“[T]he high points of the exhibition were two dead gangsters,” writes Graham Greene in The Lawless Roads, about a hapless freak show he attends at the border between the United States and Mexico. The book, published in 1938, was intended as a piece of journalism, a report on reactions to the anti-clerical purges that took place in Mexico under President Calles. Dutch Kaplan and Oklahoma Jim, mummified gangsters, provided the highlight of this particular stretch of Greene’s journey:
Jim was dressed in rusty black, with a loose fly button and the jacket open to disclose the dry, dusty, furry private parts. [The showman] showed the two scars upon the groin through which the taxidermist had removed all that was corruptible and put his fingers there (a terrible parody of St Thomas) and urged me to do the same—it was lucky to touch the body of a criminal.
All the elements of a narrative are here. So too are evocations of Auden, who wrote of myths as poetical attitudes we hold toward things over which we otherwise have no control. Greene continues:
It isn’t really any comfort to tell yourself that these things [the bodies] are probably ingenious fakes […] even so the fact remains that they were created by man to satisfy some horrifying human need for ugliness.
Bodies, alive and dead, continue to supply us with narratives; indeed, they, in turn, are the product of the narratives that precede and necessitate them; they are the ingenious fakes we create and touch to supply ourselves with explanations. What journalist today would deny Greene his claim that it is “lucky to touch the body of a criminal”?
We are continually devising or consuming narratives that, as bodies, serve as vindicating stand ins for our world’s spinning.
And so long as we are doing this, we will also continue to conflate criminals with saints, saints with criminals, and make celebrities of them all. And it will always be our luck to touch their bodies. They are, after all, our very own creations.