'Ghoulish' Scholars Create Weird Body of Expertise


Aviva Briefel bones up on her subject.

Story posted October 13, 2005

CSI fans might be surprised to discover that Bowdoin actually has its own team of corpse-loving experts plumbing the depths of the macabre right here in Massachusetts Hall.

That would be the English Department, where - uncannily - professors David Collings, Ann Kibbie, and Aviva Briefel happen to be literary experts in such topics as embalming, evisceration, blood-letting and "slasher" films.

"We didn't intentionally hire faculty for their ghoulish expertise," says Collings, smiling. "It just happened. A lot of English departments incorporate really interesting and strange work."

English Department Chair Ann Kibbie has turned her scholarly attention from an earlier examination of blood transfusion and vampirism to an historical study of corpse ownership. In a forthcoming paper in the literary journal ELH, Kibbie looks at 17th and 18th century English law, which, she says, determines that "everything in the world can be assigned to an owner - except a corpse."

"I became intrigued by this exception," says Kibbie. "It becomes a philosophical discussion: What of ourselves do we own? It's a premise of modern thought that we are the owners of ourselves. But the fault lines in that principle come to light as we look into the reasons against the owning of dead bodies."

In her paper, Kibbie puts this question of body ownership to the test using the early novel Clarissa, by Samuel Richardson, as the backdrop:

"In this novel, Clarissa is raped and she dies. The man who has raped her, since he can't own her in life, tries to appropriate her corpse. He says he will have it embalmed and keep it by him always. But Clarissa thwarts that plan by developing explicit instructions about the treatment of her body after her death."

A CSI scriptwriter could hardly do better.

Bentham.jpg
English philospher Jeremy Bentham left instructions that his body be eviscerated, stuffed, and displayed upon his death (1832). "It rather gives new meaning to T.S. Eliot's poem: 'We are the hollow men, we are the stuffed men,' " quips David Collings. Source: University College London, Media Resources.

The issue of bodies and embalming has offered fertile literary ground over the years. Consider the case of Jeremy Bentham, the noted English utilitarian philosopher who lived from 1748-1832.

Bentham believed in the "greatest happiness of the greatest number," and widely influenced social reform movements, including the medical system and laws for the poor. He also wrote a short pamphlet, known as the "Auto-Icon," in which he instructed that, upon death, his body should be removed of everything but skin and bone, stuffed, dressed in his own clothes, and displayed in a glass cabinet.

His intention, wrote Bentham, was that the "greatest happiness" principle might extend even to a taboo object such as a corpse. He wanted to demystify death and argued that the auto-icon would "diminish the horrors of death, by getting rid of its deformities: it would leave the agreeable associations."

His wishes were indeed respected. Bentham's odd, stuffed relic is mounted in a glass cabinet that has made the rounds at University College London, including a stint as the mascot of the faculty lounge.

"Unfortunately, his head shrank," notes Professor of English David Collings, who wrote about Bentham's "Auto-Icon" for the journal Prose Studies. "It had to be replaced with a wax replica. For many years, his actual head was on a plate on the floor beneath him, visible to visitors - until too many pranksters stole it and they finally had to put it away."

In making the body its own memorial, Collings says the "Auto-Icon" becomes a kind of corporeal autobiography, a "genre in which someone represents himself." Bentham also becomes an oddly "rational ghost," he adds, making "unusually visible the gap between person and body, even as [the person] attempts to deny that gap ... claiming instead that it owns its corpse even when it has vanished, that it can somehow represent itself even when it is gone."

Such interplay between language and the body morbid is hardly new. According to Kibbie, scholars have considered the links between corpses and literature for decades. "What makes a person a person? What makes a body work?" she asks. "These are interests that both science and literature share. There is a tradition of studying that in English departments, a great fascination with the history of the body."

Aviva Briefel
Briefel has fun with the "tools of the trade," including a Carrie inspired version of Barbie given to her by a student.

Gothic novels such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Bram Stoker's Dracula -- which one might call the "ghoul standard" for treatments of the dead -- have long been a staple for literary criticism and teaching. Assistant Professor Aviva Briefel, a Victorianist who also studies horror films, says these novels offer more than their "cheesy" reputations would allow:

"People often tend to discredit the Gothic novel as a genre," she says, "just as they do the horror films of the 20th and 21st centuries. In fact, both provide an immense amount of information about our culture - about our fears, identity, gender issues -- things that we don't think about finding in popular genres." In dealing with the dead, she says, we learn about ourselves.

Briefel cites the classic 1978 film, "Dawn of the Dead," in which flesh-eating zombies take over the world and trap survivors in a shopping mall. "It's a meditation on the difference between the living and the dead," she says. "How might the dead, or the monstrous, reflect things about the living?

"Here you have these zombies congregating in the shopping mall they used to frequent when they were alive. They're still trying almost instinctively to follow the same behavior they did when living. It suggests," she says smiling wryly, "that shopping may be stronger than death."

Naturally, the research interests of Bowdoin's English faculty, often, uh, bleed into their coursework.

Collings taught a course on Gothic tales entitled, "Romantic Sexualities," which included works featuring sexual longings for the dead and even the sexuality of the dead themselves. Kibbie has taught coursework on the monster in literature, and Briefel's course on horror films is always a big crowd-pleaser with students.

"Students are genuinely fascinated by this stuff and truly enjoy the literature," notes Collings. "It's intellectually ravishing and stimulating work. But it also clearly requires that one go beyond common sense or easy explanation, into more intricate accounts of the living and the dead. It's a wonderful window into cultural studies."

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