Much Chaff, Little Wheat

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Title: Love and Other Ways of Dying

Rating: 3 Stars

Boy, this is a tough one. For a long time it was on its way to a 2 star rating. The essays were universally on subjects that were interesting.  You’d think that an essay on Einstein’s brain, spending time with a guy that lived for 15 years at an airport and was the basis for the movie Terminal, the Columbine shooting, and a mysterious, allegedly amnesiac man with apparently no interest in learning about his past, would all be fascinating subjects for an essay.

However, they all seemed to be bland. They were all, at best indirectly affecting. Paterniti basically wrote about the impressions that these subjects had on himself. I understand that injecting your own perspective into an essay is a common technique. It’s just that I found Paterniti’s perspective uninteresting. I received no insights from him and I often didn’t even feel much of an emotional connection to the subject at hand.

I felt that way for the bulk of the essays. The two essays on food, one about the chef from the famous restaurant elBulli and one replicating Mitterrand’s last meal, seemed to be particularly self-masturbatory in the writing. The one about an accident that his friends were in when he was growing up seemed even more self-indulgent.

What saves it and bumped to a borderline 3 star review is the essay on Cambodia. He visits the site of the most repressive death camp, S-21, during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Out of about fifteen thousand people that went into the camp, something like seven survived, and he was able to interview one of the seven.

This essay, in its horror and unblinking look at the unspeakable acts that people can inflict upon one another, is truly a moving and profound piece. This is even more important because that time in Cambodia, during which 1.5 million people were murdered out of a population of 7 or 8 million, is every day becoming fainter in memory to those still living. In another twenty years, it will be as forgotten as the Armenian genocide, which is in every way a tragedy.

This essay alone made the collection worthwhile.

There were others. One especially noteworthy was (again with the genocide!) the story behind Penkopf’s Anatomy. The anatomy was developed over a twenty year period and was considered to be the authoritative text book on the human anatomy, including highly detailed, beautifully drawn pictures of the human body. What makes this interesting is that Pernkopf was not only an Austrian living in Nazi Germany (after the Anschluss), but was an early fan-boy of Hitler who joined the Brownshirts even before it was legal to do so in Austria. One of his first acts as the institute’s director was to start expelling Jews from the faculty. He was imprisoned after the war, but even then continued to work on his masterpiece. It was ultimately completed after his death.

This became the authoritative source for anatomy. In the mid 1990’s, it came under a cloud of suspicion because it appears that some of the cadavers used as models for the anatomy came from concentration camps.

This understandably brought about a number of ethical dilemmas. It is an invaluable resource for anatomists, but was it worth the cost of creating it? Should it be discarded even if it still has value? The paintings themselves are beautiful; does this fact alter their beauty or aesthetic value?

This essay covers multiple people with multiple viewpoints. It tells this story, of which I knew nothing, compellingly.

Collections of essays are always a hit or miss affair (unless you’re David Foster Wallace). This contained way more misses than hits, but the hits were quite outstanding.

 

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