Someone from the Today in Tabs commentariat pointed out that I might want to send out a short excerpt of Women and Other Monsters as a newsletter, which was a really good idea! I was going to send some slaughtered darlings to paying subscribers, but honestly it seems more generous to send you guys the parts I decided were good enough to keep in, rather than the parts I cut. This is the opening of the chapter that goes on to be about the monster Scylla and the inescapably corruptible human body.
All I did in Vienna was eat cake and look at medical oddities. It’s a wonderful city for the history of medicine, a field I’ve been drawn to since college—and in particular, it’s a wonderful city for my preferred interaction with the history of medicine, which involves less learning dates and more looking at slightly gruesome displays in haunted-looking museums and cluttered Wunderkammers. Vienna’s museums specialize in wax moulage. The rooms that circle the Narrenturm, the ring-shaped building that houses the Museum of Pathological Anatomy, are adorned with lovingly crafted wax faces, buttocks, and genitals, each peeking from a cradle of pinstriped cloth, each crusted or warted or eaten away with disease. The history of medicine museum at the University of Vienna’s medical school, known as the Josephinum, features rows of wax bones in cases, severed legs with veins made of wax-dipped thread, and full fleshless bodies standing in upright glass boxes as though you’ve caught them in the shower. It’s like a cross between Madame Tussauds and an abattoir.
In the middle of one of the rooms, laid out in a glass coffin like Snow White, is the figure of a beautiful nude woman. She lies on her back, in a pose suggesting intoxication or orgasm more than sleep: one knee slightly bent, hands rucking the silk sheets beneath her, her head tilted back in abandon or ecstasy. She has been slashed open from throat to groin. Her breasts hang to the sides, just flaps of wax, and her guts are a bulbous dark mass against her alabaster skin, coils of intestine resting on a pristine hip. On top of her long blonde hair, which spills prettily around her shoulders, is a delicate circlet of gold.
Next to her, in a similar glass and rosewood box, lies another lounging blonde figure, this one wearing a string of pearls. Her torso, too, is open, but not in the manner of a crime or an autopsy. The front of her torso has simply been sliced off in a neat, bloodless curve and deposited elsewhere. Instead of breasts, she has smooth expanses of light brown lung underneath her pearls. Under that, her diaphragm folds like a wing over her stomach and a neat tongue of pancreas. Something, maybe a kidney, lies by her side. Her eyes are open, and her expression is not exactly orgasmic; it is, more than anything, resigned. Tucked inside her pelvis is a fetus the size of a fist.
These are “anatomical Venuses,” an eighteenth–century innovation in medical display: lovingly detailed wax models of ideal feminine beauties, with real eyelashes and human hair and jewelry and abdomens full of gore. The Josephinum Venuses, and a number of other surviving Venuses of Europe, come out of the wax workshop of a Florentine museum: the Museum for Physics and Natural History, also known as La Specola. La Specola, like the Josephinum, is full of models depicting aspects of human anatomy—“an encyclopedia of the human body in wax,” as Joanna Ebenstein puts it in her lavishly photographed book The Anatomical Venus. Unlike dissection, wax was sanitary, odorless, and stable over a long period of time. It was also, potentially, beautiful. Wax models could be rendered placid and pain-free, their otherwise lovely faces and bodies drawing the mind away from death and towards higher (and lower) things. Like the Renaissance anatomical illustrations that preceded them, the La Specola waxworks were intended to show the hand of God in the human design. The luminous wax sculptures even called to mind earlier religious figurines. But they were also meant to be visually, even sexually, appealing. (This is why, despite the preponderance of male anatomical illustrations and models and cadaver dissections, there was no male equivalent of the Venus.) Ebenstein quotes eighteenth-century anatomical illustrator Arnaud-Éloi Gautier d’Agoty: “For men to be instructed, they must be seduced by aesthetics, but how can anyone render the image of death agreeable?” The anatomical Venus was the answer: the instructional realism of human innards, leavened by the seductive aesthetics of feminine beauty.
But to the modern eye, there’s something uncanny, even upsetting about this image. If the Venus continues to fascinate, it is because she makes manifest something we’d rather ignore: Behind every perfect face and breast is a horrible jumble of meat. Our culture’s relentless obsession with female bodies extends only as far as the skin; we’re all supposed to covet the ideal female form as an image or a possession but not as an actual carcass. Once the lid of the torso lifts off, we shudder and turn away. Even the ubiquitous images of stylized violence against women, which echo the Venus in their juxtaposition of beauty and gore, are intended to position the body as a pristine canvas on which passion is enacted—sexual passion or violent passion, but anyway, the passion of a man. The beautiful corpses of television still don’t void their bowels. What the anatomical Venus highlights, and what we now choose to ignore, is not violence but the gross corporeality of even the loveliest human body, the thin line separating the trophy from the cadaver. At the height of the age of the Venus, this was considered instructive, but now we mostly find it offensive. Ebenstein’s book also quotes the British Literary Gazette from 1825 about an anatomical Venus display: “It is a large, disgusting doll, the alvus of which being taken off like a pot-lid, shows the internal parts, heart, liver, lungs, kidney, &c. . . . The thing is a silly imposture, and as indecent as it is wretched.” “Indecent” sums up how many people feel about women’s embodiment. Contemplating how this object of desire is also full of farts, sweat, germs, and pee is like picking up a Fabergé egg and realizing it’s been packed with rotting meat.
In other words, if you are seen as feminine and have a mortal body, you are born monster.