Katharine Park – Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection || Shigehisa Kuriyama – “Muscularity and Identity” in Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine

12 November, 2017 - MA Coursework

Katharine Park, Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection (New York: Zone Books, 2006).

Shigehisa Kuriyama, “Muscularity and Identity,” in Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine (New York: Zone Books, 1999).


In his chapter “Muscularity and Identity” in Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine, Shigehisa Kuriyama “beckons us to broaden our view of anatomical form, and invites us to see afresh, too, the bonds binding body and self.” Therein, he seeks answers to questions concerning the origin of anatomy and dissection (they are not inextricable, dissection is not simply a means to understand anatomy as we understand it, that is, as a medical undertaking, and this is important) and the differentiation of Chinese and Western conceptions of body, corporeality, and visual representation thereof. Kuriyama asserts that anatomical understanding was not singularly motivated by medical utility, instead, that there were many motives for understanding the body — for understanding the master craftsman through the craft; for ritual prognostication (of the viscera, through extispication); and the self-edification of the naturalist — and, necessarily, as many ways of seeing the body as motives for probing it. Kuriyama’s analysis strives to overcome his inherited historiographic situation in which the history of anatomy, and especially that of the dissection of cadavers, was reduced to “bald tales of curiosity combating taboo.” Kuriyama sees in classical Greek medical culture more than a curiosity about and a willingness to use the knife on the human body, those conditions were certainly satisfied by their ritual extispication. More than this, Kuriyama places teleological aspirations, driven by the at the heart of Greek anatomical practice. This “presumption of divine design . . . promised that a cadaver held more than frightening, repugnant gore — that its contents displayed visible meaning.” In Kuriyama’s understanding, the idiosyncratic physique of the individual, that knowledge necessary for healing, though not unimportant, was less important than an acquisition of the essential form of corporeality. The Greeks found expression of the quintessential form of corporeality in musculature. Forgive me if Kuriyama deals with this elsewhere in the text, I know only the third chapter, but I would like to add to Kuriyama’s insights that this musculature seems to have been essentialized and idealized into the male form, as all of the images he presents in this third chapter attest without exception. I would have liked to have seen Kuriyama make obvious the Greek nexus of muscularity, masculinity, and the location of the ideal human form in the male body. Fortunately, Katharine Park, in her monumental Secrets of Women: Gender, Generation, and the Origins of Human Dissection fills this lacuna.

When Park describes the “long historiographic tradition, dating back to at least the middle of the nineteenth century, [that] presents religion and science as diametrically opposed cultural enterprises and the Church as deeply hostile to dissection” as a “misconception that is still widespread,” we find an uncannily familiar-sounding historiographic attitude to dissection that apparently spans from the fifth century B.C. to the sixteenth of our era (which she takes as the chronological endpoint of her study). The coincidence between Park’s and Kuriyama’s studies is extended to an “[e]qually deep-seated” and “unwarranted assumption” that earlier understandings of the body were primarily anatomical and physiological. In short, that 19th to 21st century scholars project both their assumption of pre-modern superstition (about human dissection) and their own exclusively medical conception of the body onto the inhabitants of an earlier age. Park seeks to counteract these presentist historiographic attitudes by arguing that 13th to 16th century northern Italian women and men understood their bodies primarily in relation to their filial and religious values, and as “one of the principal elements connecting the natural and the supernatural worlds.” Park does this be examining in detail the dissections and their circumstances of nine women in this period and place, though, due to a scarcity of source material, she admits she does so less as a history of women than as a history of “women’s bodies and men’s attempts to know them, and through them to know their own.” Those men’s attempts to know women’s bodies, Park illustrates, were driven by what might be called “the mystique of the uterus” — the incidental physical fact of the internality, and thus obscurity (except through dissection!), of female reproductive organs, in whose recesses were hidden, to 13th- through 16th century northern Italian men, the answers to some of the most significant questions in the highly patriarchal Italian society of the time: Is she a virgin? How is my sperm transmuted into my child? Is it a son? Is it actually my son? Is there really a crucifix embedded in her heart? Etc.



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