Jonathan Strauss, Human Remains: Medicine, Death and Desire in Nineteenth-Century Paris

Jonathan Strauss, Human Remains: Medicine, Death and Desire in Nineteenth-Century Paris (New York: Fordham University Press 2012) 410 pp. $40.00 Pb, $105.00 Hb. ISBN: 9780823233793

Human Remains is an intimately gory book that chronicles the dramatically dynamic relationship that nineteenth-century Parisians had with the dead. In an expertly detailed investigation of multiple levels of Parisian society, Strauss skillfully analyses the rising hygienist movement. He unpicks the radical wave of urban development, the abject fear of putrefying miasmas and the corresponding uncanny desires in contemporary society. He provides a thorough background and sound theoretical underpinning for this paradigmatic shift, unpicking the complicated causal factors and analysing their origins psychoanalytically. He perfectly evokes the tone of the time, using a varied evidence base of medical treatises, works of literature, visual art, political rhetoric, as well as personal letters and communications. Strauss writes in an easy and readable style, and the fascinating subject matter means that this text will not be of interest exclusively to the specialist academic. It will be of particular interest, of course, to students of nineteenth-century French literature, architecture, visual art and urban planning. It will be of even greater interest to those exploring the fears and desires that motivated the developments within these fields: an abject blurring of the boundary between life and death as a manifestation of anality and fantasm.

The main achievement of this work is the new element it lends to the Foucaultian account of power structures within the nineteenth century.1 Strauss presents a comprehensive theory of the politics of death. He charts how death was wrested from the traditional channels of (i) the church (in respect of the afterlife and interment of remains) and (ii) the state (in respect of capital punishment) by the rising authority of medicine. Strauss convincingly argues that this shift in the balance of power had the consequence of revealing an abject transgression in the public consciousness between life and death. Identifying a shared conceptual area of no-man's-land between the two, and situating them as intricately linked processes rather than two states in binary opposition. Strauss uses numerous sources from a wide variety of spheres of nineteenth-century thought to show that the hygienists and other thinkers of this period desperately tried to reduce this indeterminable region by redefining ‘life‘ and ‘death.’ Strauss demonstrates however, that in doing so they brought death alive, embodying it as a putrefying, oozing, miasma of a concept with its own powerful agency. This reinforced the already existing abjection. These mental struggles and their reverberations are presented through an exciting and novel analysis that will be of great interest to anyone researching any aspect of any of the areas outlined above.

This text will also be of great use to any researcher focusing on explaining these psychological factors. Strauss follows Kristeva’s exploration of the abjectivity of corpses and unpicks this from within a psychoanalytic framework of fantasm.2 Strauss is clear, convincing and concise, and he has an extensive supply of examples that evidence his argument well and draw in the reader through examples featuring gore, terror and desire. The argument is clearly set out in the introduction and it is difficult to question his final conclusions – that the hygienic city was itself 'an instrument by which the abject could be removed from contact with the human' (280).  Strauss demonstrates that the immense development in urban space, scientific thought and public attitudes towards death were all symptoms of, and an attempt to escape from, the intimate intermingling between life and death.

In Chapter One Strauss explores historical cases of necrophilia, and explains how the medical community utilised this issue to gain authority in matters concerning death. In Chapter Two he explains how they expanded on this success via the language of nonsense and madness to gain control at the expense of the traditional authorities of the church, and the state. In the next few chapters Strauss explains how these developments came to express themselves through urban planning, before narrowly focusing on the heart of his content matter, in the form of how the framework of putrefaction led to the embodiment of death and was granted conceptual agency. He then provides some contemporary positive understandings of death, arguing against a few of the nuances of the Foucaultian account. Strauss goes on to show how some of the theory described thus far can be usefully applied to contemporary visual art and literature such as Redon, Balzac, Hugo, and Flaubert, taking care to show the connections with the scientific publications of the time from Darwin and Haeckel. He then returns to his analytical focus and examines the forces underpinning the abjection of death, and the anality and fantasm that underlay this in turn.

One less satisfying aspect of the book, whilst still instructive and enjoyable, is the chapter exploring how these forces manifested themselves through contemporary artists. Although for the general reader this represents a fascinating background, the analysis is neither as detailed nor as comprehensive as other sections of the book. One of the core strengths of Human Remains is its structure. With the exception of this chapter, it is clear exactly how each chapter contributes to the argument as a whole. The bulk of the historical context is conveniently placed in the first few chapters, immersing the reader in the period and giving them a full appreciation of the subsequent analysis of the underpinning contemporary psychological forces. The application of this analysis to contemporary artists some five chapters later jolts us out of the developing argument, and although it helps to evidence and articulate some of the claims made, it would have been far more in place at the beginning of the book. It feels like it has been shoehorned in, and interrupts the powerful thrust of the argument.

This being said, the book, in all of its putrific glory is a significant achievement. The pages pullulate with life and death, and the mesmerizing world of nineteenth-century Paris will at once disgust and entice you. This is a book that trades powerfully on its academic credentials, but which deserves equal success in a more popular sphere for its ability to communicate the morbid fascination of its subject matter.

Joe Holloway, University of Exeter

1 See for example Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics (London: Palgrave 2004)
2 See Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror (New York: Colombia University Press 1982 )