Sep 22 2011: The Anatomy of the Head, or Opening the Mind (from Virtue’s Household Physician, c.1924)
Earlier posts here have featured anatomical plates and models from various volumes of this 1920s American home medical reference series, but there’s such a rich resource of visual material here that another barely scratches the surface: this time, it’s a phrenological map (a lovely thing in itself, and already used by Robert Holcombe in conjunction with some 1970s curtain fabric to construct a piece that was shown in Sideshow’s Wunderkammer last year) that leads us into something less inaccurate or fanciful: a paper anatomical model of the human head, taken down, layer by layer, from skin to skull.
It evokes the idea of opening the mind, as though each paper fold-out is another doorway into some deeper level of consciousness, but while the stopping point of 1924 is the brain and skull, today I imagine there’d be another sequence beneath these, delving ever-further into the nerve-structures, chemistry and neurons – as revealed by CAT scanning and other recent technologies – to border on finally unveiling the nature of the ghost in the human machine, the physiological seat of consciousness itself, as it appears to exist not in one place, but as the sum of many overlapping and interdependent networks within the brain.
Even so, that this hypothetical twenty-first century model would still be obliged to close on the same full-stop of the exposed skull as its 1920s equivalent has a certain poetic justice to it. However we marvel at our own construction, complexity and inner cosmology, there’s only one place we’re heading. Is that depressing? It shouldn’t be. As ancient cultures understood perfectly, and as we know ourselves (when we allow ourselves to think about it at all), nothing heightens or sharpens our appreciation of beauty quite like the knowledge that it is fleeting, or that it is always at its most transient at the moment of its fullest blossoming.