In this post I would like to take a slight detour in order to reflect on a recent trip I made to Sicily for the 9th Pan-European Conference on International Relations in Giardini Naxos. Before the Conference I spent a week travelling around the island visiting Palermo, Syracuse and Catania. I had a terrific time. Nevertheless a post on how wonderful things were would be a bit boring so of course I want to talk about something else. I want to discuss two particular moments of my trip and how they interrelate. Firstly, the experience of visiting the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo and secondly a discussion I had with a group of Portuguese and Dutch people who were staying in the same hostel as me in Syracuse.
The idea of embalming corpses for preservation in order to visit them seems foreign and creepy to most of us these days. I assume that one is driven to visit places such as the Capuchin Catacombs out of morbid curiosity. The catacombs are filled with hundreds or perhaps thousands of corpses in different states of decomposition. For some reason it seemed like a good idea to pay to walk around with other tourists and gawk at people’s desiccated corpses. This was more disturbing than the corpses themselves.
But then again couldn’t one argue that visiting the desiccated corpses of others, as a tourist attraction, is completely coherent with other forms of tourism in Europe? These corpses were of course embalmed in order for their ancestors to appreciate and remember how they really had been. Thus whilst apparently archaic it is not particularly surprising that the catacombs first appeared at the beginning of modernity. The first Capuchin monk was embalmed in 1599 and the practice gradually gained in popularity as a status symbol. At the same time European nations were gathering species, artefacts, craniums etc. in their colonies in order to catalogue these. Should it come as a surprise then that they were applying the same logic to their ancestors? They could go down to the catacombs to see how their relatives really had been in the same way that they would be able to visit museums in order to observe how different cultures really were.
In Syracuse I had a heated argument with some Portuguese and Dutch tourists (funnily enough from European countries that ―at almost at exactly the same time the Capuchin monks were embalming bodies― had reached the Australian continent). It all started when a Portuguese girl, who lived in and loved Australia, said that the one thing that we didn’t have in Australia was as much culture. I have no doubt that many Australians would willingly accept such a suggestion but unfortunately for her that wasn’t me. I challenged her, and everyone around at the time who turned against me, on what she meant by culture. After a while I began to realise that by culture what they meant was desiccated corpses. In Australia we didn’t have as many desiccated corpses. More precisely, what we lacked was European history and European buildings. Old European buildings symbolised culture and we didn’t have many. Our desiccated corpses were different.
Syracuse was home to the Archaeological Park of Neapolis that symbolises what these Europeans associated with culture. The park includes Greek and Roman ruins, the highlights being an ancient quarry, a Greek theatre and a Roman Amphitheatre. I can’t give many details about what it is like from the inside because I didn’t go in. However, from the outside you could already see a number of different bodies in various states of decomposition. There was quite a large market selling merchandise near the carpark. Tour groups were swarming everywhere. I can’t remember whether this was the day after the argument but the idea of going in ―camera in hand to catalogue the corpses― made me nauseous.
Most of the other artefacts of their “culture” are actually from the colonial period. The influx of wealth from the colonies permitted the construction of many a grand monument. Here we should perhaps ask whether this “culture” is actually ours as well. Somehow however they have been able to convince us that this is their “culture” and simply our corpse.
For a while now European countries have been investing in embalming and mummifying their “cultural richness” aware of its value as a tourist attraction. In The Map and the Territory Michel Houellebecq imagines a Europe that has been de-industrialised and that maintains its wealth by the tourism attracted by the preservation of cultural monuments. Europe is able to produce wealth by preserving and marketing its own desiccated corpse.
Europe is also successful at marketing the remains of its intellectual heritage. Many an academic in post-colonial countries such as Australia enjoys consuming a good desiccated French theorist.
The question is then: If we continue on with our colonial mentality and our obsession with consuming their desiccated corpses, is it really a surprise that they believe they have more “culture”?