Why would anyone want to hack the head off of Joseph Haydn’s corpse, scoop out its eyes and brain, boil off its hair and skin, bleach the skull, and then mount it on a black velvet pillow? This strikes us as gross and more than a little weird, like preserving and mounting Kim Kardashian’s buttocks for permanent display at the Mutter Museum of human abnormalities in Philly. But happen it did; at least, the part about Haydn.
Some context is called for.
Souvenirs, keepsakes, and mementoes: we’ve all got them. Most of them sit quietly in drawers or closet shelves gathering dust, like the memories they presumably represent. The important ones, though, go on permanent display somewhere in our homes, there to become constant reminders of a person or an experience: a memory in concrete form. Among the many such objects in my home (I’m not a hoarder, but I am, admittedly, an accumulator who attaches great sentimental meaning to objects inanimate) is a hubcap from my first car, a 1957 Ford. When we scrapped “The Bomb” (as we called it) in 1972, it was nothing but a rust bucket held together with dental floss and chewing gum, a rolling superfund site spewing pollutants and leaking toxins. But it was also my wheels and on its wide, bench-like seats I came of age. So that hubcap carries with it incalculable metaphoric meaning: my youth, my innocence, my friends (male and female), the Super 130 Drive-In Theater in Beverly New Jersey; my high school years and South Jersey in 1970, ‘71 and ’72.
Some folks collect other people’s memories. In just a few days – on December 5 and 6 – a cache of 300 Marilyn Monroe items (including love letters from Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller) will be auctioned off in Los Angeles. The estimated value of all this Monroiana is well over a million clams. Why would anyone want to spend that kind of money for letters to (and from) a dead actress? The answer is in the mystical, talismanic power we attribute to certain objects: these intimate letters were created for and by Ms. Monroe; she touched them and, in her physical absence, they personify her. They also, by association, lend their owner tremendous prestige. Can we imagine a better pick-up line? “Hey, how’d you like to spin by my place and read some über-hot Marilyn Monroe love letters?”
As keepsakes go, though, my hubcap and your Marilyn letter pale to insignificance when compared to an actual relic of someone’s body: a lock of Beethoven’s crazy hair, one of John Lennon’s wisdom teeth, or the Holy Prepuce (Jesus’ foreskin, miraculously preserved) that the enterprising monks of Charroux claimed had been given them by Charlemagne, King of the Franks, around the year 800.
(Under the heading of “don’t get me started” I would suggest that no infomercial huckster nor Mad Man marketer could come even close to approaching the holy relic production and marketing industry of the medieval Church. When — in 692 — the Council of Constantinople announced that any church not sanctified by the relic of a saint was to be demolished, that industry went into high gear. The tombs and remains of St. Paul and St. Peter, of Saints Luke, Andrew, John and Barnabus — to name just a few — were “discovered”, and their presumed body parts, blood and effluvia literally flooded Europe. When it was pointed out that the aggregate of body parts attributed to the “true and authentic” corpse of St. Stephen could fill Fenway Park, the Church declared that holy relics had special regenerating powers, and could therefore continue to supply fragments of themselves for eternity. Genius!)
The iconic and sentimental value of souvenirs, particularly physical relics, is something we Homo sapiens have indulged from time immemorial. Which offers, then, some insight as to why two men named Joseph Rosenbaum and Johann Peter stole and perpetrated unspeakable mischief on Joseph Haydn’s head a few days after he was buried. For the full, grisly, and blackly humorous story, check out the latest episode of Scandalous Overtures below: