Monday, June 05, 2017

Morbid Curiosities: Collections of the Uncommon and the Bizarre by Paul Gambino

In the late 80’s I came across a reprint of an 1896 pseudo-medical text entitled Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine.  This was a clinically lurid compendium of unfortunate and horrendous tumors, abnormalities, birth defects, and injuries.  Some of the stellar personages included poor Phineas Gage (who had a  large iron rod shot through his skull as a result of an industrial accident, and lived – one assumes with associated cognitive difficulty – to tell the tale), and Edward Mordrake, the (literally) two- faced individual whose extra visage allegedly tormented him with threats of damnation. There was also the Civil War soldier who became a papa by having a testicle shot clean through, with the projectile coming to rest in the womb of a fortuitously placed virgin.  My faulty memory tells me that the two became hitched, and presumably spent many happy hours telling Junior stories of his early accelerated motility. 
As entertaining as all of this is, you have to understand that Anomalies was a thick and well-illustrated tome, and the images, page after page, of unfortunately deformed infants - not to mention the cases of elephantiasis of the scrotum – were heart rending and nauseating enough that the volume soon satiated my morbid curiosity and ended up being shoved in some dark corner, before it was banished by means of donation or sale to some thrift shop or second-hand bookseller.
I’ll hazard a guess that most of the colorful characters in Morbid Curiosities have a copy of that esteemed treatise occupying pride of place in some enchanting tableau, amongst the fetal skeletons and serial killer ephemera.  I don’t begrudge these collectors their enthusiasms, but as Nietzsche once remarked, if one stares too long into the abyss, the abyss begins to stare back at you.  Let us not forget that behind every dead or deformed infant there is, one hopes, at least one broken heart.  I’ll admit that I probably meditate upon these misfortunes somewhat more than my fellow-travellers in this vale of tears (and here’s a plug for a couple of my favorite emporia, Uncommon Objects in Austin and Obscura in New York), but I’d have to say that the folks profiled in this book - one of whom is an owner of the aforementioned Obscura - are invested.
What this volume consists of, with ample illustrations, is biographies of various hipster collectors and photos of their treasures (the aforementioned infant skeletons must come cheap, ‘cause there are a hella lot of them). These folks holding court in their bone thrones share insights into their motivations and passions.  All of this is fine as far as it goes: I can imagine this circle of enthusiasts passing and signing copies of this work among themselves like some demented high school yearbook.  But I’d have to say that, as with Anomalies, a little of this one goes a long way.