Thursday, September 4, 2008

colour and pain II

As I flicked through some travel photos from a few years ago, I note that I inadvertently photographed Bartholomew, a Christian saint who was flayed alive, as illustrated in vibrant colour by Michelangelo on the wall of the Sistine Chapel. Bartholomew is pictured holding his own skin as he ascends to heaven. He doesn't look as horrific as one might expect for a person just flayed. In fact he has regrown his original skin and carries his old one like a winter coat. One weird thing about the image is that Michelangelo apparently painted his self-portrait into the flayed skin as some kind of protest about the way he and his art were being treated by the priesthood... no nude saints on the walls of the Sistine Chapel thanks! What did the priests think of all of the ancient Roman statues I wonder?

This ghastly event (flaying I mean, not nudity or painting) links neatly with a talk by Steven Pinker on violence and another by Daniel Goleman on compassion. Firstly, Pinker gives a reasonable argument that even taking into account the current conflicts and violence, overall the world is now a much less violent place than it has been in the past. For instance, flaying might still occur in some countries, but this is no longer the norm. Seldom are people executed or de-limbed for small misdemeanors as they might have been in the past. In some countries you can still suffer torture and internment for speaking out against the government. But we in the developed world are made aware of this often by the media. It sticks in our minds. We notice and sometimes complain.

Goleman explains his belief that empathy and compassion are intrinsic parts of being human. We are hard-wired this way. Sometimes though we are so concerned with our own circumstances, even if it is just that we are running late for an appointment, that we forget to switch on empathy for those who might be right in front of us. He feels that if we allow ourselves to be this self-centered we are not being as human as we might.

So, it sounds like I am preaching a sermon here. But all of this investigation led me via a strange route to discover a website with photographs of an execution by quartering. The site shows a long series of black and white photographs that were shot in Beijing, 1905 and distributed as picture postcards! Can you believe it? The first time I discovered the site I could not bring myself to look in detail at the images or captions. I have just done so. The fact that the images are black and white makes the whole scene more macabre and less like the anatomy texts I have been perusing lately. It takes on an unreal quality about it until one flicks the "empathy" switch. With this engaged I feel sick to the stomach. I won't link to the site from here. I can only guess that the hoards of onlookers at the execution must have had their empathy firmly planted at the back of their brains. These images are no "Bartholomew on his way to heaven". Their stark reality would really have been something for the priesthood to get upset about. Perhaps a few less religious wars, inquisitions and torture sessions might have benefited the world.

The surgeon cuts and repairs. The torturer cuts and destroys.

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