Fertilization. Pregnancy. Embryogenesis. Death. A gravid uterus. In 1774, Dr. William Hunter publishes The anatomy of the gravid uterus featuring drawings by Jan van Rymsdyk. In the preface, Hunter writes:
in the year 1751 the author met with the first favourable opportunity of examining the human species, what before he had been studying in brutes. A woman died suddenly, when very near the end of her pregnancy; the body was procured before any insensible putrefaction had begun; the season of the year was favourable to dissection; the injection of blood vessels proved successful; a very able painter, in this way, was found; every part was examined in the most public manner, and the truth well authenticated[…]
Hunter’s study is a striking anatomical analysis that features several historical emergences that I want to discuss. Deleuze and Guattari define the Body without Organs (BwO) in A Thousand Plateaus in the following way:
A body without organs is not an empty body stripped of organs, but a body upon which that which serves as organs (wolves, wolf eyes, wolf jaws?) is distributed according to crowd phenomena, in Brownian motion, in the form of molecular multiplicities. The desert is populous. Thus the body without organs is opposed less to organs as such than to the organization of the organs insofar as it composes an organism. The body without organs is not a dead body but a living body all the more alive and teeming once it has blown apart the organism and its organization. (30)
The gravid uterus paintings are not pictures of the BwO in the strict sense – the images are concrete and stable forms, rejecting the plurality of Deleuzoguattarian lines of flight. Body? Organ? The gravid uterus is a unique instantiation of the body: the death of a multiplicity or the mother and child as one, forever. The gravid uterus depicts a moment trapped in time: the cycle of eros and thanatos (life and death) collapsed within a moment of symbiotic existence. The gravid uterus is an eventuality that some of us pass through or overcome; however, the moment remains a causative event or potential virtual pathway dearly avoided (childbirth remains the sixth most common cause of death for women aged 20-34 in the United States). The gravid uterus depicts a holistic experience of shared existence, but it also – perhaps more nihilistically – shows the parasitic nature of human life. We all begin inside another being (Peter Sloterdijk calls the womb one of the first “bubbles” that we move through in our “being-in-spheres” ). Despite the fact that Deleuze and Guattari specify that the BwO is a “living body” their original definition is thanatocratic:
The body without organs is the model of death. As the authors of horror stories have understood so well, it is not death that serves as the model for catatonia, it is catatonic schizophrenia that gives its model to death. Zero intensity. The death model appears when the body without organs repels the organs and lays them aside: no mouth, no tongue, no teeth – to the point of self-mutilation, to the point of suicide. Yet there is no real opposition between the body without organs and the organs as partial objects; the only real opposition is to the molar organism that is their common enemy [….] Hence it is absurd to speak of a death desire that would presumably be in qualitative opposition to the life desires. Death is not desired, there is only death that desires, by virtue of the body without organs or the immobile motor, and there is also life that desires, by virtue of the working organs. (Anti-Oedipus 329)
The gravid uterus may be the photograph of an “immobile motor” – a picture of frozen desire that depicts a structural moment of human subjectivity and reality modeled on bubbles and spheres (as Sloterdijk contends). Even if subjectivity and reality are Deleuzoguattarian assemblages, they are nonetheless bubbly, foamy, fuzzy. The gravid uterus may be an example of Kristevan abjection in that it is an image that arrests and terrifies. Sylvia Plath’s poetry may be useful here: her poetry describes a mother who survives Hunter’s anatomical dissection. Consider Plath’s “Edge”:
The woman is perfected.
Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.
Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little
Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded
Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden
Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.
The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.
She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.
Damien Hirst repeatedly returns to themes of pregnancy and the gravid uterus. In 2005 Hirst finishes his statue The Virgin Mother (a 33-foot bronze work).
The statue can be seen as the female version of Hymn (1999-2005), an anatomical representation of the male body.
However, the The Virgin Mother’s stance is inspired by Edgar Degas’s Little Dancer of Fourteen Years (c. 1881).
Hirst discusses the relation between The Virgin Mother and Degas’s work in the following way: “It is kind of naughty; she shouldn’t really be pregnant. I wanted a feeling of that. Anyone who is pregnant looks old enough, that’s the problem.” I am not quite sure what the “problem” is that he is referring to; however, The Virgin Mother is a striking piece and, I argue, should be seen in relation to William Hunter’s work on the gravid uterus and Jan van Rymsdyk’s etchings. There is a very important difference between Hunter’s work and Hirst’s: The Virgin Mother is alive. Hirst’s statue is an interstitial piece situated inbetween life and death demonstrating a yet again fractured, cut, and dissected female body. Phallogocentric culture is obsessed with anatomized and dissected representations of the female form. Why is Hirst’s male version of The Virgin Mother not dissected, but only skinned?
Nonetheless, The Virgin Mother is a representation of a living gravid uterus – a liminal instance of becoming aesthetically frozen by an obsessive and anatomizing male gaze. While Degas’s statue incites controversy when first shown, Hirst’s The Virgin Mother is more shocking because of his chosen title. The piece refers to Mother Mary and her Nazarene progeny and suggests a heretical line-of-thought: what if Mother Mary died in childbirth? What if the only record of Christ’s existence on earth was a gravid uterus engraving in a William Hunter-esque manuscript?
In October of 2012 Hirst assembles a 67-foot statue called Verity in Ilfracombe, Devon. The statue is a variation on The Virgin Mother. Where The Virgin Mother suggests a variety of heretical theological significations, Verity is an homage to Justice – containing a sword (held aloft) and scales. Verity coming from veritas meaning “truth” is, like The Virgin Mother, a statue of becoming and hope: the birth of a symbol (such as a messiah or Truth). On the one hand, the statues represent the tradition of the gravid uterus, but on the other, they are instances of anatomical and aesthetic development – a sort of womb X-ray that views the birth of symbolic-becoming. Despite the highly material nature of the statues (they are bronze after all), they are highly abstract incarnations of symbols and signifiers – temporary sites of collapsed lines of flight, frozen in time.
The last historical emergence of this theme that I want to mention is the The Reclining Pregnant Woman from Gunther von Hagens’s Body Worlds or Körperwelten exhibit. Von Hagens is the inventor of the technique of human preservation called “plastination.” Von Hagens invented plastination in 1977 and has since founded the Institute for Plastination in Heidelberg (in 1993). One of many plastinated bodies that von Hagens exhibits in Body Worlds is a plastinate woman whose womb is exposed. Body Worlds has always attracted controversy – including the methods by which von Hagens acquires the corpses – however, in the case of The Reclining Pregnant Woman von Hagens poses her in an intentionally controversial pose that he claims is meant to suggest a “pornographic cliche.” Von Hagens’s piece is akin to a plastinate and pregnant version of Alexandre Cabanel’s Naissance de Venus (1863) …
From Hunter to Hirst and from Hirst to von Hagens, the image of the gravid uterus proliferates in history as a site of birth, gestation, and death. The gravid uterus is a site of frozen potential incorporated into an institutionalized obsession with the anatomization of the female body. The gravid uterus is not a Deleuzoguattarian BwO, but something else. Deleuze and Guattari partly define the BwO as an egg; Sloterdijk finds that every womb is a bubble or a composite sphere within other spheres. The gravid uterus is something outside of philosophical body or subject-models. A child inside an environment; an environment that is another being. Change. Flux. Liminality. Sloterdijk writes:
the womb is the first of the series
whatever one is in
a mood (313)