Food For Thought

by John Holbo on February 14, 2018

It was not until I had attended a few post‐mortems that I realized that even the ugliest human exteriors may contain the most beautiful viscera, and was able to console myself for the facial drabness of my neighbors in omnibuses by dissecting them in my imagination.

J. B. S. Haldane

I got that one from a book on thought-experiments [amazon]. How have I not come across it in a book about serial killers? I read both sorts of books, like any person with normal beliefs and desires, healthy impulses and interests.



John Holbo 02.14.18 at 5:04 am

Happy Valentines Day! Almost forgot!


Alan White 02.14.18 at 5:20 am

Sorensen is a real treasure to philosophy for his careful logical chutzpah. The fact that he included one of my philosophy songs “Antinomy” in his Paradoxes book is a particular point of pride for me. And his selection of Magritte’s Time Transfixed for the cover of his book is just icing on the cake of my own interests in the philosophy of time, having that poster in my office for 30 years.

Excuse me while I try my best to oenologically peck at my viscera to celebrate this, and caffeine-restore it tomorrow, Prometheus style.


bad Jim 02.14.18 at 5:52 am

Happy Ash Wednesday! Is one supposed to say that? More Haldane:

I wish I had the voice of Homer
To sing of rectal carcinoma,
Which kills a lot more chaps, in fact,
Than were bumped off when Troy was sacked.


Belle Waring 02.14.18 at 5:57 am

You forgot to wish me Happy Valentine’s, though. I’ll start: Happy Valentine’s Day! Maybe you should draw me a card with the heart exposed to the plain air, so that I could appreciate the beauty of cracked ribs and now-stilled indefatigable muscle.


John Holbo 02.14.18 at 6:38 am

With beating heart
I wish her a
Red day of
Healthy viscera?


casmilus 02.14.18 at 10:45 am

Ian McEwan’s novel “The Innocent” has a scene in which a dead body has to be cut up for disposal in a suitcase, with a very striking description of how all the bits fall out when you try to saw across the abdominal region. In the Author’s Note, McEwan thanked an anatomy prof for help with research.

His later novel “Enduring Love” also has a wincingly realistic description of a human body that has been dropped from a height and got lots of bones broken.


Neville Morley 02.14.18 at 12:49 pm

I seem to recall some congruent thoughts somewhere in J.G.Ballard’s semi-autobiographical writings, from his time as a medical student.


Adam Roberts 02.14.18 at 3:16 pm

I don’t want to sound like an H G Wells monomaniac (he’s buzzing around in my head, having so recently read his oeuvre) but a very late Wells novel, Babes in the Darkling Wood starts out as an uncomplicated love story between Stella and Jimmy, known as ‘Gemini’, with them having lots of healthy sex. Then Gemini decides he has to do his bit at the outbreak of WW2, joins the Soviet Army (they’re both communists) sees action during the German invasion of Poland and is invalided out via Sweden in a catatonic state. Back in England Stella slowly nurses him back to psychological health and the two marry, but Gemini can no longer have sex with her. He’s seen too many eviscerated and disemboweled bodies, and now can’t see the outer body, even the outer body of his beloved and beautiful Stella, except as a sack containing visceral horrors. Strikingly, that’s how the novel ends: no final resolution, just the two of them trapped in a sexless marriage. ‘Who would want to have anything to do with a woman again after that? Love! Just playing about with entrails, bloody entrails.’

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!


Joshua W. Burton 02.14.18 at 4:24 pm

“Un homme ne peut se marier sans avoir étudié l’anatomie et disséqué une femme au moins.” (Balzac, Physiologie du Mariage, Part 1, V.)


JakeB 02.14.18 at 9:10 pm


I also will admit to having taken an enduring dislike to Iain Pears’s writing after reading what struck me as dissection porn in “An Instance of the Fingerpost.”


LFC 02.14.18 at 9:55 pm

Don’t know a huge amount about H.G. Wells, but that novel Babes in a Darkling Wood sounds quite awful (with the protagonist apparently deciding he has to join the Soviet army during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact, and then later deciding he has to fight the Nazis — the novel, with a pub date of 1940, was published before Hitler invaded the USSR, so I guess we have to give the protagonist credit for changing his mind, or something, or did the Soviets arrest him as a British spy — whatever). Anyway, putting the plot to one side, it sounds bad, based on a glance at your Wells blog.


bad Jim 02.15.18 at 8:52 am

Thanks, Joshua W. Burton. Somehow I had it in my head that Percy Shelley had written that (in English, of course).


oldster 02.15.18 at 1:01 pm

Haldane parodying Aristotle?

“…It now remains to speak of animals and their Nature. So far as in us lies, we will not leave out any one of them, be it never so mean ; for though there are animals which have no attractiveness for the senses, yet for the eye of science, for the student
who is naturally of a philosophic spirit and can discern the causes of things, Nature which fashioned them provides joys which cannot be measured. If we study mere likenesses of these things and take pleasure in so doing, because then we are contemplating the
painter’s or the carver’s Art which fashioned them, and yet fail to delight much more in studying the works of Nature themselves, though we have the ability to discern the actual causes — that would be a strange absurdity indeed. Wherefore we must not betake
ourselves to the consideration of the meaner animals with a bad grace, as though we were children ; since in all natural things there is somewhat of the marvelous.

There is a story which tells how some visitors once wished to meet Heracleitus, and when
they entered and saw him in the kitchen, warming himself at the stove, they hesitated ; but Heracleitus said, ” Come in; don’t be afraid; there are gods even here.”

In like manner, we ought not to hesitate nor to be abashed, but boldly to enter upon our
researches concerning animals of every sort and kind, knowing that in not one of them is Nature or Beauty lacking.

I add “Beauty,” because in the works of Nature purpose and not accident is predominant; and the purpose or end for the sake of which those works have been constructed or formed has its place among what is beautiful. If, however, there is anyone who holds that the study of the animals is an unworthy pursuit, he ought to go further and hold the same opinion about the study of himself, for it is not possible without considerable disgust to look upon the blood, flesh, bones, blood-vessels, and suchlike parts of which the human body is constructed. ” (de Partibus Animalium I.v, A.L. Peck, trans.)

Aristotle: “bugs seem gross, but that’s because you’re focusing on the matter instead of the design that Nature makes with it. If you make that mistake, you’d think humans are gross, too. But humans are beautiful, not gross. So bugs are beautiful, too.”
Haldane: “meh, sometimes the matter is more beautiful than what Nature does with it.”


politicalfootball 02.15.18 at 2:09 pm

Haldane’s epigram makes me think fondly of Trump.


Bloix 02.15.18 at 3:01 pm

Banned commenter deleted


Adam Roberts 02.15.18 at 6:53 pm

LFC @11. It’s not Wells at his best, certainly.


T 02.16.18 at 2:07 am

John and Belle –

For all your future Valentines:

You’re welcome.


Zule Echo Charlie Hotel 02.16.18 at 3:40 pm

Valentines day! Oh yeah! guess what I did this year… I gave my wife a clean house with a house cleaning! :) That and a nice book, flowers and I stuffed pig. She grew up with a pet pig! :P

Hope everyone has a great week!


Wild Cat 02.16.18 at 6:24 pm

Derek Raymond/Robert Cook’s offbeat mystery “I Was Dora Suarez” also seemed to delight in gruesome sexuality. The nameless investigator even falls in love with her mutilated corpse and kneels down to lick it.


Glen Tomkins 02.17.18 at 1:43 am

The narrator of the Tale of a Tub had the opposite take on this subject:

“…in most Corporeal Beings, which have fallen under my Cognizance, the Outside hath been infinitely preferable to the In: Whereof I have been farther convinced from some late Experiments. Last Week I saw a woman flay’d, and you will hardly believe, how much it altered her Person for the worse.”


F. Foundling 02.17.18 at 11:13 pm

@ LFC 02.14.18 at 9:55 pm

First, as for the book, as far as I understand it, the communist protagonist doesn’t go to join the Soviet army, but to ‘find out the truth about Russia’, ‘witness the socialist future’ or something like that. He ends up witnessing the Winter War and becomes disillusioned with Soviet communism. Wells was not a communist but a vague socialist, and his attitude towards the USSR was generally rather nuanced, not firmly hostile but always somewhat distanced and sceptical.

Second, as for real life, being a Moscow-line communist meant believing that the USSR was the world’s only worker’s state and humanity’s main hope for a socialist future; and if one accepted that assumption, however debatable, it did make sense that one’s top priority would be to protect that state, not to fight fascism or any other form of capitalist regime at every possible moment. These people had something to strive towards, not just something to oppose. The Ribbentrop-Molotov pact was seen as a sly strategic move intended to protect the USSR, especially since the Western powers had previously rebuffed Stalin’s attempts to make common cause with them against Hitler (I’ve previously posted a link to this: I don’t believe that this position was truly justified, but I do think it was understandable.

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