At the Facultad de Anatomia
When my friend Lorena and I arrived at the Facultad de Anatomia on the appointed day, the bald professor was finishing his introductory lecture in an auditorium modeled after those of old Europe. As the students streamed out of the auditorium, laughing and joking past the model skeleton, the professor shook our hands and invited us to follow the group to a small basement room, where there were several shelves filled with large jars. Each jar contained deformed babies preserved in formaldehyde since they were born in the Chilean countryside in the 1920’s. As we peered into each jar, Lorena tried to remember the Spanish scientific terms for the various afflictions. I could see the tiny arm hairs on each of the babies, perfectly preserved, as if they had been born last week and not 90 years ago. Their only mark of age was their hands, which were so shriveled that they looked like crumpled aluminum foil. Some babies had heads the size of watermelons, one of which was split in half. One was a Cyclops, his eye in the middle of his head. Some had no legs, or stumps for limbs. One baby had a hole in the part of his face where the nose would be. There was a pair of Siamese twins, too. Lorena said that one of them had been perfectly healthy but the other one died before birth, dragging the healthy one with him, away from life. Most of the babies were born dead, she explained, but some of them were alive for at least a few moments, screaming in agony.
The professor described this and other things to the students, none of whom seemed particularly disturbed. Lorena herself had seen the babies many times during her studies. She pulled me aside, pointed to a particular baby, and whispered that it was her favorite. She sounded like she had wanted to show it to someone for a long time. It was shaped like an egg. There was no head, torso, limbs, or discernible gender; just smooth skin curved around internal organs, as shapeless and dull as a shopping bag. What did it mean that this was her favorite baby? I was disturbed, but said nothing.
Lorena’s reaction made me want to feel compassion. I wanted to save the babies from ridicule and spectacle. But in looking at them I felt the limits of my own sympathy, even though I didn’t want to admit it. Each of these children was born of humans, yet I could only feel a half-kinship. They seemed more like mythical creatures to me—trolls, gnomes, Cyclops, demons. Lorena mentioned that she thought they looked like the figures in Goya’s Black Paintings, most of whose faces and bodies are distorted by nihilistic pleasure and demented rage. And the fact was, the babies were ugly, even disgusting. I found that formless egg-baby hideous and felt hypocritical about it. How could I be disturbed by Lorena’s whimsical reaction when mine was so violent?
I wondered how the mothers felt about carrying the misshapen babies in their wombs. I would have felt extremely dirty, though I was ashamed to admit this to myself. Were the mothers relieved when they saw that their children were dead? And if so, was that relief tinged with aversion, or was it compassionate? Despite the horrible pain at birth—their only experience of life—the babies’ succeeding lives might have prolonged and even increased that same pain. In other words, I saw an argument that their immediate deaths were a mercy.
But it didn’t matter if they were ever human or not. Most of them were never anything but husks. There was never any consciousness. The only way to empathize with them was to think of the lives they might have lived, which was like thinking of what my life would be like if I were born into a ghetto instead of the leafy roads of Westchester County—interesting, but academic. All of the babies were broken from the start, period. A reptilian part of me recoiled in looking at them. I pitied them, or thought I did, or tried to. I couldn’t tell if I actually did, which is a sure sign that an emotion isn’t quite genuine. My desire to feel compassion for the babies had more to do with me than it did with them.
The professor led us to two steel doors in another part of the basement. To the left and right were two body-sized tiled baths with faucets and drains. Their function was unmistakable. The students hushed without being told to. The professor passed out gloves and gave a lecture about respecting the dead and some other things that I couldn’t follow. Lorena explained that we were about to see the corpse of a man who had died only 48 hours before and whose family donated his body to the Facultad de Anatomia. They were not told that the body would be shown to students, which made me wonder if the act of looking at the man’s body was somehow invasive. Lorena said that she was excited because she had never seen a corpse that fresh before.
As we walked past the steel doors, I remembered the first time I saw a dead body. It was the spring of my junior year in high school, and I was being pursued by a freshman I’ll call Danielle. She had big doe eyes, a mocking smirk, and dipped every word in honey. I wasn’t special, though.
She had been seducing the other boys in my grade, one by one, and I was next in line. There were a few weeks that season when we would drive to the various reservoirs and river parks in Croton and Peekskill and walk by the water together, my new license still shiny in my wallet. But I was determined not to give in for reasons that I felt in my gut but couldn’t express. Danielle made it clear that she thought I was a fool for not going up to her room with her. Around the time I was trying to distance myself, Danielle’s father, a detention officer in Yonkers, shot her mother three times (she survived) and then turned the gun on his own stomach on a school day in April. Danielle invited me to her father’s wake in Yonkers, and I had to accept.
There were large wreaths and flower arrangements all around his coffin in the funeral parlor. From the movies, I knew this was a mob tradition, and it seemed unusually ostentatious for a jail guard. I sat in the back row of chairs and watched the proceedings. Enormous men with late-career Elvis haircuts hulked into the room to pay their respects, their biceps and pectorals pulling their dark purple suits tight on their bodies. I saw their tattooed hands as they crossed themselves. Danielle’s father’s face poked out from between their shoulders as they kneeled in front of his coffin. From my vantage in the back, it looked like a doll’s face, waxy and lifeless.
It was hard to reconcile his frozen repose with the violence of his attempted murder-suicide. I had heard that being shot in the stomach was a horribly painful way to die, and Danielle’s father presumably knew this from his experience with firearms. Maybe he wanted to suffer out of a sense of penance. But penance for what— shooting his wife, leaving his daughter, or something else from a hidden life? I didn’t go any closer and was glad when Danielle said she wanted to go outside. Once there, though, she flirted with me as she did before. I still remember how she touched her nose, winked, and scrunched her lips sideways at the mafia men coming out of the funeral parlor, which seemed to have so little to do with the fact that her father was dead inside. It didn’t occur to me until years later that Danielle’s flirtatiousness was probably her way of not thinking about it.
Seven years later, behind the steel doors, I expected the dead man to be naked and covered in a sheet, again like the movies, but he was lying as he’d been left there—feet on the ridge of the table, legs bent, still in his funeral clothing. He had on pinstriped suit pants and an undershirt without a jacket. He had no shoes; only thin black socks on feet that were frail and skinny like my grandfathers’. His hair was gray and some stubble lined his cheeks. The left side of his face was swollen and his left hand was shriveled, nearly black, claw-like. Other than those two marks of death, he looked like he could get up and walk away.
The professor laughed after what seemed like a pensive moment and asked, “A slight smell, no?” I felt embarrassed for the dead man, feeling that it was unfair to make fun of someone who couldn’t defend himself. I wondered aloud what his name was, as if knowing it would be the first line of defense, but Lorena told me that it was standard procedure to keep the names anonymous upon arrival at the Facultad de Anatomia. The dead are treated with respect, but they’re at the Facultad for study, not for empathy.
As we followed the professor to another large room with the cadavers and heard another lecture about respecting the dead, I saw some flower arrangements sitting on one of the tiled baths. Lorena said they were for the man we had just seen. I wondered how long the Facultad would keep them there, and why they had kept them at all. I wanted to lin- ger as we turned a corner, but the flow of the crowd carried us to a room with several shelves and discarded boxes of bones. The students followed the professor as he lectured about the various cross-sections of intestines, upper torsos, and other indiscernible viscera on the shelves.
As the professor demonstrated how to determine the gender of a skull, I saw a reproduction of Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” hanging on the back wall. I immediately thought of W.G. Sebald, who discussed it early on in his book The Rings of Saturn, which is among my favorite books. Rembrandt’s Dutch Golden Age painting shows the Guild of Surgeons of Amsterdam leaning in to look at the dissection of Aris Kindt, a man hanged only a few hours before for his crime of armed robbery. I had never seen the painting outside of Sebald’s book, so I stepped forward to study the reproduction, hoping the context would lend it a special clarity.
Dr. Nichols Tulp, the praelector of the Guild of Surgeons and future mayor of Amsterdam, pulls back the skin of Kindt’s left arm, revealing the sinews and bone inside. The rest of the Guild of Surgeons—two doctors and five members of the new Amsterdam bourgeoisie—surround the body and look at it. While the practice of public dissection was legitimate enough that the five non-doctors in the Guild of Surgeons paid to get into Rembrandt’s painting as a mark of middle-class respectability, it was still new. Dr. Tulp’s demonstration was morally ambiguous enough that it was only suitable to be performed on the dead body of a hanged male criminal once a year.
Sebald writes that though the body on the table is open to study, the memory of Kindt himself is excluded. The doctors do not look at his face. Only Rembrandt’s own gaze is free of the “Cartesian rigidity” that prevents the doctors from pitying Kindt. He shows how Kindt’s identity fades away as death’s shadow creeps over his body, leaving a pale object of study in its wake. And it is that object of study that makes the sitting doctor on the left more interested in the book in the foreground than in the dead man in front of him.
A clacking noise brought me out of my thoughts. Behind me, Lorena was idly banging two femurs together as she looked at something on the shelf. She motioned with one of the femurs for me to come along as the class left the room and went to a larger one full of steel tables, many of them with blue tarps covering bodies lying on them. We stood before one. A toe that looked like it had been burnt black stuck out from underneath the tarp. I touched it, which was the first time I had ever touched a dead person. The toe was harder than I expected it to be. It felt like plastic, with none of the suppleness of life.
The professor flipped the tarp off of the body. I expected a smell, but there was none except formaldehyde, which smelled like what I imagined gallons of tooth enamel would smell like. It rose from the body where the chest cavity was cut away, revealing innards the color of cooked beef. Lorena informed me that bodies turn brown as they decompose. The pro- fessor moved a flap of skin away and picked out various things of interest: intestines, kidneys, the heart. I touched the brown flap of skin, which was as tough as leather. The students crowded around, checking their gloves and then reaching their hands into the chest cavity. They laughed, held organs up to get a better look, and wondered things aloud as if speculating about the ripeness of an avocado or tomato. There were around 10 students touching various parts of the cadaver at a time, a frenzy of white-sleeved arms rooting around a pit.
The men in Rembrandt’s painting take care not to touch Aris Kindt’s body. Even Dr. Tulp separates himself from Kindt with a pincer-like tool in his right hand. The rest of the Guild of Surgeons only gaze, but while they may not be looking at Kindt’s face, most of their gazes are not rigid at all. The gray-haired man in the middle leans far forward to see what Dr. Tulp is doing, but his hands are out of view, possibly taking care not to touch the body. The redheaded man and the blond man in the middle look at Dr. Tulp with expressions of childlike fear. Even the doc- tor on the left looks worried, waiting for Dr. Tulp to explain everything. The doctor on his right may glance at the book in the foreground, looking bored and Cartesian, but the Guild member in the back holding the paper looks at the same book with dawning incredulity. These two men’s faces represent two ways of looking at death.
The professor saw me standing off to the side looking and grabbed my shoulders, giving me a little push, saying “Adelante” as he passed me a pair of gloves. I stepped forward and forced myself to grab the heart, thinking I’d probably never have the opportunity again. It was hard as stone, as were the liver and stomach. The intestines were a jumbled mess that felt like knotted, wet rags. Lorena pulled out a long, thin piece from the entrails and told me that it was the rectum. Then she pointed to the diaphragm, which looked like a burst rubber ball.
I realized that I had forgotten we were touching organs and muscles that once belonged to a person with a name, like the man in his funeral clothes in the other room. His name was equally inaccessible, but it might still have been on a card hidden in the flowers just outside the steel doors. Like Kindt, he was only recently dead, the shadow creeping up his body. But this cadaver did not seem like anything that ever had a name, just as the frogs and cats dissected in high school science classes don’t have names. This namelessness—a token person reduced to “typical human” for whom a sense of loss is no longer possible—is the most disturbing thing about a cadaver.
As the group went upstairs to look at more cadavers, Lorena and I agreed we’d seen enough for the day. She took out a bar of soap from her backpack—”Sometimes it helps to have OCD,” she said—and walked to a sink at the other end of the long room, past the tables with the blue tarps. She spent a full minute soaping her hands, and I worried that the little bar would disappear before I had a chance to wash mine.
Besides Dr. Tulp’s right hand that holds the pincer-like instrument, there are three important hands in Rembrandt’s painting. The first is Kindt’s left hand, which Sebald notes is “grotesquely out of proportion” with the rest of the picture, signifying the violence done to the executed man. The second hand is the hand of the man with the curiously blank expression at the top left. He points to the scene below him, reminding us that we have no special power over death. And then there is Dr. Tulp’s left hand, which demonstrates the movement of the flexor muscles in the human body. Rembrandt has arranged the men in an arrow pointing at Tulp’s hand, which is the focal point of the painting. As the men around him gaze in various states of confusion, Tulp’s left hand remains steady, hovering above Kindt’s dissected left hand, displaying his mastery of the scene and of the body. Tulp’s hand demonstrates the new breed of scientific detachment in his age, which Lorena inherited as she held the cadaver’s rectum up for me to see.
Tulp’s eyes are wide as a true believer’s, staring straight into the source that illuminates the cadaver on the table. I felt that same gaze in me. I fought it, trying to be disturbed, anything to conjure up a profound experience. I wanted to sympathize, to be the one who spoke for the dead—to give them life. A person’s body comes to the Facultad de Anatomia after the funeral rites performed by friends and family wring it out of its last meaning. Of course, it doesn’t make a difference to the dead. But it makes a difference to us, the living. Does the meaning of a body end once a ceremony has been held? I still wanted to feel a sense of loss, as if funerals weren’t enough. Who will mourn us after the funeral, at the Facultad de Anatomia, our skin cut away, our insides parsed?
I tried to determine the character of each of the dead people— real or remembered—that I encountered there, and failed each time.
It was impossible to do for the man in the suit, whose life and name I couldn’t infer from looking at him. It was impossible for the cadaver, which was more idea than human. I couldn’t do it with Danielle’s father, whose face was clammy, bland, and far away in my past. And I couldn’t do it with Aris Kindt, who remained inscrutably dead no matter how long I looked at him. I expected to be able to divine something essential about the lives these corpses lived if I looked long and hard enough, and then to empathize with it. Yet the faces of the adults were the most inaccessible, and it was the babies’ contorted faces that were the most human. They were preserved in agony as perfect as the day they were born, with no experience to line them. It was simple. For 90 years they had been screaming from inside their bottles that they were robbed of the chance to live.