There are a lot of stories told in Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius, and most of them involve the human skull. Take, for example, the story of singer Therese Rosenbaum, who found herself one winter's day in 1820 pretending to be ill in bed, only so that the authorities would not discover that she had a stowaway under the sheets: the skull of composer Joseph Haydn, a treasured family friend.
Ten years before, Therese's husband -- Joseph Rosenbaum -- had orchestrated the removal of Haydn's head from both body and grave, only days after attending the funeral. From there, Rosenbaum took Haydn's head to a hospital, where the composer's flesh and brain were removed and unceremoniously disposed of in the hospital furnaces. Rosenbaum had not been so irreverent with the leftovers from his first experiment, the head of singer Elizabeth Roose, and one can only assume that the casualness of the disposal added to the emotional circumstances, which Rosenbaum ultimately recorded in his journal. At least in Roose's case, Rosenbaum had invited several of her friends over for a post-funeral funeral.
Why would a man choose to decapitate a good friend after death, to preserve his friend's skull in a glass vitrine, and to ask his own wife to take the skull to bed when the authorities came knocking?
This is the question that author Colin Dickey sets out to answer, and the answer comes down to a belief held by several 19th-century pseudosciences that the human skull was a map of both personality and ability. Dickey charts two courses at once: the rise and fall of organology, phrenology, and craniometry (all arguably precursors, though dubious ones, of modern day anthropology), and the stories of four skulls (those of Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Sir Thomas Browne, and Emanuel Swedenborg) and one set of bone fragments, currently in the holdings of San Jose State University, whose original owner was Ludwig von Beethoven.
Along the way, Dickey raises questions about the roles of authenticity and preservation in the field of cultural memory, as well as the influence these practices had on eugenics. He also keeps a sense of humor -- apparently Walt Whitman was so invested in proving his keen intelligence that he continually altered the bumps on his phrenological charts, making them bigger each time.
While skulls have always carried weighty symbolism, Dickey proposes that in the 19th century, European society's relationship to the human skull went through a significant series of shifts: between Enlightenment and Romantic ideals and modern ones; between a belief in the body as the physical location of the soul and the primacy of the brain; and from the idea that your intelligence and value in society are dictated by your birthright to that of biological destiny, or even free will.
As I mentioned, Cranioklepty is full of stories, at times to a fault. The book spans about 150 years of history, so there's a new name every 5 to 10 pages. There's also a staccato rhythm to the book's transitions that takes a while to get used to. However, storylines and characters are returned to, and the whole thing begins to feel less like an attempt to conjure Leonardo da Vinci, with his clearly delineated foregrounds, mid-grounds and backgrounds, and more like a work by Hieronymus Bosch or Bruegel the Elder -- a giant world made of many little pieces, all gathered together inside the same, solid frame.