DISTURBING CONTENT ADVISORY: This is a post about the practice of covering books in human skin, and some of the disturbing ways that has been viewed by its practitioners.
There were numerous articles in the news recently highlighting a scientific finding at Harvard that one of the books in the university’s collection is covered in human skin. There were three books that might have fit this description, and two were disproved. The third, however, is a genuine example of the practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy: covering books in leather made from humans.
In particular, I was struck by the article in the Washington Post. The author ends her article with the line, “The real thing that we might all wish had been fake.” This, of course, assumes that everyone reading the article agrees with her in wishing that books were never covered in human skin.
Okay, sure, it’s a little creepy at first instinct, but as a friend of mine pointed out, becoming a book after death is not such a bad fate, and is actually one quite a few people would aspire to. And the woman whose skin went into the book was not killed for it – she died of illness.
What is universally icky, though, is the inscription, which fetishizes her skin down to its very pores, along with fetishizing the book itself. The strangeness of this, combined with the more-than-vaguely necrophiliac feel of this sentiment, seems to get to pretty much everyone.
Thinking about it, I realized there’s a movie director who captures this beautifully, in one of the most stunning films I’ve ever experienced. That director is Peter Greenaway, who seems, based on his work, to have a genuine fetish for the written word. I don’t mean the content; I refer here to the actual physicality of books and writing. This shows up in both Prospero’s Books, one of my favorite films of all time starring John Gielgud, and a far less disturbing example for those who want to experience Greenaway’s style, and in The Pillow Book, which features multiple characters who paint calligraphy on each other’s skin as an exploration of sexuality. It begins with the sweet concept of a father writing blessings in calligraphy on his daughter’s face as a birthday ritual. It becomes slightly twisted as she equates writing with love, and is willing to subject herself to what she perceives as degrading levels of fetishization to receive it. Eventually, this turns gruesome, and there is a slow poisoning scene which is disturbingly visually beautiful, done so that the writing on a person’s skin will be preserved as a manuscript, all with breathtaking French music in the background. The movie is both ethereal and obscene, both to extremes.
While, in both the movie and in the case of the Harvard manuscript, the lack of consent on the part of the fetishized person is disgusting (oddly, there’s more sexual consent in the film, even in the murder scene), the film captures the writing fetish in such intimate fashion that it becomes comprehensible to the viewer. A fetish for books doesn’t seem so alien after all. It may not be your thing, but if you’re looking to make some sense out of this particular news bit, and are prepared for some psychological drama, you may want to try the film.