by Ari Armstrong
The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on June 22, 2006.
So I held somebody's brain in my hand. I examined the hemispheres, the lobes, the squishy folds. Well, the folds were no longer squishy, as the brain had been plastinated by Dr. Gunther von Hagens, the preeminent anatomist of our age, a sign in Denver's Museum of Nature and Science assured us. The exhibit: Body Worlds 2.
Apparently the display's organizers didn't think that a bunch of dead bodies posed throughout the room were sufficient to induce the viewer to contemplate death, so they also hung some topical quotes from the ceiling.
Nietzsche, infamous for proclaiming the death of the Almighty, provides one of the quotes: "'Body am I, and soul' -- thus speaks the child. And why should one not speak like children? But the awakened and knowing say: body am I entirely, and nothing else; and soul is only a word for something about the body."
But despite the slightly sensationalist and voyeuristic feel of the exhibit, it's really interesting science. By taking preserved human bodies apart, it shows how the body is put together. From inside our bones to the skin, the displays show the connections between muscles, nerves, tendons, arteries and internal organs.
Glass cases hold healthy and diseased hearts, lungs, and spines. Normal lungs are shown beside the lungs of smokers. Cross-sectional slices of an obese body show a thick layer of fat. A number of fetuses are shown at different stages, including one inside a mother. The creators of the exhibit figured out how to fill the blood vessels of animals and human body parts with a stable material, then dissolve away the rest of the body.
Health professionals chattered about the subtleties of body parts, the names of which I'd be pressed to pronounce. I'm grateful that they take a greater interest in biology than I do, because they are the mechanics of this wondrous and endlessly amazing structure.
I found myself looking at my own arms and comparing them with those on display. At some points you can see your entire body in a mirror, alongside a dissected display body.
The display has a definite purpose in biological education, but I thought more about the personal implications. These are real people. They used to breathe, feel, think, see and love. Now they are frozen in death, a sad substitute for immortality.
Recently a friend about my age died from genetic heart problems. Another friend lost his father. A great-aunt just passed away. This whole death thing is real, and it's coming, for each of us. So what's important is how we celebrate life while we're still walking around on this Earth. Of course, how to do that has been the subject of considerable controversy.
Not long ago, I watched Bill Moyers's Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. Campbell describes a ritual performed in New Guinea by a men's society whose members "really enact the myth of death and resurrection and cannibalistic consumption."
The "basic myth" is that of "the buried body and the life coming out of it," Campbell continues. After days of chanting and dancing, "the young boys who were being initiated into manhood" would, one by one, enter a log structure and have sex with a "a young woman... ornamented as a deity."
"When the last boy is with her, in full embrace, the supports are withdrawn, the logs drop, and the couple are killed." This shows "the union of male and female" and "the union of beginning and death... and they're both the same thing."
"The little pair are pulled out and roasted and eaten, right that evening, enacting the myth in its essential character. You can't beat that. That's the sacrifice of the mass."
Campbell continues, "One of the wonderful things in the Catholic ritual is going to Communion. There you're taught that this is the body and blood of the Savior..."
In sacrificial rituals, Campbell explains, the person killed "is the god." The person dies, is buried, and "becomes the food," something Campbell traces to agricultural myths.
And what are these rituals supposed to accomplish? "The one who has died to the flesh and been reborn in the spirit -- this is an essential experience of any mystical realization. You die to your flesh and are born to your spirit. You identify yourself with a consciousness and life of which your body is but the vehicle."
So the essential difference between the rituals of bloody sacrifice and the rituals of the museums of science is that the former sees spirit and body as fundamentally distinct, while the latter sees spirit -- consciousness -- as emanating from and a part of the living body.
One tradition tends to kill the body, mortify the flesh, and live for the afterlife. The other worships the body, heals the flesh, and lives for this Earth.