Ten days ago or so, taking the Q subway across the Manhattan bridge, with sudden, momentary night views of the Brooklyn Bridge festooned with yellow lights opening up through the windows of one side of the car, I noticed a row of ads for “Bodies: the Exhibition”. “Twenty human specimens, 200 organs and over 2000 fascinating facts about the body”, it trumpeted. The ads show a body / corpse of Sino-origin, eyes open, arm tendons extended in a kind of lunge, surreally, literally, playing beach volleyball. Meat and muscle, fibia and tibia exposed, ligaments doing their thing. This exhibition is travelling the world “under franchise”, most probably in most of the capitals of the Western world, and the Dubais and Singapores of the East at this moment. It is interesting just how many of these “specimens” are young, healthy people, suspiciously of Chinese extraction. China, of course, has a surfeit, a wealth of “excess” population, and the Communist Party is well known for continuing the Emperors’ disregard for their subjects. In this, at least, there is historical continuity. How many young, apparently healthy men and women, executed by a single pistol shot to the base of the skull, are now touring the world like reheated victims of Sachenhausen? One must be careful in these kind of comparisons, of course, but if what commuters are tiredly, idly looking at as they travel home from work is indeed the commodification of the executed victims of state terror sold on to the West as an exhibition, humanity-as-product, then the implications are, at the very least, sinister and disturbing.

A footnote to the ad reads: “Premier cannot independently verify the provenance of the human remains in this exhibit.”

No. Really?

Ultimate Subway Attention Seeker (and The People of the Book)

7th September, 2010

Earlier, there was an African-American kid with a pink-orange dyed mohican (just that haircut alone would have qualified him as an attention-seeker) with a white domesticated rat, kissing it, loving it with his lips, letting it crawl half into his mouth (the rats that had been crawling under the tracks among the trash down on the lines of the F just before the train came into West 4th Street station flashed into my head. Their survival instinct keeps them from the third column of the electrified third rail). People were taking pictures with their phones, others laughed as they recoiled down the carriage to get away from him.

All that time, a man in a black suit and black skull cap was reading a Hebraic text. He’s to my left, and is clean-shaven; so does that mean he’s not Orthodox? He is, in every appearance except for the lack of a crazily exuberant beard. To my right in olive garb, a man who might be from the Horn of Africa is reading what could be the Qu ‘ aran: hardback, as ink-black as the Black Stone of Mecca, with gold calligraphy on the cover. Curious. As I write this from left to right, he and the Jewish man from Asia Minor are reading right to left. I am sitting in between. I wouldn’t say, “equidistant.” I just happen to be. And, as an agnostic / lapsed Catholic-by-tradition, do I qualify as belonging to the People of the Book? Does that claim cut any ice among the Believers, the separatist religious tribalists of this world of now, where the extremes dictate, and the “middle ground” of all traditions is reviled?

I –  don’t – Think –  so.

An Asian woman in a grey vest and light purple shorts sits opposite me, looking anxious, holding a notebook in which she’s been writing in Chinese script. The man from Africa is writing, in pencil, the most beautiful, light-touch glosses and annotations that look more like a breeze on the water than writing. Or a flowing Cubism, something that is pure representation with no images, as if herons or cranes were lightly printing the page. Now he’s rubbing a cologne onto his hands, wrists and neck that smells something like Tea Tree oil, or some mysterious, refreshing smell. I enjoy observing the deliberate ascetic refinement with which he does everything. It belongs to a different world. It reminds me of the smell of the “Mosque” section of E.M. Forster’s Passage to India. It could be the odour of tolerance.

I enjoy the way they read. There’s such an air of peace and containment about it in the subterranean world.