Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Mantling of the Blood

Recently, while on a farm in New Jersey, I opened a door to what I thought was the bathroom of the office-building. Expecting a toilet, my eyes were instead assaulted by a pair of dead deer hanging from hooks above two small pools of blood. My brain seemed to recognize a corpse first, and a deer second. In the first flash of unconscious thought after I opened the door, I felt what we are supposed to think that doomed character in a horror flick feels when he first stumbles upon the serial killer’s bloody work. The conscious part of my brain almost immediately arranged the scene into something coherent—hunter’s game hung in preparation to be processed—but a vague feeling of alarm lingered. I was on the farm for a photo shoot, and the people on the shoot were using the office building for their equipment. The farm’s owners hadn’t thought to tell us what the back of the building was used for.

It’s hard to say how natural my reaction was—whether there’s something in our brain that’s triggered when we see a slain body, or whether the surprised horror I felt was conditioned by things like the formulas of hack-‘em-up movies. But even those formulas might suggest we have an innate reaction to the sight of a murder victim, if the shock of the scene truly depends on it. Last weekend I saw The Assassination of Jesse James, which is not a horror movie, but a visually poetic elegy for a hunted man, containing a fair amount of realistic violence. In it, the narrator informs us that James’ preserved body drew thousands of paying visitors, and photographs of it sold millions of copies. Whether or not this account is true, it suggests that precisely this thrill--of glimpsing in a corpse the possibility of one’s own end--drew the crowds, as much as James’ fame while alive.
I can imagine that other times and cultures might have been more comfortable around a corpse. In Inca cosmology, for instance, there is no "moment of death"--death is a gradual transformation from a fresh, pliable state, to a dried-up, immutable one. The Incas' view of a corpse must have been radically different than our modern, Western view. In his diaries of the 1660s, Samuel Pepys reports deaths and burials with dizzying frequency, suggesting those occurrences were more habitual in his time. The death of an uncle (whose body is kept at first in the house and then in the yard before the funeral); a woman who sails across the channel with her husband’s cadaver; the abrupt passing of the Duke of York’s son: none warrant more than a brisk report in Pepys’ account. Only the body of a man murdered by his brother in a scuffle near his house rouses an emotional statement in the diary. Pepys writes: “after dinner [I] went in the church, and there saw his corpse with the wound in his left breast.” He calls it “a sad spectacle, and a broad wound, which makes my hand now shake to write of it.” The slain body elicits a response that those of the naturally dead do not—yet I can’t tell if it’s the wound's appearance, or the circumstances of the death that unsteadies Pepys’ typically even, journalistic hand.

Later on the day of the shoot, I passed the same door again, to find one of the farm's owners pushing the hanging carcasses on their hooks into a storage freezer. Hunters drop off their kills, the farm processes them, and the hunters come to pick up the product, she explained. She showed me inside the freezer, where bagged trophy heads sat on a shelf, each bag with the name of the hunter it awaited. She asked if I hunted. To her busy eye, the dead deer were just another farm chore. But as the shoot dragged on in the first autumn dusk of the year, and an ancient basset hound drooped back and forth across the yard, the farm felt disconcertingly emptied (the abandoned buildings near the road, at that moment used for the shoot, had been occupied by cattle until recently), and something of my earlier disturbance lingered.
A painting I saw a few weeks ago at the Met by Jan Weenix, called The Falconer's Bag, takes the trophy as its subject. It depicts a hunter's prize, but is itself a sort of trophy piece--a masterly composition, whose effect is heightened by the fact that its true-to-death rendering of slain birds in front of a classical backdrop could not have been executed from an actual scene. The hunt and its trappings were popular subjects in 17th century Dutch art, commissioned both by the aristocracy, who could participate in the pastime, and the aspiring bourgeoisie, who couldn't. In these "game-pieces," the representation of the slain body becomes an assertion of a successful life. But Weenix's painting retains a sense of twilight, decadence, and loss--as if the birds would not be eaten, but left to rot among the statuary of a baroque garden.
While I waited for the shoot to finish, I read a book of poems by W.B. Yeats I had with me. As if on purpose, I came across the tiny, two-sentence "Death of the Hare." In it, the narrator links a lover's glance with the moment of the kill; later, beside the slain hare, he recognizes in both (as he experiences again) the blow felt at the sight of "wildness lost."

1 comment:

William said...

There's a photograph on my grandparent's piano of all our cousins gathered around a deer my father had shot, some years ago. What you can't see is that the other side of the deer, facing away from the camera, was totally gutted, this gaping mass of dripping sinew and buzzing flies we were all sort of half-smiling at, half-inching away from. It has just come to my attention that you keep a blog. I like it, especially the Sebald-like touches. Keep it up.