Pushcart XL: Dubravka Ugresic, “The Age of Skin” (non-fiction) from Salmagundi, #177

In Slavic languages one doesn’t have two words for the two types of skin that one has in English (skin, leather), German (haut, leder), Dutch (huid, leer), Spanish (piel, cuero), or Italian (pelle, cuoio). Slavs use the same word for the skin that covers one’s body and the leather from which shoes are made. Perhaps this absent difference is a question of civilization-or perhaps even explains the poor man’s fascination with real leather?

As I started reading this piece, I was confused, then annoyed. I don’t understand; what is the topic? The first section started off ranting about the voracity of the publishing industry; the second, quoted above, shifted into a linguistic consideration of “skin”. And I disagreed with the flatness of the statement that English has one word for skin and another for leather; we also have calfskin, lambskin, and snakeskin, among others, for leathers, sharkskin for fabric, skins for apps, scalp for the skin of the head… But I do understand how the distinction is made. Leather is processed skin, as beef is butchered cow meat (somehow lamb and chicken remain the animals they are carved from). I don’t know that it’s a question of civilization as much as of squeamishness and denial. I was in my 40s before I realized the contradiction of a vegan wearing leather shoes. But all this is picking at details; back to the article.

I remained confused throughout, as it skipped around from one skin-related topic to another. Lenin, and mummification. Obesity as fleshy excess. Organ theft. Popular culture that romanticizes Hannibal Lecter and Dracula. Tattoos. Skin art.

Peter van der Helm, the owner of an Amsterdam tattoo parlor, has figured out a way to monetize the skin of the dead. Around thirty of van der Helm’s clients have bequeathed their inked skin to his company “Walls and Skin.” In the hope that their skin may one day adorn an art collector’s walls, each client has even paid a few hundred euro to be involved in the project. When they die a pathologist will remove the skin bearing a designated tattoo, before sending it on to a laboratory for processing. “Everyone spends their lives in search of immortality and this is a simple way to get a piece of it,” said van der Helm.

By the time I finished the article – which is relatively short, by the way, and has been translated from the original Croatian – I despaired of writing about it. What could I say, it was a jumbled and random collection of observations about skin? And, by the way, that completely ignores the elephant in the room, the color of skin. Is that because I am so blindingly Americocentric, and in Ugresic’s native Yugoslavia (she now lives in Amsterdam) people found different, though just as ridiculous, reasons to hate each other?

But in one of those bizarre twists of human psychology, while I was doing other things and relegated Pushcart and blog posts to the inactive memory locations of my brain, it started to make sense. It happens that way, sometimes: understanding requires background percolation. Somehow connections formed, and I started to see: our human integument, what covers us as a single species, what unites us and holds us together, is beginning to fray. Everything in the essay is merely a sign, a symptom.

Many postcommunist transitional societies have turned their citizens into zombies. As Dutch king Willem-Alexander put it, in the twenty-first century we await the “society of participation.” “Self-management” is probably what linguistically inventive followers of contemporary trends would say. Both “participation” and “self-management” are euphemisms for a message that is as sharp as a scalpel: today, the individual has been reduced to his or her bare skin.

Yes, we live in the age of skin. Our age-the corpse to which we are pressed – isn’t in the greatest shape. The corpse’s skin grows darker, new purple blotches surfacing, the cranium, from which the brain has been extracted, has shattered and taken the skin with it, threatening dark pigment spreading everywhere, the nails turned completely blue. We exhaust ourselves, there is never enough balsam, we cover the dead spots with liquid foundation, and our bodies too. There’s an odor spreading everywhere, seeping into our clothes, our hair, our lungs, there’s nothing that will get it out.

From preserving tattoos after death, to skin care regimens that cost more than the allotted food stamp budget for a family, to covering ourselves in other species’ skins (not to mention SUVs and Hummers on the road), we are feeling threatened. From the novels that insist we must kill another to survive, to rich people paying the poor for their organs, to fat-hatred (there’s a heartbreaking snapshot of one train rider complaining that another rider is fat and assuming, erroneously of course, that’s a sign of wealth), we devalue each other. For some reason, we can’t see that one creates the other.

The Golden Rule was not a Christian invention; for one thing, it was taken from the Hebrew scriptures, and for another, virtually every religion has some version of “love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s one of those things that’s really hard to put into practice, however, especially when we’re scared and feel as though our very skin is threatened. But it’s perhaps our best bet at protection. And, in another bizarre twist of human psychology, we seem unable to learn that.

Granted, I may have missed the entire point; I’m no expert here. I just react to what I read. Frankly, Ugresic’s essay, read at a time when hate seems to be conquering everything in its path, depressed me thoroughly. Maybe I’m just looking for some glimmer of light, in a very dark room.

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