hordes of lemures who thronged the space around me, chattering in a bewildering variety of languages.  The scenes are large and ambitious.  Each is carefully constructed to replicate the natural habitat of the animal depicted, and the specimens collected are supposed to comprise the fundamental reproductive unit of the species.  Donna Harraway writes that 

No visitor to a merely physical Africa could see these animals.  This is a spiritual vision made possible only by their death and literal re-presentation.  Only then could the essence of their life be present.
I take this to mean that the spiritual function of the work, which is to locate the subject of early twentieth century American capitalist society with respect to Nature, and therefore Culture, requires the same kind of work as does a Passion Play.

The art of taxidermy began to be developed in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but did not reach its zenith until the Edwardian period.  In 1881, Rachel Poloquin informs us, the Director of the Natural History Museum in London wrote
I cannot refrain from saying a word upon the sadly-neglected art of taxidermy, which continues to fill the cases of most of our museums with wretched and repulsive caricatures of mammals and birds, out of all natural proportions, shrunken here and bloated there, and in attitudes absolutely impossible for the creatures to have assumed while alive.
The craft of museum taxidermy, an art of re-animation as opposed to the mere preservation of hunting trophies, was perfected in the first half of the twentieth century by Americans like William Temple Hornaday and Carl Akeley.  Both learned the rudiments of their craft as apprentices in Henry Augustus Ward's Natural Science Establishment, (Hornaday somewhat before Akeley,) and both went on to illustrious careers in metropolitan institutions honoring the natural sciences: Akeley, successively, at the British Museum, the Field Museum, and finally the American Museum of Natural History; and Hornaday at the United States National Museum (later called the Smithsonian Institution) and the New York Zoological Gardens (or, as it was called then and now in a locution said to have driven Hornaday to paroxysms of livid rage, the Bronx Zoo).  

Both were champions of the nascent movement to perserve areas of wilderness.  Harraway argues definitively that this impulse represents the search for a panacea to the rising tides of degeneration and miscegenation with which the intelligensia of the Gilded Age were obssessed.  One of Hornaday's first jobs for the American National Museum was to inventory its collection of American buffalo.  (This is a point of historical irony because his mentor in taxidermy and naturalism, Henry Augustus Ward, was the first person to be killed by an automobile in Buffalo, New York.  Ward died, as Esveldt says of David Zilberman, with his boots on; his mangled corpse was recovered from the road still clutching a copy of A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.)  In any case, Hornaday's review of the Museum's collection of specimens, which he deemed inadequate, led him to a train of inquiry through which he realized the astonishing efficacy of  the genocide his contemporaries had been waging mounted, on foot, and from moving trains against the vast herds of ice-age quadrupeds which once roamed the Great Plains, at the same time as a similar campaign was being directed against Manhattan's urban pigs (and, for that matter, their lumpenproletariat masters).

Realizing that the extinction of the American bison was imminent, he journeyed to the Musselshell river in Montana, where the last remaining wild herds grazed, to collect the most perfect animals he could find among the righteous remnant for the benefit of what seemed doomed to be a bisonless posterity.  The Musselshell is now almost entirely "dewatered," as the bizarre euphemisms of environmental catastrophe have it, and the buffalo are gone, as well as the fish, beavers, and other creatures which teemed in its stream and the riparian ecosystem it supported.  Hornaday's bison were frozen in time, and displayed for years at the Smithsonian before being lost for several decades, only to be re-discovered and returned home, after a fashion, to the Museum of the Northern Great Plains in Montana.

It was Carl Akeley, however, who brought taxidermy to its zenith in the first decades of the twentieth century, as Harraway describes in her exquisite biographical sketch.  His first experience with the re-animation of very large creatures came in 1885.  During his apprenticeship at Ward's Natural Science Establishment, P.T. Barnum's prize elephant Jumbo was struck and killed by a locomotive in southern Canada.  In what may be the only documented taxidermic emergency, Akeley was dispatched from Ward's to preserve Jumbo's residue in a way which Barnum would find profitably exhibitable.  The result of his labors, undertaken with the help of every butcher the nearest town could muster, does not survive, and it is unlikely that the artist was satisfied with it; he expressed aesthetic disgust for the specimens which were prepared at Ward's, even with all the necessary materials close to hand, dismissing them as "upholstered."  After moving on from Ward's, Akeley invented new techniques of preservation and armature which allowed the construction of unprecedentedly lifelike mounts, which in general he refused to patent, considering them the common property anybody with sufficient skill to use them.  

Early in his career, he invented the "habitat group," a style of museum presentation which became (and remains) hegemonic.  In habitat groups, all the members of the animal's family unit are gathered together and depicted in the course of their supposed natural relations to one another against a background scrupulously constructed to replicate the environment in which they were collected.    It is determined by what Lorraine Daston and Peter Gallison called, in their history of objectivity, "trained judgment."  The observer is given to understand that while the tableaux which stands before them may not correspond to any set of circumstances which, were they to go to the African savannah and regard the reality on the ground, they would observe, it has been composed by a scholar-artist whose deep knowledge of the objects depicted ensures that what is represented is the Type; Goethe's Urplanz, plural and vertebrate.  The habitat group, as developed by Akeley, is a form of iconography in the Orthodox sense of the word; the image is consubstantial with the innermost reality of what is depicted.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, before taxidermy had really begun to grow into a high art, another means of using death to represent life was being developed in the public hospitals of Paris.  Beginning in the last years of the eighteenth century, French physicians had begun to dissect their deceased patients on a previously unimagined scale.  This represented a sharp disjuncture from previous anatomical traditions, like that depicted in Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, which records the annual dissection of a recently hanged man to demonstrate normal anatomy.  The pictured dignitaries stare across the body at an open book, doubtless Vesalius De Humani Corporis Fabrica, as though their primary concern is to verify the coherence of the canonical text with the exposed muscles of the convict's left arm.  By contrast, the clinicians of the Paris school opened bodies to find the pathological: the tubercle, the inflammed meninges, the fibrotic and adherent pericardium; they were connoisseurs of the lesion.

The French and Industrial Revolutions had shifted thousands of people from the countryside into the filthy, pestilential, and overcrowded cities, where they died from accidents and infections, particularly tuberculosis, in much greater numbers than they reproduced.  The conditions a the Hotel Dieu in 1788 are described, in a contemporary work, as follows:
The general policy of the Hotel Dieu…is to put as many beds as possible into one room and to put four, five, or six people into one bed.  We have seen the dead mixed with the living there.  We have seen rooms so narrow that the air stagnates and is not renewed and that light enters only feebly and charged with vapors.  (...) We have seen a room for convalescents on the third floor, which could only be reached via the smallpox ward.  The operation ward where they trephine, cut the stone, and amputate limbs contains those who are being operated upon, those who will be operated upon, and those who have already been operated upon.  The operations are performed in the center of the room.  The one who will be operated upon tomorrow sees his futuer sufferings.  The one who has passed through this ordeal is shaken by these cries of anguish.  He undergoes these emotions in the midst of inflammation and purulence….A thousand particular and accidental causes are added every day to the general and constant causes of air corruption, and force us to conclude that the Hotel Dieu is the most unhealthy and most uncomfortable of all hospitals, and of nine patients, two die.
Such conditions produced an enormous volume of raw material for pathological anatomists.  Marie FranÇois Xavier Bichat, one of the great anatomists of the period, is said to have performed six hundred autopsies in a single winter (which, given the primitive techniques of preservation then available, was the season to do them in).  Through the work of such indefatigable ghouls, death was transformed from the macabre opposite of life into a mirror in which its truth could be read.  The historian of medicine Michel Foucault writes that
When the doctor observes, with all his senses open, another eye is directed upon the fundamental visibility of things, and, through the transparent datum of life with which the particular senses are forced to work, he addresses himself fairly and squarely to the bright solidity of death.
It was in the lesions of the sick woman's dead body, not the (presumably) normal structures of the highwayman hanged an hour before, that Bichat, Laennec, and others sought deeper truths of the peculiar form of motion known as life. 

In the latter years of the nineteenth century, however, as the art of museum taxidermy was being perfected by restless students of Henry Ward like Akeley and Hornaday, this means of seeing was in desuetude.   The center of medical thought had moved from Paris to Berlin, and consequently from the bedside to the laboratory.  Men like Bichat and Laennec had transformed the dead human body into the ultimate repository of all knowledge about life.  With bare hands, they had opened the sacrosanct enclosure of man and made its internal spaces tell the truth about its visible and living permutations.  They both refused to use microscopes, despite the fact that perfectly satisfactory instruments existed (it had been over 100 years since Leuuwenhoek had seen his own spermatozoa wriggling through a tiny globe of polished glass) because, as Bichat said, "when we look into darkness, everyone sees his own way."  He meant, I think, that nothing which cannot be seen in the light of day by an assembled body of like-minded citizens can reasonably be said to exist.  The apotheosis of the cadaver in the post-revolutionary French public hospitals was a cult of egalitarian empiricism, and when medicine turned definitively to the microscope and the test tube, this means of seeing man faded away.

I stood in front of the last diorama on the first floor of the Akeley African hall, regarding an enormous gorilla standing erect in front of me.  Akeley called this animal "The Giant of Karasimbi," and it is one of his masterpieces.  The Giant was killed in the Kivu mountains, in the area where Akeley himself was to die of an undiagnosed febrile illness six years later.  The environs of his final resting place are depicted in the diorama's magnificent background painting  No autopsy was conducted, as there was no surgeon on the safari, and he was buried by his wife and the men he called his "boys" in the sturdiest tomb local resources could afford; nonetheless, we learn from Diane Fossey, despite an eight-foot stockade and a five inch thick slab of concrete his bones were despoiled and borne away in 1979 by Zairoise poachers.  The substance of their interest in his remains is not recorded, although it is tempting to imagine that he was stuffed and sold to a wealthy collector.  

I looked into the glass eyes of the Giant, and I thought of Bichat.  This, I thought, is his legacy; not the recognition of tissues as a basica anatomical unit, nor the consequent delineation of the pericardium, epicardium, and myocardium and the cerebral meninges, nor the nosologic distinctions those discoveries allowed.  Bichat made the dead body into a lens through which the physiology of humans could be read; this inspired reorientation was not lost on Akeley, who made innumerable animal corpses into screens on which the sociology imagined by humans belonging to his moment's elite could be projected.  The robber barons of the 1920s read themselves not in the monochrome of human pathologic anatomy, but in the full palate of God's creation, whose members the students of Ward's Natural Science Establishment learned to kill and flay and artfully re-arrange to tell us the most basic stories about ourselves.  Akeley's dioramas are the exquisite metastases of Bichat's heroic winter in the dissecting room.

Upstairs I found the appendices.  The habitat groups in the main Hall, as Harraway so lucidly described, tell stories of racial purity, domestic economy, and the Darwinian order of society which reflect the values and preoccupations of New York's white elite in the early twentieth century.  The mezzanine contains less obvious narratives told by animals which cannot accede to the majesty of the lion or the fortitude of the eland.  A group of warthogs confront a pair of ostriches.  Both parties look awkward, as though they understand neither how they got into this situation nor how they might extricate themselves from it with what little dignity God has granted them intact.  The warthogs, I was informed by the illuminated sign next to the diorama, suffer much from starvation, a poingant aside which may have been intended to explain their designs on the ostrich nest.  Their situation in Eden was not compared to that of their well-fed cousins who, when the diorama was built, had been absent from the streets and the Park outside for only a few decades after a tenancy of nearly four centuries, although the implication of the entire Hall for the inhabitants of places like Seneca Village was clear.

In front of a diorama containing innumerable dead vultures dismembering a mangled zebra, I was surrounded by a group of alarmingly tall French teenagers.  They appeared to share my confusion as to the significance of the allegory confronting us.  "Non, non," said one, "Non, j'aime pas les oiseaux."

Saturday, May 31, 2014



Immediately after the inauguration, Roosevelt appeared on the White House balcony dressed in the purple robes of a Roman emperor, and, leading a blind and toothless lion on a gold chain, hog-called his constituents to come and get their appointments.  The constituents rushed up grunting and squealing like the hogs they were.

William S. Burroughs, "Roosevelt After The Inauguration"

It was a sunny morning in early April when I set off across Central Park to consummate a desire I had long held without definite hope of fulfillment.  I had not been to the Park, or, in fact, to New York city, since reaching adulthood, but using a tourist map I was able to chart a plausible route to my destination.  I entered near East 67th St., and wandered through Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux's urban Eden.  Despite the historic nature of the site, there are virtually none of the informational plaques or "interpretive trails" one often finds in these places.  I tried to steer a course by maintaining my orientation to the giant buildings which hem the park in like the walls of a great canyon, but soon became lost in a tangle of paths leading every which way among the bare broadleaf trees, whose profusion of skyward tendrils were mobbed by screeching, iridescent starlings, obese American robins and other birds I could not identify.  As I climbed a low hill I came upon a dishevelled man standing doubled at the waist, his matted hair brushing the ground, completely motionless.  His greasy trousers were too large, and most of his wasted, white buttocks brightly reflected the morning sun.  As I approached he slowly drew himself partially erect, and began to shuffle wearily up the path, still bent forwards at an angle of nearly thirty degrees.  He gave no sign of being aware of me, and I vacillated as to whether I should attempt to hail him or offer some manner of assistance, but could arrive at no plan of action which seemed plausible other than to skirt him awkwardly and continue in a roughly northeastern direction through the labyrinth, feeling somehow negligent.
I eventually found my way to the western side of the park, where I encountered a small pillar faced with placards offering some historical details.  I had just passed, as it turned out, an area that used to be known as Sheep Meadow.  The sign informed me that the Park's architects had sought to provide scenery that intentionally evoked the rural countryside that many city dwellers had left behind during the Industrial revolution, when cities experienced exponential growth.  The 15-acre Sheep Meadow, with its flock of Southdown sheep, was, (evidently,) an important component of the Picturesque park plan.

The sheep, I learned, had been removed in 1934, and their fold converted into a restaurant, which the sign implied was at the height of its popularity - although I discovered later by trying to buy a drink there that the Tavern on the Green had closed several years prior to my arrival.  The sign also informed me that Sheep Meadow was "completely restored" in the year of my birth.  I was not sure what this meant, since no sheep were in evidence.  

I wondered how the scene would have struck the inhabitants of Manhattan when the animals were imported in 1871.  Presumably many did come from the sheep-rearing Counties of northern England, Scotland, Wales, and especially Ireland. Most were probably driven to brave the dangerous ocean passage to the unfriendly metropolis of an infant nation occupying a corner of a largely unknown continent by circumstances which rendered their rural countryside intolerable, or, perhaps, even more intolerable.  Some, no doubt, had come to America in their childhood as refugees from the Highland Clearances or the Irish Potato Famine.  Perhaps the Sheep Meadow evoked an idyll for them; perhaps it merely recalled endemic want, abject serfdom, and forced exile.  Others viewing the sheep in 1871 came, no doubt, from other centers of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, which is to say, other cities which in this period consumed more human beings than they produced.  Many of these unfortunates would have been unfamiliar with any actual place which resembled the vision of bucolic peace which Jacob Wrey Mould, the architect of the Sheep Meadow, hoped to evoke, and one can only imagine what they must have made of this lush expanse of arable ground consecrated, in the middle of the cholera-ridden, overcrowded, and fire-prone warren of Manhattan, to the enjoyment of these exotic, horned ruminants.  The Evangelist, in any case, tells us that the Son of Man will set them at his right hand.

Harper's Weekly, Vol. 24, 1880
The flock of Southdowns were an arriviste minority on the the tetrapod scene of late nineteenth-century New York, where they were vastly outnumbered by pigs.  Since the before the Revolution, New York had been home to an enormous number of semi-domesticated swine which roamed the streets and served, for about two centuries, as the primary means of public sanitation in a city notorious for its enormous volume of publicly visible organic waste, and as a source of meat and other animal products for the burgeoning mass of urban poor.  They also presented real hazards to the well-being of the citizenry; contemporary sources attest that in early nineteenth-century Manhattan being mauled to death by hogs was a significant cause of pediatric mortality.  Swine were so ubiquitous that, although frequently represented in the periods visual depictions of urban life, they are almost never mentioned by contemporary American writers, presumably because they were so ordinary a feature of city life as to be beneath notice.  Foreigners, however, preserve some record of their impressions;  In 1842, Dickens wrote:
They are the city scavengers, the pigs. Ugly brutes they are; having, for the most part, scanty, brown backs, like the lids of old horse-hair trunks: spotted with unwholesome black blotches. They have long, gaunt legs, too, and such peaked snouts, that if one of them could be persuaded to sit for his profile, nobody would recognize it for a pig’s likeness. They are never attended upon, or fed, or driven, or caught, but are thrown upon their own resources in early life, and become preternaturally knowing in consequence. Every pig knows where he lives, much better than anybody could tell him. At this hour, just as evening is closing in, you will see them roaming towards bed by scores, eating their way to the last. Occasionally, some youth among them who has over-eaten himself, or has been worried by dogs, trots shrinkingly homeward, like a prodigal son: but this is a rare case: perfect self possession and self-reliance, and immovable composure, being their foremost attributes.
In fact, pace Dickens, over the course of the nineteenth century various roundups were undertaken.  When these took place, they were not motivated by urban hogs' documented penchant for devouring children but rather in connection with the periodic epidemics of cholera which racked the city, as the swine were considered emblematic of the disease which, until late in the nineteenth century, was not thought to be contagious but rather to enjoy spontaneous generation in conditions of squalour.  It is recorded that after the cholera epidemic of 1849, upwards of 20,000 free-roaming pigs were "driven uptown."  Their subsequent disposition is unknown, and that fact is significant because it forces one to consider what kind of city could absorb such a legion of swine without any recorded comment.  It is also, of course, possible that they ran violently down a steep place into the waters, and were choked. 

Before work on Olmstead and Vaux's Greensward Plan could begin, all of the larger vertebrate omnivores within the boundaries of the future Park had to be removed, including those inhabiting the various permanent settlements which had existed there for decades.  The largest and oldest of these was called Seneca Village.  
Map of Seneca Village
The origin of the village's enigmatic name is unknown, but the transactions which established it are well documented.  The village grew up around a nucleus of land bought as subdivisions of an even older farm by free African-Americans in 1825.  The community swelled with the abolition of slavery in New York State in 1827, and the Potato Famine brought a further wave of Irish residents, who by all accounts lived in harmony with the community's founders, farming pigs and potatoes in what would become the Sheep Meadow.  An 1855 census recorded a population of 264 inhabitants, who gathered in three churches and whose children attended a school within the village.  Evictions began in the year of that account, and the last holdouts were forcibly ejected under right of eminent domain by the City authorities in 1857. The park was to remain uninhabited by organized settlers until one of the many "Hoovervilles" which dotted the United States during the Great Depression sprung up there about half a century later.  
Census of Seneca Village

Despite sporadic roundups and the destruction of Seneca Village and other "squatter" communities, swine continued to flourish in Manhattan, and were highly cultivated in an area immediately south of Central Park's modern boundaries then known as the Piggery District.  This was another of the areas forcibly cleared by the Corporation, (as the city's government was then known,) prior to the opening of Central Park.  The epicenter of the District was at the intersection of 6th Avenue and West 58th Street,  a site today nearly equidistant from an Italian restaurant offering choice charcuterie called Quality Meats, Park Avenue Smart Lipo, and an equestrian statue of Simón Bolívar.  On January 26th, 1857, two columns of police and irregulars carrying "pistols, clubs or daggers" advanced on the inhabitants of the District, whom the Times reporter covering the action refers to simply as "the enemy."  Of Patrick Bohen's complex of shanties on 56th St., between 6th and 7th Avenues, our correspondent writes, 
the officers of the law entered, and, amid the barking of dogs, the jabbering of Hibernian females, the noise of falling rubbish and the grunting and squeaking of swine, plied thier pickaxes and crobars, scattered the disinfecting agent by the pailfull, and drove out the pigs.
The ambiguity is apparently deliberate.   

Mrs. Thomas Glennan, who lived down the street with her husband, had already sent their hogs for sale; but the armed priesthood of Hygeia tore down the building anyway.  The reporter records her eulogy for the piggery: 
'Very poor revinge,' said she, 'to tear down people's buildings afther the pigs is sent away intirely.  Very shabby for gentleman; gentleman wouldn't do it.'
The Piggery District
Despite the miserable life expectancy enjoyed by the people born into places like Seneca Village and the Piggery District, there were presumably many former inhabitants of both who were old enough to remember their destruction in 1857 when they witnessed the arrival of the Southdown flock at Sheep Meadow in 1871.  It is difficult enough to imagine what new immigrants, whatever their origin, would have made of these wooly symbols of the eugenicist oligarchy's fantasy of rural paradise; but what pithy analyses might Mrs. Glennan have offered of the politics of artiodactyl husbandry in the age of monopoly capitalism?

The pillar supporting the sign from which I learned of the Sheep Meadow's prior glory and restoration stood near a gate in the Park's western side.  I realize now that as I read it, I was standing within a hundred yards of the foundations of Seneca Village, whose existence I did not at that time suspect, and that while I did remark the plump vigor of hundreds of daffodils, and that many of the skeletal trees around me were putting out tiny, exquisite buds, I did not recognize that the virtue of  the soil beneath my feet which gave rise to this emergent rhapsody of spring had been supplied by generations of unselfish and forgotten swine.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Evidence-Based Lacanian Analysis or Lacan-Based Evidence?

Originally published in an ACP Journal Club in 1996 with text by EBM Apostle David Sackett as above, this perplexing figure has happily survived into recent collaborative work between omnipresent EBM Apologists Haynes, Devereaux and Guyatt[1]. While no explicit mention is made of Jacques Lacan, I think it's obvious that we're facing a vast conspiracy and a shadow war not fought in journals but in signs. Either Lacanians are infiltrating the rank and file of the EBM movement in an attempt to make up lost ground in Anglophonia or EBM is attempting to assimilate Lacanian topological mathemes in a bid for the unconsciousness of psychoanalysts. (The facile objection that "It's only a Venn diagram!" can be immediately dismissed. "It's only a book!" cried the miner, dropping The Conditions of the Working Class in England in the mud as the Pinkerton broke his jaw.) While my methods permit me to detect this correlation between crypto-Lacanian and crypto-epidemiological interests, sadly I have no answer to the vexing question of which is the cause of which or if their constant conjunction has been brought about by some common origin, or even if my categories have referents. All I know is what's right in front of our collective nose.

It seems intuitively obvious that Clinical Expertise is the realm of the Imaginary, Research Evidence the Real and Patient Preferences the Symbolic. (Does the Other have a preference? Only since the 90s, comrades.)  That the center of the knot is the objet petit a will come as no surprise to the physician, who knows well that what he desires is for the clinic, the patient and the evidence to appear together. Alas, it is not to be.

In the sequel, I hope to deal with the vexing issue of the diagram's reconfiguration in 2002, as the possibility of attaining clinical expertise fades and the subject of EBM becomes ever more clearly the effect of the desire of medicine and not its condition, clinical expertise as the sinthome or synth-homme appears, vanishingly, as the way that research evidence enjoys the unconscious.

[1] Haynes, R. B., Devereaux, P. J., & Guyatt, G. H. (2002). Physicians’ and patients’ choices in evidence based practice. BMJ, 324, 1350.