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Maranasati and the Female Form

Carla Valentine, Technical Curator of the Barts Pathology Museum and frequent observer of the relationship between the erotic and the morbid, has an interesting post this week about the Japanese art of kusôzu and its use of the female body:

The Death of a Noble Lady… is similar to a series called Body of a Courtesan in Nine Stages of Decomposition, c. 1870. by Kobayashi Eitaku – both examples of the Japanese art of kusôzu (images specifically portraying the nine stages of decay. There is also corresponding poetry: kusôkanshi)…. You can see pictures of all stages of decomposition as well as the curator’s note on their website and, if you’re interested, all nine stages are (loosely): recent death, bloating, rupture, putrefaction, consumption by animals, discolouration, dissolution of the flesh, fragmentation of the bones, and complete disintegration.

L0070292 Kusozu: the death of a noble lady and the decay of her body.

The Death of a Noble Lady and the Decay of her Body. Komachi Ono.

Kusôzu are related to the Buddhist practice of Maranasati, the contemplation of death. Traditionally this practice can get a bit gnarly–you’re supposed to look at images of decay in order to get comfortable with the idea, or at least to accept the idea (I’m not sure “comfort” is the goal of any Buddhist practice). The use of the female form might be a way to make the contemplation a little more palatable to those Male Gazers, either through sexualizing the corpse or by rendering it “other.”

As Valentine points out, this isn’t such a long walk from Western images of Death and the Maiden, or the pre-Raphaelite rash of dead Ophelias. Though, for my money, it’s hard to imagine Millais painting a realistic drowning victim, and harder still to imagine the image on every liberal arts dorm room in America. We like to sanitize and beautify. Somewhere in our history, we’ve hidden the actual body and replaced it with a plaster mask, a fairy image.

Sometimes I think that’s why the more exploitative true crime narratives are so popular; they’re a way for us to engage with the more gruesome aspects of death while still asserting our moral superiority. We can regard the violent death and dismemberment–usually of women–from a stance of the upright judging the dirty and the depraved. But rather than the mindful contemplation of mortality encouraged by the practice of Maranasati, this much guiltier pleasure cultivates a sense of horror associated with the corpse. We’re all curious about death, about bodies and decomposition, but when we’ve sanitized our images of death so much, the satisfaction of that curiosity is primarily fulfilled by victims of terrible violence. There’s no room for peace or acceptance; instead, the body becomes a source of fear and revulsion.

(Full disclaimer: I have read a lot of true crime. The pot is not calling anyone else black, here.)

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The Lake Which Burneth with Fire and Brimstone; or, How I Learned to Love Mr. Rochester

I finally had a chance to watch Cary Fukunaga’s gorgeous and perfectly moody Jane Eyre, which of course lead me to an urgent re-read of same. It’s funny: in all the readerly angst over whether Edward Rochester is Hot or Not (or, more often, Oppressive Patriarchal Douche-Canoe or Not), it’s easy to forget the fact that St. John Rivers is totally and completely gross. Dude basically tells Jane she is literally going to hell if she doesn’t marry him:

For the evening reading before prayers, he selected the twenty-first chapter of Revelation…

“He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son. But,” was slowly, distinctly read, “the fearful, the unbelieving, etc., shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstyone, which is the second death.”

Henceforward, I knew what fate St. John feared for me.

Brontë spends a lot of time reassuring us that St. John is super noble and sacrificing and upright, but honestly, there is no better way to get me to forget that Rochester is basically a stand-in for a fairy-tale serial killer emblematic of patriarchal control than to have another guy coolly inform our heroine she’s got to marry him under some kind of divine ordinance. Maybe it’s just that his argument reminds me a bit of those Men’s Rights Activists who claim all the promiscuous harpies that reject them now will be sorry when they’re old and lonely (or, in St. John’s case, dead and being taunted by little men with pitchforks). So I guess the moral of this story is I would prefer the man who keeps a woman literally chained in a windowless room to the smug manipulations of a guy who thinks he’s entitled to my love.

Huh. They’re right. We promiscuous harpies do like bad boys, after all.

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Write your name on it

Joanna Ebenstein of Morbid Anatomy has a concise but interesting post on Ash Wednesday and its connection to traditional memento mori. But if you’re not one of the flock, never fear: you don’t have to go to church to remember that we are in fact dust-based organisms. You can just enjoy the below picture depicting a stack of skulls, with the written instructions: “All skulls are signed but one; write your name on it, it is yours.”

From the Augustine Museum Rattenberg – Memento-mori-painting ( 1694 ) from Kitzbühl.

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