- 1 Simulacra and Interregna: Medieval Royal Effigies
- 2 Better Dead: Communist Embalming
- 3 Live and Let Die
- 4 References
Simulacra and Interregna: Medieval Royal Effigies
The emergence and assumed significance of the royal effigy is a matter of peculiar happenstance, particularly in England where the practice was first popularized. Early English medieval royal funerals obeyed the common religious traditions of the day: as Woodward dryly notes, “the corpse itself was exhibited” (65). This display was rather simple and held no obvious or uniquely political symbolic value. For instance, Edward the Confessor, who died in first days of 1066, and William I (otherwise know as William the Conqueror), who passed away in 1087, were both “carried to their graves unembalmed and covered on a bier” (65). The concealed bodies were subject to no special post-mortem preservative treatment; little attention was paid to attire. The unadorned body, though the object of a spectacular procession, remained hidden away. This was a limited form of publicity: the dead king was not showcased by way of direct exposure, bur rather through the physical circulation of the covered body. Evidentiary and commemorative circulation did not require line-of-sight verification. The ritualistic value of the procession was not yet tied to any spectacular display of the exposed body. This tradition persisted even in the event of embalming: “[t]he corpse of Henry I, who died in France in 1135, was rudely embalmed to facilitate its transport back to England but it was still borne covered upon a bier” (66).
This changed with the 1189 death of Henry II. His was the first royal body to be openly displayed and arrayed in the coronation ornaments. The first use of a funeral effigy, however, dates to either the 1272 death of Henry III or 1327 death of Edward II. Woodward speculates that a wax effigy appeared in the funeral procession for Henry III, although no material record of the effigy exists. The wood effigy of Edward II, on the other hand, is still on display in Gloucester Cathedral, the original location of his burial. What accounts for this shift in royal funeral rituals? The open display of the body was consistent with the religious currents at the time of Henry II’s death; effigies, likewise, have a longer religious history. But what accounts for the adoption of effigy practices at this precise moment? As Woodward notes: “[t]he reasons for [the effigy’s] introduction are unclear but probably relate to the three-month delay in organsing [Edward II’s] funeral. Edward died at Berkeley Castle on 21 September but was not buried in Gloucester Cathedral until 20 December. Medieval embalming techniques were insufficiently skilled to keep the body fresh for that length of time” (66). To be clear, a funeral effigy and a tomb effigy could have been, but were not always, one and the same. Whereas the tombs of many royals and notable religious figures had long included an effigy, the use of an effigy in the funeral procession was indeed something new. Unlike the tomb effigy which, like the busts of antiquity, aspired to partial and commemorative verisimilitude, the funeral effigy served as a complete simulacrum. The funeral effigy was not a representation, but a copy. The funeral procession, from this point on, no longer showcased the unconcealed or concealed body, but instead the effigy. The effigy became the central object of the procession, with scant attention paid the body proper. Indeed, most procession increasingly lead with a highly adorned effigy and concluded with the unembellished coffin that housed the bare body. The unusual use of an effigy in the funeral procession of Edward II, which seemed more a matter of happenstance and a function of necessity, nonetheless established a new and long-lasting tradition. As Woodward again points out, “Edward III was buried within two weeks of his death and thus public display of his corpse was possible but nevertheless an effigy was made” (66). This practice would persist until the time of James I.
The King's Two Bodies: The Paradox of Monarchy and Popular Sovereignty
“No matter how we may wish to explain the introduction of the effigy in 1327, with the funeral of Edward II there begins, to our knowledge, the custom of placing on top of the coffin the ‘roiall representation’ or ‘personage,’ a figure or image ad similitudinem regis, which—made of wood or of leather padded with bombast and covered with plaster—was dressed in the coronation garments or, later on, in the parliamentary robe. The effigy displayed the insignia of sovereignty: on the head of the image (worked apparently since Henry VII after the death mask) there was the crown, while the artificial hand held orb and scepter. Wherever the circumstances were not to the contrary, the effigies were henceforth used at the burials of royalty: enclosed in the coffin of lead, which itself was encased in a casket of wood, there rested the corpse of the king, his mortal and normally visible—though now invisible—body natural; whereas his normally invisible body politic was on this occasion visibly displayed by the effigy in its pompous regalia: a persona ficta—the effigy—impersonating a persona ficta—the Dignitas” (Kantorowicz, 420-421)
The King is dead! Long live the King!
The Politics and Performance of Ascension
From Embodied Sovereignty to Constitutionalism
Better Dead: Communist Embalming
Although the creation of effigies to materially hold the "body politic" of the deceased monarch fell from active practice with the rise of Constitutionalism in Western Europe, this mode of representation found new life in the attempts of the young Bolshevik government to establish a firm basis for legitimate sovereignty. Although historical materialism would seem to be fundamentally at odds with the fetishization intrinsic to the creation of royal effigies- especially since the two institutions which necessitated and explained the practice, monarchy and the Christian concept of transubstantiation, were violently rejected by the Communists (quite literally, as the corpses of the Romanovs and countless Orthodox churches attest). Armed with cutting edge scientific techniques, however, the Bolsheviks did not create likenesses of their fallen leaders in order to preserve the continuity of the body politic- instead, they preserved the leader's body as an undying vessel for sovereign power. The embalming and display of particularly important party members in Mausoleums was a procedure unique to Communist countries in the 20th century, and even within these countries was typically not repeated following the preservation of the founding leader (the exception being Stalin, who was nonetheless rather unceremoniously removed from the Red Square Mausoleum in the aftermath of Nikita Khrushchev's speech denouncing his rule).
On January 20, 1924 Vladimir Illich Lenin died. He was already dead but not yet alive.
Lenin's death is generally agreed to have been caused by calluses formed around the remnants of a would-be assassin's bullet (fired by Revolutionary Socialist Fanya Kaplan), which did not immediately kill him on August 30th, 1918 when the shot was fired (as Kaplan surely had hoped)but rather caused a slow demise from advanced atherosclerosis.
On August 30th, 1918 Vladimir Illich Lenin was shot to death. He just didn't know it yet.
By 1921, Lenin was suffering from debilitating migraines, and in 1922 he suffered his first stroke. Later that year, suffering daily attacks, Lenin removed himself from the political scene despite the festering power struggle between Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin. In 1923 he attempted to weigh in on the side of Trotsky, but had been outmaneuvered by Stalin who forbid Lenin outside visitors or communication.
In December of 1920, Lenin died politically. He took Trotsky and millions of Russians with him.
This political excommunication was quickly followed by another stroke, which robbed Lenin the facilities of speech as well as a great deal of his memory and bodily control.
In December of 1920, half of Lenin's brain died. His body survived, but did he?
On October 19th, 1923 members of the Politburo meet in the Kremlin to discuss possible funeral plans- it was at this meeting that Stalin is purported to have first raised the possibility of preserving Lenin's body, an idea to which Trotsky raised strong objections.
On October 19th, 1923 the Kremlin had declared Lenin dead. They also made plans for his life.
On the 20th of January in 1924, his condition having thoroughly deteriorated, Lenin suffered his third and final stroke- he appeared to complain of not being able to see, his temperature raised to a high of 42.3 degrees Celsius, he convulsed with violent seizures, his face turned red and for a minute he seemed like he was trying to sit up. He the suddenly stopped breathing, and his face became a deathly pale.
On January 20th, 1924 Vladimir Illich Lenin died. He quickly became livelier than he had been in years.
More Alive Than the Living
Against Lenin's wishes (he had wanted to be buried next to his mother), and under the watchful eye of Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky (who would found the Cheka, forerunner of the KGB) Lenin's body was preserved using standard embalming techniques (his veins were flushed with a chemical compound) and placed in a temporary Mausoleum. This was done, officially, at the request of the workers and peasants who did not want to part with Lenin. The rudimentary technology would not hold his body for long, and when freezing became unfeasible due to electricity shortages scientists Vladimir Voribiov and Boris Zbarsky successfully created a new method of embalming that involved soaking Lenin's body in a particular chemical bath on a regular basis. It was a baptism that literally gave Lenin's body new life.
First, however, Lenin's brain was removed and taken to St. Petersburg, false eyes were inserted under the eyelids and sewn shut, his mouth was sewn shut, and dark spots on the skin were removed with abrasive chemicals. Lenin's body was made to look as if he were sleeping, not dead. Through science- science!- the Soviets achieved what the Europeans had only dreamed, for the material frailty of the beloved leader was replaced not with a wax simulacrum but with the leader's own body, perfected and immortalized.
A giant hole was blasted into the frozen soil of the Red Square and a giant underground facility was put in place, topped by a pyramid-like granite Mausoleum that bore the simple epigraph: LENIN. The Red Square, like Lenin's head, was hollowed out and refilled with the preservative power of science and enduring power of the state.
The tradition started with Stalin and continued through Gorbachev's rule that spectacles of patriotism (such as military processions) took place upon the Red Square, with the important political figures watching from atop the Mausoleum.
In the performance of Soviet sovereignty, Lenin's corpse became the ultimate prop.
Shortly after the Mausoleum opened to the public, a peasant who was viewing Lenin's body took out a pistol, shot at Lenin's body and then turned the gun on himself. A letter was found on his body decrying the path he saw Russia taking. Fortunately, Lenin was not hurt (although the same could not be said of the peasant, nor- in all probability- his family, friends and acquaintances).
Following a similar instance in which a peasant spat upon and then threw a rock at the glass holding both Lenin and Stalin, measures were taken to protect the corpses from attacks from not only rocks, but guns and explosives as well (it is quite certain that inmates in the Gulags took comfort knowing that Lenin was safe).
During the Second World War, in the face of the oncoming Panzer divisions, Lenin's body was taken by train along with his team of scientists to a facility in Siberia. There his body was maintained with the greatest of care, and those who attended his needs were treated quite well. Fortunately, the war ended and Lenin was able to return to the comfort of his Mausoleum (sadly, the same could not be said of those left behind to defend the city who died of cold, starvation, or German bullets).
There was a saying in Russia that Lenin was more alive than the living. The Politburo ensured that this was true
Death Becomes Them
Its Not Easy Having Green Cuticles
There are no cameras allowed in the Mausoleum. Even cell phones must be checked. One is not allowed to stand still while viewing the body, one must continually move. The honor guard armed with automatic rifles ensures these rules are strictly followed. Lenin's body is to be seen, not inspected.
Lenin's face is waxy, his eyes closed. You can only see his torso, in a simple suit, with his arms laid to his sides- the rest of the body is covered in a black sheet. But if you look closely, you can see the rims of his fingers are green. But you must keep moving, you cannot inspect, you cannot look closely at the mossy decay that defies the pinnacle of Soviet science.
The decay that creeps up Lenin's cuticles is the subtle hiss of the natural process of death that has not stopped despite the years of chemical baths and tender care. It is the traces of Lenin's actual body that were never fully exorcised from the national symbol of strength and unity. In a very literal sense, the rot that remains the constant threat hovering on the edges of Lenin's corpse is the Real hiding in, under and behind the Symbolic. Lenin's body, literally transformed into a Bakhtinian sign, is rigorously contextualized in an attempt to retain control of its meaning, yet the noisy decomposition continually interrupts, evades and creeps into the semiotic process.
Ironically, the green tinge of Lenin's cuticles gives his body an aura of authenticity reportedly lacking in Mao's sallow corpse. As in the funeral processions of the European Royalty that begrudgingly dragged the body of the deceased monarch along with the resplendent and regaled wax effigy, the grotesque materiality of the leader's body in the Soviet Union and its satellites was simultaneously necessary for legitimacy and necessarily fought/marginalized/denied. The pops of organs rupturing and hisses of gases escaping can be chemically paused, but to remove them entirely would be to remove the materiality of the corpse/sign, rendering it ephemeral and inauthentic. The wax effigy was quickly stripped of its regalia once the actual body was interned, and the Mausoleum would quickly disappear if it were discovered that Lenin's body was fake.
Body Doubles and Cyber-Lenin
In the complex that is used to dunk Lenin's body in its rejuvenating chemical bath was also an exact replica of the inside of the Mausoleum, along with a number of "biological doubles"- corpses that had similar features as Lenin's.
Live and Let Die
Binski, Paul. Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.
Daniell, Christopher. Death and Burial in Medieval England 1066-1550. London: Routledge, 1997.
Kantorowicz, Ernst H. The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Woodward, Jennifer. The Theatre of Death: The Ritual Management of Royal Funerals in Renaissance England 1570-1625. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1997.