Printer Friendly

Still life.

Not long ago, I found myself holding a book bound in human skin. As soon as it was in my hands, I experienced the lure of the grotesque. Yet, I was startled by its unexpected beauty. Unlike conventional (that is, animal) vellum, which is typically hued a warm, uniform tan, this book's cover is pale and constellated with pores. The pores darken the top half of its surface with elliptical flecks arcing across the smooth surface. Its cover feels strangely and even eerily cool to the touch, and eases open toward the fore-edge as if tugged open by an unseen hand, but it is actually time's tautening of the skin, which is characteristic of vellum bindings. My initial curiosity and the rush of morbid interest eventually gave way to unease.

I encountered the book in Boston, where I had moved after finishing my undergraduate degree. Before beginning another program, I happened upon a student job at Harvard's rare book and manuscript repository, the Houghton Library. There, my work brought me into contact with some of the world's great literary monuments, but also tendered the discovery of less familiar treasures: holograph manuscripts, incunabula, and various editions of the canonical corpus that, dissected into anthologies, I had been studying throughout my college career. Coming into contact with the literary remains of the poets I had been reading-the library of Elizabeth Bishop, John Ashbery's papers, or an extensive Rilke collection-I was stunned by these artifacts that can actually be handled. Nothing I had experienced prior to this job provided the exhilaration offered by these books-the products of mind, eye, and meticulous artistry. I felt the past telescoping outward, and yet it was no larger than what I held in my hands. There were sixteenth-century Italian treatises, cased in rippling limp vellum (a Florentine landscape in microcosm), the gilded leather of French bindings, or Victorian travel manuals illustrated with that new science, photography. Five hundred years is not so long; it fits on a bookshelf.

That binding of human skin that I held can be found in the William King Richardson Room. It was a bequest presented to the library on the condition that it be housed in a setting resembling its owner's library. Richardson, a New York lawyer, focused his collecting on fine and exotic bindings. The human vellum book sits enclosed in a clamshell box at the top of one of the room's glass-enclosed cases; it is surrounded by unusual bindings, including housings intricately embroidered with metallic thread and seed pearls. There are books with fore-edge paintings; if you pull the edge of the closed pages to a certain angle, a watercolored landscape or portrait is revealed.

In comparison to its surroundings, the book with the binding of human skin is plain, although its exoticism is of another order. It may still be surprising that the book has received its place of honor at the library, being of comparatively little bibliographical interest and an unremarkable printing of a forgotten author.

The book, Arsene Houssaye's Des destinees de l'ame (On the destinies of the soul), was written as an attempt to offer a rational metaphysics of human existence. (1) Despite its subject matter, the history of its creation and transmission offers a narrative that is more like that of a gothic novel. Although information about the specific volume is incomplete, the details that may be reconstructed are lurid: the setting is a nineteenth-century French sanatorium; its doctor is absorbed with the ornate, such as the gilt stamping on the covers of his classical texts; and the woman patient who dies of apoplexy in the presence of the doctor, who is moved to include her in his personal library-though not in quite the sense of a "case study" that we, the readers, might expect.

My suppositions about the book's history come from the cataloger's description, which sketches the rudiments of the narrative. The librarians presumably relied upon a provenance note (now lost) from the book's donor, J. B. Stetson (the son and heir of the hat manufacturer). The edition, published in the 1880s, was inscribed by the author to "mon cher docteur Bouland." Later scouring turned up occasional details about its earliest owner (and, one could say, its creator). Ludovic Bouland was once president of the Societe des collectionneurs d'ex-libris et de reliures artistiques, and his library contained another book, "a gynaecological treatise in the skin of a woman who had expired in the hospital at Metz or Nancy." (2)

In the process of casing the book, Bouland inserted a handwritten document asserting his rationale in including the book in his library. The language of this account, as much as the physical presence of the book, is unintentionally revealing. Glued onto the inside front cover of the volume, a description alludes to the woman and his use of her skin before discussing the inherent attractions human skin provides to the book: "a book on the human soul merits a human covering: I saved for a long time this skin from a woman's back for this very purpose." As disturbing as we might find the flaying of the unnamed woman and the use of her skin in the book, Bouland fails to anticipate such a reaction. His apologia is anything but an apology; he does not appear to recognize the grotesque imposition made upon his female patient, or even the transgression in his use of human material. Instead, he speaks of his bibliographical intent in a purely analytical manner: "to expose the quality [of human skin], no other ornament is added." He alludes to the other book that he had bound similarly by writing that "[i]t is notable how the character of the skin deviates with the manner of its treatment. This volume can be compared, for instance, with a little volume in my library, Sever's Pinaeus de Virginitatis, also bound in human skin but tanned in sumac." (3)

This artifact quite literally embodies questions of the body, violence, and control. Not only is the dead woman described by the catalogers as "unclaimed," but the very language of Bouland's defense is charged with the possession he is taking. It is impossible not to hear resonances and subtexts in his discussion of the treatment to which her skin is subjected. This subjection is rendered as soumise, a term in French that also means "subdued" or "submissive." The terminology becomes more problematic, however, because the phrase fille soumise also denotes a registered prostitute. (The written descriptions of the object also suggest that the act of binding a book in human skin-in a woman's skin-creates a potential erotic subtext.)

The practice of binding books in human skin was, during the later nineteenth century, more common than might be supposed. The practice, effectively tamed by the Latinate term of anthropodermic bibliopegy, has scarcely been explored, despite its sensationalistic appeal. The few thorough analyses are little more than compilations of information from bibliographers of an earlier school-what we in the library world still, on occasion, call "bookmen"-like Lawrence S. Thompson and Walter Hart Blumenthal. (4)

Not all examples of anthropodermic bindings are as charged with ethical complications as the Houssaye volume; in fact, several of the most famous copies acquired their covering material as gifts. The nineteenth-century astronomer Camille Flammarion received, as the bequest of a young countess dying of tuberculosis, skin purported to be from her shoulders (which, in a possibly apocryphal account, he was said to have praised upon their meeting). Although he voiced some disinclination to do so, Flammarion used the covering to bind his own study, entitled Terres du ciel. (5) The novelist Eugene Sue received a similar gift from his mistress, who stipulated in her will that a copy of Sue's work be bound in her skin; in 1951, the book (Les mysteres de Paris) sold in London. (6)

A book held at the Boston Athenaeum is the product of a different sort of bequest. A horse thief and highwayman named James Allen (his alias was Burley Grove) attacked a man named John Fenno on the Salem Turnpike in 1833. Fenno fought back and narrowly escaped. When Allen was captured, he confided his story to a warden (Narrative of the Life of James Allen [Boston: Harrington, 1837], which from all descriptions was self-promoting) and insisted that after his death, a copy bound in his skin be presented to Fenno, whose bravery (and role in his mythos, I suspect) he admired. Robert Kruse, a rare book cataloger at the Boston Athenaeum, described its surface as "treated to look like gray deerskin and edged with gold tooling." (7)

Occasionally, a recent example of such a bequest reaches the news. Dard Hunter, the great historian of the production of paper, recounts the story of a young widow who bound a memorial to her husband in his own skin. (8) Most recently, a Washington Post article from February 1994 describes the legal efforts of the wife of Donal Russell to complete his final wish, stated in his will, to "be skinned from the head down and tanned for the purpose of face binding volumes of my verse." (9) (Over the objections of funeral directors, the court considered the case.)

Not all examples are so (relatively) civilized; there are, it should be mentioned, numerous examples of bodies taken without consent. England's laws prohibiting medical practitioners from using cadavers other than those of criminals led, at times, to abuses. Nicholas Pickwoad, the renowned bookbinding historian, draws our attention to "the town museum at Bury Saint Edmunds in Suffolk, England, [which] has a book bound in the skin of William Corder, who murdered Maria Martin in the Red Barn." (10) Carolyn Marvin describes the "peculiar tendency of men medical" in certain American institutions. For example, Joseph Leidy was described by Marvin as "his country's most eminent teacher of human anatomy." (11) Although a book in his library carries an inscription claiming that its cover was the skin of a Civil War soldier, numerous stories of the doctor's grave-robbing practices (common among "medical practitioners for whom paupers' graves provided raw material for classroom demonstrations") leave us room to question the attribution.

John Stockton-Hough, a prominent Philadelphia physician and book collector, shared with Ludovic Bouland a personal interest in anthropodermic bindings, and similarly undertook experimentation to develop an effective method of tanning human skin. Skin--whether human or from any other animal-can be treated either to become parchment (through submersion in lime for several weeks, after which it is stretched, scraped, and dried) or to become leather through the application of a more traditional tanning solution. (12) Like Bouland, Stockton-Hough's position as a medical man gave him the opportunity to acquire human integument, and he shared a passion for varying his efforts to explore the results of different processes. One of the books from his collection, Charles Drelincourt's De conceptione adversaria, has a note on its front free endpaper that indicates that Stockton-Hough cured the "tattoed [sic] skin from around the wrist of a man who died in the Philada. Hospital 1869." (13) Although the tattoo is now scarcely visible on the front cover, the quarter-vellum binding shows an even-hued parchment with prominent pores. Their regular patterning causes the surface to resemble pigskin more than other familiar binding substances, and seems to be a result of the skin having been taken from the lower arm. Stockton-Hough experimented with preserving human skin from various areas of the body and was able to identify examples from different locations. One authority noted that "on the basis of his extensive experience, Stockton-Hough reported skin from the human back to be coarse-grained, but he also said that skin from a woman's thigh could be almost indistinguishable from pigskin." (14)

Anna Dhody, the curator of the Mutter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia (where many of Stockton-Hough's bindings are currently displayed), described the physicians of this period as working in much greater isolation than is common for current scientists. The experiments undertaken by Stockton-Hough and his colleagues would frequently be developed (and reworked) without interaction with other professionals, and the experimenters would often keep their practices and results as private and almost proprietary content. (15) What could be characterized as re-clusiveness was balanced by the impulse of these scientist-collectors to record their processes in the finished product; in the several books with anthropodermic bindings carrying his inscriptions, Stockton-Hough annotated the date at which he treated the skin, when and where it was bound, and on several occasions, the partially obscured name of the person who provided the binding material.

Yet, it must be said that some of the experiments were more successful than others. One binding from his collection, now held at the Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania, shows signs of damage. (16) The vellum displays extensive wear at the joints and edges, belying the softness of the material, which appears to have a susceptibility to rubbing. Over the front board, the surface is mottled in warm ochre and a greenish tone. The pores, most visible now in the areas of wear, are highly distinct, descending into the damaged surface. In one spot on the front joint, a point in the vellum has worn through entirely. Part of the weakness of the binding, which was executed in 1888 from skin treated in 1887, may be attributable to its size-at thirty-three centimeters high, the book is uncommonly large among Stockton-Hough's anthropodermic bindings. In a note on the front free endpaper, Stockton-Hough noted that the book was "bound with skin from the back," then, noting the date and the city (Paris), he set down his name.

As for my encounter with the Bouland binding, it shouldered its way into my conversations and became a type of specter for me. Nearly everyone I told of it experienced the same skin-crawling discomfort. The associations it engendered are not surprisingly of the most sensational kind and were vocalized by my conversational partners: they could not help mentioning mass murderers such as Jeffrey Dahmer of Milwaukee or Ed Gein, the model for Norman Bates in the movie Psycho. The most immediate associations that were conjured up by this book may be the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps. Most specifically, I was reminded of the record of Ilsa Koch, the "Bitch of Buchenwald," who was known to collect the skin of inmates (often, it is said, sizing up those in the camp for atypical physical characteristics or bodily ornamentation such as tattoos) to make lamp shades, gloves, and book covers. (17) Although these offenses were described in detail at the Nuremberg trials in the testimony of former guards--which included recounting the practice of curing human skin for decorative use--the subsequent disappearance of the artifacts made the crimes impossible to prosecute.

This is the terrain mined by Sylvia Plath to describe her own psychological torment in a disturbing and compromising catalog: "A cake of soap, / A wedding ring, / A gold filling." (18) An initial response to this famous poem is typically not that of questioning the potential betrayal in transforming the suffering of many to an internal emotional state. Instead, we feel the poet's fascination with this destructive cruelty:
   my skin
   Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
   My right foot

   A paperweight,
   My face featureless, fine
   Jew linen.

The power and horror of the images need no glossing, but Plath's poem--in that quality that seems to adopt communal tragedy or human mortality for personal and artistic ends--feels deeply troubling to me, and in the same way that the anthropodermic binding does. Is it possible to write about human suffering without objectifying it--that is, harnessing the brutal and extreme power that we, as readers, turn to almost instinctively--or without endlessly perpetuating the moment of pain? (This line of questioning suggests the work of Zbigniew Herbert, whose "Apollo and Marsyas" dramatizes the same problem, and in the context of a myth that--as it ends with the flaying and use of the satyr's skin--is relevant to the current discussion.) (19) If this problem is unavoidable, what distinguishes my description of the book as an object of decorative interest? The danger of aestheticizing human loss returns--even by acknowledging it, I have compromised myself and written myself into this narrative of exploitation.

If the book demands to be read as a narrative of unrecorded suffering, what is the proper way to honor the life literally incorporated into the artifact? Should it be interred in a grave? (20) Should it be treated as medical waste, or should we give more credence to the perspective of the participants in these tales? (21) Camille Flammarion describes his role in carrying the skin to the leather worker as "assuredly bizarre," but also refers to the integument as a "relic," and notes, without apparent dissonance, that Ravaud, the doctor who delivered the skin, was "carrying out a pious vow." His tone of reverence culminates in the argument that "this fragment of a beautiful body is all that survives of it today, and it can endure for centuries in a perfect state of respectful preservation." (22)

Yet even in this account, the aestheticizing of a life continues to cause uncertainty and unease. Would it be enough to find a more apt metaphor to substitute for the concept of the objet d'art? Placed in the Richardson Room with its richly ornamented books, Ludovic Bouland's binding cannot be perceived and discussed in terms separate from those of aesthetic (and, in fact, monetary) value.

After my initial response to the book, my description, which focuses on the visual (even aesthetic) elements of the binding, is disturbing. Having written it violates some internal value that prompts me to focus on the humanity of the woman's situation. My attempt to describe the volume replicates its history, in certain respects--from Bouland's despoilment of her skin, to the desire of collectors for this oddity, and to its current placement in a rare book repository. Uneasy about the way in which the book has been treated as an aesthetic-rather than human--artifact, my decision to write a poem about it must strike the reasonable person as irrational. (23)

My troubling self-questioning is magnified by an inescapable metaphor: the conceit of touch. If each handling of the book is a halting first contact, then this near-caress renders anyone who touches the book complicitous, as both an intimate and a betrayer. The fact that the aesthetic artifact is still in existence almost two hundred years after the woman's death seems little consolation. If the act of exploitation offers her some presence, the desecration undermines any identity remaining in the object.

Perhaps my unease shows my emotional implication in the story, an awkwardness apparent in the laughter to which I continue to resort. What is my effort to amplify the black humor--the book's "rebacking" and patient's "case study," the "embodiment" or "incorporation" of the woman's life--but another means of diffusing my continual, awkward discomfort? The librarian who initially led me to the book pulled it down gingerly, holding open the protective case as if wondering whether I dared to pick it up. Later, she told me--a detail running counter to most preconceptions of librarians' characters --that a typical practical joke of some earlier generations at the Houghton Library was to ask newly hired student employees to fetch the book; only when they returned, book in hand, would they be told the source of its covering in a kind of backhanded hazing. Despite such sadism, or because of it, I feel somewhat eased after hearing of the bad faith of these librarians. It was simply another chapter in this tale of exotic bibliography and dismemberment.

Ultimately, the power of the book may be that it disallows the person holding it from thinking in abstract, complacent generalities. The object-still as much a human as an inanimate thing--refuses to become an allegory, a token of ideological significance; it cannot be reduced to a platitude. This is not literature clothed in human form. Any reading that attempts to reduce it to a metaphor instantly shows itself to be a betrayal of the bodily insistence of the book and its origins.

It could be argued that this intense antisymbolic power also implicates the act of creating art or literature. (This is a realization that Czeslaw Milosz refers to as the "indecency" of the writer. (24)) This book is a powerful reminder of the inadequacy of the object or image that masquerades as the human. The degree to which we respond to the value of such objects may relate to the amount of sympathy we feel for one of the core assumptions of literature itself, the provocative assertion that language can animate a vanished world. Despite the vagaries of transmission and history, authors expect their books, against all odds, to remain in circulation-and beyond that, somehow to remain relevant, authentic, and even human. Is not every book a sort of cosmic bet against mortality, entropy, and forgetting?

Yet, at the far side of the literary convention that promises immortality to the subject of the poem (the "so long lives this, and this gives life to thee" motif) lies the fact that the act of writing requires a turning away from mortal, breathing imperatives. This is my complicity in the tale: what is the attempt to freeze memory, experience, and life into language but the same sort of betrayal perpetrated by Ludovic Bouland?

Todd Samuelson is the curator of rare books and manuscripts at Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, the special collections department at Texas A&M University. He is also the director of the Book History Workshop, a week-long intensive program that provides a hands-on introduction to the history of printing.

(1.) Arsene Houssaye, Des destinees de l'ame (Paris: Calmann Levy, 1880s?).

(2.) Lawrence S. Thompson, "Religatum de Pelle Humana," in "Bibliologia comica"; or, Humorous Aspects of the Caparisoning and Conservation of Books (Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1968), 152; and Heather Cole, "The Science of Anthropodermic Binding," Houghton Library Blog, accessed 10 July 2014, /houghton/20i4/06/04/caveatlecter/[.] "On June 4, 2014, a post on the Houghton Library Blog announced that recent tests, including 'peptide mass fingerprinting,' have proven that the book 'is without a doubt bound in human skin.'"

(3.) Sever. Pinasus, De virginitatis [Severin Pineau, De integritatis et corruptionis virginum notis (Amsterdam, 1663); and John Symons, "'Ce curieux petit livre....Wellcome Trust News and Features, accessed 6 May 2010, WTX024047.htm[.] This volume, the "gynaecological treatise" to which Thompson alluded, is now held in the collections of the Wellcome Library. Like the Houghton Library binding, it also displays a note by Bouland describing the process of gathering, tanning, and binding the volume: "The book has inserted at the front a note by Dr. Bouland, explaining that he felt that it deserved a binding to match its subject matter and that he had therefore had it bound in a piece of woman's skin which he had tanned himself with sumach....Dr. Bouland had obtained the piece of skin when he was a medical student, from the body of a woman who had died in the hospital at Metz."

(4.) Lawrence S. Thompson, "Religatum," University of Kentucky Libraries Occasional Contributions (no. 6) (1949), 1-33; and Walter Hart Blumenthal, "Not for the Thin Skinned," in Bookmen's Bedlam: An Olio of Literary Oddities (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1955), 76-93.

(5.) Lawrence S. Thompson, "Tanned Human Skin," Bulletin of the Medical Library Association 34, no. 2 (April 1946): 100. Thompson quotes a 1927 letter in which Flammarion debunks some elements of the mythology of this story, revealing that "I don't know the name of the person whose dorsal skin was delivered to me by a physician to use for binding....Some newspapers, expecially [sic] in America, published the portrait, the name, and even the photograph of the chateau where 'the countess' lived. All of that is pure invention."

(6.) Blumenthal, "Not for the Thin Skinned," 85.

(7.) Robert Kruse, "Human Skin Books," post on ExLibris Listserv, Monday, 14 February 1994.

(8.) Dard Hunter, "Peregrinations and Prospects," Colophon 7 (o.s.), no. 8 (1931): 3-4.

(9.) "Court Asked to Allow Body to Be Skinned," Washington Post, 13 February 1994, A24.

(10.) Nicholas Pickwoad, "Human Skin Bindings," post on ExLibris Listserv, Monday, 30 March 1992.

(11.) Carolyn Marvin, "The Body of the Text: Literacy's Corporeal Constant," Quarterly Journal of Speech 80, no. 2 (May 1994): 129-49.

(12.) Rigby Graham, "Bookbinding with Human Skin," Private Library 6 (1965): 14-18. Traditionally, a solution of "alum, Roman vitriol and common salt" is used, although various plant matter or tree barks can be used-not only sumac but also "oak, pine, fir, alder, willow, spruce, or elm."

(13.) Charles Drelincourt, De conceptione adversaria (Leiden: Boutesteyn, 1686) in the College of Physicians of Philadelphia Historical Library and Wood Institute.

(14.) Thompson, "Tanned Human Skin," 98.

(15.) Anna Dhody of the Mutter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, personal communication to the author, 23 June 2010.

(16.) Catalogue des sciences mudicales (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1857-89) in the Van Pelt Library of the University of Pennsylvania.

(17.) Jeff Leen, "Ken Kipperman and the Table of Horrors," Washington Post, 24 June 2001, accessed 31 August 2010.

(18.) Sylvia Plath, "Lady Lazarus," in The Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992), 244-47.

(19.) Zbigniew Herbert, "Apollo and Marsyas," in The Collected Poems, trans. and ed. Alissa Valles (New York: Ecco, 2007), 165-66.

(20.) An open letter written by Princeton University's Scheide Librarian Paul Needham on 25 June 2014 makes this claim eloquently. Because of ethical obligations due to the unnamed woman's violation, Needham argues that "the appropriate action would be to remove the skin from the volume and give it respectful burial." pdf, accessed 10 July 2014.

(21.) Leen, "Ken Kipperman and the Table of Horrors." In June of 2001, the Washington Post printed an eighty-paragraph story about the efforts of Ken Kipperman, who had devoted the previous decade to campaigning for the human skin remnants from Nazi camps to be either put on permanent display or to be interred. The article quotes Michael Berenbaum of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington who refused to display the articles of skin because the museum "wouldn't display a corpse ... because that corpse should be displayed with appropriate respect, which is burial."

(22.) Thompson, "Tanned Human Skin," 100.

(23.) Todd Samuelson, "Case Study," in Prairie Schooner 76, no. 2 (2002): 131-32.

(24.) Czeslaw Milosz, "From 'Notebook,'" in To Begin Where I Am: Selected Essays, ed. Bogdana Carpenter and Madeline G. Levine (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 200i), 439.
COPYRIGHT 2014 The American Printing History Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Samuelson, Todd
Publication:Printing History
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2014
Previous Article:The woodblocks of Vesalius and the printings: from the renaissance to the modern era.
Next Article:Yousif, Keri. Balzac, Grandville, and the Rise of Book Illustration.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters