Posted by: meaplet on: May 16, 2009
As some of you may know, I recently returned from a trip to visit Ariel in London. We did a whole lot of tourism, but not necessarily the most traditional kind. For instance, while we did go to Buckingham Palace, it was not for the changing of the guards, and while we did go to the Tower, we spent a lot of time being enthusiastic about the Princes In the Tower and the Overbury Scandal and did not see the crown jewels at all.
In general, there were three main themes to our tourism: (1) the Undead (2) Renaissance court scandals (3) Mocking the Victorians. About points (2) and (3) there may be more later. For now, I present a portion of the Molly and Ariel Undead Tour of London: Zombies Wilde and Bentham.
Zombie Oscar Wilde can be found near the Charing Cross tube station, Trafalgar Square, and Covent Gardens. He is officially a statue called “A Conversation With Oscar Wilde.” Created by Maggie Hambling in 1998, the original intention of the statue, as far as I can tell, was to provide an interactive statue, a bench that one can sit on and have conversations with Wilde. The base of the statue reads “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” which perhaps implies that this particular incarnation of Wilde is spending his time on the sidewalk looking up out of a determined effort to live out his afterlife as a quotation, just as he lived out his life.
But the bench looks like a coffin and Wilde looks like he is decomposing, from the shape of the body, to the oxidized metal that forms him, to the fact that there are, mysteriously, starfish-shaped bits in his head. So, despite the flamboyant expression and the green carnation, the net effect is really rather creepy. When I saw the flamboyant statue of Wilde in Dublin I didn’t think that there could be a creepier incarnation (the Dublin statue looks like he is about to mock or molest the passerby). It turns out I was wrong.
Zombie Jeremy Bentham is something completely different. Rather than being a creepy zombie-like statue, Zombie Bentham is in fact the preserved skeleton of philosopher Jeremy Bentham, dressed in his clothing and in his accustomed position of thought. He wears a wax head, his actual skull being stored safely in the UCL archives. Bentham’s “Auto-Icon” was created according to a mandate in his will, and has been at University College London since 1850.
Bentham was one of the founders of the branch of ethics called “Utilitarianism,” which holds that the most ethical course of action is that which does good for the most people. It’s one of those philosophical arguments that sounds sensible at first, until you find scary modern utilitarians arguing that eugenics is reasonable and that one should blow up fat men in caves. (As usual I am constructing straw men for my own entertainment. Forgive me. They were delicious. So sweet and so cold.)
For a long time I asked myself: what is the purpose, from a Utilitarian perspective, of requiring that your body be preserved in a glass case with your name on it and put in a place for people to visit? It seems like rather a lot of work that doesn’t really do anyone much good. Having now visited the Auto Icon, I can say for certain: Zombie Jeremy Bentham has high utility, because he is AWESOME. I was giddier with Zombie Bentham than I was at any other time in my trip, despite seeing the Rosetta Stone on the same day.
Some Bentham myths I learned as a philosophy undergrad, which the Bentham exhibit at UCL claim are false:
To find Zombie Bentham go to either the Euston Square or Warren Street Tubes. Enter UCL on Gower Street between Grafton Way and University Street. Follow the signs to the South Cloisters, enter the building. There is a map inside that will direct you to Bentham, who is at the end of the hall.
Alternately, you can make a full day of your zombie travels by walking north through the city, starting with Oscar Wilde, taking a break to visit the mummies at the British Museum, and finally wrapping up your afternoon with Jeremy Bentham. Trust me, if you like the undead it’s the ideal way to pass an afternoon.
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