I have no idea yet how I will respond to my own “brain in a jar.” But it has set me thinking about how pervasive this cultural trope is, and how much is invested in it. There is something disturbingly intimate about seeing, perhaps even touching, the brain of another person, and it’s not surprising that the image features in tales of transgression both real and fictional. A heart preserved in formalin is often seen as mere inert offal, but we seem to suspect that within the soft clefts of the human brain the person themselves somehow resides—or at least clues to what made them who they were.
So the brain in a jar has become a potentially misleading avatar of self. Its grey folded surface represents an illusory boundary between everything we know and everything outside of that knowledge.
By the time I went home, I’d seen a hundred soft dicks, hanging from men taking walks in the woods, hanging from men eating chocolate éclairs, resting like thumbs upon beanbag chairs, and hanging from grandpas and 11-year-old boys. By then I could say I’d grown bored of all the breasts — the mosquito-bite boobs and the honkin’ big naturals, the mastectomy scars and the ingenious bolt-on racks. My only real shock was how fast I inured to the sight of an ass that hung elegant like drapes. As it turns out, anything beautiful or grotesque can become boring with enough exposure. I saw zero public boners, and heard two public farts. If I had not been there, naked myself, I might now say that nudity is not a big deal.
I traveled to the Eastern Naturist Gathering in June, clothed and nervous, by way of rented Hyundai. I was sent there not to leer at naked bodies, but to see if I could prove, by way of contradiction, what we accomplish when we choose to wear clothes. The festival was hosted by the Naturist Society, a club for family-friendly nude recreation. I was allowed to attend as a writer so long as I agreed not to name where it was held: at a rented overnight camp, out of sight from any highway.
“I live on West 76th Street, near Broadway,” said the mother on the playground, as we watched our girls romp on the jungle gym.
I hesitated. Then I replied that I had a friend who had jumped out a window on that block many years ago. “That man was a friend of yours?” she asked. I was taken aback; evidently the story had traveled the neighborhood and was a frequent anecdote. I thought of Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. “My, you do like a good story, dontcha?” she asks Sweeney suggestively.
Let’s suppose you are a novelist writing fiction set in an historical era. Ask yourself this question: What reader from 1817 would recognize themselves in a novel written 200 years later? That reader would collapse in a cold swoon and wake up bereft and bewildered. The novelist can expertly summon a voice. They might evoke with uncanny accuracy the morals and codes of an era. For sure they will step carefully through the minefield of anachronisms—or blow themselves up in the name of revisionism. But any idea of an authentic past in the novel is illusion—the historical novel is an act of prestidigitation.