“The dead man lay alone and naked on a white cloth in a wide room, surrounded by depressing white walls, in the cruel sobriety of a dissection room that seemed to shiver with the screams of an endless torture.”
So begins the bleak tale of “The Dissection” by Georg Heym (1913), a German poet and playwright who foresaw his own drowning death in a dream. Heym was a critic of romanticism and industrialism. His refusal of modernity’s optimism comes through in “The Dissection,” through its exquisitely detailed body horror and unflinching irony.
The story, to some extent, reads like a Saw film, save for the poetic sensibility that elevates it. Some of the best lines include his body being compared to “some gigantic flower, a mysterious plant from Indian primeval forests that someone had shyly laid at the altar of death.” The cold urine of his punctured bladder glistens “like yellow wine.” The instruments of the doctors are “like vultures’ crooked beaks forever screaming for flesh.” A dissection has never been described in such rich horror.
It seemed to me a little too rich at times, but the worst part of the horror is arguably understated. It comes down to a single word: the doctors are described as “friendly men.” In other words, they were not the sort of people you could point to and say, “That’s a villain.” They were sociable people, like you and me, performing a horrible experiment motivated by nothing more than simple curiosity about the human body.
Heym died before the First World War. But if he had lived to see the Second World War and the rise of Nazi Germany, he may have heard reports of medical experiments like this in the concentration camps and recognized that his story had anticipated the worst depredations of the twentieth century. The fact the doctors in his story are “friendly” men reminds me of the observation made by Hannah Arendt and others that most Nazis were ordinary folks who passively decided to “just follow orders.” The Nazis were like the doctors in this story–“friendly men” who perpetrated war crimes.
Heym’s story also criticizes a wider trend in modernity. He indicts Enlightenment science’s drive to section up and divide, split apart, dissect, and, ultimately, destroy what it studies. In short, he critiques science’s blindness to the human consequences of knowledge gathering.
Archaeology, which as a discipline was founded on colonialist forms of knowledge, is a prime example of this. In archaeology, knowledge is produced by destruction, in the same way that medical knowledge is produced by dissection. Digging a trench to excavate artefacts destroys the context in which the artefacts were found. But at the same time, that destruction is necessary for the production of knowledge. This may be less true today, with radar and remote imaging techniques. But traditional archaeological techniques involve a dissection of the soil which results in the destruction of sites considered important to living societies who derive their cultural identity from them. In short, archaeological knowledge gathering has human consequences, even if the archaeologists are blind to them.
In “The Dissection,” Heym’s critique of science’s ethics is accompanied by a critique of romanticism. Eventually, the man being tortured escapes the horror of his situation in a vivid dream of his beloved. “I’ll see you again tomorrow. Here, under the window of the chapel, here, where the light of the candles falls about you,” runs his stream of consciousness. The passage appears at first to embody the Romantic idea that the mind and imagination can be a refuge against the travesties of the material world.
But then comes bitter irony. At the moment the man has this dream, the doctors take hammers and chisels to his brain, splitting apart the very organ that produces consciousness. The man dies quivering in happiness as “the hands of the doctors broke up the bones of his temple.”
The scientists cannot learn the mechanism of the body which produces the mind without killing what they want to study. In the end, the mind is no refuge; it is dependent on the body. A romantic escape from the mechanistic realities of the modern world is impossible, or, at best, a temporary dream, a deceitful illusion.
Next week, I will be reading “The Spider” by Hans Heinz Ewers (1915), yet another bleak, German weird tale, this time about a series of mysteriously linked suicides. (Here’s hoping the stories stay weird but cheer up a little in the future.)