PseudoPod 828: Taxiptómy
By Shannyn Campbell
From the Greek words Taxis meaning “arrangement” and Ptóma meaning “corpse”.
- The controversial art of deliberately causing the death of a human as part of a public performance, before preparing and preserving the skin of the deceased person. The skin is then stuffed, and the body mounted in a life-like manner.
- An artist who kills a human as part of a public performance, before stuffing and mounting the deceased person in a life-like manner.
Synonyms for Taxiptómist
Red Artist (colloquialism), Babe-Butcher (colloquialism, vulgar), Stiff-Stuffer (colloquialism, vulgar)
- (capitalised) any of the nine sister Goddesses in Greek mythology presiding over song, poetry, and the arts and sciences
- A source of inspiration
- (colloquialism) A person who allows themselves to be killed as part of a Taxiptómy performance and their remains to be preserved and displayed.
Webster, Noah. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. London: Pocket Books, 1977.
There are many misconceptions about the origin of modern Taxiptómy. Hugh Macleod, in his seminal work Liberty, Fraternity, Mortality, outlined the supposed link between the public executions of the French Revolution and modern Taxiptómy. His conclusions were drawn from the premise that the French citizens’ growing enthusiasm for the spectacle of death, as popularised with the guillotine during the Terror, led modern Europe – followed by wider western society as a whole – to consider death an artform. Dr. Judith Marks refuted Macleod’s findings in her article “Burn the Witch; I’ll Bring Marshmallows” stating that public interest in capital punishment as a spectacle existed long before the French revolution. She specifically cited the executions of Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard at the hand their mutual husband, Henry VIII, as evidence, before focusing on the Witch Hunts of James I. Professor Derek Hamill would push the Taxiptómy time-line back even further to the Roman empire, highlighting the gladiatorial combat of the Colosseum and the persecution of the early Christians, as outlined in his book Nero: The First Red Artist.
I, however, would dispute the claims that any of these events could be considered true Taxiptómy by the modern definition of the term. While Macleod, Marks, and Hamill have all given focus to events where death was used as a source of public entertainment, they have neglected to take into account what sets Taxiptómy apart from modern executions, by definition. That is, the consent of the Muse to be killed.
Fisher, Douglas. History in Red. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Lisa Montan’s small apartment in the Sutherland Shire, is currently filled with boxes. Most of them were filled days ago but there are still a few things Lisa has neglected to pack away until the last minute.
‘I am the worst when it comes to time management’, Lisa admits while she scrawls the word “Vinnies” on the top of one box in thick permanent marker. ‘I’m always late to work, late paying bills. Back at uni I always finished my essays the day they were due. I’m just hopeless. I thought I’d get better as I got older but…’ Instead of finishing her sentence she sheepishly shrugs at the boxes.
Tomorrow, Lisa won’t have to worry anymore about being late. She won’t have to worry about bills or her job or her appointments or whether the box made it to Vinnies. Tomorrow she’ll be on tour, the centrepiece of Ivan Blakely’s latest masterpiece.
Tomorrow, Lisa Montan will be dead.
‘People have never understood why this was something I wanted.’ Lisa says, sitting at her kitchen table with a glass of water. She has been fasting for the past two days to make certain her system is “clear”. She has read up on the worst Taxiptómy performances and knows there are plenty of unfortunate muses who have had their last moments ruined by the body voiding itself upon termination. Last meals are not a big thing in the Taxiptómy community.
‘It’s been in the back of my mind since I was a young teenager. Maybe thirteen or fourteen. I saw a documentary on it, and I just remember being fascinated by Noel Collin’s Prometheus Chained. The way he set up his muse, the expression, the dynamics of it. It felt so real. So alive. And yeah, I know. That’s completely ironic. You’re not the first to have told me that.’
Lisa talks about having to keep her fascination with Taxiptómy under-wraps around her single mother, who found her growing obsession with the art form “morbid”.
‘She doesn’t get it. She still doesn’t get it. I’ve had to cut contact with her because she kept trying to talk me out of it. I understand why it disturbs her but sometimes you have to cut out negative people from your life. You can’t let your parents’ hopes for you stand in the way of your dreams.’
I ask Lisa whether her mother would be coming to the performance tonight. Lisa shakes her head.
‘She still doesn’t get it. I want her to be there but it’s also my night and I don’t want her to ruin it or worse, try and stop it. It’s hard but I’ve got some good friends who will be there cheering me on and also Ivan. I’m so thrilled to be working with him. The man is my rock.’
Harrison Brown lounges in the leather, wingback chair that sits in the den of his Edwardian townhouse. He seems anachronistic within his own home, the hand-painted wallpaper and detailed wainscotting clashing with his Doc Martins and raggedy t-shirt. But Harrison Brown is known for his love of fusing disparate elements together. His first production for the Royal Shakespeare Company was a rendition of The Tempest set in Nazi Germany, which divided audiences and was panned by critics. Brown’s next production, Henrik Ibsen’s Dollhouse, was better received, but many theatre-goers were left questioning whether Brown’s choice to gender-swap every character was a true commentary on the gender roles critiqued in Ibsen’s work, or simply a shallow gimmick.
His latest directorial endeavour is set to dwarf all his other controversies, as he prepares to helm his production of Titus Andronicus. The twist? It will be the RSC’s first ever Taxiptómist production.
‘It’s what Willie Shakes would’ve wanted.’ Brown insists, talking about the immortal bard like an old school friend. ‘Titus is probably his goriest play and there’s no way you can truly capture the magnitude of the spectacle unless there are actual stakes. Actual deaths.’
‘The actors are all amazing sports, especially Lacey Milford who plays Lavinia. It is such a large commitment for a one-night show. That’s why I think it’s sold out so quickly. This is literally a once-in-a-lifetime performance.’ Brown barks out a surprised laugh. ‘Particularly for the cast!’
Osborne, James. “A Day To Massacre Them All: An Interview with Harrison Brown.” National Theatre Magazine, vo. 12, no. 27, 14 Aug. 2014.
Ivan Blakely seems like an odd fit for a Taxiptómist. He’s balding, in his late fifties, with a neat white beard and round face. He looks more like a department store Santa than the suave, genteel, black-suited Taxiptómist you see on television. When I speak to him, backstage of the Sutherland Entertainment Centre, he is setting up all the tools he will need for tonight’s performance.
‘Mostly I use the same instruments that I used back when I was a surgeon,’ Ivan says, as he gestures across his assortment of neat scalpels, tongs, and pliers. ‘Honestly, most of this is just for show tonight. The real work begins tomorrow when I have to start preserving and posing Lisa properly. Not that tonight isn’t important. It’s a big part of the process, especially for Lisa. I want to make sure she has the best send-off possible. But that’s the glamorous bit, you see. No one likes to talk about the part with the entrails and the formaldehyde.’
When I ask him which part he leans more towards, the medical side or the theatrics, Ivan refuses to come down on one side or the other.
‘They’re both interconnected. You can’t have one without the other. It’s like… like asking a baker if he prefers the part where he mixes the ingredients together or when he puts the cake in the oven. It’s all the same process. You can’t have one without the other.’
Ivan goes on to talk about the theatricality of the burials of ancient Egyptian Pharaohs. How the embalming and the mummifying were all part of the spirituality of the process.
‘The priests weren’t just holy men. They had a practical, hard, dirty duty to perform for the Pharaohs. That’s how I see myself in some ways. A modern day man of Osiris. And believe me I know how pretentious that sounds.’
We move on to the topic of what exactly he plans to do with Lisa’s remains. Ivan doesn’t give me a direct answer; not because he’s being secretive, but because he claims to genuinely not know.
‘I have a few ideas floating around in the back of my head. Concepts I’ve wanted to try for ages. But I won’t know until tomorrow exactly what I want to do with Lisa. Part of it is the practical element. You don’t know what a body is going to allow you to do once it’s in your hands. That’s just the nature of the beast. But alongside that, I don’t want to be pinned down to a specific idea. I like having the freedom to choose the best concept at the time or even just go where the spirit takes me. Some of my best work has been completely off the cuff. That’s why they are called Muses after all.’
[…] Lewis goes on to say that the major issue facing modern comedians is the increasing absurdity of modern life.
‘Have you ever heard of Poe’s Law?’ She asked me butting her cigarette. I admit I haven’t. ‘It’s the idea that, no matter how much you exaggerate a point-of-view for the sake of a joke, there are always going to be people who think you are genuine. Like, if I say that… I dunno, vaccines are full of nanobots and will make us explode once the cyborgs rise up, or some shit, I can guarantee there will be one person out there who thinks I’m honestly I’m a tin-foil wearing antivaxer. It’s embarrassing when they think you’re just that much of an idiot, but it’s so much worse when they come up to you after your set and whisper “I believe you”. That’s what the Internet does to your brain, though. You think there were half as many flat-earthers back in the fifties?’
I can see Lewis’ point, but what she refers to as Poe’s Law has existed since long before subreddits and YouTube comment sections. Most famously Jonathan Swift’s essay A Modest Proposal was written with such sustained, dry, irony that it led to a push for cannibalism to be legalised in Ireland spearheaded by the Oxford Taxiptómy Association. The movement only lost momentum when Swift was forced to publicly state he was being satirical.
Lewis smiles when I bring up this anecdote. ‘I’ve heard that. And even afterwards people still believed Swift was in favour of munching down on some delicious baby stew.’
Hsu, Lily. “‘Post-Post-Satire sounds like something out of a Satire’: How Felicity Lewis Still Finds the Funny Side When the Ridiculous Is the New Normal.” Guardian, 19 Sept. 2009.
While Lisa allows the make-up artists and hairstylists to primp and plump her for her big night, she reminisces to me about the first time she met Ivan.
‘I sent him a fan mail, talking about how I loved his work and how fascinating I found Taxiptómy. Just silly teenage stuff you know. I wasn’t expecting to get a reply back at all. He was this big shot, amazing artist and I was just this gawky fourteen year old fan-girling in the corner. But he took such a real interest in me. I think it was the first time I remember an adult treating me like an equal. He was just so approachable and nurturing. None of the pretension you’d expect from a Taxiptómist.’
Their relationship would remain online for the next few years, where the young Lisa would grow to see Ivan as a mentor and eventually confidant.
‘He was there for all the really stupid, petty stuff that goes on in high-school. He’s been such a major part of my life I cannot imagine doing this without him. And while I was bothering him with bitch-fights in the school yard and which boy broke my heart this week, be was instilling me with this love of culture and art and Taxiptómy. One time he spent four hours waxing poetic about the profoundness and beauty of a Muses’s role and how they give their lives for the sake of future generations. I remember something he said that really struck me. It was “Muses may die before their time but through art they live forever.” How amazing is that? Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?’
It wasn’t until Lisa was eighteen that she and Ivan met in person.
‘I had seen photos of him online so I knew what he looked like. But it was so much different than meeting him in person. There was that instant familiarity, you know. Like we had been getting coffee every week for years. It was at that first meeting that he floated the idea of me being one of his Muses someday. I was so excited, I can’t even describe it. I had been secretly daydreaming about this sort of thing, but I didn’t want to blow the friendship by bringing it up to him. Can you imagine how awkward it would have been if he’d said no? But here Ivan Blakeley was, offering me a chance to be his Muse. I tell you, Cinderella can suck it. That’s the fairytale.’
The thing with Taxiptómy is that so many people get wrapped up in the issue of consent. I’ve heard so many people making the comparison to abortion or to euthanasia. “It’s their life, they can choose what to do with it. Why is it any of your business?” This assumes that all consents are made equal.
Let’s have a look at the statistics for Taxiptómists and Muses. Over eighty percent of Taxiptómists are men, and sixty-seven percent are men over the age of fifty. Taxiptómists tend to be from upper-middle class backgrounds, with the majority having attended private school, having university educations in law, politics, and business studies.
Now if you look at the Muses, it’s a very different picture. The gender imbalance is flipped with the majority being women, seventy percent are under the age of twenty five, and ninety three percent are under the age of thirty five! While you do have a variety of educational backgrounds, most Muses earn less than $35,000 dollars US a year before volunteering. I find that very interesting, because it not only puts most Muses in the lower-middle income bracket, or in many cases below the poverty line, but $35,000 is the annual renewal price for a Taxiptómy license. Most Muses get payed less in a year than Taxiptómists pay to take a person’s life.
Which leads us to some uncomfortable questions. Firstly, how much do inequality and power dynamics play into a person’s choice to become a Muse? And secondly, if Muses turn towards Taxiptómy due to mounting, inescapable social pressures, can we really pretend that their consent was more freely given than anyone else’s?
Clark, Wendell. “The Morality of Taxiptómy. TED. 11 Nov. 2017. Lecture.
It is half an hour until the performance when there is a disturbance.
Lisa Montan’s mother, Terry Montan, tries to get backstage and stop the performance.
Ivan is very used to these types of disturbances.
‘Taxiptómy is not for the faint of heart,’ He says airily, as security personnel frog march the struggling, hollering Ms. Montan outside. ‘You’d hope that family and friends would be supportive of their children’s interests, but there are always at least one or two who decide to make it all about them. You expect it but you never get used to it. I’ve been threatened legally, verbally, physically. I had one Muse’s father try to set the Theatre on fire. It makes me furious, but what can you do? All you can do is channel your work into your art. If that makes the detractors angry, then all the better.’
Lisa comes out to see what the commotion was, but Blakeley handles the situation and tells her it was a frustrated lighting technician. When I ask him why he didn’t tell Lisa about her mother’s presence, he waves a practiced hand.
‘This is Lisa’s big night! Knowing that her mother is here and tried to pull a stunt like that will only get in her head. I remember something similar happening in one of my first performances and the Muse got cold feet. We had to shut down the whole thing. If Ms. Montan isn’t here to support her daughter, she doesn’t need to be here at all.’
It is twenty minutes before curtains up and I give my final goodbyes to Ivan before going to do the same to Lisa. We both seem to simultaneously realise this is the final time we will see each other. Lisa wraps me up in a massive bear hug.
‘Thank you for writing this article,’ Lisa says into my ear. ‘It helps a lot, you know? It’s good to know people are going to know who I was and why I feel this is important. I hope it helps people understand.’
On the dressing table I catch a glimpse of a photograph. It’s of a woman and a girl obviously related. The girl, like the woman, is on the plumper side, and has a few prominent blemishes on her nose and forehead. If it weren’t for the wide, natural smile and the mole under the left eye, it would be almost impossible to tell that the girl in the photo was the same person as the woman hugging me.
I ask whether “break a leg” was a term Taxiptómists use. Lisa admits she doesn’t know, but she’s sure it’ll work the same anyway.
Ambrose, Sally. “Interview with a Work of Art.’ Artist Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 27. 2019. pp. 16-25.
Renowned Taxiptómist Charles Greene has had his appeal to overturn his conviction of murder in the first degree dismissed today and will face sentencing within the coming weeks. Greene’s case made international headlines when it was discovered that he allowed his Taxiptómy license to lapse, leading the family of his latest muse Virginia Wilkins to claim her death was unlawful. This has sent shock waves throughout the Taxiptómist community, who claim that Greene’s sentencing is a miscarriage of justice.
In a statement to the public Linda Flynn, the head of the American Taxiptómy Association said that ‘This is a clear case of bias on behalf of the Judge and the legal system as a whole. While Mr. Greene was obviously in the wrong for allowing his license to lapse, treating this case as though it were a back-alley murder instead of a performance done with Ms Wilkins’ full knowledge and consent is ludicrous. We support and will continue to support Mr. Greene in this matter.’
This is not the first time Taxiptómy has found itself under legal scrutiny. In 2017, Canadian Taxiptómist Gladys Stewart came under fire for coercion, after attempting to secure Muses by contacting terminally ill cancer patients and offering to pay undisclosed sums of money to their families upon their dying as part of her performance work. With the push to criminalise Taxiptómy in the United States gaining momentum, cases like Charles Greene’s only muddy the waters further.
Barrett, Jordan. “Greene Appeal Dismissed: ‘A clear case of bias,’ says American Taxiptómy Association.” The Liberty Herald, 12 December 2018.
Ivan Blakeley’s new Taxiptómist work “The Asending Beatrice” is meant to be a homage to Beatrice Portinari, the inspirational, almost sanctified figure immortalised in Dante’s Divine Commedy. Unfortunately for Blakeley, and fans of Taxiptómy as an artform, the work lacks the glorious and inspirational qualities such a title should inspire. While technically the work is on par with Blakeley’s other more noteworthy pieces, such as his “Prometheus Chained” and his Black Taxiptómist series – a recreation of the imfamous Black Paintings of Fransico Goya – “The Asending Beatrice” lacks the creativity and nuance of Blakeley’s earlier works, coming across as stilted and gaudy rather than divine and majestic. The expression and positioning of the Muse is reminiscent of a unloved store manikin that has been re purposed to play Mary in a slap-dashed nativity scene. Blakeley admits his disappointment in the ultimate product, claiming that the Muse wasn’t right for this particular work. “The Asending Beatrice” was set to be the centerpiece for the National Gallery of Australia’s newest exhibit of Dante inspired artwork, to be set alongside the works of Rossetti, Rodin, and Botticelli. But unlike the works of those masters it is unlikely to become a significant piece in it’s own right.
Damien Arnold. “The Ascending Beatrice Falls Short.” Rev. of The Ascending Beatrice, by Ivan Blakely. Living Art Magazine. 12 August 2019: p. 44-62.
About the Author
Shannyn Campbell graduated from the University of Wollongong’s Creative Writing Program with Distinction (no, that’s not the one from the Monty Python sketch). She lives in Wollongong and spends her days as a Disability Support Worker. Her most recent work has been writing episodes for the web series Wolfgang, where a bunch of millennia werewolf’s battle boredom during their monthly quarantine.
About the Narrators
Melissa V. Hofelich is the copy editor at Nightmare Magazine and an extended family member of the Escape Artists podcast network. Originally from South Jersey, she now lives in Atlanta with her husband Alex and their four cats. She’s worked for both The Man and The Devil over the years (though generally not at the same time), trying her hand at jobs such as accounting, professional box-slinging, fraud detection, and lingerie sales. Her true passion is the care and feeding of books and libraries. Melissa holds a BFA from The University of the Arts in Philadelphia and is a ravenous reader, gamer, and crypt creeper.
M. M. Schill
M. M. Schill currently resides in North Florida. She’s a writer, award-winning baker, graphic designer, and illustrator. When she’s not creating, she studies and teaches martial arts. Outside of those pursuits, she’s an outspoken advocate for abuse survivors. She maintains close ties to local survivor volunteer groups and help-centers. She often writes on the topic when she isn’t crafting in her speculative fiction worlds
Jamie is a writer, editor, document designer, occasional English professor, and full-time curmudgeon. He holds a MA in Professional Writing from Kennesaw State University, where he also wrangles cats and occasionally provides information systems support. He lives with his far superior wife, his indefatigable kid, and the platonic ideal of dog. You can see just how bad he is at social media on Twitter @Jamie_L_Grimes.
Kat Day is a PhD chemist who was once a teacher and is now a writer and editor. By day she mostly works as a freelance editor and proofreader of scientific materials, with bits of article and book-writing thrown in. By night she… mostly does all the stuff she hasn’t managed to do during the day. She’s had articles published in Chemistry World, has written science content for DK and has produced scripts for Crash Course Organic Chemistry. Her fiction can be found at Daily Science Fiction and Cast of Wonders among others. You can follow her on Twitter at @chronicleflask , or check out her blogs, The Chronicle Flask and The Fiction Phial. She lives with her husband, two children and cat in Oxfordshire, England. She thinks black coffee is far superior to tea. The purple liquid on the stovetop is none of your concern. Kat joined the team in 2019, and became assistant editor in 2021.
Kitty Sarkozy is a speculative fiction writer, actor and robot girlfriend. Kitty is an alumnus of Superstars Writing Seminar , a member of the Apex Writers Group, and the Horror Writer’s Association. Several large cats allow her to live with them in Marietta GA, She enjoys tending the extensive gardens, where she hides the bodies. For a list of her publications, acting credits or to engage her services on your next project go to kittysarkozy.com.
Dave Robison is an avid Literary and Sonic Alchemist who pursues a wide range of creative explorations. A Brainstormer, Keeper of the Buttery Man-Voice (patent pending), Pattern Seeker, Dream Weaver, and Eternal Optimist, Dave’s efforts to boost the awesomeness of the world can be found at The Roundtable Podcast, the Vex Mosaic e-zine, and through his creative studio, Wonderthing Studios. Dave is the creator of ARCHIVOS, an online story development and presentation app, as well as the curator of the Palaethos Patreon feed where he explores a fantasy mega-city one street at a time.