A Grave Disease
A Grave Disease by Fannie Tapper at University of Texas Houston Health Science Center, June 19-August 11, 1995, Jennifer Elkins
“Tell her the joyous Time will not be stayed unless she do Him by the Forelock take.”
Edmund Spencer’s sixteenth century words of wisdom reveal images of time-ravaged dreams, of songs never sung and memories yet unmade. Time shows no mercy; the grave always beckons but man chooses out of fear to ignore the inevitability of his own mortality and retreats. He retreats because he fears that in this inevitable fate lies the possibility that he will face his grave knowing at some level that he went through life never having lived. Now and then a man become conscious of the fact that time has stolen his dream and he may then decide to confront time by making a daring attempt to steal back the dream in hopes that at least some semblance of it can be salvaged or possibly some piece of it could become reality and attest to a life fully lived. Fannie Tapper’s exhibition “A Grave Disease” opens with the quotation from Spencer’s sonnet and visually echoes his words while portraying the story of such a man, her husband, Wilfred.
Tapper’s images chronicle Wif’s illnesses over six years. As she states, “The photographs resulting from this period are not all easy to look at. They are harsh reminders of man’s inability, finally, to order his own life. At the same time, many attest to human-kind’s courage faced with real adversity and with this particular man’s unfailing determination and optimism.” Elease Jenkins, Community Relations assistant at University of Texas Houston Health Science Center where the photographs were exhibited this summer, commented on the viewer’s response to these “difficult” images that reveal so poignantly man’s desire to reconcile within himself the transitory nature of life and in the end to confront his own mortality. According to Jenkens, “Women find these images compelling, while men are terrified of them.” Tapper’s photographs tell the story of one man’s journey. The tale crosses gender lines and becomes a collective narrative of society. One man’s story becomes everyone’s story as people project their individual fears and anxieties onto the images.
The grave disease afflicting many does not just ravage the body, it first kills the soul. The feminist critique has dramatically pointed out the various wounds inflicted on women by the patriarchy but it must he recognized that a system characterized by the conscious intent lo devalue and undermine one gender in the end will wound both genders.
The masculine wounding at the hands of the patriarchy is intensely portrayed in the exhibit's most dramatic piece of work, Man under the Knife. This brutal photograph was taken shortly after Wif underwent his fourth surgery to correct vision problems resulting from his diagnoses of Graves' Disease. Fannie states that it was only months before that Wif had dolefully decided to close his office, to say goodbye to downtown and to seize the opportunity to realize the dream that had more and more dominated their conversations. "By Christmas we would be aboard our boat, christened, what else, 'Forelock,' and by January we would be headed for the Caribbean." This, however, was not to be; by March Wif had already undergone four operations in an attempt to save his vision.
Historically, the patriarchal system has warned that dreams and visions threaten the rational and logical aspects of life. This devaluation of the imaginary life has caused a fear of the emotions associated with these imaginings, regarding them as potential for madness, or, worse yet, signs of the nineteenth century diagnosis of "hysteria," a woman's madness. The result has been to create artificial worlds isolated from the symbolic and devoid of emotion. As one is unable to perceive that an acceptance of the inner madness and irrationality might possibly lead lo a slate of true inner freedom that lies dormant in the truths stored, in these imaginings, and which in the end will reveal the essence of ones soul. As Pascal observed, "Men are so necessarily mad that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness." It seems evident in the context of these photographs that the cultural constructs of twentieth century Western civilization derive from a system with the primary goal of containing madness. As it seeks to sterilize the image, the vision is, rendered impotent and the soul is sacrificed in order to attain the material accouterments necessary to create an illusion of life. “The many people who sense their own needs and yet acquiesce in the prevailing system accept it in their minds by their deeds and thus confirm and strengthen it.”1
With two more operations by the end of the year, Wif's vision was stabilized. Fannie explains, "By March of 1991 we had leased our house and bought a new boat, this one christened "Graves' End," and we were well into plans to leave on our long-dreamed-of cruise, when Wif's doctors discovered he had prostate cancer.”After several more postponements they were finally ready to embark on their trip but in October as they were cruising Chesapeake Bay, Wif was diagnosed with an ulcer requiring emergency surgery, thus ending the potential of making this dream mm a reality. "The final episode to this saga is that in Wif discovered a concomitant muscular dystrophy, which required us to sell "Grave’s End" and move hack home, close to the Texas Medical Center."
"A Grave Disease" is one woman's way of confronting time by purring distance between herself and the suffering of the one she loves. She has captured images that inform the viewer that "A Grave Disease" is about the intricate interaction between the body and the soul—the body so long ignored and the soul that has for years served as the sacrifice in a patriarchal system. Once again Spencer offers sixteenth century- insight for the twenty-first century, "For of the soul the body-form doth take; For soul is form, and doth the body make," A movement into the soul is a movement into the body and in this interaction both are potentially healed. The wounds at the hand of the patriarchal knife become the bank scars of the consciously-lived life.
Memories are those moments that one steals from the jaws of time. They serve to help remember our lives. While Fannie Tapper's images are "difficult" on a variety of levels, these memories chronicle ajourney through the chaos of the human condition and attest to one man's courage to re-order and thus re-create a life that in its end is fully livid. For in the act of confronting Time, he found the place within himself where Time stands still.
Jennifer Elkins is a freelance writer living in Houston. She received her undergraduate degree in anthropology from University of Houston and is pursuing a Master’s Degree in counseling psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute.
1. Fontane, Theodor. Effie Briest, 234.