The Best American Magazine Writing
PerennialCopyright © 2004 American Society of Magazine Editors
All right reserved.ISBN: 0060749539
The Most Dangerous Beauty
You are not supposed to look at Pernkopf's Anatomy. It is a thing of wonder, a breathtaking book that maps the human body in elaborate detail and vivid brushstrokes. But it was born of nightmare science, marred by the stamp of swastikas, and now the world has banned it. Still,one man couldn't stop looking.
Beneath this black roof, on a well-clipped block, in asmall midwestern town on the Wabash River, a professorwakes in the dark, confused at first by an outlineunder the sheets, this limp figure beside him in bed. From some primordial haze slowly comes recognition, then language: bed, sheets, wife ... Andrea. He kisses her and rises. He is 58 years old, and he wakes every morning at this ungodly hour, in his finely appointed brick house with exploding beds of lilies, phlox and begonias. After three heart attacks, he goes now to cardiac rehab.Wearing shiny blue Adidas sweats, he drives off in the family's Nissan. Once at the medical center, he walks briskly on the treadmill, works the cross-trainer machine and then does some light lifting. It's a standing joke that if he's not there at 6 A.M. sharp, the staffshould just put on ties and go straight to the funeral home. After his workout, as he drives to his house, the town glows in a flood of new light; the river bubbles in its brown banks as the flies rise; the lawns are almost too bright, green with beauty and rancor.
He feels better for this visit, more alive, as if it's a daily penance ensuring him another day on earth, another chance to breathe in the smell of cut grass before a spasm of summer lightning. He takes Lopressor, Altace and aspirin to thin his thick blood. Even now fragments accumulate, arteries begin to clog, his cardiac muscle weakens, slows, speeds again to make up time. There is so little time.
He wears his silvered hair neatly parted. A creature of habit, he's worn the same style of round tortoiseshell glasses for thirty years. He drinks a cup of chai every afternoon of his well-plotted life at a café near his office at Purdue University, where he teaches medical illustration. He is a humble, somewhat conservative man, a Roman Catholic whose joy for the most simple things canbe overwhelming, inexplicable. After his third heart attack, when they jammed tubes into him and he was pretty sure it was over, he became insistent. "Just tell me I'm going to mow the lawn again!" he said to his doctor. "Tell me I'm going to mow the lawn!"
These were nearly his last words.
If this man can be oversensitive and a bit obsessive, if he has an exact recall of the little injustices that have been done unto him - he keeps old hurtful letters on file - he knows he must unburden himself now, make peace with those in his life: wife, children, friends, colleagues. And with the vanished ghosts that roam the rooms of his memory: mother, father, brother.
And what of Pernkopf? What of Batke?
He can't fathom where to begin with the Book, now forever out of print, effectively banned. When considering it, he often conjures the language of some illicit affair: rapture, consumption, shame. And if he was betrayed by that lover, does it lessen all those days he spent in love? Ah, the Book, the nearly unbearable perfection of its paintings, and then, weltering behind it, armies clashing across the face of Europe, 6 million spectral Jews. Under pressure, history splits in two: the winners and the losers, the righteous and the evil.
It is not like this man to act impulsively, to yield control, to risk missing cardiac rehab, to wander 7,000 miles from his dear doctor, but he does. He packs a bag with some old journals, drives from West Lafayette to Indianapolis and gets on a plane. He travels eight hours in coach, through spasms of lightning, wearing his Adidas jumpsuit, hair neatly parted. Fragments accumulate; arteries begin to clog. He drinks some wine; he pores through his journals, these copiously recorded memoriesof a sabbatical he took twenty-three years ago, when he went on a pilgrimage to find the Book's greatest artist, when he still worshiped - yes, really, that's the word - the Book's achievement. He naps, wakes, reads his decades-old handwriting again. If he were to die on this plane, in a hotel lobby in Vienna, in the echoing halls of the Institute searching for some truth, will he have been cleansed? After all, he didn't do the killing or throwthe bodies from the window. He didn't spew the hate that incited a hemicycle of fanatics.
No, his sin, if that indeed is what it is, was more quotidian: He found beauty in something dangerous. There are days when he can't remember how it began, and nights when he can't sleep, remembering.
• • •
A cloudy afternoon, Vienna, 1957. A man sits and smokes, a body laid before him. A creature of habit, he wears a white lab coat and a white polyester turtleneck, no matter what the weather. He is small, with a crooked nose and skewed chin that give him the appearance of a beat-up bantamweight. He has a lot of nervous energy, except when he sits like this. When he sits like this, he seems almost dead, a snake in the heat of day. Before him lies a nameless cadaver that was brought up from the basement of the Institute, from the formaldehyde pools of torsos andlimbs, then perfectly prepared like this: an incision, a saw to the breastbone, the rib cage drawn open, the heart removed. He stares at this open body, looks down at the floor, stares some more.