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

By Jonathan Strauss | Go to book overview
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FIVE
Pleasure in Revolt

Corpses and feces were linked through the notion of putrefaction, which led hygienists to conceptualize them as eternal opponents to the living, noxious elements that must be excluded from the city. Still, pre-Pasteurian theories of fermentation and decomposition revealed that the distinction between the forces of life and death was more difficult to define formally than it was to intuit, and this difficulty created a significant ambiguity about the relations between the two principles. That ambiguity appears to have reached out in other, more emotionally charged directions, for the abject and the dead also aroused a curiosity that sometimes bordered on fascination, an interest that seems, in the words of Peter Stallybrass and Allan White, to have borne the impress of desire.1 I will try to expose that desire in this chapter, to show how the enemies of life and the city exercised a disturbing allure over the scientific imagination. In what follows, I will first discuss the ways in which the dead were viewed as productive and even creative elements in the cycles of natural life and artistic invention. From there I will look at utopian projects for harnessing the latent powers of fecal matter for the redemption of humanity

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