Cranioklepty Hardcover – Sep 29 2009
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“Cranioklepty by Colin Dickey is a gruesome yet sexy work of historical non-fiction. What makes it sexy? The book follows the mysterious after-death journeys of the skulls of some very famous celebrities, in particular, the skulls of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethovan. Odd details on the post-death mystery surrounding the skull of Spanish artist, Goya, add dark appeal to this tale.”
About the Author
Colin Dickey is the co-editor of Failure! Experiments in Aesthetic and Social Practices (2008). His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Cabinet, TriQuarterly and The Santa Monica Review. A native of the San Francisco area, he now lives in Los Angeles.
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Top Customer Reviews
Cranioklepty concentrates on man's fascination with human skulls and what they can tell us about the criminal, insane and especially the genius. The book covers the time period from 1790 through the early 1900s though the lasting effects take us right through the 20th century up to a 2009 law suit. Cranioklepty concentrates on the post death lives of famous people, especially Joseph Haydn, Thomas Browne, Mozart, and Beethoven. Each of these individuals had their head stolen from the grave, used for scientific purposes, traveled the world, or went missing for a time as they were hidden away by collectors.
The book tells a fascinating chronology from the scientific point of view as Phrenology first appeared on the scene as the New Science. This "science" was able to prove the intellect of individuals but it always had its detractors. As science disproved Phrenology and it became a parlour game, science moved onto craniology which at that time was concerned with the size of the skull and the brain cavity to prove a person's intellect.
A fascinating study of the people involved scientifically and those who collected skulls, as well as the stories of the stolen skulls as their journey lasted sometimes over a hundred years, amusing anecdotes (one including an ancestor of the Presidents Bush) and descriptions of preparing a head for examination of its skull (that are not for the weak of stomach) make for a bizarre yet dramatic read.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
In this era of cremations, cryonic storage, and ashes shot into space, grave robbing seems to hail from another age, but news stories periodically unearth incidents of it even today.
It's a shock to open Dickey's book and learn that the skulls of some very prominent people -- composers Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Joseph Haydn; painter Francisco Goya; Renaissance scholar and theologian Sir Thomas Browne; and scientist and philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg -- were dug up, stolen, mutilated, handed from one person to another, and perhaps in some cases mislaid or lost forever. How could this have happened?
The eccentric history of cranioklepty (Dickey coined the term -- from the Greek roots kranion for "head," kleptein for "to steal" -- though deciding on an elegant pronunciation for the neologism is a challenge) as it relates to genius occupies a fairly brief window of time: that period when the shape and size of the cranium was thought to relate directly to intellect and artistic genius.
The 19th century science known as phrenology -- which posited that the human skull conforms to the shape of the brain within, which in turn expresses in physical form one's innate moral and intellectual faculties (crudely, that by feeling the shape of a person's head you could tell whether he or she had great intellectual or creative powers, or was more likely a criminal) -- had a brief but rich heyday. It influenced the thought and writings of the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and especially Walt Whitman, as well as scientists and physicians of the time.
Joseph Carl Rosenbaum, a friend and admirer of Haydn's, intended to possess the composer's head long before he died in 1809. He paid a gravedigger to decapitate the body and bring the head, and arranged for others to clean it of its . . . er . . . coverings.
In the ensuing 70 years, Haydn's skull passed through at least three different hands, before ending up with the Society of the Friends of Music in Vienna. Haydn's tomb is in Eisenstadt, the family seat of the Esterházy family, however; and it was not until 1954 that the skull would be reunited with the rest of the remains -- 145 years after their separation.
The cranium of Haydn's student Beethoven suffered greater indignities. Physicians who performed the autopsy in 1827 botched it and broke the skull. Over time fragments were stolen. By 1863 his grave was in disrepair, so the Society of the Friends disinterred the remains, and a Beethoven admirer named Breuning made off with what was left of the skull, to keep it by his bedside. Fragments were spirited away by another admirer, Romeo Seligmann, then passed to his son Albert. Albert Seligmann died shortly after the end of World War II, and the box of Beethoven skull fragments was found among his effects, which went to his nephew Tom, who sat on them until he succumbed to dementia in the 1980s. They finally ended up at the Ira F. Brilliant Center for Beethoven Studies at San Jose State.
Dickey mostly tells the stories of these various skulls, their sometime owners and dissectors, and the associated sciences and pseudo-sciences over time, fairly straight. He adopts a largely chronological account, which makes sense in one way, but has him revisiting the skulls and the various men who possessed and/or studied them, repeatedly, throughout the book. This can be confusing, trying to remember who's who, and where Haydn's skull or Beethoven's ear-bone fragments were situated, the last time we checked.
There's no need to belabor the deeper implications; a thoughtful reader will come to them herself. What difference does it make, really, if strangers handle one's skull after one is gone? The legacy of an author or composer is in his or her surviving works, yes? To be read and played by, and beloved of, the living. For those of us not destined for fame, our true legacy is the memories we leave in people's minds, the material works we build, the children we birth and foster.
And yet who is sufficiently materialist, so purely an atheist, not to pause at the thought of one's bones being stared at, handled, and poked, after one is gone?
The Enlightenment was a time of increased reliance on science, and one of its offshoots was phrenology, which wanted to be a science, and tried, but was revealed to be a pseudoscience only after long decades during which plenty of scientists believed in it. Franz Joseph Gall invented it in 1796, imagining that certain areas of brains handled certain skills, that swellings of a brain in a particular area meant a high degree of skill, and the skull would reflect such swellings. Gall and his followers liked collecting skulls to make their determinations, but they had a lot of skulls of criminals; they wanted skulls of geniuses. And they got them. Joseph Rosenbaum, for instance, was an accountant, music lover, and amateur phrenologist. He was a friend of Haydn, and had a unique way to show his respect for Haydn's genius. He stole his head. Shortly after Haydn's death in 1809, Rosenbaum bribed a gravedigger and got his trophy, which was stripped of flesh by accomplices at a local hospital, and then bleached in limewater. This caused some embarrassment in 1820 when Prince Esterhazy arranged to have Haydn's body moved to a more splendid grave: there was no head to the body, only a wig. The skull was meaningless scientifically but as a relic, it passed to the Society of Music in Vienna. The possession of the skull and what should be done with it and by whom were argued about for over a century before it was reburied in 1954. When Mozart died, a church sexton, realizing that the fate of the poor man was that he would be buried in an unmarked pauper's grave, put a wire around the composer's neck. A few years later he went back and dug around, finding his tagged prize. The rest of Mozart stayed in its unmarked grave, and so the skull, unlike that of Haydn, has nowhere to return. It is in the Mozarteum Foundation in Salzburg, but isn't on display any more because docents complained it was too creepy.
The skulls of Beethoven, of the English doctor and philosopher Thomas Browne, and of the artist Goya are profiled here, with the greatest number of pages given to the skull of Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, the authenticity of whose skull was complicated because when it was stolen, another skull was left in its place, and then that one was stolen in its turn. Dickey's stories of the robberies and the often hazy provenances of each skull are macabre and entertaining, but his book also works as a serious reflection on how phrenology grew and was debunked. The process of its demise was not as swift and complete as it should have been; those who eventually agreed that the lumps and bumps of a skull meant little still insisted that the larger the skull, the bigger the brainpower. They struggled mightily to show not only that geniuses had bigger individual brains, but also to back up the racist assumption that Europeans had brains bigger than people from other areas. Neither of these assertions are true, and brain size and shape are simply meaningless as measures of skill or personality; you could do just as well looking at a newspaper's astrology column, and you won't have to dig up any corpses.
Histories and biographies far too often conclude with the subject's burial and a few pages of contrived reflection on the figure's life and contributions.
But what happens to the famous when they die?
Colin Dickey's Cranioklepty attempts to shed light on the post-mortem fates of some of history's most well-known people. Dickey interweaves a series of (sometimes astonishingly) true tales on the theft of famous skulls. Beginning with opening of Haydn's grave, the author guides us through the skull thefts of such persons as Beethoven, Mozart, Swedenborg, Sir Thomas Browne, and Descartes. Dickey lays out the cast of characters behind the skull thefts and the individuals who coveted them so much, sometimes passing them on to children in their wills as if they were family heirlooms. These stories are coupled with a history of the beginning - and end - of cranioscopy and phrenology and how they affected the study of medicine.
Cranioklepty is as well-written as it is interesting and would make a good addition to any historical, biographical, or medical library. The text is accompanied by many illustrations and photographs of the skulls and ideas discussed in the book, which themselves can be difficult enough to find. But perhaps most important in a book which attempts to blend history with science (or one that presents a history of science) is that it is eminently readable and clear, even for those who lack substantive medical or scientific knowledge.
But unlike other "thing histories" that claim to explain the entire history of the world through, like, potatoes, Dickey doesn't try too hard to extrapolate. After all, he's telling the stories of people who thought they could determine the cause of genius by rubbing a person's head. I suspect he doesn't want to be the writerly version of a phrenologist. Instead, he does what writers do best: weave intriguing narratives, juxtapose facts and let people draw their own conclusions. One of mine was that I would like to be cremated, thank you very much.
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