Autopsy Before
The Cameras
Part I
All is ready. On the floor, lamps on stands; on the walls, reflecting screens. On the table, an angelic, blond presence, from whose eyelids and cheeks color has fled, leaving behind such a wanness that none more troubling can be imagined. Not long ago this was a child; now it is a corpse, overspread by the coldness and clamminess of corpses, yet still retaining something of the living human presence. The livid hue, the icy chilliness, and the sunken outline cannot undo the ineffable residuum of humanity that clings to the newly dead: this is why dissectors often place a surgical towel over the cadaver's face before beginning their task. The recently departed are already unsentient husks, but their corpses may still be honored or outraged, exalted or vilified, reverenced or debased. The epic Homeric heroes fallen in battle were anointed, that their corpses should shine with a refulgence apt to strike awe in the hearts of their compatriots and their enemies alike. Dressed in magnificent armor, laid out on splendid biers, they were exposed to the admiration of all before being consigned to the fire. Only thus could their memory be forever enshrined in the chants of the poets. In contrast, the corpse of a hated foe was left to rot in the fields, dispossessed of all dignity. Achilles tied the corpse of Hector to his chariot and dragged it in the mud, that by covering it with filth it should be prevented from gaining everlasting glory. Devoured by vultures, torn to pieces by wild beasts, then incorporated into the substance of savage animals, the newly dead were disbarred from all the attributes of humanity and thereby excluded from the annals of human heroism.

I approach, scalpel in hand. Swiftly, unhesitatingly, I trace the long incision that starts the autopsy: the Y-shaped incision known to pathologists the world over since the times of the great masters, Virchow and Rokitansky. All the steps in the procedure are carried out in the traditional manner: the reflection of the skin flaps, the exposure of the rib cage, the removal of the chest plate, the exposure of the thoracic and abdominal viscera, the dissection of individual organs, the attentive canvassing of every structure, and the repeated sampling of tissues for bacteriologic culture and other specialized studies.

On the surface, this is an autopsy like any other. But the externals attending this procedure are so different that a peculiar sensation gradually seizes me. Save for the whirring of the camera, an unaccustomed, heavy silence prevails in the room. It is an oppressive, thick, almost palpable stillness, which serves as a background alternatively to the brief staccato of scissors or knives, then the low-toned adagio of the saw, and then the largo of the suction pipes. Moonlight sonata. For the light is lunar. There are no windows, and the clever arrangement of powerful white lamps and reflecting screens and shades has the effect of diffusing a silvery glare, a brightness such as a full moon might project upon a quiet lake on a cloudless evening. Surely, this effect must have been studiously calculated by the director and the lighting man, the illumination expert who, all things considered, has preferred to abscond before I appeared to trace the first incision.

The metaphor of moonlight shining on a quiet pond or lake seems ill suited to a scene of anatomical dissection, but I do not know how best to describe the strange, eerie, pearlwhite glimmer that floods the ambience. When the containers with liquid nitrogen are opened to receive pieces of tissue that must be frozen instantaneously for special studies, a vapor escapes that draws capricious arabesques in the air, like volutes with mother-of-pearl fringes. Then it seems as if we are all immersed in a perceptible thin ether, or as if we move in a submarine landscape.
Go on to Part II


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