INCOMPATIBLE WITH LIFE
By The Paris Review
Issue 188, 2009
“We do not allow anyone to see it, let alone photograph it,” the director of Vienna’s Federal Museum of Pathology at the Narrenturm—the Tower of Fools—told Lena Herzog when she first attempted to visit. The Narrenturm, built in 1784, is also called the Madhouse Tower, so named because it was Austria’s first psychiatric hospital. But what drew Herzog to its door was its collection of what eighteenth-century monks in her native Russia called “lost souls,” and what nineteenth-century doctors described as “incompatible with life”— unborn fetuses and newborn infants who, by virtue of nature’s mutations, were unable to survive but who were preserved by early modern collectors as objects of scientific inquiry and private wonder.
These human and animal specimens were often displayed next to maps of the earth and of stars—evidence of a desire to define boundaries and map the unknown. Herzog has photographed a dozen of these extraordinary collections, including Tsar Peter’s Kunstkammer in St. Petersburg, the Mütter collection in Philadelphia, and ultimately the forbidden Narrenturm, where the photographs in these pages—the first to be published—were taken. Herzog first encountered the Petersburg collection as a student in 1988, and her reaction was swift and clear: “What I sawwas extraordinary and subversive. It defied belief. The collection of human anomalies, archived, preserved, and presented in a classified and yet highly stylized artistic form threw a wrench at what we hold most dear to our heart: the hope for a clear identity and a benign creation. The Russian Orthodox church declared the souls of these babies ‘lost’—they had no place in hell, heaven, or even limbo. They were dead on arrival and had nowhere to go. Yet what was in the jars shimmered with a strange beauty.” For Herzog, that strange beauty is “something that shocks with a promise of some answer but gives none.”