Growing up I was a fan of superheroes. On weekends, I would spend endless hours cemented to the television enamored by courageous animations battling their foes in an attempt to save humanity. I was fascinated, not only by their strength and endurance, but also by their overwhelming intelligence. Somehow, they always made the right decision, just in time to rescue the victim and restore the world to its formerly peaceful state. Looking back, it is easy to see why superheroes are not real. While these programs undoubtedly offered me continuous entertainment, they also lulled me into the mindset that in every conflict, there exists only one right and one wrong answer. However, this is a surreal depiction of reality and is not a true representation of the dilemmas we face in our day-to-day lives. Often, there are multiple perspectives on a particular issue or event. A conflict may have more than one solution.
At its most basic level, “The Most Dangerous Beauty”, written by Michael Paterniti, is about the struggle between good and evil. However, this essay tells a story with a much more nuanced conflict rather than the traditional dichotomy between right and wrong. In the essay, David Williams, a professor teaching anatomical illustration, becomes infatuated with Pernkopf’s Atlas, a compendium of anatomical studies produced by Nazis and Nazi supporters. These intricate paintings that portray the human body as examples of the utmost perfection become an obsession for Williams. When allegations are made that the cadavers used to create the Atlas’ illustrations were obtained unethically, both Williams and the document became heavily scrutinized. Through this conflict, Paterniti explores the ethical dilemma of finding beauty in something borne out of evil, while also demonstrating that the values assigned to what is right and what is wrong are dependent upon the assignor.
Additionally, Paterniti credits much of the Atlas’ majesty and brilliance to Pernkopf’s pedantic methodology. Paterniti states that, “All anatomical works before it will seem to be from Kansas, while Pernkopf’s Anatomy will seem to hail from Oz” (Paterniti, 738). The Atlas’ precision and beauty mesmerize Williams. He is entranced by its spell. Williams’ obsession grows as he learns more about the Atlas. He eventually goes to Austria to meet with, and study under the supervision of Franz Batke, the Atlas’ last living artist at the time. Williams spends several months learning many of the artistic techniques exploited on the canvases that encompass Pernkopf’s Atlas. Despite his infatuation with the artistry of the atlas, Williams also has to confront the Atlas’s disturbing past: subjects painted in the atlas were victims of Nazi persecution.
After the allegations about Pernkopf’s Atlas were publicized, Williams came under severe scrutiny. In one particular case, while giving a lecture about the atlas at Cambridge University, he was interrupted by a Jewish woman’s ebullition of...