/ Mark Dery / 5 am Tue, Nov 25 2014
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  • Death, Science, Sexology: Joanna Ebenstein of the Morbid Anatomy Museum

    Death, Science, Sexology: Joanna Ebenstein of the Morbid Anatomy Museum

    Mark Dery shines a light into the literary unconscious of Joanna Ebenstein, director of the Morbid Anatomy Museum.

    ebensteinextra_editJoanna Ebenstein has been known, on occasion, to wear a black dress with a white Peter Pan collar, which, given her fascinations—death masks, decapitation, books bound in human skin, conjoined twins, wax models of pathological anatomy, that sort of thing—invites the inevitable comparison to Wednesday Addams. This makes her cringe, I suspect: morbid interests notwithstanding, Joanna is determinedly not a goth. She is, as Flaubert advised, understated in dress and demeanor—“as ordinary as a bourgeois” at first glance; it’s what’s in her head that’s “violent and original.” She wears old-fashioned, wire-rimmed spectacles and parts her cornsilk-blond hair on the side; the combined effect is a scholarly studiousness, and the no-nonsense air of a librarian, which she is. A confessed “book hoarder” from the age of 13 on, Ebenstein conceived and created the Morbid Anatomy Library, a contemporary cabinet of curiosities that began in 2007 as an exuberant, inexhaustibly curious blog; evolved into a lecture space and a sort of Masonic Lodge for suitably morbid souls; and is now a full-fledged museum in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood.

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    A diminutive woman, Joanna would fit neatly, now that I think of it, into one of the larger specimen jars. At the very least, the contents of her mind should be preserved for the rest of us to rummage through with awestruck delight; the Museum is a step in that direction, exteriorizing the Baroque jumble of curiosa she’s been amassing in her head for years. Who else but Joanna Ebenstein would recall, of her early childhood, “If I saw a dead bird I was fascinated. I think at a certain age, especially if you’re a girl, you realize that’s not seen as cool anymore; you’re seen as creepy and disgusting, and unfortunately—or fortunately—I just never made that switch”? Who else would claim as her muse the 17th-century Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch, who used pickled body parts to create morally uplifting memento mori?

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    Who but Joanna would author a book on the Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter’s creepy-cute tableaux of stuffed animals in human attire, acting out dollhouse versions of human life, an exquisitely designed study that epitomizes her interest in things that confound neat philosophical binaries (in this case, the charming and the unsettling)?

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    Who else (besides Colin Dickey, co-editor, with Ebenstein, of the Morbid Anatomy Anthology) is drawn to stuffed humans, anthropomorphic mouse taxidermy, and the death-themed cabarets in 19th-century Paris? Who but Joanna would insist that the only thing more morbid than dwelling on death is not talking about it at all, as our thanatophobic culture attempts to do? “My whole life I’ve been called morbid because I think about death,” she says, “but I think it’s way more morbid not to think about it. It’s like childhood wish-fulfillment, like somehow if we don’t think about it, it just won’t happen.” Morbid-Jul-9-2014-3267

    1. The Horrors of Sprawl, and How to Survive Them:

    Concord, the miserable land of my childhood, is a land of concrete, mini-malls, and stoplights. None its architecture is older than the 1950s. My memories of growing up there in the late 1970s and early ‘80s revolves around clove cigarettes in parking lots, wine coolers in the park, kids stealing stuff out of other peoples’ cars or trying to beat me up. Books and the world of ideas were, to put it mildly, not well regarded and I—who started a club where the members wrote essays!—did not fit in at all.

    I was a voracious reader as a child; our house was filled with books--we were, after all, Jews--and I would read everything and anything I could get my hands on. The first special book in my life was E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. It was a very meaningful book in my household, ceremonially presented to me in a special hardback edition as a reward for passing my first elementary school reading test; my mother read it aloud to me when I was a young girl. I also have vivid memories of an oversized volume called something like 100 Great Masterpieces of Painting, which I would spend hours poring over on our living room floor. I don’t remember too much about it, except for a few of my favorites: a Eugène Delacroix horse rearing in a lightning storm, a Henri Rousseau landscape, and a painting by El Greco. I guess I always liked dramatic, baroque effects.

    Another important influence in my young life was British new wave music. The videos of Duran Duran’s “Planet Earth” and Adam Ant’s “Prince Charming,” with their casts of heavily made-up, androgynous New Romantics, led me to I-D Magazine, which I would source monthly from my local Tower Records. I-D provided me with evidence of a better, stranger place beyond the confines of my circumscribed world of McDonalds and 7-11s, bowling, V.C. Andrews novels, and trying to get adults to buy us alcohol. Berman2_3

    2. Learning to Love V.C. Andrews:

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    I really loved V.C. Andrews as an adolescent! There was a dog-eared version of Flowers in the Attic that was furtively passed around my Hebrew school. That book, and Forever, by Judy Blume, were very important books for young girls; in our Reagan-dominated “just say no” era, they provided our first detailed glimpses of sex. We all knew sex existed, and spent lots of time telling dirty jokes, but what sex really was was a complete mystery. I think that’s a large part of the furtive lure of books like that.

    3. Telltale Signs That Your Child May Be At Risk:

    As a kid, I was always also drawn to books where the a main character died, such as (spoiler alert!) A Taste of Blackberries by Doris Buchanan Smith and Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson.

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    120103-hitchcocks-birds-child-hmed-313p.grid-6x2As a pre-teen, I was ravenously into the books of Lois Duncan, which we’d now call “young adult supernatural.” I also loved Stephen King until I reached the end of It and was so disappointed I could never go near his stuff again. I should also mention that my mother was a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock; she woke me up to watch The Birds with her when I was probably around five or six because she was afraid to watch it alone, and the film Rosemary’s Baby was in high rotation in my house.

    rosemarys-baby-3Rosemary's Baby

    Also, my grandfather was a doctor, and I have a vivid memory of one of his oversized medical books, which had an insert of semitransparent pages where you could leaf through pages of a human figure in a sort of virtual dissection, beginning with a naked man and ending, after many pages of muscles and arteries, at a bare skeleton. I spent a lot of time with that. I remember being really fascinated by it, but don’t remember feeling it was forbidden; my grandparents were Viennese doctors, very matter-of-fact about the body.

    The publications that really sent me down a recognizably “Morbid Anatomy” path came late in life, around the time I was in college. I was lucky enough to happen upon Sleeping Beauties: Memorial Photography in America, by Stanley Burns--the first book on post-mortem photographs--at my local independent bookstore, and it blew my mind. Soon after, a friend gave me a The Mütter Museum calendar by Blast Books as a birthday gift, which opened up the world of medical museums for me. Later, I was somehow lucky enough to find Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads by Stephen Asma, which directly inspired my first trips to Europe to photograph anatomical museums.

    In high school I discovered the work of Oscar Wilde, via an excellent English teacher, and became completely obsessed. Via Wilde, I went down the Decadent rabbit hole, predictably: Fleurs de Mal by Baudelaire, Maldoror by Lautréamont, The Yellow Book , Against the Grain by Huysmans, and the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, whom I discovered via his illustrations for Wilde’s Salome. (I also got into the Parisian realists Zola and Balzac.) Soon after, I became obsessed with the Symbolists and then the pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts movement. I also got into the Surrealists, which led me to Dali’s autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí. In time I discovered Edward Gorey, whose world of Edwardian Anglo-fantasy influenced me greatly. Berman2_2

    Other influential books included the short stories of Poe, Hawthorne, Steven Millhauser and James M. Cain, as well as The Magus by John Fowles, The Monk by Matthew Lewis, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, Robert Graves’s I, Claudius series, Crime and Punishment and The Devils/The Possessed by Dostoyevsky, The Secret History by Donna Taart, and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Favorite poems included The Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti, The Lady of Shallot by Tennyson, The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot and La Belle Dame sans Merci by Keats. As for non-fiction, Grand Guignol by Mel Gordon; Sweetness and Power by Sidney Mintz; Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen; Tastes of Paradise by Wolfgang Schivelbusch; and Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols really blew my young mind.

    The publications that really sent me down a recognizably “Morbid Anatomy” path came late in life, around the time I was in college. I was lucky enough to happen upon Sleeping Beauties: Memorial Photography in America, by Stanley Burns--the first book on post-mortem photographs--at my local independent bookstore, and it blew my mind. Soon after, a friend gave me a The Mütter Museum calendar by Blast Books as a birthday gift, which opened up the world of medical museums for me. Later, I was somehow lucky enough to find Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads by Stephen Asma, which directly inspired my first trips to Europe to photograph anatomical museums. Berman2_1

    4. How to Anatomize a Philosophical Binary:

    The things that really fascinate me—really draw me in--are things that flicker on the edges of categorical divides such as life and death, education and spectacle, science and eroticism. Things from the past that now utterly bizarre to the contemporary eye and, as a result, encourage one to rethink the present, to contemplate how much we’ve changed since the time they were created. All the things in the Morbid Anatomy constellation have that quality, I think.

    5. Something for the Morbid Anatomist Who Has Everything:

    The Library’s most treasured book is its original copy of Frederik Ruysch’s early 18th century Thesaurus Anatomicus, though I revere it so much that I’m almost afraid to touch it. What book would I most want to own? Hmmm. Maybe an original Jacques Fabian Gautier d’Agoty? He was a pioneer of early color printing who created these amazing, unintentionally surreal anatomical mezzotints in the 18th century. He is probably best known today for his “flayed angel"--a portrait of a beautiful woman whose back, turned to the viewer, has been skinned to the waist, revealing layers of muscle and bone, gorgeously rendered in highly saturated colors.

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    6. Readings from the Library of “Invisible Literature” (J.G. Ballard):

    For me that would be “Gentleman’s Erotica,” which is my term for books that frame erotic interest as a noble, dispassionate pursuit of the scientifically-minded gentleman. You’ll find a variety of such works on the “sexology” shelf of the Morbid Anatomy Library; a few of my favorites are The Secret Museum of Mankind, A Private Anthropological Cabinet of the Hermaphrodite, and Private Anthropological Cabinet of 500 Authentic Racial-Esoteric Photographs and Illustrations. On the same shelf is another great addition to this list: Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, a compilation of entries from a popular 18th-century guide to the prostitutes of London; it’s a ridiculously great read. Also of note: Kraft-Ebing’s 19th century Psychopathia Sexualis and Freud’s Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria. They have a novelistic style that seems ill-suited to the material; Dora, in particular, seemed to be as much about Freud and his misguided theories of female sexuality as it was about that poor girl. Berman2_5

    7. Confessions of a Bibliophile:

    I’m not just a book collector and consumer, but also a designer. When I was a child I wanted, more than anything, to be an author/illustrator; both, not either/or. I have a special love for illustrated books, and this concern—the ways in which text and image can combine, within the framing device of design—informs everything I do, from the Morbid Anatomy blog to my exhibitions the Morbid Anatomy Museum. I’m especially drawn to idiosyncratic self-illustrated books that really challenge what a book can be; authors who create, as it were, their own completely realized worlds using the book as a medium.

    40435The prime example for me is of this, of course, Edward Gorey; I discovered him in High School and he completely changed my life. Gorey uses images, handwritten text, and scale to create his own unique, suggestive, absurdist, self-contained universe. Along those lines, I also love William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and am a huge fan of the books of Barbara Jones, especially Design for Death and The Unsophisticated Arts, which are both quirky paeans to humble, unappreciated arts, illustrated with her own heartfelt, scratchy pen-and-ink illustrations.

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    The Unsophisticated Arts

    I also love George du Maurier’s Trilby, which I just read this year; it’s an idiosyncratically bizarre thing, written as a first book when the author was 50 and illustrated by him; it also introduced the idea of Svengali to popular culture.

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    From Charles Addams's Dear Dead Days.

    I have a special love, too, for books that use found images in unusual ways, such as Charles Addams’s Dear Dead Days (A Family Album) and, of course, Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip. Also noteworthy is Adam’s Synchronological Chart or Map of History, an enormous tome I purchased at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, showing all of human history in graphic form, from what would now be called a Creationist perspective. It‘s an enormous, three-foot-tall, fold-out timeline that begins with Adam and Eve and continues--with increasing, dizzyingly ordered, graphic complexity--to trace all of human history seen as fit to print circa 1871. It’s a work of startling design genius, and an amazing object in its own right. <class="caption">6000005
    From Adam's Synchronological Chart of Map of History.

    8. A Dinner Party of the Mind:

    Of course I’d invite Edward Gorey: I have always wanted to meet him. In college, my friends and I made our own, hand-illustrated, customized version of the board game Clue, and planned a road trip to his home to invite him to play it with us. The trip never came to pass, sadly. Oscar Wilde: Who would not want to meet Oscar Wilde, possibly the greatest wit who ever lived? He would probably rip me to shreds, but it would be worth it. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald: They were the first historical figures to completely captivate my youthful imagination, after I’d read This Side of Paradise in high school. My interest in them led me to obsessively learn everything I could about them and the 1920s more generally, which was probably the first sign that I might go on to study intellectual history.

    Matthew Lewis, author of The Monk. I would be so curious to meet the man who created such a startlingly perverse, over-the-top book in the 18th century!

    Barbara Jones: I think she might be one of my favorite people if I met her.

    Haruki Murakami. Again, he just seems like an utterly lovely and inspiring person. I would love to have a proper conversation with him.

    9. Desert Island Books:

    1. The Great Gatsby. I reread that book every few years and get something new out of it each time.

    2. The Annotated Oscar Wilde. A favorite in my early teen years, full of all of Wilde’s published work, as well as tons of illustrations and marginalia.

    3. Amphigorey: a good collection of Gorey to while away the hours.

    4. The Windup Bird Chronicles. Haruki Murakami. Something tells me this is a book that would keep giving back.

    5. Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750: Lorraine J. Daston, Katharine Park. A book I’ve always wanted to read in its entirety but have never had the time to.

    6. The Morbid Anatomy Anthology, of course!

    7. Charlotte’s Web, for old time’s sake.

    8. Design for Death, Barbara Jones.

    9. The Zone Decadent Reader, edited and with great intros from Asti Hustvedt.

    10. The Bible: On a desert island, I’d have time to read it, which, to my great shame, I never have!

    10. Paradise Lost: I don’t know what it is about Gatsby. I didn’t like it in high school—preferred This Side of Paradise and some of his short stories--but as I get older, I just feel there is so much in there; so much of America, of yearning adolescence, of a desire for more than life can provide. I guess I identify with that.

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