The first problem with cadavers is that they’re actually hard to come by. The early Italian anatomist Vesalius was known, on occasion, to send his students into cemeteries to obtain recently deceased corpses for his famously theatrical public dissections.
The second problem is that cadavers are…um…dead. All the muscles, viscera, nerves and ligaments are there in plain sight, but they’re still and lifeless. What’s more, the very act of dissection cuts their connection to the skin, prohibiting us from understanding precisely how the body’s internal mechanics give rise to a coherent outward appearance.
19th century French physiologist Duchenne de Bologne cracked this little conundrum. He discovered a way to perform living dissections through electrical stimulation, which is (slightly) less sadistic than it sounds.
Armed with a set of old-timey electrode thingies, he wandered Paris hospital wards, zapping the unsuspecting infirm. By applying the mild electric shock of his “faradization” device to specific points on the skin, Duchenne was able to provoke the action of individual muscles in isolation. This “vivisection without mutilation” allowed him to study the human muscular system in action, and his experimental results laid the foundation for such diverse fields as neurology, kinesiology, electrotherapy, blah blah blah.
In Duchenne’s zaniest, and hence most historically important work, The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression, the good doctor turned his voltaic probes to the human face. His goal was ambitious, to determine the exact muscle configurations behind every human facial expression, and thus chart the physiologically defined “language of the soul.”
Since effect of the charge only lasted for a few seconds, Duchenne became the first clinician ever to employ the exceedingly new-fangled technology of photography to document experimental results.
The iconic photograph above shows his principle subject, a toothless (and possibly mildly retarded) old man, his mm. platysma contracted to produce an expression of terror, to which “the horrible pain of torture has been added,” via lowering of the jaw and contraction of the mm. corrugator supercilii. The expression, according to Duchenne, “must be that of the damned.” Let’s look at some more of these:
Duchenne seems to have gotten a lot of flack for his choice of subject. “The old man photographed in most of my electrophysiological experiments,” he writes in a later version of Mechanism, “did have common, ugly features. To a sophisticated man [man of the world, cosmopolite, sybarite, voluptuary] such a choice may seem strange.” But in his own defense Duchenne claims he “did manage, with the help of my electrodes, to mark the lines of the highest sentiments and the most profound thoughts on the mundane surface of this dull forehead.”
Nevertheless, he released a subsequent “aesthetic” section, “in an attempt to placate those who possess ‘a sense of beauty’.” If the pictures of the toothless old man in Duchenne’s “scientific section” are creepy, his aesthetic section is actually legitimately horrifying.
It also gives us a glimpse into Duchenne’s weird artistic ambition. More than a scientist, Duchenne viewed himself as a critic of the fine arts, and an artist in his own right. With his electrodes and camera, he could literally sculpt portraiture with mathematical precision, thus revealing the shortcomings of other artists’ work. See below:
“There is only a very slight difference between the ecstatic expression of celestial love and that of terrestrial love…this is something that artists have seldom appreciated.”
His photographs are micro-dramas to showcase his theories:
“I wanted to show a little comedy, a scene of coquetry, a gentleman surprises a young lady while she is dressing. On seeing him, her stance and her look become disapproving (cover the bottom half of her face). Nevertheless, we note her nudity, which instead of covering she seems to reveal with a certain affectation. It is the mannered pose of her hand, which supports a rather overly revealed bosom. All this betrays her coquetry. The young man was becoming more audacious, but the words ‘Get out!’ pronounced in a scornful way by the girl, stops him in his enterprise (see only the left side of the lower half of the face). The mocking laughter that accompanies the amorous rejection (see the right side of the lower half of the face), we believe to mean ‘conceited ass!’ Perhaps she says also, much lower: ‘the fool, if he had dared…'”
“A mother comes to lose one of her infants. Another infant—the only one that remains—is equally gripped by a mortal illness; he is on the point of succumbing. Sitting at the foot of his cradle, she abandons herself to the greatest sorrow. Yet a last hope can save him. A crisis may deliver him! Clinging to the life of the poor child, she anxiously follows the progress of the disease and discovers in these features the first signs of this happy crisis; she cries: ‘He is saved!'”
Duchenne’s star pupil, Jean-Martin Charcot, went on to found the scientific discipline of neurology, a field made possible by Duchenne’s unique application of electricity to the study of muscle coordination. It’s been suggested that Duchenne’s sense of theatricality set the stage for Charcot’s renowned “Theatre of Hysteria,” where mental patients at the Salpêtrière, under the close direction of Charcot, would stage fits of insanity to the astonishment and delight of medical students and Parisian gentlefolk. Charcot’s star pupil was of course, Sigmund Freud, who built a career out of his own case histories of the hysterical passions.
More obscurely, Duchenne has been cited as an influence on anything from method acting, to plastic surgery, to filmmaking. The Greek-Australian avant-artist Stelarc (whose works include senselessly hurling himself through a pane of glass, and grafting a biologically engineered superfluous third ear beneath his arm) staged a number of performance pieces where audience members were able to control a substantial portion of his body via similar electro-localization methods.
Duchenne really did a lot of other things besides zap the faces of people with questionable autonomy, but he did so with such dispassionate zest that I just can’t be bothered to talk about anything else. You’re in the club Duchenne! We’ll see about Charcot and Freud later.