The Art of Dissection

Jac Saorsa: Artist-in residence// (The following is an extract from my PhD in creative writing. A work in progress!)

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;

Our meddling intellect

Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things

We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;

Close up those barren leaves;

Come forth, and bring with you a heart

That watches and receives.

(from Wordsworth, The Tables Turned)

‘But to abstract from nature is not as effective as to dissect it’

Francis Bacon, Novum Organum

‘…the parts that’s comprise the human identity: the body and the proper name. The body belongs to the order of nature, the proper name to the order of culture;’ Mazzoni, Theory of the Novel

She hasn’t a name, my new dead friend. Well, strictly speaking she does (did?) have a name but it is one that I do not need to know. Instead I must give her another name, a pseudonym, as I have done with the others. But I am finding it difficult this time and I am not sure why. She is lying supine on the steel table. She is extraordinarily slender, hardly any surplus fat at all from what I can see, and her pale skin, stripped of its superficial identity by the Thiel embalming fluid, shimmers, silvery and translucent under the light. Her head is turned slightly towards me, hollow eyed. The cadaverous gaze is empty, yet at the same time it is full of the shadows of a life and as I stand in the soft umbra of it I feel an enveloping sense of wonder. The expression is fixed, open mouthed. It is surprisingly calm, despite the contortions of features that have been wrought and shaped by the embalming process, and somehow expectant, questioning even. I move closer, stand over the body and I feel the familiar, yet each time very strange sensation of the other’s death. I involuntarily shake my head. Perhaps my interpretation of the expression, the ‘mood’ simply reflects my own anticipation for what I am about to do.

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The Chosen Ones, oil on canvas 4’x4′

Sam, the anatomy technician is hovering. She is also expectant, wanting my approval of her choice of cadaver. ‘Is she OK for you?’ she asks. ‘We tried to find you a slender one.’   I smile, nodding. ‘She’s perfect. Thanks so much, as always.’ Sam seems pleased. ‘Well, she says cheerfully. ‘You have your tools I see. Just grab any blades or anything else you need from the store. There are classes in here through the week but you will be fine here in your corner. It’s the lower limb this year huh?’ ‘Yes.’ My gaze centres on the cadavers legs. One is intact and perfect for what I want to do. The other carries the neatly sewn cut above the femoral triangle where the tube for had been inserted into the femoral artery during embalming. But there was something else too, something odd. The thigh looks unnatural, misshapen, as if the bones inside were broken. But Sam is waiting. She has work to attend too and I am holding her up. I look up from the cadaver. ‘Sorry. Yes. I’m wanting to take the leg down from the inguinal border to the foot if that’s OK?’ She laughs, ‘No worries, Jac. That’s fine. And the leg is such an interesting dissection.’ Sam’s enthusiasm is infectious. ‘Uh huh’. I nod again, distracted. ‘I’ll take it slow, as with the arm… I want to make it – well, I want to retain the beauty of it, treat it as a piece of art… you know me!’ Sam chuckles. It is not easy to know what she is really thinking since art and beauty are strange ideas in this overtly functional space where dissections are normally carried out within the rigorously objective regime of science or practical education. But I still feel welcome, accepted, respected in this world where my ideas and ways of thinking, my subjective explorations into relations between the living and the dead maybe alien, but nevertheless seem to pique at least curiosity, if not interest. As such, I am granted unhindered passage between studio and lab and, although I might be a round peg in a very square hole I still fit. I have simply ground off the hard edges and created space in the corners that allow me to see better, feel more. Sam takes her leave, but at the door of the lab she pauses for a second and looks back and says, ‘It’s good to see you again Jac. Have fun!’ I look up from the cadaver to respond, but too late, the door sighs to a close and she has gone. I am alone, back in the lab in the company of the dead. They lay all around me, all hidden under their heavy blue or green or orange covers, all except my lady, and now I know her name… Maureen. I am reading Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea. Maureen is a name loosely related in meaning to the sea. So, Maureen. I pull on the purple latex gloves, slide a shiny new blade onto the scalpel handle. I turn back to the table. ‘Hello Maureen. It’s just you and me now.’

I pull the scalpel cleanly through the skin of Maureen’s left thigh, from the inguinal ligament on the pelvis to the centre of the knee. There I incise a circular cut around and just above the knee and make another cut lengthwise down the leg from knee to ankle. The skin is surprisingly thin and no effort is involved in removing it except for the care I need to take in making sure I get it off cleanly and avoid severing any of the superficial vessels that nestle, delicate and vulnerable within the superficial fascia. I flay the skin to around mid thigh and then leave leave it attached at the lower edge so that I can fold it back over the leg at the end of the day. It will help ensure that the flesh underneath does not dry out too much. For now I stretch it out over the steel of the table where it lies moist, simultaneously dull and shiny, a fleshy pink in its semi-transparent splendour. It looks like the fragment of a shroud and, as I scan the horizon along the whole of the leg that it once covered and protected, I become a predator, seeking a wounded prey. I have a clear view now of the great saphenous vein. A major vessel the saphenous vein is remarkable in that it is the longest vein in the body and runs all the way up the inside – the medial side – of the leg from the foot to the pelvis. Although it is an important vein in life for normal blood circulation through the leg it can be removed, without excessive trauma, and used in heart bypass surgery. In such a case, other venous vessels in the leg will adequately take over the role of the saphenous vein. The adaptability of the body is always impressive. Maureen’s saphenous vein is blue and flattened. It quivers at my touch as I slowly follow its path through the tiny amounts of yellow fat that surround it, gently releasing its loose hold on glistening silver web of superficial fascia so that it hangs, flaccid, subjugated, from the leg. Smaller veins that the great saphenous gives off together create a network that retains albeit tenuous connections with the skin and with the flesh of the leg. I save what I can, but these tiny vessels along with the superficial nerves are unavoidable casualties of the process.

Beneath the delicate fibres of the superficial fascia I can see the reddish bulk of the muscle groups that make up the thigh. The quadriceps – the four heads – are defined on the surface by the vastus medialis, the vastus lateralis and the rounded profile of the rectus femoris that sits between them, holding them apart with its centred superiority. The fourth member of the group, the vastus internus, lies deep – deeper than I am prepared to go at this stage but soon it too will be exposed to the measure of my probing. The adductor group creates the triangular form of the inner thigh where the leg meets the body and there, between the quads and the adductors, is the femoral triangle, the depression through which large neurovascular vessels pass and over which the inguinal ligament forms the boundary between leg and body. And… Oh! the sartorius! It is a beautiful ‘ribbon’ of a muscle that traverses transversally over the thigh from the pelvis to all the way to just below the knee. It is so thin and yet so strong and I although I knew, I never really knew – at least not until now – that it is so thin. It is like a larger version of the facial muscles; impossibly thin yet capable of both flexion and rotation of the heavy limb. Its name, sartorius, derives from the Latin sartorius, meaning tailor; thus, the ‘tailor’s muscle. It refers to the cross-legged posture, supposedly assumed by tailors, which defines the full range of movement aided by the muscle itself, together with with the rest of the muscles in thigh of course because strong as it is the sartorius, relatively, is still a weak muscle – simply an additional force, a synergist rather than the primary mover.

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Clean Hand, oil on canvas 2’x 1.5′

 

 

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