Queuing for Hugh Aldersey-Williams’ event in the Pepper Theatre, we were in a kind of contraflow with people waiting to see Ann Widdecombe, who was in the main theatre. Some of them had come awfully early to get a seat, almost a full hour before the event. I can’t imagine what possessed them. Maybe it was the chance to actually see a Tory in Scotland, which is a fairly rare event. It doesn’t look as if the event set Twitter alight, at any rate.
By contrast, the event to promote Anatomies was sparsely attended, the theatre barely half full, so the atmosphere was fairly subdued.
Aldersey-Williams’ previous book, Periodic Tales, in which he ran through the elements, looked at how “we know them better than we think we do” because of their associations with arts, crafts and metaphor. It did very well, reaching the Sunday Times bestseller lists, so his publisher said: “I wonder if the human body and its parts isn’t a bit like the periodic table of elements, each having some sort of discrete identity, function and purpose all fitting into this essential whole.”
Aldersey-Williams said he didn’t really think so. But seems to have reluctantly been channelled into writing something like it anyway, Anatomies. Or maybe not. It was hard to tell. There was a tension between his enthusiasm – with anecdotes involving artistic representations of surgery and historical, cultural examples of how we mythologise the body – and a failure to really explain what it was all for and about. It was almost as if he was telling us about a book he hadn’t been allowed to write.
He admitted he “knew nothing about human biology” and did some research reading and found that there appeared to be a dissatisfaction with the human body, even a desire to “upload our consciousness into some sort of cloud and get rid of all the messy, sloppy bits”. I’d question that assertion to start with, but he went on to say it was an ancient idea as Epictetus, a 1st-century philosopher once claimed “You are a little soul carrying around a corpse.” Which, as it’s essentially what most religions believe, is a pretty unremarkable quotation, isn’t it? It all felt rather jumbled and confused as an introduction, setting the tone for the talk as a whole.
Probably the most memorable section of the talk was a kind of recreation on stage of Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp. Rembrandt is of particular interest to him because “he described what he saw, even if it contradicted classical knowledge, the work of Hippocrates and Galen daring to suggest it might establish new knowledge”.
After a bit of encouragement, a few audience members joined him on stage, donning Life of Brian beards and ruff collars to become 17th-cetury anatomists examining the corpse of an executed criminal. The symbolism of each pose was explained, particularly that of the left hand of Dr Tulp himself, showing how the muscles and tendons being examined worked mechanistically, suggesting that the whole body was a machine, and that which separates us from animals, the hand, is operated “like a marionette” from the forearm.
All of which was mildly entertaining, but again unremarkable without historical context. Had no-one ever realised that before? Was this new? Again, the point of the exercise, what this all meant, was vague.
There followed various anecdotes about the prolific scientist and statistician Francis Galton who, among other exploits, measured the dimensions of an African woman that were pleasing to him using a sextant from a distance. I have to admit, though, that I was losing the thread by this point, and a few people were leaving, too, which can’t have helped his concentration.
One thing that did stick, though, was his description of trying to recreate Descartes’ diagrams demonstrating refraction and focus in the eyeball, by dissecting bull’s eyes bought from a butcher. Even though the mess and gunge essential to its workings are nowhere to be seen in the diagrams, he began to understand, uisng the lens to invert an image, why they had to be left out. His presentation could likewise have done with a little refinement to make its purpose clearer.
I am about to go and watch a comedian at the Fringe play snooker against himself. Somehow, I think I already understand the point of that much better.