with respect to Alasdair Gray’s Poor Things
Currently, the Great Lakes Science Center has an exhibit titled “Lost Egypt” which features the mummified remains of an anonymous child who reportedly drowned in the Nile. Because the Nile is a sacred place, her remains were preserved through embalming, and she was given a special burial even though she was unknown. I find something disturbing about having a body on display in this particular context of a fun, hands-on exhibit. Visitors role play as archaeologists riding a fake camel, overseeing a replica of dig site, walking through a simulation of a pyramid tunnel. And, then, they see a real mummy sarcophagus with a real body shadowed by a volunteer docent offering random facts about humidity controls and broken necks. A display of bland indifference and public spectacle.
Interesting that one can have a loved one’s cremated remains or locks of hair converted into wearable art. Beautiful jewels in a variety of colors. Beautifully creepy. At first, I wondered if the website was a hoax (it may be), but I once listened to a program about imaginative ways to honor our dead, such as cementing ashes into a human-made coral reef where one could go memorial diving. Imagine losing your mom ring.
Burke and Hare: Body snatchers
(image courtesy of WikiPedia)
Body snatching was a problem in the nineteenth century. In the end notes to Poor Things, Gray lists four books published by McCandless during his lifetime under the pseudonym, ” A Gallowa’ Loon” (299-200) One of the works titled The Resurrectionists dramatizes the Burke and Hare Murders of 1828. Desperate for cadavers to use for dissection at an Edinburgh medical school, Dr. Robert Knox, paid Burke and Hare for corpses–which they obtained by murdering working- class people at an Edinburgh boarding house. Check out the various media reportrayals listed on Wikipedia. Frankenstein reflects a similar practice of body snatching–Victor Frankenstein haunted graveyards looking for recyclable parts to create his monster-child. Nineteenth-century working-class people in Britain often contributed to community burial funds because bodies which could not receive a paid for buried by the families were donated to medical study.
Gray’s (Godwin’s) Bella seems to have met a post-death fate reflected by these various images –anonymous and unclaimed, drowned, a spectacle, a jewel, Godwin’s fantasy, snatched and reconfigured by science. The grotesque seems linked often enough with death.
Other thoughts on death and the grotesque
“Another drop in the flood of data” explores this fascination with death. More images –some highly grotesque–at Winter is Coming and EchoVulture