Skip to main content

Survival and skin



I’m not sure of this, but I think it was the seventies in which the word “survivor” became a special part of the American lingo to describe the victims of horrific childhood abuse – or the rock and roll singer's experience of a particularly strenuous global tour. Gloria Gayner's glorious anthem burned the word into our consciousnesses - that is, those of us dancing at The Florentine in 1979. Since then, the word is everywhere, and it is softly lit with connotations of being, somehow, admirable.

Survivor was a term of art for Elias Canetti, too: Crowds and Power is, among other things, about victims who went under and those who survived. In the background was the monde concentrationaire, and in the foreground was Canetti’s readings from anthropology and history. His chapter on the survivor begins: “The moment of survival is the moment of power. Horror at the sight of death turns into satisfaction that it is someone else who is dead. The dead man lies on the ground while the survivor stands.”

The term, with its “sur-“ prefix (which it shares with surrealism) points to a puzzling, even illogical level of duplication. Logically, realism should stand for what is real, just as being living – vivant – should stand for being alive. But both reality and living, which present themselves as natural givens, share a certain secret – they are fabricated as well.

One of the most famous and fabulous of survivors is Gulliver, the man of common sense whose English prudence and sense of entitlement is cast into a world – a rather Irish world – where prudence and sense of entitlement are a doubtful guide to monstrosity and disfiguration. Doubtful, but in the end triumphant. It is in this register – the register of the vicar explaining how to grow orchids in the garden – that Gulliver explains how he managed to sail away from the island of his beloved, super rational Houyhnhnms – horses – who banished him as a Yahoo – the human beings of the island, who shit and fucked and babbled. The explanation comes into one of those neatly tucked in paragraphs, something out of the abundant literature of the voyage in Swift’s day, that contains an amazing amount of shock:

“I returned home, and consulting with the sorrel nag, we went into a copse at some distance, where I with my knife, and he with a sharp flint, fastened very artificially after their manner, to a wooden handle, cut down several oak wattles, about the thickness of a walking-staff, and some larger pieces. But I shall not trouble the reader with a particular description of my own mechanics; let it suffice to say, that in six weeks time with the help of the sorrel nag, who performed the parts that required most labour, I finished a sort of Indian canoe, but much larger, covering it with the skins of Yahoos, well stitched together with hempen threads of my own making. My sail was likewise composed of the skins of the same animal; but I made use of the youngest I could get, the older being too tough and thick; and I likewise provided myself with four paddles. I laid in a stock of boiled flesh, of rabbits and fowls, and took with me two vessels, one filled with milk and the other with water.  

This is survival at its very nadir. Orwell, in his famous essay on Swift, makes several points against Swift’s reactionary politics that prove, at least to me, how English Orwell is – it never seems to occur to him that Swift was very conscious of the colonial status of Ireland, and that the writing, here, is all the more English for including the ultimate shock that the English, when all is said and done, will use the skin of the colonized any way they want to. Orwell’s blindness, here, is all the more interesting in that he intellectually knew, from his own experience, what the English colonial mindset was really about.



Skin, human skin, is distinguished from hide, which is bovine skin, once it has been stripped off the bovine, and before it has been processed by the tanner. That human skin could also be processed by the tanner has been noticed in the great popular mind, but when the word “hide” is substituted for skin, we know we are in the realm of jokes, those products of anxiety. Human skin, in the anglosphere, is bounded in by its color – the poles being black and white – and associated with the great polarities: the sacred and the abject, the beautiful and the aged, the healthy and the sick. Our pocket mythology is full of skin.

For skin to become hide, it must be flayed – stripped from the body. The knife must come out. To flay, in the dreamlife of English, is to do something powerful and unclean.  We dream of connections between ourselves and the beast, and we found our socius on the denial of that connection, which is as much at the root of our living together as any social contract. What, after all, is the social contract written on but skin? The cleverest of all images of the social contract – the philosophical parable about how it undermines itself – was written by Balzac: Le peau de chagrin. Here’s a contract that shrinks every time it is used. Here’s a capsule allegory of the history of every constitutional republic.


Swift was a churchman, and a great reader and giver of sermons. So it would surprise me if he was not acquainted with Hugh Latimer’s sermons. And, in particular, the third sermon to King Edward VI, given on March 22, 1549. A crucial seedtime for the installation of Protestantism, and the undermining of Catholicism in the Kingdom.   The sermon is an interesting religio-political document. The theme is gainsaying, that is, contradicting  the false concord that can result from an enforced but wicked orthodoxy. Latimer, here, is a pioneer of what Walter Bagehot, in the 19th century, called "conservative innovation - the matching of new institutions with old ones,"  although Bagehot’s Victorianism was illmatched, affectively, with Latimer’s sense of prophecy. Latimer’s point is that the Lord sends the preacher for a “first visitation” to warn a wicked people – and if they do not heed, the Lord makes a second visitation through epidemic, war, revolution, the throwing down of cities and riot in the countryside.  Speaking before the king, he had to thread a very narrow eye: that in which the past Christian order, under the devil’s rule by the Pope, was still, somehow, continuous with the new Christian order, in which the devil’s rule was overthrown. The King’s right to his throne, after all, was founded on a family continuity that traversed the wicked time. As a popular preacher, he had to speak bluntly, but as the first visitation to the King, he had to speak trickily.  In other words, he had recourse to parables. This is one of them:

“Cambyses was a great emperor, such another as our master is. He had many lord-deputies, lord-presidents, and lieutenants under him. It is a great while ago since I read the history. It chanced he had under him, in one of his dominions, a briber, a gift-taker, a gratifier of rich men; he followed gifts as fast as he that followed the pudding, a hand-maker in his office to make his son a great man, as the old saying is: Happy is the child whose father goeth to the devil. The cry of the poor widow came to the emperors ear, and caused him to flay the judge quick, and laid his skin in the chair of judgment, that all judges that should give judgment afterwards should sit in the same skin. Surely it was a goodly sign, a goodly monument, the sign of the judges skin. I pray God we may once see the skin in England.”

The judge’s skin is a shocking image. Latimer, it should be said, paid with his own skin for his views, being burned as a heretic in front of Balliol College in Oxford. He could not bend to the new twist in English policy when Queen Mary, after Edward, tried to promote a top-down return to Catholicism. Latimer could not as a prophet countenance the return to the hand-makers, the sellers of indulgences, the encumbrances to God’s grace.

However: – the religious message – the message in a sermon – was, as well, a political one that reached beyond its ecclesiastical argument. The cry of the poor widow is not to be prayed away or prayed under in any churchly order. It is to be paid for, eventually. And the payment – in human skin – is set up for a reminder to the judge. What a reminder, though! There is a mercilessness in this goodly sign that makes me wonder how far to follow justice – and, in Swift’s terms, how far to follow reason. For both require orders, and the social order is rooted in terror. If that is the way things have to go, I am not sure if I’m not on the outlaw’s side. This happens: I sometimes watch movies where I can see the murderer’s point of view very well. As well, I suspect that the law will strangle the poor widow in the end, or at least sit on her child for his lack of the right skin color and apply restraints to him until he dies, and then call it a day.

I’m reminded of a song by Otis Taylor, the House of the Crosses:

I went down

To the house of the crosses

 I saw my momma

Fall on her knees

Well she told me

This man's your father

 He killed two people

And he raped me

 She took her trumpet

She held it in her hand

She yelled out: "He's a evil man"

There’s a rational philosophy of Justice, which we hunger and thirst for; and then there is this dark, this obscure point, where no resolution is possible. We are up against it, here.  This, too, is the sign of the skin.