Last Friday I made it to the Body Worlds Vital exhibit in town. The first real review I heard was months ago. A man walking ahead of me on the street said to his companion, “Damn, now that we saw that, whenever someone goes by I feel like I can see all of their moving parts.”That slightly queasy allure seemed to me the best promise of the exhibit, which features several human bodies that have been stripped of skin, set in plastinate preservative, and posed in action.
In the flesh (I can’t help it!) the sculptures delivered: A salsa dancer frozen in elegant pose, muscles taut and textured and revealing the real choreography that happens with millions of fibers and tendons and bones. A man with an improbable straw hat looking fairly casual for having no back, showing that there is nothing hasty or sloppy about how his insides are arranged in cages and coils.
What I didn’t expect were all of the warning labels. Bright yellow banners describing the causes and effects of the big baddies: stroke, Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, sclerosis. Corresponding exhibits showed hemorrhaged brains, blackened lungs, cross-sections of clotted arteries, slices of fatty flesh.
The signs irked me. Where’s the part about all of the stuff that goes right in a body? Pumping 5 liters of blood, moving 206 bones and 600-something muscles, the spiderweb nervous system that tells our brains what our eyes saw, literally in a flash.
I’d bet that on the exhibit proposal, it says that the signs are there to “educate” visitors. Somehow, education has become synonymous with spotting problems and mastering a list of don’ts. When my peers started with two minutes of “What’s working here?” in a writing workshop, I listened and blushed through what felt to me like a polite prelude to the “real” critique. When they started talking about what was wrong, that’s when I started taking notes. I was there to learn how to write, and we learn from our mistakes. Right? I recited it in elementary school. I whisper it to myself when I paw through my files of marked-up drafts and rejection letters. I repeat it as a teacher, imploring students to read beyond the letter on the top of their papers and to put some elbow grease into peer reviews. And, most everything we know about the human body comes from our efforts to figure out the many things that can go wrong.
To be negative is to be wise, discerning, even healthy. The shortcoming of this method is that it doesn’t offer any solutions. The focus on mistakes yields mostly no-no verbs: prevent, avoid, reduce, limit. Don’t.
Sitting in the writing chair or standing in the students’ shoes, I know the paralysis of analysis, of being burdened with so much critique that any next step seems impossibly daunting. And an earnest reader of those banners at the exhibit abuzz with admonitions—don’t breath this, ingest that, strain those—but little idea of anything new to do.
When it came time to make a new piece, I didn’t turn to my reams of no-no notes. I remembered what readers responded well to the last time, and tried to find a new way to do that again. Positivity is an animating force. That might have been the overwhelming joy of the exhibit. The cells keep moving, synapses firing, knees bending, despite infinitely variable and disruptive conditions. The impossible architecture is a self-fulfilling success. It works because it keeps working.
I hope to bring some of that propulsive energy to my own work this fall, to remind myself and my students to find the good thing that can be carried to the next class, discussion or text. It’s counter-intuitive to think of constant risk as the thing that keeps us alive, but when I see 37 trillion cells doing their things (times however many people I pass each day), pathogens and wear-and-tear be darned—I have to believe the willingness to try and keep trying is vital.