Chapter 21: Friday, Nov. 17

In which the Corny Chard videotape turns out be the dinner show -- from the heart of darkness.

Published August 22, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

I still cannot quite believe what I witnessed earlier this evening, but the proof is there, in stark, horrific images. Yes, I have finally found the courage to watch the rest of the Corny Chard tape. It wasn't easy, but I fortified myself for it.

First, I left work early to be with Elsbeth for a while. She is so appreciative of the time I devote to her, even if it is spent mostly watching soap operas that, for me, blend one into the other, with the same people saying the same things to each other again and again. (Perhaps they are more realistic than I give them credit for.)

Then, deliberately, almost self-indulgently, giving myself plenty of time, I dressed in a tuxedo in preparation for Father O'Gould's presentation of the first Fessing Memorial Lecture and the dinner to follow. I kissed Elsbeth goodbye and drove over to the Museum. From a bottle of good scotch that I keep in the office closet, I poured myself a healthy double. I took the scotch and Corky's video down through the deserted exhibitions to the Twitchell Room.

I think being dressed in a tuxedo and sipping neat scotch definitely helped as I inserted the tape and pressed the button and rewound it just a bit, a final delaying action. I saw again the figure in an elaborate headdress dancing to the pounding log drum and then appearing in front of Corny, who has had his clothes cut away. I hear Corny say, "Ferdie, keep the camera on the shaman in the cockade of red macaw feathers. Oh, God, I think he's doing the cleansing dance right now."

Then we see the man in the brilliant headdress and painted near-naked torso dancing around and bending over an object on the ground. Corny comes into view again and a harsh, familiar sound is heard off-camera. Corny gasps. "Oh, God. That's a chainsaw. Bricklesby said nothing about that. It's not in the tradition. Oh, God. Or am I hallucinating?"

I held my breath and resisted the impulse to hit the stop button as the shaman appears with the old chainsaw. It sputters and belches smoke. And I force myself to watch as in one horrific motion, the saw is brought up under Corny's outstretched left arm. Corny screams as the whirring blade slices off the arm through the biceps spewing blood and bits of bone. I turn away.

Incredibly, it is Corny I hear next. "Follow the arm, Ferdie," he says, his voice weak and choking. "Get a close-up on the ceremony. I think ... I think it's going to the ceremonial grill."

As I watched, amazed and horrified, the camera closes to where the severed arm is being sanctified before being placed over the sacred fire. Corny is heard voice over again. "Ferdie. Keep the camera on the ceremony. They're going to keep ... chopping me up. Get as much as ... you can. Especially when they come for my heart. Try to ... get it down ... especially the cutting ceremony ..."

The camera swings back to Corny. One native has successfully tied a tourniquet of leather thong around the stump of Corny's severed arm, while another paints the bloody stump with a thick dark paste from a gourd.

Corny keeps talking, more breathless than ever. "I'm not really in any great pain. I know they are taking me in parts, but they want to keep me alive as long as possible. It's only death. I'm ... I'm ... like the center of the universe now. Their universe. This is a true honor. Groundbreaking. I smell my own flesh cooking. Not bad actually. But I know I couldn't eat any. Not that auto-anthropophagy is unknown."

Ferdie pans back with the camera. The shaman is dancing around again with the chainsaw, which is turned off. As though part of the ritual, he pulls the cord. It doesn't work. He pulls again, and the infernal thing roars to life with a great belch of smoke. The camera swings back to focus on Corny again. He's breathing in gasps. "God, I hurt. And this is just the beginning. But this has got to be the first for an anthropologist. Norman, don't let Joss see this. Promise me. Here comes the shaman for more of me." Corny screams again as the shaman, not as neatly this time, saws off his right leg half-way up the thigh with another spewing of blood, bone, and flesh.

I have to cover my eyes. I knock back the scotch. The drumming reaches a fever pitch. There are whoops. Incredibly, Corny speaks again. "I'm still okay. Ferdie get the, get the ..." Like his arm, the stump of his leg is tied off and anointed with the dark paste. "Bricklesby had it wrong. They don't start with the genitals and the ... How ... how could they, and keep the sacrifice alive? My god. This is amazing."

Mercifully, right then, Corny passes out. He sags in the crude stanchion, horrific and yes, strangely glorious, stirring within me some atavistic recognition of what we are. A few minutes later, Corny manages to open his eyes and say, quite clearly, "Norman, no copyright." And while the shaman is dancing around the chainsaw and trying to start it, the tape goes blank.

I ran it for a while longer, but there was no more on it. I couldn't have gone on watching it, anyway. I was in shock. I felt half crazed. Is this the heart of darkness? Who is worse, those savages or Corny himself, making himself complicit in their debauchery? What are we to act thus?

I have no real idea what to do with this truly incredible piece of documentation. I suppose I should make a copy and then clear its legal status through our attorney. I mean, while the MOM did not contribute very much to underwriting the trip, it is possible that Jocelyn and their children will be able to sue the museum for wrongful death or some such thing. Strange how, in our lawyer-infested society, the first thing you need think about in a situation like this is liability.

On the other hand it is a kind of evidence of an heroic if unwise exploration of the heart of our species. Perhaps I will consult the Reverend Alfie Lopes. The matter involved here is moral as well as legal. I would not want this footage to fall into the wrong hands. There are parties that would exploit it for its sensationalism. There are enemies of the Museum that would use it as a pretext to attack us. At the same time, it is a remarkable piece of anthropological fieldwork. And our allegiance must be to the high purposes to which the founders of the museum dedicated the Museum: To explore the phenomenon of man in its many manifestations.

In a kind of daze, I rewound the tape and made my way over to Margaret Mead Auditorium. I thought of stopping the introductory proceedings at some point to announce what I had just witnessed. But, of course, that would have been utterly inappropriate.

On the other hand, I could not help having the tape color my appreciation of Father O'Gould's address. In his lecture, "Why There Is No Tuna-Safe Dolphin," the good priest gave us a taste of his upcoming book, "Paragon of Animals," taking bead on a question he has been grappling with all his professional life.

Everyone knows, of course, that S.J., as we all call him, holds the recently created Teilhard de Chardin Chair in Evolution and Cosmology. In his lecture, the Jesuit went right into the teeth of prevailing notions, contending that there is indeed a scala naturae, and that mankind is at the very top of it. He said that to claim that there are no normative standards that can be used to rank species is arrant nonsense. The very professors making these claims -- and he named a few who are vociferous on the subject -- "are themselves part of a well-defined hierarchy, one that carefully grades people, especially fellow academics seeking to join their departments. They rank very precisely who is or is not good enough to be a colleague. Yet they maintain that Homo sapiens as a whole is no better or worse than any other living species. No better than, say, a turnip. Sure now, would Professor Dawkins of Oxford, for instance, consider a turnip worthy of a professorship? On the contrary, most of these thinkers would think nothing of uprooting a perfectly innocent turnip, skinning it alive, boiling it, mashing it with salt, pepper, and perhaps a little butter, and then eating it. Would they consider doing the same thing to a colleague? I doubt it very much. Yet they claim that we are no better or worse than a turnip."

Needless to say, Father O'Gould's talk at that point had provoked more than a few laughs. But I kept wondering what he would think were I to show him the tape I had just watched? Are we the paragon of animals? Or just animals?

He shortly turned serious, and a hush fell over the standing-room only audience -- many of them students, I was pleased to note. Father O'Gould declared that unless we recognize and accept our position at what he called "the transcendent apex of the chain of being," i.e., our superiority relative to other species, then we undercut what little moral authority we have left: "In an age when the God of our fathers has retreated into myth and history ... To say that we are no better than bacteria or turnips or rabbits is to give ourselves license, like them, to submit blindly to natural processes, to overrun the planet, to indulge in mass exterminations, indeed, to act any way we so choose."

The good priest went on to point out that the denial of any rank in creation was pushing the rationality of the laboratory to absurd lengths. "Is it not a philistine notion that truth is only to be found in a test tube? Simply because the position of mankind at the top of creation is not a verifiable hypothesis in those terms does not render it invalid. Because neither can you prove that the music of Beethoven is beautiful. Those who declare that all species are equal are assuming a stance that, in its apparently disinterested objectivity, is fraught with more pernicious hubris than to simply admit that we are, as human beings, on top, and with all that implies in terms of responsibility.

"I do not mean superior in any aesthetic sense. At least as depicted by Freud -- Lucien, that is, not Sigmund -- we suffer in comparison to the beauty of the hyacinth macaw or to that of Panthera tigris altaica. We certainly are not morally superior, though there is the potential for that. But we are clearly superior in intellect and technology, and that translates into power. With that power comes awesome responsibility.

"Indeed, it is this position at the top of creation which ought to provoke in each of us the moral anxiety to proceed with scrupulous care in our stewardship. Make no mistake about it. We are the wardens and we must attend to our duties in a manner befitting superior beings. Otherwise, we will answer to history as surely as the despots and dictators that have gone before us."

Father O'Gould concluded that real humility was nothing less than the acceptance of reality. "The incumbent responsibility that comes with our place in the universe is the gift of natural selection, and the basis on which we must become our own necessary gods."

It was, in all, a moving and provocative occasion. Father O'Gould's inspiring talk, along with some help from the dinner wine, restored a good measure of my faith in humankind. But not entirely. Images of Corny's cruel demise haunt my inner vision. I recoil, of course. I deplore what has happened. Yet something atavistic in me assents to the sacrifice. There is, nearly, a kind of comfort in it, a comfort I resist. I keep asking myself: Is human sacrifice, in its myriad forms, even in the interest of science, an attempt, however grotesque, to give meaning to death?

By Alfred Alcorn

Alfred Alcorn, formerly a journalist at the Boston Herald and CBS, is also the former director of the travel program at Harvard's Museum of Natural History. In addition to "The Love Potion Murders (in the Museum of Man)," he is the author of two previous novels, "The Pull of the Earth" (Houghton Mifflin, 1985) and "Murder in the Museum of Man" (Zoland Books, 1997). He lives in Belmont, Mass.

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