In the Domain of the Unknown

From death mask to CPR manikin, L'Inconnue de la Seine is a mythic symbol of our attempts to grapple with death - or reverse it.


This is the story of a drowned Victorian teen, her medical manikin doppelganger, and their enduring entanglement with the question, “can death be undone?” This tale is ongoing, and as such, has no fixed beginning or end — but for our purposes we’ll start in Paris, somewhere around the 1880s. It was at this time that an unidentified teenage girl was dredged up from the waters of the Seine River. As was customary for the time, her body was taken to the Paris mortuary, and laid out on a slab of black marble in the morgue window in the hopes that someone would identify and claim her. No one came forward, but the mortician on duty found her countenance to be so lovely and strangely peaceful in death that he requested a plaster cast be made of her face… so goes the story of L’Inconnue de la Seine, literally “the Unknown of the Seine.” Many accounts suggest she jumped into the river after being jilted by a lover (drowning in the Seine happened to be women’s preferred mode of suicide at the time).1 Angelique Chrisafis, “Ophelia of the Seine.” The Guardian (2007) Others say she succumbed to the pressures of industrializing life after moving from rural France to the big city, leaping into the water to escape poverty or prostitution. Lost amidst a swirl of theories and interpretations, her true identity, life, and death remain a mystery, and her legend has an enduring appeal. 

While the origins of L’Inconnue’s iconography remain shrouded in myth, what’s happened to her since is more or less a matter of record, though no less surreal. Her death mask became a popular fixture of fashionable salons throughout Western Europe, and inspired myriad artists and authors to reimagine her tragic end, including Rainer Maria Rilke, Man Ray, and Vladimir Nabokov. She has been elaborated and transformed via novel, poem, drawing, photograph, and film, especially in the era between World War I and World War II, decades after her presumed passing. Her deathly countenance even informed women’s beauty standards of the era.2A. Alvarez, The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (1970). Random House, Inc., p 156. Decades later still, in 1960, a Norwegian toy manufacturer named Asmund Laerdal made the first ever CPR manikin, and modeled its face after L’Inconnue’s; he named it ‘Resusci-Anne.’ Today, variations on her story continue to emerge.3 Such as one recent rendition naming L’Inconnue, at last, as Hungarian actress Ewa Lazlo, murdered by her lover Louis Argon. Her likeness is still produced, and is available in wall sculpture and busts, in variable sizes, all over the internet. Resusci-Anne has turned Laerdal’s company from a children’s toy manufacturer into the world’s leading supplier of CPR medical technologies.

The story of L’Inconnue de la Seine is a fantastic one, but it is just that: in spite of numerous attempts by many people over the years, there’s never been any hard evidence that L’Inconnue ever lived and died as the tale tells. For one thing, it seems highly unlikely that a drowned person’s features would look so… alive. Unlike most death masks, her muscles don’t seem slack, her visage isn’t distended by water or decay. In fact, the descendants of the mouliers who made the original mask say there’s no way its model was dead; more likely, she was a live model who may or may not have died by drowning later on. It could also be that she was indeed dead, but by tuberculosis, which was running rampant through Western Europe at the time; mainly afflicting the young, wasting their bodies into the delicate, pallid specters that became synonymous with the disease’s romantic image.4 Maurice Bessy, Mort, où est ton visage? (1981). Editions du Rocher. Regardless of the mask’s ‘true’ origins, its immaculate feminine image and ‘Mona Lisa smile’ struck a chord in the early decades of the industrializing West, the reverberations of which can still be felt today.

Immobile and convex the eyelids.
Thickly matted with lashes. Reply —
Can this be for ever, for ever?
Ah, the way they could glance, those eyes!

Vladimir Nabokov, ‘L’Inconnue de la Seine’5 D. Barton Johnson, “‘L’Inconnue de la Seine’ and Nabokov’s Naiads.” Comparative Literature 44:3 (1992): pp 225-248.

The hauntingly beautiful face of L’Inconnue first emerged from Lorenzi’s Studio, which is still located near the Odeon Theater, on the rue Racine in Paris in the 1890s.6 Anne-Gaëlle Saliot, The Drowned Muse: The Unknown Woman of the Seine’s Survivals from Nineteenth-Century Modernity to the Present (2015). Oxford University Press, p 2. At the time, the creation and distribution of death masks was commonplace. Throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th, cast-makers would spread wax or clay onto the faces of the recently deceased, creating a negative imprint that could then be filled with plaster over and over again to create copies of their final image. Many eminent persons had their features immortalized in this way: Napoleon Boneparte has a death mask, as does Ludwig van Beethoven, Nikola Tesla, and John Keats. As an anonymous and presumed-to-be lower class individual, L’Inconnue is a bit of a standout. Her life-like appearance compounds the intrigue of her unknown origins, her youth and firm flesh contrast pointedly from the slackened visages endemic to the face of death.7 As technologies progressed with the advent of industrialization, an interest emerged in making death appear as life-like as possible. Death photography of the 19th century permanently captured the look of the body just after passing. Embalming, which appeared around the same time, could preserve the actual corpse in a life-like state, at least for a few weeks. For more on this history, see John Troyer, “Embalmed Vision” in Technologies of the Human Corpse (2020). The MIT Press, pp 1-29. In keeping with the fashions of the time, the original mask would have been re-sculpted after the mold was taken, tweaking the image in the style of the Italian Quattrocento.8 Quattrocentro denotes the 15th century early Renaissance era – characterized by growing cultural and material prosperity following the devastation of the Black Death. Between this original derivation from the model’s face and the gradual replacement of old molds with new copies, L’Inconnue’s face became increasingly simplified, her features smoothed into a recognizable icon. Such idealized, serene female figures were the preferred artistic teaching aids at the time, and the first copies of her face seem to have been put to use as head models for students at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.9 Saliot, Drowned Muse, p 3. Yet something about the features of this unknown girl compelled people’s particular interest in her. As time went on and her popularity grew, her mask was reproduced more and more – not just in plaster, but in photographs, postcards, and even films.10 Ibid, p 2. Her appeal grew in outsized proportion to the era’s trends — she became an erotic ideal. L’Inconnue’s death mask became a hot commodity.

For a period, “during the 20s and early 30s, all over the Continent, nearly every student of sensibility [had] a plaster-cast of her death-mask.”11 Alvarez, p 133. Albert Camus also had a copy, as did Maurice Blanchot, who noted that Giacometti was similarly enthralled by it.12 Anja Zeidler, “Influence and Authenticity of L’Inconnue de la Seine.” A Reader’s Guide to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (2000). Rainier Maria Rilke first encountered L’Inconnue outside of Lorenzi’s Studio in 1905, while working as a private secretary to Rodin.13 Saliot, Drowned Muse, p 17. A few years later, in his novel Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge), the narrator does the same – passing the mask each day “because it was beautiful, because it smiled, smiled so deceptively, as though it knew.”14 Rainer Maria Rilka, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910). Penguin Classics, p 70. Vladimir Nabokov wrote poetry about her,15 Nabokov purportedly had a great distaste for the popular, trite retellings of L’Inconnue’s story, and published his poem “L’Inconnue de la Seine” on the heels of the publication of “One Unknown”by Reinhold Conrad Muschler. See “Nabokov’s Maids,” p 231. and numerous other authors and playwrights including Jules Supervielle, Claire Goll, Hertha Pauli, and Ödön von Horváth all wrote their own imagined versions of her life and death. Even into the 1940s, her influence persisted. She plays a central role in Louis Aragon’s 1944 novel Aurelien,16 When the book was re-editioned in 1966, Man Ray was commissioned to create a series of strange and beautiful photo collages using L’Inconnue’s mask, some of which can be seen online. and conjures the unease and mystery of the Seine’s waters in Anais Nin’s story, ‘Houseboat’ from the same year.

The first literary work to be published about L’Inconnue came out in 1900.17 Saliot, Drowned Muse, p 34. Written by Richard le Gallienne and titled “The Worshipper of the Image,” it follows the young poet Antony as he is drawn under the ominous spell of her death mask, which he calls Silencieux. As the narrative unfolds, his obsession with her increases, leading to the deaths of his daughter and wife.18 When Antony first shows the mask to his wife, (who exclaims, “she looks so terribly alive,”) he relays the story that “the sculptor who moulded it had fallen so in love with the dead girl, that he had gone mad and drowned himself in the Seine also.” He adds that he hopes the story is true, “for nothing is really beautiful till it has come true.”  Focusing on her posthumous character, this horrific tale positions the ultimate unknown – death – as a dangerous mystery; one that L’Inconnue personifies through her own anonymity. In contrast to this first novelette, most of the stories that followed imagined her life and death as a mawkish romantic tragedy, such as the widely popular but critically disdained “One Unknown” by Reinhold Conrad Muschler, which emerged in 1934.19 The story tells how the young orphaned L’Inconnue, gentle and innocent of the ways of the world, falls in love with an English lord who eventually leaves her for his fiance. Unable to bear her heartbreak, she casts herself into the river, and “does not feel the dark water of the Seine as it closes over her head.” Two years later, the German film director Frank Wysbar helmed a film adaptation of the novelette, called The Unknown Woman. Through the “flabby sentimentalism”20 Ibid. of these early industrial fairy tales, authors brought L’Inconnue into the realm of the living for mass consumption: in the broad light of their words, her mystery is revealed as mundane, and the specter of death retreats to the shadows. By controlling her story, her morbid role as a memento mori can be comfortably disavowed in the cultural imagination, even as her appeal continues to rely on our attraction to violent misfortunes. She is implicitly saved from the disturbing nothingness of her unknown end over and over again through commodification. 

Commodities are somehow more than the sum of their parts, a whole that exists and seduces beyond the practical labor and pieces that compose it. Like L’Inconnue herself, it is another kind of “the unknown” – one that intentionally hides its origins in order to draw on our desire. These objects call on us to own them, making them knowable and controllable. From this vantage point, L’Inconnue is not so scary – she comes to represent, not the fearful unknowns of death, but a comforting feeling of control over it. Pale, mute, and inert, her commodified image epitomizes the archetypal character of the innocent white girl as victim – her role is to be sacrificed for the greater good of the market – a post-industrial saint, simultaneously dehumanized and deified. Her expiration breeds inspiration. Just as myriad artists have given her life beyond death, so she has breathed life into their works of fiction, poetry, and art, as well as countless reproductions of her image, inspiring generations, and gifting them the benevolence of beauty through the violence of her demise. Even so, she haunts her devotees: while her reproduced face and literary renderings can be purchased, she is otherwise spectral, disembodied, and her true self and identity remain an untouchable mystery. Ownable, yet unreachable, her maddening allure remains.

“They washed her neck
And because they knew nothing of 
her fate,
They made another one up together,
Washing all the while…”

– Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Steve Kronen, “Washing the Corpse”


In as many times and in as many ways as her tale has been told, there does not seem to be a single version in which, dredged up from the river, L’Inconnue’s lungs were bellowed, her chest compressed, or her body warmed. Yet, by the time she met her storied end, various conceptions and methods of resuscitation had been around for about a century, and had largely focused on victims of drowning such as herself.21 Stefan Timmermans, “CPR for All” Sudden Death and the Myth of CPR (1999). Temple University Press, pp 56-89. The earliest organized efforts began in 1767, with the founding of a Dutch society for victims of drowning, shortly followed by the British Royal Humane Society for the Apparently Dead. The latter had a major role in the development of resuscitative knowledge, lasting through the era of L’Inconnue’s influence in the 1930s. Their methods aimed to reverse what, from their observations, were the primary hallmarks of death: the lack of breathing and a cold body. Preferred early life-saving strategies included warm baths, bellowing the lungs, pulling on the tongue, anally administering tobacco smoke, rolling the body over a barrel, and bleeding a vein. These efforts to ‘reignite the wick of life’ sparked controversy with the Church, which believed that it was the province of God alone to determine such matters. The Society insisted that the subjects of their efforts were only being revived, not resurrected: “The former is merely to re-kindle the flame of a taper, by gently fanning the ignited wick; the latter to re-animate a corpse, after the vital spark is totally extinct.” They further appealed to the Church through a blessing of their efforts at a yearly service, but still received pushback in 1803 when one Dr. R. Strive quoted the bible’s accounts of revival, such as the revival of the Shunamite child by Elisha, in defense of their resuscitative practices.22 It is interesting to contemplate whether the drama and tragedy of her death was not heightened by an awareness of its avoidability – the technology existed, she could have been saved.

Nevertheless, as the march of progress wore on, the Church eventually began to praise their work, and especially their efforts against suicides, as soul-saving. By 1809, it was common practice for suicidal people to receive a bible and a visit from a priest after being rescued.23 Timmermans, Sudden Death, p 36.

Resuscitative practices, and modern science in general, came to prominence through increasing focus on technicality, ‘objectivity,’ and a mutually supportive exchange with rising industrialization and adjacent political projects.24 Sergio Sismondo, “The Kuhnian Revolution” in An Introduction to Science and Technology Studies, 2nd ed. (2009). Wiley-Blackwell, pp 13-22. Born within this industrializing context, science was tied up in the liberal idea of ‘progress;’ whilst ostensibly maintaining objectivity. Science ostensibly arced towards the moral good, engineering ‘solutions’ that were often consumer-oriented and economically-driven. The clash between the Royal Humane Society and the Church in the Victorian era is just one example of how religion was often evinced in medical and scientific contexts (not to mention political ones) in order to lend secular findings an aesthetic of moral authority and truthfulness. Within this context of nascent science’s simultaneous intermingling with and fights for cultural supremacy over religion, the public increasingly came to fear that death meant an absolute end. Immortality became a topic of scientific debate.25 Abou Farman, “After Life” in On Not Dying: Secular Immortality in the Age of Technoscience (2020). University of Minnesota, pp 46-47. Farman explains, “in fact immortality was a topic of rigorous debate and research from the 1880s through the early part of the twentieth century within the sciences, resurfacing again recently.” In the absence of an afterlife, the discovery of scientific ways to extend life became an urgent concern; encouraging resuscitation efforts. Founded in this preeminent obligation to save lives, resuscitation strategies continued to evolve over the next 150 years and beyond, with various methods falling in and out of favor, sometimes repeatedly, being hailed as miraculous or discredited as ineffective, even dangerous. Systemic evaluation was near non-existent, and in-vogue techniques were validated as much by the public’s perceptions of their viability as by experimental data.26 Timmermans, Sudden Death, pp 38-47.

In the 1950s, mouth-to-mouth respiration was ‘re-discovered’ and given new credibility by the experiments of a John Hopkins research team led by physicians Peter Safar, James Elam, and Archer Gordon. Soon after, electrical engineers William Kouwenhoven and Guy Knickerbocker collaborated with cardiac surgeon Jim Jude to develop a closed-chest cardiac massage method, demonstrating that death was linked not only with respiration, but with cardiac function.27 Ibid, pp 47-53. In their published research, they argue: “Anyone, anywhere can now initiate cardiac resuscitative procedures.”28 William Kouwenhoven, James R. Jude, and Guy Knickerbocker, “Closed-Chest Cardiac Massage.” JAMA 173, no. 10 (1960): pp 1064–67.  Together, these techniques became Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR), and for the first time, resuscitation became a strategy not limited to medical personnel and patients of particular circumstances, but available for the rescue of anyone, by anyone.

It was at this time that Dr. Safar (the anesthesiologist co-credited with pioneering mouth-to-mouth ventilation), reached out to Norwegian toy manufacturer Asmund Laerdal. His request? To build the first ever CPR manikin to teach the general populace how to save lives from cardiac arrest. Laerdal was sympathetic to this idea, in part because his own two-year old son had almost died by drowning in the ocean near his family’s summer home a few years prior. He agreed to make the manikin, and sought an appealing female visage for it out of concern that men would be unwilling to blow into the mouth of a masculine-looking dummy. Remembering an image from his childhood — that of L’Inconnue’s serene death mask, which he remembered hanging in his grandparents’ living room — he chose to model its face after her.29 Jeremy Grange, “Resusci Anne and L’Inconnue: The Mona Lisa of the Seine.” BBC (2013). So Resusci-Anne was born, and quickly became an icon of life-saving medicine. She is still manufactured and sold by Laerdal, which has become “the world’s leading supplier of quality emergency medicine products for use outside as well as inside hospitals.”30 “Laerdal History.” Laerdal Medical. The American Heart Association claims that Resusci-Anne has taught CPR to over 400 million people worldwide, making L’Inconnue “the most kissed” face of all time.31 Grange, “Resusci Anne and L’Inconnue,” BBC. With her advent, resuscitation became a morally required and relied upon counter-strategy to imminent death. And L’Inconnue became, at once, eternally saved from the murky waters of her deathly origins, and forever able to save others.

“Because she has no name and remains an enigma, we can never reach her or taint her… we project our own dreams onto her.”

Laerdal company literature32 Chrisafis, “Ophelia of the Seine,” the Guardian.

3. LIFE(?)

As Resusci-Anne, L’Inconnue undergoes another metamorphosis, from evocative art object to medical tool. With each chest compression or ‘kiss of life,’ we ritualistically affirm her underlying narrative of victimization, reenacting a fairytale of romanticized drowning and suffocation, now featuring the happy ending of supernatural rebirth, of life beyond death. This way, Resusci-Anne can act as a symbolic representation of all of us; she shows us that we too can be saved again and again through the commodification and medicalization of our physical bodies. We are machines that can and should continue to function as long as all the parts are kept in working order. This mentality gave rise to CPR in the 1960s, pushing upon the public the role of emergency mechanic, and making death’s deferment everyone’s responsibility. It’s a semi-magical medical spell that empowers anyone and everyone to bring back the dead, granting would-be victims of mortality a second chance at life.

And yet, it is still largely ineffective at saving lives. Recent studies suggest about 8% of patients survive an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest for a year or more,33 Across 141 amalgamated studies, survival to hospital discharge was 8.8%, and the 1-year survival rate was 7.7%. S. Yan, et al.The global survival rate among adult out-of-hospital cardiac arrest patients who received cardiopulmonary resuscitation: a systematic review and meta-analysis.” Crit Care 24, 61 (2020).  and half of the people whose lives are saved still wish they hadn’t received CPR.34  Multiple studies ranging from 1983 to 2013 describe that 30-50% of patients who receive CPR in-hospital regret that CPR was performed on them and refuse further CPR. Many of these patients had underlying health conditions and received CPR in-hospital. This information reflects important realities of cardiac arrest: that it often occurs as a result of deteriorating health, and that professional resuscitation efforts in-hospital have a greater chance of reviving patients than bystander CPR alone. Renee D. Stapleton, et al. “Long-Term Outcomes after in-Hospital CPR in Older Adults with Chronic Illness.” Chest 146, no. 5 (2014): 1214–25.

The inventors of CPR’s chest compression method wrote in their findings, “since his origin man has been his brother’s keeper. There thus gradually evolved, in modern civilization, the specialized role of the physician or healer who first healed by superstition, then by faith, and finally by science.”35 Timmermans, Sudden Death, p 54. This popular understanding of a linear trajectory from ‘barbarism’ to ‘enlightenment,’ from fantasy to objective fact, is nothing more than an imperial folk story. This dominating Western worldview is far from factual,36 This is the historically white cis hetero male standpoint that Donna Haraway calls “the view from nowhere.” See Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies, ed. Sandra Harding (2004). Routledge, pp 81-101. but it does have deep cultural import; through its wide and implicit acceptance, it has the power not only to make things ‘real,’ but also to dictate what’s important and true. Over time, what qualifies as ‘science’ and ‘superstition’ has continuously traded places (and continues to), but faith seems always to be involved in resuscitation. Modern medical texts even quote the exact passage of the bible that Dr. R Strive was criticized for in 1803 in their defense of resuscitation and its historical origins:

32     And when Elisha was come into the house, behold, the child was dead, and laid upon his bed.
33     He went in therefore, and shut the door upon them twain, and prayed unto the Lord.
34     And he went up, and laid upon the child, and put his mouth upon his mouth… and the flesh of the child waxed warm.
35     …and the child opened his eyes.” 37David Y. Cooper, “Mini-Review: Mouth-to-Mouth Resuscitation: Influence of Alcohol on Revival of an Old Technique,” Life Sciences 16 (1975): 487-500.

Whereas once medical practitioners had to justify how their work was separate from the workings of God, it seems that contemporary medicine must call back to the Church to exemplify the righteousness of its life-saving actions. We ascribe what historically has been the provenance of divine power to our doctors and scientists. Our faith is placed, not in religious beliefs of an afterlife, but in technological and scientific interventions in life and death; creating a need for medical tools and rituals that support life’s preservation and extension. As the most recognizable of these, Resusci-Anne functions as a mythic symbol of resuscitation’s effectiveness. In training classes across the world, people encounter her as the object of their shared goal: (to learn how) to save lives. Evolved from her origins as an anonymous drowned teenager into her current manifestation as a medical manikin, she now has the power to create and maintain social cohesion around the practice of CPR, promising death’s reversibility. The myth diverts attention away from the inconsistencies and ineffectualities of the science itself by focusing instead on the unified, justifying message that CPR works. In doing so, it masks technoscientific capitalism’s role in creating cardiac arrest in the first place, and places the onus on the public to save their fellow citizens.38 Given all this subtle effort to manifest CPR as part of ‘the way things are,’ it is hardly surprising that the overriding public perception of CPR is vastly more optimistic than the behind-the-scenes reality.  Recent studies show that resuscitated patients on medical tv shows (to say nothing of the myriad portrayals in other realms) recovered over 70% of the time, and were 4.6 times more likely to survive resuscitation without lasting impacts than people in real life. See Jaclyn Portanova, et al. “It Isn’t like This on TV: Revisiting CPR Survival Rates Depicted on Popular TV Shows.” Resuscitation 96 (2015): pp 148–50. Cindy C Bitter, et al. “Depiction of Resuscitation on Medical Dramas: Proposed Effect on Patient Expectations.” Cureus 13, 4 (2021) 

There are benefits to this medical mythology. It offers a soothing optimism in the face of mortality: “if I collapse, I will be saved.” In a society that has taken death care largely out of our hands (via the hospital system, private insurance, and other institutionalized care), it grants us some measure of control — it’s easier to accept the ultimate ‘failure’ of death when we feel we’ve done everything we could to save someone. The ritual of CPR lets us actively practice our faith in resuscitation’s efficacy. In doing so, we believe we are aiding in something just and beneficial. When the ritual is not fulfilled, as in a recent case where a caregiver’s refusal to perform CPR on an elderly woman resulted in national outcry and a police investigation,39 “Bakersfield Police: No Criminal Charges over Death of Woman Denied CPR,” ABC News (2013). we feel moral outrage.

But the role of this technology extends beyond the ethical imperative to extend life at any cost. Through its efforts to reduce death, it often renders death invisible. The bodies of our loved ones are whisked away while ‘still alive,’ first into an ambulance, then onwards into an off-limits resuscitation room in the hospital. We may sit anxiously in the public waiting room, until a doctor, social worker, or priest emerges to let us know ‘they’re gone.’ Only after death, and after all the tubes and stents and blood have been removed, can we be with the body of the one we’ve lost. The dying process is blackboxed — not directly acknowledged by the medical institution, and only witnessed by them.40 This process relates to Troyer’s explanation of necropolitics as a means of facilitating the “production of dead bodies without death” in which “the true cause of death [is] simultaneously ignored and intentionally hidden.” By presenting cardiac arrest as a resolvable ‘problem’ and restricting access to the dying process itself, the medical system deflects attention from the causes of cardiac arrest, many of which are caused or exacerbated by environmental and social factors of life under capitalism. Troyer, Human Corpse, pp 128-129. Also relevant to this theory is Bruno Latour’s idea of blackboxing: “the way scientific and technical work is made invisible by its own success… when a matter of fact is settled, one need focus only on its inputs and outputs and not on its internal complexity. Thus, paradoxically, the more science and technology succeed, the more opaque and obscure they become.”Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (1999). Harvard University Press p. 304. Just as the literature surrounding L’Inconnue builds stories around her life to overcome the unknowns of her death, so resuscitation uses institutional systems and protocols to mask our passing. We are protected from the fearful realities of our lack of control, and technoscientific capitalism’s lack of control, over death — at the cost of our disconnection and disempowerment.

“…but lo! when he opened his châlet door, there was a strange light in the room. The eyes of Silencieux were wide open, and from her lips hung a dark moth with the face of death between his wings.”

  – Richard le Gallienne, Worshipper of the Image


Through her enduring cultural usage and transformation, L’Inconnue de la Seine has been made into an icon of the righteous triumph of life over death. As her doppelganger Resusci-Anne, she is used to support the immanence of that idea of death’s undoing — with its romantic drama, promise of control, and seemingly innocuous morality — within a technoscientific framework. For over a century, she has compelled mask-makers, artists, authors, scholars, curators… and medical researchers… to attempt to rescue her from the perils of an unknown death and gift her back to the populace for their own salvation.

But it cannot be done. As her name reminds us, she IS the Unknown – against every effort, she resists being brought into the domain of the knowable, refuses separation from the undying enigma of what lies beyond the grave. Rather than expending every effort to dredge her from those depths, perhaps she is suggesting a need for her story to be revised. The wisdom of myths the world over teaches the necessity of death as a precursor to rebirth. Rather than resuscitating a life long gone, perhaps L’Inconnue asks us to meet her in the afterlife, where her role as memento mori may finally be acknowledged, and its reminders confronted. Try as we might to make it otherwise, death is not invisible. It is pervasive; it is part and parcel of the experience of being alive. It lies beyond the reach of personal and societal control, just as the mystery of L’Inconnue’s true fate does. If we gaze upon her face, we see her serenely closed eyes and slight smile – a smile that suggests her knowledge of whatever lies beyond the veil of mortality. Looking from behind closed lids, she sees past the technoscientific, capitalist surroundings of our daylight world; the upturned corners of her mouth hinting at the possibilities that lie on that horizon. ~


  • KS Brewer

    KS Brewer is a transdisciplinary artist-scholar and Ph.D. student of Electronic Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Their work investigates ‘technologies of resuscitation’ in technoscientific conceptions of present and future life, and alternative outlooks made possible from abject and queer standpoints of death and decay.

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Strange Matters is a cooperative magazine of new and unconventional thinking in economics, politics, and culture.