Adam’s Rib, van Gogh’s Ear, Einstein’s Brain

Florence Williams in The New York Times:

BodyFor a species so pleased with its own brain, we are surprisingly ambivalent about the rest of our body. We tend to admire other people’s bodies, especially if they’re Olympians or shirtless Russian presidents, but most of us are constantly seeking to improve our own by starving or stuffing, injecting, waxing, straightening, piercing, lifting and squeezing. In 2010 in the United States alone, we spent $10 billion on cosmetic surgery, and that’s not including Brazilian Blowouts.

We are also deeply uncomfortable with the bodily aspects of being human. Our brains light up in weird and remarkable ways at the sight of blood or fecal matter as if these weren’t, in fact, perfectly mundane. As Hugh Aldersey-Williams points out in “Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body,” even television cartoons portray the skin as a rubbery and impregnable barrier. Weapons and falling objects dent it or merely bounce off it. You never see Elmer Fudd hemorrhaging through the jugular. Prudery doesn’t really explain our discomfort, but Aldersey-Williams hints at what might, namely fear. We fear the fragility, illness and suffering that are native to our corporeality. In “Anatomies,” he seeks to study the body full-on, frontally. He tells us straightaway that he knew nothing about anatomy when he started. A science writer and art critic, he’s interested in the intersection of science and culture. He thinks we should know our bodies, but he’s less interested in telling us how they work than in exploring how they’ve been perceived through art.

More here.