14 March, 2006

Medical materialism

Medical materialism finished up Saint Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. It snuffs out Saint Teresa as an hysteric, Saint Francis of Assisi as an hereditary degenerate. George Fox's discontent with the shams of his age, and his pining for spiritual veracity, it treats as a symptom of a disordered colon. Carlyle's organ-tones of misery it accounts for by a gastro-duodenal catarrh.

— William James, Varieties of Religious Experience (1901)

In any event, as regards the correlation between mind and body, we may note for future application in this essay, that the poet will naturally tend to write about that which most deeply engrosses him—and nothing more deeply engrosses him than his burdens, including those of a physical nature, such as disease. We win by capitalizing on our debts, by turning our liabilities into assets, by using our burdens as a basis of insight. And so the poet may come to have a "vested interest" in his handicaps; these handicaps may become an integral part of his method; and in so far as his style grows out of a disease, his loyalty to it may reinforce the disease. . . I think we should not be far wrong if, seeking the area where states of mind are best available to empirical observation, we sought for correlations between styles and physical disease. . . So we might look for "dropsical" styles (Chesterton), "asthmatic" (Proust), "phthisic" (Mann), "apoplectic" (Flaubert), "blind" (Milton), etc.

— Kenneth Burke, 'The Philosophy of Literary Form' (1941)

Joyce's magnificent verbal music is seen as the other side of his poor sight and Proust's novel as a function of his physical and psychological ailments (although Proust's chief "wound," his homosexuality, Wilson slides over euphemistically). To the Finland Station, in fact, is almost a parody of the doctrine, and there are times when Marxism seems to be no more for Wilson than the sum total of Marx's insomnia, carbuncles, boils, influenza, rheumatism, ophthalmia, toothache, headache, enlarged liver, and excremental obsession, not to speak of Lassalle's syphilis and Bakunin's impotence.

— Stanley Edgar Hyman, The Armed Vision (1948) on Edmund Wilson

This first approach [to reading Great Books] is primarily biographical. Here we are concerned to know how a particular book came to be written in a particular way. Thus the fact that Marx had carbuncles made him vent all the more vitriol on the bourgeoisie in his Capital. Or we are told that Rousseau's constricted bladder made him all the less coherent at the time he wrote the Social Contract.

— Andrew Hacker, 'Capital and Carbuncles' (1954)


Anonymous said...

Is it medical materialism or medical determinism? In any case, it's a stimulating thought? Are we all so determined?

John Cowan said...

I am certainly determined, however wishy-washy others may be.