The Beauty and the Terror

The human body is the only machine for which there are no spare parts.

Dr. Hermann Biggs (1859-1923)

Last week, Professor Harrington described “the beauty and the terror” of the study of human anatomy. The secret workings of the body’s interior are beautiful in their intricacy and precision; however, the study of life by means of death – not to mention the often crooked means by which a body was obtained for such study – could equally inspire terror. I can only imagine (at least until I finally get to dissect something, hopefully this autumn) the feeling of looking at the exposed viscera of a deceased organism, particularly a human. I imagine feeling vulnerable and exposed – a strange sensation of seeing and smelling and touching solid manifestations of the parts of me that usually exist only as abstract concepts. I know that I have a liver like I know that Bangkok is the capital of Thailand: it is a semantic fragment with which I have no direct experience. Our skin usually protects us from knowing ourselves too intimately for comfort, but in an instant of involuntary identification with an opened cadaver, the dermal barrier is breached, and we are turned inside out. If we gaze long into a body, the body will gaze back into us. To me, this would be a paradigmatic experience of sublimity, in the Burkean sense.

The Victorian era was marked by fervent exploration of machines both biological and technological; bones and beams, muscles and motors, pulses and pistons gradually yielded their secrets and laws to tenacious scientists. The intricacy of human physiology is reflected, on a grand scale, in the majesty of steam power. The experience of watching a reconstructed steam-powered sewage pump in action at the Crossness Pumping Station approximated my thought experiment of human dissection. Standing in the belly of the beast, surrounded by chunks of iron whirring and clanging, inhaling the occasional puff of steam, gave me that paradoxical sensation that I had imagined. I felt power – to behold what men had made, the behemoth that we constructed and bent to our will. And I felt weakness – to be inches from a vast momentum beyond my control, a monster that could break free of its chains at any moment if our estimation erred by a centimeter or a gram or a degree. I gazed into the machine, and the machine gazed back into me. It was both beautiful and terrible; it was sublime.

My digital camera can’t begin to capture the effect I’ve described, but if you use your imagination and lean into it a bit, you might be able to get my drift.

Inside the Prince Consort steam pump, underground

The Prince Consort steam pump, top level

[Originally posted 7/13/10]

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