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Monthly Archives: February 2013

At our house, the tooth fairy stores her teeth in my top dresser drawer. There she has two ziploc bags, one labelled S and one labelled T. I don’t mind sharing my underwear drawer with her; she’s quiet, polite and takes up very little space. Every now and then she stops by for a visit and the only way I can tell is that there appears to be a new tooth in a bag. And slowly, over the years, her collections have grown. I don’t usually pay much attention. In fact, usually I forget about her altogether.

Until yesterday. When I almost stepped on a lumpy bag, the contents of which would likely have been more painful to my tender instep than the Lego it’s usually subjected to.

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And there I was again, thinking of that blasted tongue and toe combo in the Haags Historisch Museum. And of Montcalm’s skull, long on display in the Ursuline Museum in Quebec City ( and immortalized in a story by Stuart MacLean).

But this time it’s the tooth fairy’s carefully-curated collection. I’ve never really thought about it before. It’s always seemed relatively innocuous. How odd is it to keep an almost complete set of teeth? They’ve been washed. They’ve grown in a body related to my own. And it’s not like I’ve put them on display… (Well, until today…).

But why haven’t I displayed them? Why aren’t they in a purpose-built glass case like the tongue and toe? Why aren’t they available for public consumption like Montcalm’s skull? More importantly, why is my personal response to this tooth collection so very different from my response to the Dutch tongue and the Frenchman’s skull? Where is my morbid fascination? Why am I so very blasé about this particular cabinet of curiosities?

I don’t have any answers, but it’s worth thinking through a bit further. Which body bits do we keep? And why?

(In case you’re wondering why there’s only ‘almost’ a complete set, here’s why:

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I’m in my office looking out at a snow-covered landscape. We’ve had 25 cm in the last twelve hours or so and my view has been completely transformed. It’s beautiful out there.

Beautiful, too, because I have a bit of time to enjoy it. Schools are closed for the second day in a row and the kids are alternately glorying in it or annoying one another. That soundscape hasn’t changed, even as the landscape has!

After a morning of teaching prep for next week, I’m deep into article revisions. As per usual, many suggestions were useful and they have contributed to a much stronger and better-supported argument. Others, however, continue to baffle me and I’m not sure how I’ll approach them, or if, indeed, I can. Some of it may just come down to intellectual differences. And that’s fine, too.

If you’re out there, drinking tea and watching the snow, take a moment to read this piece in the upcoming issue of Brain, Child magazine: Marked. It’s a lyrical, thoughtful piece about bodies and memories and bodily memories and mourning and loss. Definitely worth your time.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading and writing about the inevitably public nature of elite reproductive bodies. Carefully assessed and monitored, these bodies were the focus of close scrutiny and court gossip and conversation. But such monitoring was also internal –  queens, princesses and other members of the elite worried about their fertility, their ability to bring forth a son, and their ability to raise this child to adulthood. In this world, reproduction was not a private affair between couples, but a public one, fully open to the often salacious scrutiny of eager gossip-mongers.

Reproduction was important to the elite. It guaranteed a lineage and descendants. Marriage, as an institution, existed primarily to perpetuate the family line and to ensure the sanctity of the bloodline. Sperm, egg, zygote, fetus, baby and presto! Reproductive obligations complete, the ‘happy couple’ could fade into the horizon. Leaving centre stage open to the new generation, the ‘parents’ were now free to pursue their own interests.

I was reminded of this as I watched the final episode of Season Three of Downton Abbey.

Those of us in North America knew, before the season even aired, that Dan Stevens, the actor playing the male lead, Matthew Crawley, wanted to pursue other interests. That’s not terribly surprising; I imagine that a series like Downton Abbey can become overwhelming. Indeed, as Stevens pointed out in The Daily Telegraph: “It is a very monopolising job. So there is a strange sense of liberation at the same time as great sadness because I am very, very fond of the show and always will be.”

But Stevens couldn’t just go. That wouldn’t do. It wouldn’t do at all.

No, as Matthew Crawley, heir and husband, he still had unfinished responsibilities. More specifically, he had the responsibility to reproduce and with it, the responsibility to ensure the succession of the Crawley family and of the perpetuation of Downton life.

And as soon as that was complete, game over.

Jace Lacob puts it nicely:

“And, let’s be honest, the minute that Lady Mary gave birth to a son, ensuring the continuation of the dynasty and a rightful succession (lest we be plunged right back into another entail drama like Season 1), Matthew was a goner. He had served his purpose, ensuring that the Crawley line would continue and that Downton Abbey—which he had absolutely and completely saved by dragging it and Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) into the 20th century—would not only remain in the family, but also turn a profit.”

Put simply, Dan-as-Matthew was the proverbial steed to Mary’s brood mare. Each had duties to fulfil, duties that went far beyond their individual dreams and desires. And both, in this way, were defined by their bodies.

Such, too, was the case for the elite women of centuries past. In the letters to Tissot, I have come across a mother concerned about the reproductive potential of her daughter’s prospective husband and a wife concerned not only about her husband’s madness, but also of the perpetuation of the family line. I have seen fathers physically incapacitated at the thought of being unable to support their children, and men so concerned about the possible lasting effects of immoderate sex that they entertained suicidal thoughts.

Lineage mattered.

It wasn’t only a conceptual ideal; it was profoundly corporeal. Lineage was in the blood, the pores, the bones, the sinews…. the body was the very essence of elite identity.

Elite selves were elite bodies. Elite bodies were elite identities. And elite identity wasn’t just a state of mind; it was – quite literally – embodied, suckled at a mother’s breast, as Madame Necker would have said.

[How ironic, then, that so many of those elite bodies were suckled at the breasts of lower class women]

All of this random thinking was precipitated by this article by Hilary Mantel in the London Review of Books, posted on my usual social networking site by a friend.

I can’t do Hilary Mantel justice here, but I highly recommend that you go off and read it for yourself. She’s a beautiful writer, and in this piece, she gets to the heart of the public nature of what it means to be a “royal body”

I’ll leave you with a snippet from the first half and then, a few sentences from the last paragraph (but you should really read the whole thing!):

“And then the queen passed close to me and I stared at her. I am ashamed now to say it but I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones. I felt that such was the force of my devouring curiosity that the party had dematerialised and the walls melted and there were only two of us in the vast room, and such was the hard power of my stare that Her Majesty turned and looked back at me, as if she had been jabbed in the shoulder; and for a split second her face expressed not anger but hurt bewilderment. She looked young: for a moment she had turned back from a figurehead into the young woman she was, before monarchy froze her and made her a thing, a thing which only had meaning when it was exposed, a thing that existed only to be looked at.

And I felt sorry then. I wanted to apologise. I wanted to say: it’s nothing personal, it’s monarchy I’m staring at.”

….

“It may be that the whole phenomenon of monarchy is irrational, but that doesn’t mean that when we look at it we should behave like spectators at Bedlam. Cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty. It can easily become fatal. We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them, and we did memorably drive one to destruction a scant generation ago.”

Who wouldn’t be drawn in by a title like this: “Mystery over world war one suitcase discovered in university cupboard”?

“It was an intriguing but puzzling discovery: an old battered suitcase filled with memorabilia from the first world war lying at the back of a cupboard in the psychology department of a university.

The contents were fascinating and revealed fragments of someone’s life from more than a century ago. They included a diary, old faded photos, an autograph book with messages from German prisoners of war and a signed photograph of Queen Mary.” 

This is the kind of mystery I love…

As a child, I dreamt of attics filled with mysterious treasures rather than mountains of fiberglass insulation. This story’s got it all: Mystery – check. Suitcase – check. Diary – check. Autograph book – check. Newspaper articles – check. And a nurse. I was all over nurses as a kid.

[As an aside, what would I do without The Guardian Online?]

But seriously, check it out! I’d love to hear more about this as the pieces come together. And if you’ve got any information to share, the contact is listed in the article.

 

One of the delights of visiting the Haags Historisch Museum in the mid 1990s was seeing early twentieth-century photographs of our street and house, the 2de de Riemerstraat, just outside the city’s core. It hadn’t changed at all. In fact, it was almost as if time had stood still for the 100 years between the photograph and our residency. And it was, indeed, a magical little street. Uneven cobblestones (hard on one’s backside when one is being doubled on a bike), big flower planters, and tall rowhouses that had, for the most part, really stood the test of time well (that said, I suspect our windows – both glass and casings – were original to the house, which meant that they were always slightly open, even in the winter, which made for a romantic, if chilly, view…)

But the Haags Historisch Museum also held much more ghoulish treasures, these ones related to a long history of public executions. As the story goes, two brothers – Johan and Cornelis de Witt –  were executed by a lynch mob in The Hague in 1672. Their bodies were desecrated and pillaged by locals, who not only sought souvenirs – relics that then became part of their family lore and, in their material form, legacies that they could bestow on subsequent generations – but also in particularly gruesome fashion, apparently consumed body parts.

And this is how a glass case containing a petrified tongue and toe made its way into the museum (to be seen here, for those of strong stomachs: http://www.haagshistorischmuseum.nl/archive/2011/03/25/tong-en-teen-in-kleur/weblog)

I remember gazing on this curiosity with morbid fascination. It was certainly, as Robert Darnton would have said, one of those “moments of opacity” when one is confronted by a past that is completely unfathomable.

But as I look back on that encounter, I wonder if it is actually as unfathomable as it first seemed.

In the past week, we have celebrated – with both pomp and parody – the ‘discovery’ of the skeleton of Richard III under a car park in Leicester. An ignominious end for the last of the Plantagenets.

So, too, has The Guardian  introduced readers to the curious tale of the headless French king. “Good King Henri” died in 1610, half a century before the Gebroeders de Witt. His remains were buried, but then dug up during the French Revolution, at which point they were tossed into a mass grave. His skull was reported missing in 1817. A century later, it – or at least a skull purporting to be his – turned up for auction. It appeared again at various moments during the twentieth century before its most recent rediscovery, in an attic, in 2008. In the words of Stéphane Gabet, author of a new book that argues that the skull is indeed that of Henri IV:

“In the loft, in an old wardrobe, was a box ….Inside, there was something wrapped in an old towel. Jacques Bellanger folded back one side of the towel, then the other. The mummified head appeared, well conserved, impressive. It was a magic moment.”

The Guardian, too, was where I discovered the tale of Sir James Tillie. Like Madame Necker (whose ghost shall haunt me for the next twenty years, I fear), Sir James left special instructions for the treatment of his body after death.

Madame Necker was embalmed and placed in a tub of alcohol in a tomb on the grounds of the family chateau in Coppet, Switzerland.

Chateau de Coppet, 2007

Chateau de Coppet, 2007

She instructed her husband to visit her body regularly and even left a series of letters to be read only after her death. And she requested that, after his death, his body would join hers. And so they have remained. Eyewitness accounts in 1817 (the same year that Henri’s skull was reported missing, interestingly), reported that while Jacques Necker’s head was still above the alcohol, his wife’s had completely submerged.

The Necker-Curchod Gate, Chateau de Coppet

The Necker-Curchod Gate, Chateau de Coppet

But back to Sir James.

Sir James died in 1713. Convinced that the end of the world was nigh, “He left instructions that his body should be placed in an open windowed room in the mausoleum on the highest point of his land. He was to be left there fully dressed, positioned upright in his favourite chair, food and drink and a crate of books by his side, until the day of resurrection, which he expected to be imminent.”

However, his servants scuttled these carefully-laid plans. After apparently remaining faithful for two years, they ultimately got tired of the smell and the effort and buried him.

Like Henri IV and Richard III, Sir James, too, has recently reappeared. Not for Sir James the carefully-staged permanence of the self in death, a maudlin staging that recalls the portraiture of the period. No, like Richard III and Henri IV, his end was decidedly less glorious: his remains were found in an “overgrown and crumbling Grade II-listed mausoleum.”

It’s easy for those of us reading such stories today to laugh them off as the eccentricities of an over-privileged elite. After all, what relevance do the stories of Sir James and Madame Necker have in our contemporary world? Why concern ourselves with the various transactions that marked the journey of a skull that may or may not be that of Henri IV? Why bother with the bones of a long-dead monarch?

The answer to this might lie in the toe and tongue of the two Dutch statesmen whose story opened this post. According to the museum’s blog (cited earlier), the relics were on display until 1894; however, many visitors were disturbed by the sight and the museum decided not to show them. Nevertheless, as my own encounter demonstrates, they are back on display. I wonder if new meanings have been attached to them now, at four centuries’ remove. I wonder if their purpose, now, is not so much to memorialize the brothers (and, in relation to this, the individuals responsible for killing and dismembering them), but also to memorialize a particularly brutal event in Dutch history; that is, to act as a reminder of a collective madness that lies just beneath a surface of polished civility. How, indeed, does one explain this act? And how might one prevent it from happening again?

From this perspective, tongue and toe – bodily members and bodily memories – enable what Maggie de Vries has termed a “re-membering” of a past; that is, the making whole of fractured, broken, dismembered stories, in the process crafting something entirely different.

Maggie de Vries uses the term re-membering to reflect on the story of her sister, Sarah, one of the 65 women who went missing in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside over a twenty year period. In a classic case of fiddling while Rome burned, the police (collectively as an institution, not individually) buried their heads in the sand (you can read the executive summary of the Commission of Inquiry here: http://www.ag.gov.bc.ca/public_inquiries/docs/Forsaken-ES.pdf). Reflecting prevalent social attitudes regarding sex work and drug addiction, they did nothing as women kept disappearing.

Sarah de Vries’ DNA was found on a pig farm owned by Robert Pickton, a man eventually convicted of the second degree murder of six women (Charges were stayed in the case of 20 other women – including Sarah de Vries).

DNA is all that remains of Sarah de Vries’ body. Bits and pieces are all that remain of others. For some families, there are only memories: no trace of them – not even a hint of DNA – has ever been recovered. By telling the story of her sister, Maggie de Vries is actively re-membering that body, making sacred what was so violently desecrated and defiled. Not for Sarah de Vries an open vista overlooking the idyllic, rolling landscape of Cornwall. Not for Sarah de Vries a carefully staged memorial involving alcohol, embalming fluids and sealed letters.

Re-membering allows us to listen otherwise. To access collective grief. To consider which bodies matter and why. And, as we reflect on 2013 Women’s Memorial March, which wound its way through the streets of the Downtown Eastside on Valentine’s Day, just as it has for the past 22 years, re-membering reminds us, ever so painfully, that horror is not something remote from us; rather, it is something that resides within the very heart of this society that we continue to create together.

buried deeply within a term that has quickly become much too busy, but took a moment of fresh air to breathe deeply with the incomparable Joan Wallach Scott, who writes the following at the end of her book, The Fantasy of Feminist History:

“The archive that historians work in is not a prison with numbered, locked cells or, for that matter, a cemetery, where rows of tombstones inscribed with names and dates convey a sense of finality and closure. The historian’s archive is not a mournful place, but one where the living continue to find life. Writing in the New Yorker, Jill Lepore likened a Cryonics Institute (a place where the dead are frozen, awaiting their ultimate resurrection) to an archive: ‘a place where people deposit their papers – the contents of their heads – when they’re dead, so that someone, some future historian, can find them and bring them back to life.’ The conceit of cheating death is widespread among historians. Or perhaps it is better to say that historians make death a minor episode, something that is transitory rather than final. Metaphors abound: tere are shadows materialized by light; ghosts given embodiment; corpses exhumed for a second life. Whispers are hear from ‘the souls who had suffered so long ago and who were smothered now in the past.’ Jules Michelet, the nineteenth-century French historian consummately lyrical, is wonderful to listen to on this. ‘As I breathed their dust,’ he writes of his contact with the dead in old papers and leather-bound parchments, ‘I saw them rise up. They rose from the sepulchre … as in the Last Judgment of Michelangelo or in the Dance of Death. This frenzied dance … I have tried to reproduce in [my] work.’ It’s tempting here to think of these dancers experiencing la petite mort – the little death – which in French is synonymous with jouissance. The orgiastic frenzy of the dancers evokes the image, as does Michelet’s obvious pleasure in recounting the story.” (144)