Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius
Unbridled Books, 2009
In July 1997, I discovered a human skull in front of the Canadian Embassy in Beijing. From a distance and in the haziness of an exceptionally humid night, the luminescent orb looked like some awkward artificial lighting fixture. It looked intentionally placed there. Multiple scuff marks and grass stains suggested it had been bandied about as a makeshift soccer ball or had faced the kind of earthly cruelties which death, we console ourselves, disallows. Foolishly, I picked it up with the intention of bringing it back to Brooklyn; you might say I lost my head. If I had done so—a few hours of contemplation convinced me to return the object to its strange location—this review would probably be written from inside a Chinese prison.
Reading Colin Dickey’s enthralling Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius, I now wonder more about the Chinese skull’s history and the duration of the decaptitated’s journey from moment of death to embassy row. I also wonder if I just narrowly averted being a budding young cranioklept. This book does not clarify the issue for me, but it does provide a roving chronicle of how the heads of Sir Thomas Browne, Swedenborg, Haydn, and Beethoven, among others, were extracted, studied, lost, and sometimes found, as charlatans attempted to chart and ideally replicate creative mastery by studying the bumps, warps, welts, and seams of these deceased masters.
Dickey adroitly contextualizes the advent of this trade, a product of the Enlightenment’s dual obsessions with metaphysics and anatomy and the quest to locate the intellectual and moral
sensitivities of humankind in the substance of the physical self. What may have derived from noble intellectual and philosophical pursuits steadily descended into pseudoscience and techno-perversity. Dickey’s exacting history of skull-running shenanigans, of the evocative personalities and diverse milieux involved, also maps the wider implications of its heritage—how the practice permeated science to the extent that phrenology, anthropology, and psychiatry evolved from its quackery and were essential “to the programs of slavery and segregation, colonialism and imperialism, patriarchy and misogyny.”
Occasionally the historical veerings and cross-cuttings lead to disjunctive, confusing shifts.
More ease of transition would help redress intermittent whiplash and minor upheaval of the narrative. Nevertheless, Dickey spins these stories with a storyteller’s grace and a historian’s exactitude. Cranioklepty will join those books for popular audiences that delve into the origins of eccentric intellectual lore, whether madness and lexicography (see: The Professor and the Madman) or inventions and visions by depressives, maniacs, and malcontents. So be it: volumes dedicated to unearthing the historically obscure and perversely attractive have a place on my shelf near where my souvenir skull should be. How the pathological helps create “paths illogical” is always a source of curiosity. Human endeavor is forever inclined to oddity, and with this book, Colin Dickey provides a delightful illumination of one intriguing example of our quixotic pursuits.
Poet and critic Jon Curley is a New Englander currently living in New Jersey.