Vaporous Cadavers: The Call of the Body-Object in Arthur Machen’s The Three Imposters

This is a paper from the hardest class I’ve ever taken. I did terribly but enjoyed writing it.


A naked man was lying on the floor, his arms and legs stretched wide apart, and bound to pegs that had been hammered into the boards. The body was torn and mutilated in the most hideous fashion, scarred with the marks of red-hot irons, a shameful ruin of the human shape. But upon the middle of the body a fire of coals was smouldering; the flesh had been burned through. The man was dead, but the smoke of his torment mounted still, a black vapour. (Machen 149)

This quotation from The Three Imposters by Arthur Machen synthesizes my thesis: That bodies once dead become objects, that we are simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by them, and that the body or parts thereof can act as bibelots and artifacts, worthy of collecting and archiving because of their lingering vitality, their call.[1]

To reach this thesis, this paper will first examine the thingification of the body, engaging with the objectification of the corpse and questioning the separation of body parts from the corporeal whole as disengagement with a once-living person. From here I will engage with Igor Kopytoff’s theory of the Cultural Biography of Things in order to address the commodification of the body.

In order to understand the drive to collect the body, this paper will engage with Sigmund Freud’s theory of the death drive in juxtaposition with Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject, both in how they relate to the experience of viewing a corpse in different states of decay, preservation, and dismemberment.

Finally, this paper will engage with collecting practices in relation to the preservation of bodies and body parts, whether by nature or by humans, and the abject desire to preserve the body as a thing for study, curiosity, and memory.



Nothing to be done about it: The Inevitability of the Body-Object


In the introduction to her book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach addresses some of the cultural discomfort surrounding the ontological status of being dead:

Many people will find this book disrespectful. There is nothing amusing about being dead, they will say. Ah, but there is. Being dead is absurd. It’s the silliest situation you’ll find yourself in. Your limbs are floppy and uncooperative. Your mouth hangs open. Being dead is unsightly and stinky and embarrassing, and there’s nothing to be done about it. (11)

Roach emphasizes a particular playfulness that only those fascinated by death possess. There is, as Roach writes, a difference between a fascination with dying and a fascination with death: “Death, as in dying, is sad and profound. There is nothing funny about losing someone you love, or about being the person about to be lost.” This paper, as is Roach’s book, is about “the already dead.” This paper uses examples of cadavers from Machen’s The Three Imposters, and other examples, including the Bog Bodies at the National Museum of Ireland. These cadavers, like those Roach explored in writing her book, were “sweet and well-intentioned, sometimes sad, occasionally amusing. Some were beautiful, some monsters, some wore sweatpants and some were naked, some in pieces, others whole.” (11) These bodies are separate from the soul that once inhabited them. The writing of these bodies contains a reverence, curiosity, and humor; regardless whether the body is that of a bejeweled tortoise or an Egyptian king, death spares no one the gruesome details. King Tut, before his mummification and being swathed in all of his immortal glory probably defecated as he died, letting out the same gas-driven death growl that most do.


The Oxford English Dictionary describes a body as “the complete physical form of a person or animal; the assemblage of parts, organs, and tissues that constitutes the whole material organism.” By this definition, body parts are detached from the body itself: when separated they are no longer part of the whole. Another definition of the body from the OED is simply this: “Contrasted with the soul.” Thus, when disassembled, parts of the body are not a body, they are merely objects, and a body also is not a soul. A soul, defined as “the condition or attribute of life in humans or animals; animate existence; this viewed as a possession of which one is deprived by death,” (OED) is separable from its body and the existence of such the basis for human life and existence. To conclude this disentangling of the term “body:” a body is a sum of its parts and is separate from the soul. When a body part is detached, it no longer exists as a part of a body: it becomes, essentially, part of nothing; it is its own thing. Furthermore, as the body needs a soul to be “alive” and “human,” once dead, the body becomes an object. A body is an assemblage of body parts, and once dead it is a thing made up of other things.


The body-object referenced throughout this paper is the corpse or the dismembered body parts. The conditions for being a body-object rather than a “body” are thus: separation from the soul through death, or separation from the rest of the living body through dismemberment, dissection, or extrapolation.

In Arthur Machen’s The Three Imposters, several bodies or body parts, having entered the realm of things, are commodified. In The Three Imposters, the “Cultural Biography of the Thing[2]” (the thing in this case being the Gold Tiberius) takes precedent over the biography and culture of the human characters, but, maintains vibrancy similar to the thingified bodies and body parts in the novel. Thingification (in the case of the mummy and the hand in the novel) occurs when a person or part of a person becomes a thing; through death, dismemberment, and in less of a severe way, objectification.

An example of the agency ascribed to thingification in The Three Imposters is the disembodied hand at the beginning of the novel: described as “the hand that took the Gold Tiberius,” (5) the body-object is ascribed the agency of stealing the coin, a vibrant agent separate from its human counterpart, whether dead or alive.

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Buying and Selling the Body-Object: Bog Bodies, Mummified hands, and the Constant Threat of Commodity


In Igor Kopytoff’s essay, “The Cultural Biography of Things,” he aptly examines the nuances of the slavery metaphor for thingification and objectification. While there is an undeniable and rampant objectification of people in different kinds of slavery, it is important to note that whilst the person is alive, their cultural biography and status can shift. The person in question, whether they are a slave or a prostitute, can (though often they do not) shift from person to object and back again throughout the slavery process. Kopytoff’s states that “slavery begins with capture or sale, when the individual is stripped of his previous social identity and becomes a non-person, indeed an object and an actual or potential commodity.” (65) When a person is put for sale, they become a commodity. “But the process continues,” according to Kopytoff: “The slave is acquired by a person or group and is reinserted into the host group, within which he is resocialized and rehumanized by being given a new social identity. The commodity-slave becomes in effect reindividualized by acquiring new statuses (by no means always lowly ones) and a unique configuration of personal relationships.” (65) While a person or body is living and possesses what we perceive to be a soul, they can be objectified and commoditized but their status as commodity is transient; they can regain agency and personhood, and when this happens (in between slave owners or after gaining freedom) “the process has moved the slave away from the simple status of exchangeable commodity and toward that of a singular individual occupying a particular social and personal niche. But the slave usually remains a potential commodity: he or she continues to have a potential exchange value that may be realized by resale.” The living, enslaved person carries with them the potential to be commoditized and thingified again and again, after many potential iterations of agency and freedom. Kopytoff argues that “in many societies, this was also true of the ‘free’ who were subject to sale under certain defined circumstances. To the extent that in such societies all persons possessed an exchange value and were commoditizable, commoditization in them was clearly not culturally confined to the world of things.” (65) With increasing awareness of human trafficking, this argument of Kopytoff’s is the most affecting; all (or most- some people, especially marginalized people are more at risk) living people have the potential to be thingified and commodified. If living bodies containing a soul are always a potential commodity, what of dead bodies? As explored before, the dead body or the dismembered body part is a thing, a body-object. It ceases to be anything but a thing when it is detached from the soul that gives it agency and forms the basis of societal notions of personhood and existence. The corpse cannot be reanimated and un-thingified. The corpse or parts of the corpse can, however, be commodified and decommodified, and, in the case of organ donation, the aforementioned transience is again palpable. For example, a heart, once taken from the chest cavity of a cadaver is a thing, but once it is transplanted into another, living, body, becomes part of a body again, losing its thinghood until its new body dies.

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Once a body is thingified, it begins its biography as a thing, which, in this essay, is separate from the biography of the soul, or the person who once inhabited that body. Once a body becomes a body-object, it becomes a commodity in many cases. Kopytoff defines commodity as “a thing that has use value and that can be exchanged in a discrete transaction for a counterpart, the very fact of exchange indicating that the counterpart has, in the immediate context, an equivalent value.” (68) Thus, the body-object, if deemed worthy of exchange, becomes a commodity. Not all body-objects are commodities, however. Someone’s great aunt whose body is housed at the Nose Hill cemetery is not a commodity. A locket with your great-grandmother’s hair in it is not a commodity. A relic of a saint or a mummy is a commodity, as is a “shrunken head” or other body-object of curious interest. However, as with objects, the body-object is subject to decommodification and recommodification throughout its cultural biography. An example of the decommodified corpse or body-object is the bog bodies housed at The National Museum of Ireland, or Ard-Mhúsaem na hÉireann. As Kopytoff stresses, “Biographies of things can make salient what might otherwise remain obscure,” (67) meaning that the human reaction to their things is just as important as their reaction to other humans and animals when aiming to study and understand a society. The bodies displayed in the “Kinship and Sacrifice” exhibit are clothed in biography: while the discovery of these body-objects inhabits the realm of anthropology, from which vital information about sacrifice in early societies can be gleamed, their cultural biography as things began when the bodies themselves became devoid of the soul. Thus, historians, archeologists, and museum curators actively participate in their cultural biography as things or body-objects. The process of decomposition or their lack of decomposition, their preservation, what happened to the body-object after death, their burial, their discovery, their evaluation and restoration, and the display of these bodies are all part of their history. Once death occurs, there is no difference between things and people, however I will refer to dead bodies and body parts as body-objects to make clear the distinction.



Driven to Abjection: Kristeva, Derrida, and the Cadaver


Freud’s theory of the death drive and Kristeva’s theory of the abject are in contention

In John Mills’ “Reflections on the Death Drive,” (2006) he states:

death is an ontological category for unconscious experience that can never elude psychic existence; for what we know or profess to know epistemically as mediated inner experience is always predicated on our felt- relation to death, that is, to the primordial force of repetitive negation, conflict, and destruction that alerts us to being and life, a dialectic that is ontologically inseparable and mutually implicative. What we call a life force, drive, urge, or impetus is intimately conjoined with its opposition, that is, its negation, termination, or lack. Here life = death: being and nothing are the same. (4)

In this summation of the Death Drive, Mills presents us with Freud’s idea that death and life are inseparable; we feel most alive when confronted with death, and death is only a threat when we are confronted with the simultaneous suffering and elation that is death. Death and life are so linked that our drive towards self destruction and aggression exists in the same breath as our desire to self-preserve, be remembered, and archive. When we put ourselves in situations with heightened perceived risks, we feel more alive. Julia Kristeva, however, argues that being presented with death, as opposed to the idea of it, repulses us and reminds us of our own mortality. Our visceral and physical reaction to the body-object is indicative of our overriding desire to self-preserve. How can these two concepts of death exist simultaneously within the same psyche? Perhaps some people are more inclined to self-destruction, and some towards self-preservation. Perhaps these drives towards death or life exist symbiotically, one talking over the other at different times. As the death-positivity movement gains momentum, perhaps these two theories begin to inform one another more and more. Our death drive exists mostly subconsciously, and similarly, our abject reaction to the cadaver exists under the surface until we are confronted with it. If we are confronted with a corpse and forced to reconcile that abjection, to work through it, perhaps we can attempt to better understand our death drive. Or, once we understand the sameness and object-body that death creates, perhaps we can embrace our death drives in positive ways.

Death is abject because it is in opposition to the nature of being alive, however death can be detached from this sense of abjection through our drive towards death, and fascination with it: our attempts and desire to understand what comes after living and to extend this process of being alive can anchor in the cadaver a fascination and desire to memorialize or understand that transcends the repulsion that abjection gives us.

A fascination with death, as examined by Mary Roach in the introduction to Stiff, is not the same as a fascination with dying. The death drive would indicate “that before the will to murder exists an insidious self-implosion, namely, suicidal desire. Here the banality of death is not just something that happens to us, it is us—our inner being, only to be experienced in novel fashions, repetitiously, circuitously, ad nauseam.” (Mills 1) Freud explores a subconscious desire to kill and to commit suicide, placing precedence on the suicidal ideation. The death drive and self-destruction shows us that we are alive, in a similar way that abjection and “refuse and corpses show [us] what [we] permanently thrust aside in order to live. (Kristeva 231) Death exists on the periphery, and we often avoid looking it n the “face” at all costs.

There was a great box lying on the floor, a queer, coffin-shaped thing. I looked at it, and saw it was a mummy case, like those in the British Museum, vividly painted in the brilliant Egyptian colours, with I knew not what proclamation of dignity or hopes of life immortal. The mummy swathed about in the robes of death was lying within, and the face had been uncovered. (146)


In this passage from Machen’s The Three Imposters, there is clear evidence of death, beginning in the first sentence. More evident, however, is the reluctance to acknowledge this. Though the coffin cannot be mistaken for anything else, it is described as “a queer, coffin-shaped thing.” The eyes are not drawn to the face until the coffin has been described and its inscriptions speculated upon. At the very last minute, the face is revealed to the reader, uncovered and grotesque. Walters “peers into its face,” realizing something curious that draws him to the mummy: “The flesh was black with the passing of the centuries; but as I looked I saw upon the right cheek-bone a small triangular scar, and the secret of the mummy flashed upon me. I was looking at the dead body of the man whom I had decoyed into that house.” (148)



Keeping the Body: Collecting in Practice

Societal fascination with the body as separate from the soul is evident in the sculpting of statues and the act of portraiture. This mimesis demonstrates human desire to separate the soul from the body while at the same time preserving the body in various art forms. The ekphrastic nature of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray further emphasizes human compulsion to preserve the body as a thing, separate from the soul, the soul being what makes it human as opposed to object. The desire to become object rather than subject in Dorian Gray emphasizes the gray area between human and thing, and helps us to understand our status as eventual body-objects.


In the section of Jane Bennett’s book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, “Thing-Power, or the Out-Side” she quotes Baruch Spinoza: “Spinoza ascribes to bodies a peculiar vitality: ‘each thing [res] , as far as it can by its own power, strives [conatur] to persevere in its own being. Conatus names an “active impulsion” or trending tendency to persist.” (2) In this, bodies and objects interact and share vibrancy/ vitality, but are still separate. Is this separate vitality transmutable to the body-object? If we consider body-objects as things, then they possess thing-power, and potentially a bit of extra vitality preserved for the human body, but perhaps we ascribe this extra vitality to them because of our assertion that humans are superior to things, plants, and animals. I argue, that once the body-object is established, however, that it obtains the same thing-power as a material object, but our fascination, derived from both the death drive and the facing of the abject, is increased. Bennett states that “we are also nonhuman and that things, too are vital players.” (4) To understand the pull of objects and their “vibrant matter,” it is helpful to understand and acknowledge that, once dead, we revert to objects. The call of the Gold Tiberius in The Three Imposters alludes to its vibrancy; the characters are more concerned with the coin than the people surrounding them.


If we are drawn to the vibrant matter of body-objects, whether they are tortoises, shrunken heads, modern mummies, or something as commonplace as a rabbit’s foot, why not possess and collect them? Museums of natural history hold taxidermy, skeletons, and mummies; these are examples of collected bodies that have inherent use value according to scientists, historians, and archaeologists (archivists, too). In The Three Imposters, Lipsius states that the mummified body of Mr. Headley is “an order from a local museum,” (179) meaning that the body is to be collected, appraised, housed, and exhibited; it has been commoditised, purchased, and will become decommotitized until a time which it may once again re-enter the market as a commodity.

It is important here, to define the differences between archives, museum collections, and personal collections (sometimes hoards)[3] in order . On a basic level, and due to my work in the University of Calgary Archives and Special Collections, I separate archives and museum collections based on their contents: archives house textual material not bound and published, including the correspondences and notes of a particular person or organizational body and any formal and informal documentation thereof their life and practices: museum collections on the other hand house objects perhaps related but separate to textual materials. A personal collection can either house textual or object-material, and though it exists as potentially worthy of formal archiving or collecting, as it exists in the personal or private collection, it retains the value it has been ascribed by its owner and is threatened by commodification.

Of course, all material existing in archives, museum collections, and personal collections is under constant threat of commodification, even if it is at times decommoditized.


To pair these definitions down to their even more basic selves, the Oxford English Dictionary describes an archive as “A place in which public records or other important historic documents are kept,” indicating that the archive is meant to be a system of record-keeping. A museum, according to the OED (2a) is “A building or institution in which objects of historical, scientific, artistic, or cultural interest are preserved and exhibited.” The main differences here are 1) the distinction between objects and records, and 2) the difference between housing and exhibiting. Archives store materials but do not necessarily exhibit them; access is more limited, but museums keep most or some of their objects on display for public consumption. In this way, an archive is closer to a private collection in which access is limited.

A private collection, until appraised for a standard use-value, could be said to contain primarily bibelots, or knick-knacks. (Watson 5) According to Janell Watson, “[o]bjects designated by the term bibelot, […] are invested with a variety of often contradictory significations—not only “meanings” but also significance in the sense of perceived importance or value (aesthetic, monetary, sentimental, psychic, or other).” (5) The body-object as bibelot is an interesting concept. As we have come to understand, the dead body of an animal or person or any piece thereof is an object and therefore as an object is can maintain the status of a bibelot.

In terms of distinguishing between bibelot and artifact when discussing the body-object, certain questions need to be asked. What do different methods of preservation indicate about the ‘object status’ of a body? The permanence of the body-object’s presence here is essential. Take, for example, the different ways in which we deal with the body of a deceased loved one: cremation distributes the body-object among infinite particles of matter, therefore reducing it to something that can be repurposed or arbitrarily distributed or buried; embalming preserves the body-object long enough to be seen and appreciated, and burial or the embalmed or not embalmed body asserts a sort-of permanence, at least of bones. The body-object, however, is likely not commodifiable unless it belonged to someone of significance, becomes historically significant, is repurposed, or contains some sort of abnormality worthy of study or curiosity. In the case of highly commodifiable body-objects or artifacts, a more intensive method of preservation must occur. These more intensive methods include mummification and the act of relicifying.

The body-object is intrinsically linked to the object in The Three Imposters. All of the body objects are somehow tied to the Gold Tiberius. The first body-object we are presented with is held in “a little parcel” that is “all oozing and dripping.” (5) The woman holding it states “Don’t you think it will do nicely for a doctor’s museum? It comes from the right hand, the hand that took the Gold Tiberius.” The body-object itself is not outstanding, though potentially of use-value in a doctor’s museum. It’s intrinsic value or vibrancy, as with the mummified body of Mr. Headley, appears in conjunction with its relationship to the Gold Tiberius. The story utilizes a series of unreliable narrators, however, and we lose the object-bodies’ biographies, not knowing whether they turn up in museums or not. The drive, however, to collect and preserve, is still there. This same drive, perhaps, that leads us to want to preserve and collect rabbits’ feet, taxidermy, or a lock of hair or the ashes of a loved one or saint.


This paper asserts the dead body as an object, the thingification of which occurs at the moment of death, when the soul escapes the body. The lingering vitality of the body-object is the central focus of this work, summed up by the following line from the end of The Three Imposters: “The man was dead, but the smoke of his torment mounted still, a black vapour.” (149) Though the body-object is still referred to as “the man,” his object-status is solidified by his being dead.

Works Cited

“archive, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 12 April 2017.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke UP, 2010.

“body, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 12 April 2017.

“Kingship and Sacrifice.” Kingship & Sacrifice Exhibition. National Museum of Ireland, n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2017. <;.

Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process.” The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Ed. Arjun Appadurai. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014. 64-94.

Kristeva, Julia, and Kelly Oliver. “Powers of Horror (1980).” The Portable Kristeva. New York: Columbia UP, 2002. 229-63. Print.

Machen, Arthur. The Three Imposters. Mineola: Dover, 2007.

Mills, Jon. “Reflections on the Death Drive.” Psychoanalytic Psychology 23.2 (2006): 373-82. Web.

Roach, Mary. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. London: W.W. Norton, 2004. Print.

“soul, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 12 April 2017.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ed. Jill Nevile. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

[1] Bennett

[2] Kopytoff

[3] Jane Bennett, Powers of the Hoard

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