PRATIE PLACE

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

[Hannah]: On a Sad Day, Here's Someone with a Lighter View of Mortality

Meet Jeremy Bentham, English philosopher guy (1748-1832):
Bentham's position included arguments in favour of individual and economic freedom, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the end of slavery, the abolition of physical punishment (including that of children), the right to divorce, free trade, usury, and the decriminalization of homosexual acts. He also made two distinct attempts during his life to critique the death penalty....

Also, he apparently took a fairly light view of his own mortality:
At the end of the South Cloisters of the main building of University College London stands a wooden cabinet, which has been a source of curiosity and perplexity to visitors. The cabinet contains Bentham's preserved skeleton, dressed in his own clothes, and surmounted by a wax head. Bentham requested that his body be preserved in this way in his will made shortly before his death on 6 June 1832. The cabinet was moved to UCL in 1850.

Not surprisingly, this peculiar relic has given rise to numerous legends and anecdotes. One of the most commonly recounted is that the Auto-Icon regularly attends meetings of the College Council, and that it is solemnly wheeled into the Council Room to take its place among the present-day members. Its presence, it is claimed, is always recorded in the minutes with the words Jeremy Bentham - present but not voting. Another version of the story asserts that the Auto-Icon does vote, but only on occasions when the votes of the other Council members are equally split. In these cases the Auto-Icon invariably votes for the motion.

Bentham had originally intended that his head should be part of the Auto-Icon, and for ten years before his death (so runs another story) carried around in his pocket the glass eyes which were to adorn it. Unfortunately when the time came to preserve it for posterity, the process went disastrously wrong, robbing the head of most of its facial expression, and leaving it decidedly unattractive. The wax head was therefore substituted, and for some years the real head, with its glass eyes, reposed on the floor of the Auto-Icon, between Bentham's legs. However, it proved an irresistible target for students, especially from King's College London, who stole the head in 1975 and demanded a ransome of £100 to be paid to the charity Shelter. UCL finally agreed to pay a ransome of £10 and the head was returned. On another occasion, according to legend, the head, again stolen by students, was eventually found in a luggage locker at a Scottish Station (possibly Aberdeen). The last straw (so runs yet another story) came when it was discovered in the front quadrangle being used for football practice, and the head was henceforth placed in secure storage.

Many people have speculated as to exactly why Bentham chose to have his body preserved in this way, with explanations ranging from a practical joke at the expense of posterity to a sense of overweening self-importance. Perhaps the Auto-Icon may be more plausibly regarded as an attempt to question religious sensibilities about life and death. Yet whatever Bentham's true motives, the Auto-Icon will always be a source of fascination and debate, and will serve as a perpetual reminder of the man whose ideals inspired the institution in which it stands.


So ... oh man, this is so gross... but pictures of Jeremy Bentham and the surplus head in his Eternity Closet are all over the internet.... ew! I'm not posting the picture out of respect for this family blog, but if you want to take a look - and Bentham would have wanted you to, he didn't think there was a need to take death so seriously.... it's here. You know you want to click it! See? Gross!!!!

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