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Issue 211

Claire-Louise Bennett Takes a Scalpel to a 20th-Century Iconoclast

Short fiction inspired by Aby Warburg’s ‘Panel B’

BY Claire-Louise Bennett in Features , Roundtables | 19 JUN 20

The diagrammatic images of this panel depict ancient ideas about the relationship between the human body and the universe. They typically position the human figure at the centre of the cosmos, reflecting the belief, which prevailed from antiquity through the Renaissance, that the body is a microcosm of the universe. This notion had various iterations: the Zodiac (or Planetary) Man, Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (c.1490) and Hildegard von Bingen’s Universal Man (c.1152), which predates Da Vinci’s drawing by about 300 years. Proportion and equilibrium were key aspects of the correspondence between the visceral and the celestial.

Bloodletting – a common medical procedure that was practised right up until the late 19th century – was believed to balance the four classical elements present in blood: fire, earth, water and air. It was thought that each body part was governed by a different sign of the zodiac. Therefore, astrological charts were consulted before the physician took out his lancet and drew blood. 

Aby Warburg’s bookplate, designed by Almquist and Wiksell, 1912. Courtesy: The Warburg Institute, London

Feeling like a thigh bone from head to toe. Thick fabric of flesh to horse into on one side, swinging hemisphere of gristle and toothpick bones held on by a blighted schnoz on the other. Wobbly. Teetering into erratic revolution by this most uneven distribution.

What could rearrange this? Where to stand for symmetry? Where to walk for equal knees and focused eyes, and where to sleep without the wakefulness of one against the other? A plethora of blood surges, thrashes, gleams diabolically throughout my veins.

I am losing proportion. I am overabundant and all out of whack.

Give me the knife. Give it to me this instant! Yes, I’ll do it myself. Two thousand years of approved bloodletting on every corner the world over and now you’re calling it self-harm! Old habits die hard, my dear. I hanker after the exacting bite of the blade. My fleshy boundary does taunt me so!

Oh, how to sleep in such a full bed, and where to sever without dying?

There in the cold metal upsweep I see the Centaur rearing magnificently, his arrow cocked towards the keen heart of Scorpius. And I can feel, yes, galloping tides of blood rising. Rising left and right within my pale impatient thighs.

Close my eyes and slow down and the whetstone moon comes for me. Then the enlivening twang as Sagittarius’s bow releases and, all at once, I am perfectly harpooned. My skin. My skin. My skin attenuates and drifts.

Everything compacted and at odds beneath is loosened and released. The depths of me come to light as the luminous words of Hildegard constellate my unbridled soul: ‘Everything that is in the heavens, on earth and under the earth is penetrated with connectedness, penetrated with relatedness.’ Head over heels I cartwheel, outstretched upon a stick, amidst the greening air.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 211 as part of the roundtable ‘Speak, Memory’.

‘Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas Mnemosyne’, curated by Roberto Ohrt and Axel Heil, is a collaborative project between Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, Germany, and the Warburg Institute, London, UK. The accomanying folio volume ‘Aby Warburg: Bilderatlas MNEMOSYNE – The Originial’ is published at Hatje Cantz in April 2020. In autumn 2020 a commentary volume with detailed comments by the curators will also be published. The exhibition at Haus der Kulturen der Welt will also follow at the same time.

Main Image: Aby Warburg, Gertrud Bing and Franz Alber in Warburg’s suite in the Palace Hotel, 1929, Rome. Courtesy: The Warburg Institute, London

Claire-Louise Bennett lives in Galway, Ireland. She is the author of Pond (2015). Her short fiction and essays have appeared in publications including The White Review, gorse, Harper’s Magazine and The New York Times.