Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sculptor of flesh, healer of souls.

It's been a rather unsettling week, meditating on ugliness and disfigurement. I would like to end it on some thoughts with regard to plastic surgery. I must admit to having a strong approval of the show Extreme Makeover. The change in a persons life after corrective plastic surgery is truly transformative. It would appear that healing the imperfections of the flesh, eases the sorrows of the soul.

Modern Plastic surgery has it's origin in the carnage of the First World War. Horrific head wounds left individuals grotesquely disfigured. The survivors were shunned and separated from society. In England, park benches were painted blue in order to warn people that the facially mangled might be sitting there, in France they had their own special train carriages. Struck down in the prime of their youth, one can only imagine the terrible and isolated lives these individuals must have had. Suicide, drunkenness, endless depression and despair. Repulsive to women and yet still a man. Wilfred Owen captured the torment in his poem, Disabled.
He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.

About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,
-- In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls' waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,
All of them touch him like some queer disease.

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.
Now, he will spend a few sick years in Institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
To-night he noticed how the women's eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don't they come
And put him into bed? Why don't they come?

In an effort to heal the ravages of war a young New Zealand surgeon, Harold Gilles begins to operate on the terribly wounded soldiers and modern plastic surgery is born. There was recently an exhibition of his work, called the Faces of battle, it details his WW1 work and the men on whom he operated on. Warning it is quite graphic. It can be found here and here. Gille's aim was to restore these individuals to some form or normality so that they could return to society. He had some spectacular successes and for some there was no help. Looking at their faces, one wonders what sort of life they must have had. Although Gilles later pioneered aesthetic surgery techniques, he always felt that this was a distraction , his job was to restore the disfigured to normalcy.

It seems somewhat perverse, that modern cosmetic surgery, so often subordinated to the desires of the vain and superficial, had its origins in the noble ideal of restoring people to physical normality.

Harold Gilles, a Dead White Man. Healer of Mankind.

The truly disfigured.

Here's a link to a rather revolting You Tube video. For our more delicate readers, caution, it contains I suppose you could say sexual references.

As a follow up to the previous post on disfigurement, I thought I would comment on this video. The ugly are sorrowed by their ugliness, but not the character in our video. He seems to revel in his deformity. A bit like a greedy man singing the praises of his greed or a cruel man boasting about his cruelty. It's a disfigurement of his character, very hard to remedy.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Elephant Men

Its not very often that I read something that sends me into a bit of a rage. But anyway, this week I did. I will not link to the piece, since I feel that I will in someway, perpetuate the notoriety of the author and possibly contribute to the misery of his victims.

In a nutshell, the article viciously mocks the love of two unattractive people for each other. Furthermore, the author viciously mocks the unattractive for being so. It would have to be one of the most cruel and vicious pieces of writing I have ever read.

Normal human beings have a need to be loved. Even the vilest and most disfigured individual still seeks love. What gives The Elephant Man it's tragic pathos, is that locked underneath that hideous deformity, is an individual who feels and desires to be loved. As Joseph Merrick's friend, Sir Fredrick Treaves said:

...... Merrick always wanted, even after living at the hospital, to go to a hospital for the blind where he might find a woman who would not be repelled by his appearance.

Indeed, the characters in the movie, and in real life, who befriend and and saw the individual beneath the hideous visage, are ennobled by their actions. Likewise, those who exploit the individual for their advantage are seen as the corrupt demons that they are, tormenting the unfortunate for profit and compounding their misery.

But our author does "better".

Not only does he mock their unattractiveness, he mocks the love that they have for each other. He besmirches the little bit of joy they have in each other. He takes from the poor what little they have.

This author is not a sentimentalist. Beauty is to be preferred to ugliness, but to despise the unattractive for being so, is vile, especially if genetic misfortune is their lot. Nature is cruel. Good men are not. Loneliness is a curse, the unloved suffer, and though we may not be moved to erotically love the unattractive, we should not add to their pain or take what joy they have. Their little joys are worth far more to them than to the undeserving fortunate, who by the Grace of God, do not suffer as they do. As one commentator said, we're all a step away from a disfiguring illness.

The final word should go to Joseph Merrick.

"Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God.
Could I create myself anew,
I would not fail in pleasing you.

If I could reach from pole to pole,
Or grasp the ocean with a span,
I would be measured by the soul,
The mind's the standard of the man."

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Form without function.

Farnsworth house is truly beautiful architecture. Designed by Mies van der Rohe for a prominent urologist, Dr. Edith Farnsworth. The house is a triumph of aesthetic design. Architecture books sing the house's praises and the architect's vision. And who can argue? It's complimentary relationship with the environment, the way the structure is approached, how it sits above the ground, its clean lines all validate the greatness of its design. So I suppose it should not be to impolite to ask, what was it like to live in this triumph of modernism?

Crap actually.

According to Dr Farnsworth:
The truth is that in this house with its four walls of glass I feel like a prowling animal, always on the alert. I am always restless. Even in the evening. I feel like a sentinel on guard day and night. I can rarely stretch out and relax…What else? I don’t keep garbage under my sink. Do you know why? Because you can see the whole “kitchen” from the road on the way in here and the can would spoil the appearance of the whole house. So I hide it in the closet further down from the sink. Mies talks about “free space”: but his space is very fixed. I can’t even put a clothes hanger in my house without considering how it affects everything from outside. Any arrangement of furniture becomes a major problem, because the house is transparent, like an X-ray

A night, lit up like a lantern and situated as it was in a forest, the house was a beacon to insects from miles around. Fly screens were not designed for the house, as it would have spoiled the purity of the design, so you couldn't open a window. In winter it was freezing, in summer a furnace. The personally selected marble on the entry steps needed to be scrubbed regularly since the falling leaves tended to stain it. It was unlivable.

A house's primary reason for being is to provide us with shelter and comfort. If a house is unable to do this it has failed in its function. As a machine for living in, it is broken. Yet architects continue to praise this house lavishly. A beautiful house that cannot be lived in; a triumph of form over function. The triumph of Modernism, the failure of modern Architecture.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Form follows function.

No it doesn't.

Engineering is one of those fields where economy and efficiency of materials are highly prized. It, perhaps more than architecture, lives to the credo of "form follows function". Buildings and other engineering works, must satisfy the need that that willed their creation. A bridge that doesn't carry the load is useless.

However this philosophy places form subservient to function which I feel is not its proper place. By this same philosophy, if form does not contribute to function, it is deemed useless and wasteful. The architects agreed, ornament is a crime declared Adolf Loos. In a world of scarce resources, putting more into a structure than what is needed is a waste, and perhaps morally wrong. Accountants and economists would heartily agree. Efficiency uber alles.

Now lets take a look at this from a real world view. From an engineering point of view, both these women are the same. Both are capable of reproducing, performing useful work and both are capable of holding a conversation. The fact that the fatter one will probably die earlier than the thinner one--it's not a given-- is irrelevant if the "design life" is calculated at 60 years. From a functional point of view, both these women are the same. Their form is irrelevant.

And yet they're not. Clearly, though both satisfy the engineering criteria, one is preferable to the other. Likewise consider two bridges.

Both fulfill the same function of carrying traffic over a road, yet clearly they have different form. Most normal people would see one the more desirable than the other. Function alone is clearly not enough.

In an age where life expectancy was so much less than today due to poverty, disease and famine, our forefathers still felt it was worthy to ornament a structure in such a way as to make it both beautiful and functional. Our society baulks at the the cost, we are indeed mean and miserable men

Form should complement function. To hell with the modernists.