Giant Impacted Feces Meets Six Feet Under in the City of Brotherly Love: A Visit to the Mütter Museum
The first time I visited the Mütter, I danced in celebration of nuptial vows. I don’t remember much about it—I was only six, which in itself isn’t an excuse, but I had a whole lot of cough syrup in my system, the cause of numerous other childhood blackouts. I do remember a breakfast with family the next morning before we flew back to Mexico, and lots of poop jokes, and my mother not joining in the fun. My mother wasn’t big on poop jokes. But just get her started on eschatology (a punch line not of that era, but in the making).
Okay, genug already with the poop jokes. It being Halloween, I want to detour through the skulls. Then back to a sober take on poop. In between, let’s drop in on the Six Feet Under convention at the Civic Center.
The skulls are a crowd-pleaser at the Mütter, with obvious human-interest appeal. Many people are so taken with the skulls that they adopt a skull. The way it works is that you book a viewing of the skulls, which are arranged in rows, a dozen rows, two dozen skulls per row. Eventually one skull speaks to you. This is now your skull. You have saved the skull. In return, the skull shares its space with your name on a placard. Or not necessarily your name but whatever Auden line pops into your head. My favorite Auden line on all the placards was “Stagger Onward Rejoicing” (capitalized for uniformity because most adopters choose the family-name option).
I made a mental note to return to the skulls on Valentine’s Day. I wondered about the adopters who’d made mental notes of the same ilk. A disproportionate number of the skulls immortalize extreme lovelorn despondency. I’ve suffered my share of lovelorn despondency, but I don’t know that I would go so far as to adopt a skull that spoke to my lovelorn despondency. How would it affect my karma? Do I align my karma with lovelorn despondency if I adopt the skull of Araschtau Gottlieb, who offed himself with potassium cyanide “because of suspected unfaithfulness of his mistress”? Is my karma then bound forever to suspicions of unfaithfulness? Or am I bringing closure to some karmic loop? Moot anyway because the skull of Araschtau Gottlieb already has been saved.
If suspicions of infidelity don’t do you in, eventually a less specific form of dismay will, is one message of the skulls. Three cases in point, all anonymous: “Died of self-inflicted removal of testicles.” “Cut his throat because of extreme poverty.” “Suicide by gunshot wound of the heart, because of the weariness of life.”
My own specific form of dismay in viewing the skull collection was the nuisance of relying on translation. You know how it is when you’re stuck in an airport without WiFi, reading the caption to an airport art exhibition which includes a quote translated into English? And you can’t access the original? Same exasperation. But not the same because the original text is right there on the skulls. The skull collector, Joseph Hyrtl (1810-1894), in generous archival prescience, inked a short bio on the temple of each skull, ensuring that the bio and the artifact would never part. But then the curators jammed the skulls so close together that a viewer can’t squeeze through the crowd and read the bios in the raw. I did some squeezing, enough to tell that the numbing repetition of the English word “suicide” does not do justice to Joseph Hyrtl. Sometimes he inked the word suicida, elsewhere he preferred Selbstsmörderer. I wanted to explore the nuances, but try pressing up against the glass on a busy Saturday afternoon in a sports town the day before a big game. “Threw himself off a rooftop garden after yet another gripe about translation and pandering.”
To improve my mood, I paid a visit to Madame Dimanche, the famous French washerwoman of the 19th century whose husband of many decades did not abandon her (or worse) despite the growth of numerous cutaneous horns, little tusk-like projections from the skin, all over her body. Madame Dimanche hung in there even when the tusk protruding from her forehead broke the world length record for cutaneous horns and then kept on growing—it demolished the record. At the age of 80, she gritted her teeth and allowed a surgeon to remove the tusk sans anesthesia. Regrettably, the face and tusk of Madame Dimanche at the Mütter are only a wax model—an authentic tribute to her fortitude requires a visit to the Mütter’s sister museum in Paris, the Musée Dupuytren, which exhibits the actual preserved tusk.
Now, a quick jaunt over to SixFeetUnderCon. I did my best Freddy Rodriguez impersonation and slipped into a room where every other seat was filled with Peter Krause or Frances Conroy. One couple in the room—Michael C. Hall and Matthew St. Patrick—wore Minnesota Vikings jerseys. A Lauren Ambrose in my row kept looking over at me and smiling, but that was just because my hand was out. I was doodling in my notebook, and the skull and crossbones showed.
I had high expectations for the presentation, titled “Twitterific: Making Twitter Work for You,” because the intersection of social media and funeral service happens to be one of my favorite Six Feet Under motifs. Also, I’d been overhearing lots of buzz about a new app called Requiem—A Simple App to Notify Important Relations When a Loved One Passes Away. What’s the Twitter etiquette for tweeting an obituary of a lovelorn Selbstsmörderer? How do you drum up business for the Fisher clan without your peers regarding you as crass?
Dude—and here I address the presenter of the Twitterific seminar, @spellos, “It’s all about the way cool tools”—may I gently suggest that if you kick off your talk by polling the Fishers in the audience and their friends—Vanessa, Brenda, Father Jack—and your poll results show that a full 20% self-assess as fluent Twitter users, an hour of explaining the difference between a @ and a # is an hour of wasted time? Also, in a city known for W.C. Fields booing Santa Claus, is it really tactful, or even prudent, to be picking on the couple defiantly dressed in Minnesota purple? By the end of the hour we’d all learned to compose an actual tweet, “I’m really enjoying being at #SixFeetUnderCon!” Luckily the hour didn’t entirely go to waste, as in the course (my notebook reads “curse”) of glimpsing live tweets projected onto the room-front screen between the dreary PowerPoint slides, a few gems entertained us purely by chance. “Ben Franklin recommends his favorite wine Madeira as a possible embalming fluid. Lol. #SixFeetUnderCon.”
The skull and crossbones gained me readmission to the Mütter, which by then was a lost cause for anyone hoping to press through to the crowd-pleasers. I browsed the guest book until the crowd had thinned enough to make my way through to the fetus with sirenomelia—think Darryl Hannah in a prequel to Splash. Not a wax cast.
A hidden gem at the Mütter is the enormous mahogany cabinet, smack in the middle of the first floor, that holds a small fraction of the tens of thousands of ingested foreign objects retrieved from human guts by the “father of endoscopy,” Chevalier Jackson (1865-1958). The young Dr. Jackson crafted prototype retrieval instruments in his backyard workshop where he also enjoyed woodworking. Tens of thousands of children and adults dared themselves to swallow a bottle cap or safety pin and paid their fee to Dr. Jackson by donating their dietary indiscretion to Dr. Jackson’s collection.
Very few visitors bother to open the drawers labeled “Nuts and Seeds” and “Ammunition” and “Pocket Change.” It’s possible that your average visitor simply assumes that the drawers don’t open…oh, but they do. Drawer upon drawer upon drawer. To access the bottommost, you need to make a spectacle of yourself and sprawl cross-legged on the busy Mütter floor, eliciting frowns from the traffic stepping over you on their way to the ever-popular Soap Lady or the Chang and Eng exhibit. But the drawers are well worth the effort. In a bottom drawer blandly labeled “Pins and Hardware,” I discovered not only a zillion antique safety pins (many rusted) but also a vintage Chinese brass door knocker, a brass rail picture hook, a cast brass soap and toothbrush holder, and an authentic nickel-over-brass ceramic shower head.
Onward to the impacted feces wing.
Peter Cetera was the bass player for the band Chicago. Peter Cantera was the infant with the unusually large abdomen. It is in the nature of growths to be true to their nature and to grow. Why can’t the admission to this museum be a dime? Monique you is a Wind Bag. Dude peeled off the wall and a whole chimney came out! When I was 16, I could go for as long as about 15 minutes. Wait, are we still talking about poop? I get chills up my spine whenever my girlfriend politely excuses herself and utters the words “water closet.” Daily healthy people are asked to say that I’m a fast heal. I’ve been on the road for two weeks and when I get home it’s going to be a whole lot more than two and a half pails. Thought The Balloon Man was a child services worker turned vigilante targeting some of Gotham’s high standing yet very worst corrupt administrators? One word: Dune. For anyone who’s interested, Hirschsprung’s first name was Harold. Installing a washing machine on the second floor is always the beginning of a problem. A solution to the problem of baking barley cakes in volume (Ezekiel 4:12). Salt bloats. Imagine being in a window seat and needing to squeeze past Pete who’s in the middle. Imagine Kissing Pete. Who said that kissing was sucking on a thirty-foot tube the last nineteen feet of which were full of shit? (These guestbook entries were about as literate as you’d expect from guests who’d chosen Auden lines to represent them in their skull adoptions.)
The unpooped poop is not, alas, one of the true crowd-pleasers at the Mütter. The exhibit consists of the actual preserved colon, stuffed to give it girth. From even a near distance the colon is rather unprepossessing. A son of Chevalier Jackson who had the privilege of inspecting my own colon from the inside pronounced my colon “tortuous.” The Mütter colon boasts a few gentle loops, that’s it. Often in the vicinity of the colon I heard the word “slug.”
Lots of visitors skip the slug in favor of more obviously titillating nearby curiosities like the skeletons of Victorian women deformed by corsets. A visitor who actually pauses at the colon is confronted with what @spellos of the Twitterific talk again and again condemned as a Twitter turn-off—excessive verbiage. I hesitate to portray myself once more as an eavesdropper, but the fact is that the vast majority of museum visitors are couples. One member of a couple reads out loud to the other member of the couple. I counted exactly zero couples who got past the second sentence of the lengthy account of a tragic life that ended in a water closet.
Apropos of tragic, let’s talk about the colon’s upkeep. Curators, what the deal behind the disrepair? The colon is a kind of sausage casing, and the casing is dry and cracked in places, as if the conservation team had run out of moisturizer. Out of the cracks spills the faux-poop filling of the casing: straw, excelsior, gauze. The straw and excelsior are the color of onion soup, but the gauze is just plain gauze. Sloppy! And creepy.
Obviously the waif at the Mütter most in need of adoption is the sausage casing. I have no idea why the proceeds from the Mega Colon Plush aren’t funding restoration of the casing. That is one cute pillow and even a tiny fraction of the proceeds no doubt would go a long way toward saving an exhibit in a state of shameful disrepair. Rumor has it that Katy Perry bought one for each member of her road crew.
After communing with the sadly unkempt testament to human frailty, I browsed some of the other lesser crowd-pleasers. I couldn’t find the advertised slices of Albert Einstein’s brain, but I did pay my respects to the unborn child of my own childhood hero, Cyclops.
Reminded of my childhood, I tucked in my shirt and asked at the reception desk whether I might take a look around the hall upstairs where my dear aunt plighted her troth when I was six. Actually, I was only tempted to ask. A velvet rope blocked the marble staircase. It’s been ages since I had a chance to do a velvet rope stealth maneuver. Upstairs, workers were setting up for someone else’s troth. They ignored me as I wandered around triangulating the seating assignment that would place a guest immediately above the renowned diseased length of large intestine. Who in my family or among their friends had been given that honor? Sitting through a long social event aligned in the vertical dimension with onion soup inside a sausage casing? What had been the damage to their karma? How were they faring, inside and out?
I plan to grab a quick nap now and dream about a placard bearing the name of the person in the world I would most want to take credit for saving the colon, after I amass a fortune and save the colon and selflessly decline to put my own name on the placard.