Saturday, 26 May 2018


It'a a curious business, anatomy. I've just come back from a visit to my dentist, where she showed me an X-ray of a tooth I'm going to have to have extracted (noooo...) and I am struck by the cognitive dissonance resulting from the familiarity of what's on the outside my head (that's me!) and the mystery of what's on the inside my head, which is also me, and probably essentially much more so. A taxidermied "me" in a museum would be recognisably "me", whereas my prepared skeleton would not (although my dentist might differ on that, given access to my skull). In either case, the "I" would actually be long gone, an elusive construct it's impossible to bottle. You need the whole combo in proper working order – or must at least have a workable majority of it – in order to exist. See Hamlet, Act V, scene i (Alas, poor Bonehead). But, fortunately, a tooth either way seems to make little or no difference at all.

I find skeletons fascinating. Some creatures are easily imaginable from their skeletal underpinnings – a horse is clearly a horse, and a tiger is clearly not a huge rabbit, although it could just as easily be a lion – but most are not, to the untrained eye. Whales, for example, have evolved into something so contradictory, internally and externally, that I would defy anyone who had never seen a whale (or a picture of a whale) to envisage the creature that wraps its blubber around those bones. Which does raise the issue of palaeontological reconstruction from bony remains: has it ever struck you how much like dessicated corpses, with skin and muscle shrunk to fit around a skeletal armature, most dinosaur reconstructions are? It's as if we have imagined the Mesozoic as Zombie World writ large, inhabited by wizened undead monsters of skin and bone. I wonder if archaeologically-inclined members of some future species will be wondering why humans spent so much time lying on their backs in form-fitting boxes of various sorts, grinning like fools? Some behavioural adaptation, no doubt, to avoid those four-wheeled predators with the metal exoskeleton that seem to have dominated the planet.

Birds, I find, are particularly problematic [1]. Ignore the tell-tale beak, and the skeletons of an owl and a chicken look remarkably similar. But only one of those scaffoldings supports enough meat to make for a good meal (AFAIK, anyway: if you know a restaurant that serves owl, do let me know). The extra length of a bird's neck is particularly deceptive: reduced to its skeleton, virtually every bird looks like it might be some sort of swan. OK, you're not going to mistake a heron for a hawk, but if you can tell a pigeon from a partridge or a plover your Bird Anatomy badge was well-deserved.

Having spent more hours in Europe's leading anatomical museums than is necessary or normal, I now have quite a collection of photographic raw material to work with, and the collaged images here are the latest fruits of this particular obsession. I have no particular agenda with regard to comparative anatomy: I may have a master's degree in comparative literature, but it's not really the same thing and, although I'm pretty sure I do know a hawk from a handsaw [2], I can't even remember, now, what species most of my photos actually are. I really should take more notes. I suppose, if pushed, I could make some metaphorical claims for this "project" being about the fragility of life, mass extinctions, "nature" as spectacle, Frankensteinian hubris [3], and the like – and if I ever have to write an accompanying artist's statement I probably will, too – but, really, I just like the way they look. Aren't they amazing? And isn't it extraordinary, the skill with which some anonymous museum technician has assembled a heap of dry bones into something so spookily lifelike? Unheimlich, even. Ah, yes, the Uncanny! Now there's another paragraph for that statement...

The conjuror triptych

Galerie de Paléontologie et d'Anatomie comparée, Paris
(Hey, don't I know you, Bonehead? And what's the big joke?)

1. In the process of writing this post I've just come across this book – The Unfeathered Bird, by Katrina van Grouw – and couldn't resist ordering myself a copy.
2. Hamlet, Act II, scene ii: "I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw." The "handsaw" is thought by some to be a variant of a dialect word for a heron (heronshaw), though as a "hawk" is also a plasterer's tool, you can take your pick: he is able to tell one bird from another, or one tool from another. Either way, he's just pretending to be mad. Or ... is he?
3. Once, a long time ago and in an advanced state of intoxication, I briefly attained satori looking at some sausages in a butcher-shop window. Some time, I should write a post about that.

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