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Paul Youngquist, Monstrosities: Bodies and British Romanticism

Sunday, January 18, 2009 - 22:51
Paul Youngquist, Monstrosities: Bodies and British Romanticism. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. xxxi + 224pp. ISBN: 0-8166-3979-5; ISBN-13: 978-0-8166-3979-3 (Hdbk.), $60.00. ISBN-10: 0-8166-3980-9; ISBN-13: 978-0-8166-3980-9 (Pbk.), $20.00.

Reviewed by
Debbie Lee
Washington State University

It seems appropriate that Gunter von Hagens held his London exhibition Bodyworlds in the same neighborhood where Jack the Ripper took his victims. When I attended the 2002 exhibition at the Atlantis Gallery on Brick Lane, I was both fascinated and freaked out. It progressed from body parts to full corpses, in postures that mocked their lifelessness. One was a horseman, one held what looked to be a cape but turned out to be his entire skin, while others mimicked athletes: a runner, a basketball player, a swimmer, and a pole-vaulter lodged half-way between floors. Then there was a room dedicated to the development of the baby in embryo.

Not surprisingly, the media has taken to calling von Hagens a Doctor Frankenstein, saying his techniques recall a "pre-Victorian past,"[1] but that "in the end it is a freak show."[2] However, marriages of science, art, and monstrosity are not all that rare. Much has been made, for instance, of Diana Arbus's photographs of the deformed body. Arbus has photographed Russian midgets, Siamese twins, transvestites, and a Jewish giant, among many others who stood out because their bodies were not seen as conforming to a proper norm. Talking about monstrosity, Arbus famously said, "there's a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle."[3]

It struck me when I was reading Paul Youngquist's exciting book, Monstrosities: Bodies and British Romanticism, that von Hagens's science is the absurd end-point of the late eighteenth-century surgeon John Hunter, while Arbus's photographs find an echo in early nineteenth-century tabloid descriptions of figures like the Irish Giant. In Monstrosities, Youngquist takes readers on a tour of various forms of nineteenth-century fleshly disfigurement—from obesity to amputation—and introduces them to the ghoulish doctors, writers, and artists who pickled, dissected, and fetishized the monstrous, Hunter foremost among them.

Clearly, Youngquist has spent much time in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln's Inns Fields, which he describes in the book's opening chapter, highlighting some of the displays—from whale skeletons to human body parts—among the 13,000 specimens. Youngquist also uses some of the period's quirky print sources, such as Kirby's Wonderful and Scientific Museum; or Magazine of Remarkable and Eccentric Characters, which ran from 1802 to 1920. Kirby was a London printer who specialized in profiles of the strange and deformed. He ran stories about an enormous hog, a trout of remarkable size, a gigantic rat, and human giants such as James Toller and Patrick O'Brien. There were accounts of monsters, mermaids, some people born without limbs, and others born with horns.

In fact, within the book's overall argument, Youngquist digs up a lot of historical detail, some of it quite fascinating, such as the stories of Daniel Lambert, who was extraordinarily obese, and Sarah Biffin, who had no hands or arms, as well as the strange narratives behind Mary Wollstonecraft's placenta and Lord Byron's club foot. Youngquist bolsters this historical detail with reference to a range of theoretical works, from contemporary Romantic sources such as Emmanuel Kant, to later thinkers such as Frederick Nietzsche, and contemporary theorists such as Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, Gilles Deleuze, Julia Kristeva, and Michel Foucault, all of whom help him push the idea of monstrosity in fascinating directions.

For Youngquist, monstrosity is metaphorical as well as literal, and it has applications to Romantic writers: Wordsworth's poetry and Coleridge's addictions, to take two examples. Through his many illustrations, Youngquist implicitly shows how monstrosity was an integral part of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century visual culture as well.

The driving thesis of Monstrosities is what Youngquist calls "the proper body." The proper body exists only in a culture organized on the principle of possessive individualism, meaning that the individual is the owner (proper, as in property) of his or her own self. In this model, people are what they own, and they own themselves. Youngquist finds his evidence for the proper body in Locke who "isolates the individual as property owner from social relations that would otherwise determine his status by making his body the sole means of establishing identity" (20). In addition, Youngquist also uses Burke and Paine as proponents of the individualism that created the proper body. Hunter's comparative anatomy contributes also: it is not just the beginning of medical knowledge as a specialized discourse, argues Youngquist, it is also the basis for what he terms "a physically and morally regulative discourse" (13).

The book's first section, entitled "Incorporations," shows what the proper body was thought to be during the Romantic period, and then what kinds of bodies deviated from that norm. Chapter one is about John Hunter. Youngquist convincingly shows how Hunter's practice conceived of the human body in ways that were conducive to the political idea of the liberal, possessive, and individual, as well as how this political concept influenced Hunter's ideas about the body.

In chapter two, Youngquist looks at examples of the "monstrous," and how these examples either confirm or subvert liberal culture's goals, while in chapter three he discusses skin color as one kind of monstrosity. He shows how anatomists influenced artists to draw charts that established a hierarchy of beauty in which certain races deviated from the white Western European norm.

It is in chapter three that Youngquist deals with William Blake. On the basis of Blake's engravings for John Gabriel Stedman's Narrative of a Five Years' Expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, Youngquist argues that Blake disrupts the hierarchy of beauty by picturing slaves in postures of Greek gods, which were to anatomist-artists the ideal of physical beauty. It is in A Negro hung alive by the Ribs to a Gallows where Blake explicitly shatters the norm of the proper body. As Youngquist puts it, "Blake forces one to face the force of custom, the brutality that beauty both enforces and conceals. His graphic genealogy of beauty shows how, as an aesthetic value, it is implicated in enslavement, the subjection of different bodies to the horrors of possession" (79).

In the book's second section, "Habituations," Youngquist maintains that drug abuse turned the proper body into an abject body, and that during the Romantic period an abject body was a monstrous body. Therefore, he devotes chapter four to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's opium habit and the ways in which it causes problems for Coleridge's "proper body" but also how drug use enhanced his poetry. This chapter is juxtaposed to chapter five, in which Youngquist considers DeQuincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater and Emmanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.

Monstrosities's final section, titled "Appropriations," allows Youngquist to show how normative culture can incorporate certain monstrous or abject body parts as signs of power. In chapter six, he thus examines the medical debates that raged over the function and symbolism of the placenta, while chapter seven takes on the question of amputated and maimed limbs, most explicitly, Lord Byron's club foot.

Stylistically, Youngquist is vivacious and, at times, cleverly terse. For example, he begins chapter six "Mother Flesh" with, "Some say it was for money, others for love, but in 1775 Martin Van Butchell pickled his wife" (129). Youngquist is also adept at puns, reversals, and punchy topic sentences, which often create striking, and even jarring, juxtapositions. His discussion of human giants, begins: "If ever there was a mountain of a man, Daniel Lambert was it" (38). When he considers Thomas DeQuincey and Emmanuel Kant, he writes: "If you are what you eat, what is the diet of a transcendentalist?" (109). But, more importantly, throughout this fascinating book, readers are reminded that "monstrosities mean nothing in themselves. Their value for medicine derives solely from their relationship to the functional norms of more perfect organisms" (12).

The only place I had trouble going with Youngquist was his metaphorical leap from real deformed bodies to Wordsworth's poetic forms. Recovering the "physiological agenda" of Wordsworth's preface (33), Youngquist writes that Wordsworth's poetry represents itself as healthful. He writes: "If Wordsworth is a healer not just of the human mind but also of the proper body, then his poetry must have healthful—which is to say normalizing—effects" (32). In this normalizing poetry, "mountains are what really matter" (37), since "the mountain's outline and its steady form, / Gives a pure grandeur, and its presence shapes / The measure and the prospect of the soul / To majesty" (The Prelude, 7.722-24). Thus, Youngquist concludes: "proper bodies are natural forms, which makes mountains the measure of humanity" (37).

This may be true, but I have questions about the aspects of Wordsworth's Romanticism that may complicate this binary. For example, if Wordsworth's poetry is rooted in the natural, healthful beauty of Lake District mountains, what role does William Gilpin's concept of this area play? Gilpin's descriptions influenced Wordsworth, but for Gilpin, in his 1792 Observations, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, the Lake District's central feature was its deviation from the norm. A lake—Derwent Water or Buttermere—was "truly beautiful" because of its deformities, worthy of attention when "its lines, and shape are both irregular."[4] Islands, too, were beautiful when the lines and shape were non-normative, when they took "some irregular situation in the lake."[5] As with lakes and islands, the same was true of mountains: "the sources of deformity in the mountain-line will easily suggest those of beauty."[6] Writers like Wordsworth lived in this landscape of deformed beauty, and deformity made it beautiful.

The issue of monstrosity and beauty is an interesting one, as is its logical extension, the relationship between monstrosity and empathy. Empathy is a crucial critical issue to the study of the monstrous because it is one phenomenon that allows people to think, and act, beyond the bounds of possessive individualism. As Youngquist demonstrates, and as Mary Shelley's monster experiences in Frankenstein, the Romantic period was not a time when people were empathetic to the freakish and abnormal. But what role does empathy play in the legacies of Romantic monstrosity in contemporary science and art? Not surprisingly, some contemporary critics have a problem with the science of Gunter von Hagens and the art of Diana Arbus, both of whom have been accused of exploitation. Germaine Greer was herself once an Arbus subject and has written harshly about the kind of work that is coldly fascinated with freaks: "Arbus is not an artist who makes us see the world anew; she embeds us in our own limitations, our lack of empathy, our kneejerk reactions, our incuriosity and lack of concern. Hers is a world without horizons where there is no escape from self."[7]

But there are others who would not be subject to such criticism. The most inspiring contemporary artist working on monstrosity, beauty, and empathy, to my mind, is Dana Schutz, whose paintings feature gigantic dismembered and disfigured bodies on large canvases in strikingly bold colors. The images are shocking and beautiful. They ask viewers to question the construction of monstrosity while they invite them to identify with its courageous aspects. Schutz has said that she wishes to "to paint contemporary monsters" in order to reveal how what is thought to be monstrous is a cultural creation.[8] But she also understands less obvious features of the non-normative body. Of her painting Self-Portrait as a Pachyderm, she says: "If you have skin like an elephant, then nothing can really get to you."


[1] CBS News.

[2] Paul Harris and Kate Connolly in Berlin. Sunday, March 17, 2002. The Observer.,,668874,00.html.

[3] Quoted in Peter Schjeldahl, "Looking Back," New Yorker Magazine. March 21, 2005: 78-80. 80.

[4] William Gilpin. Observations, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, Made in the Year 1772, On Several Parts of England; Particularly the Mountains, and Lakes of Cumberland, and Westmoreland. 3rd ed. London: R. Blamire, 1792. 104.

[5] Gilpin, 103.

[6] Gilpin, 90.

[7] The Guardian, October 8, 2005.,11710,1586249,00.html?gusrc=rss.

[8] Dodie Kazanjian, "Great Dana," Vogue Magazine, February 2006: 212-217. 214.