The Courter is a work I found particularly appealing on both an emotional and intellectual level. Rushdie masters a realist tone; the ending is about as real as can be imagined – had the tale wrapped up with closure for all, such a cute-yet-somehow-raw story would have felt… juvenile. The details are what make this work so realistic; I didn’t have to understand all of the references (some of the musical nods went over my head), but imagery like that of the pimps with the Beatles hairstyle made the story authentic and moving. Old Mix-Up, remembered with the chagrin of an adult looking back on adolescent hijinks, is the character who ties the story together and provides the link between East and West for Certainly-Mary, and perhaps also for the book as a whole. It seems strange that a stroke-victim, once chess-master, could be such a link, but I think it no accident that Rushdie ends the collection with this story, with this man. He seems the epitome of the culturally lost—he is unable to articulate (unable to speak, in the same fashion that the narrator’s family struggles for English words), separated physically and emotionally from his wife (deceased) and his children and homeland (lost behind the iron curtain – perhaps the reason for his interest in the Pan statue of Kensington Gardens?), and is relegated to a lower caste (from his initial status as chess savant) because of the ‘Other’ status his disability confers. His disappearance at the end of the story, just at the time that the family chooses not to be torn any longer between the two worlds, is telling—his role as liaison is lost, and so is his character. Once he loses the opportunity to help navigate Certainly-Mary through the Western world, he loses the ability to navigate his own life (or perhaps, like Mary Poppins, he goes where any master chess player, stroke victim, and guide is needed most).
Calvino’s Euphemia is the city that most caught my eye during this week’s reading selection (I vastly enjoyed Borges’ Library of Babel as well, however that story requires a response far exceeding 300 words). In my Existentialism course, we are beginning Sartre’s Nausea and an interesting corollary was drawn in my mind between the two stories during this reading. Satre’s character becomes convinced that memory is false, that all that is real is the present – Calvino neatly sums up my reaction to Roquentin’s philosophy – memories, though perhaps skewed (though perhaps not even your own) are formative, and shape your present as surely as they do your past. The idea of stories equating memory is invigorating, putting words to paper for the feeling I’ve had for a while that many of my memories are made of fiction. It’s not that I’ve misremembered more than the average person, but rather that many of my memories are composed of images from stories told over and over again at a family reunions about many greats of grandfathers and uncles, or of snippets of stories (the bottled babies in Brave New World or Harry’s triumph over the mountain troll), or even scenes from movies or shows I’ve only seen once (Rosencrantz’s major discoveries in physics, bumbled at the last second each time he attempts to show Guildenstern). There comes a time when images and moments from external sources have been replayed so often, over such a long period of time, and at specific triggers garnering the received memory every time (a feather drifting in the wind calls to mind Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead just as assuredly as a whiff of my grandmother’s perfume puts me again on her couch sipping honeyed tea like a lady), that I begin to internalize the memory and take ownership. The films and books, the tales and songs, this story of Euphemia have traded me a memory of my very own.
A Doll’s House gives an interesting perspective on the view of the body and it’s relation to inherited vice. Dr. Rank, described as having been sickly from childhood, is thought to be so due to the indiscretions of his father—this particular phenomenon comes from a literal interpretation of the biblical passage (Exodus 20:5): “for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the fathers.” This focus on hereditary sin stems from a general belief in original sin (and if original sin is necessarily passed on, it is rational to presume the sins of other forebears are inherited as well).
In a hybrid of phrenology and psychology, Nora is seen to exemplify the characteristics of her deceased father, most likely due to a phrenological similarity in physical (generally facial) structure (known to be hereditary, such physical inheritances as chin shape and forehead size were thought to be markers of particular personality traits—thus, in the inheritance of phenotypes, one also inherits the psychological traits that piggyback onto these physical features). These ideas are indicative of the lingering influence of the philosophy of humors on medicine. Much as the coloring of a person’s skin was an indicator of temperament (red and ruddy = passionate, since ruled by the heart – tendency to ‘run hot’; yellow tone = bilious, ruled by the liver, bitter and negative) during the reign of the humors on medicine, phrenology would rule as the definitive link between appearance and personality traits for the next hundred years. It is interesting that a theatrical piece would give such indicators of the extensive roots of archaic medicine; we are able to see two incredible portraits of the ideals of the body at this time, and they are as powerfully informative as they are brief.
Continuing with my area of interest, the passage in today’s reading that most sparked my interest was the brief portion on page 9 (LAWL) about Science and Technology in the Nineteenth century. I was moderately disappointed to find it such a brief section, when the advancements in science and medicine EXPLODED to such a degree. In line with the Realist movement of Criticism, the patterns of life were, for the first time, studied and written about. Social theory as well as Psychology were established as official fields at this time, which are linked with the literature of the day inextricably; for the first time, a symptom (say, social unrest) was traced to a causal line rather than a cosmetic flaw (the patterns for revolution lead back hundreds of years, rather than the span of a lifetime). The idea of the individual, crafted in the Enlightenment is expanded to apply to society – to understand why a group behaves the way it does, why a person takes the courses of action (s)he does, why. If the Enlightenment was all about what, the Realists were all about why and how.
The Miasma article in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie reveals a surprising extension of Enlightenment ideals (particularly the concept of the individual) into the field of medicine. A miasma, equivalent to the modern concept of communicable disease, was long thought to be the work of the maggots which are naturally drawn to rotting flesh – instead of viewing the ‘worms’ as a byproduct of disease (“an ordinary consequence of corruption”), they were instead attributed to be the cause: “they did not hesitate to name these little animals authors and propagators of the contagion.” The article makes the case that it is the individual who spreads disease, and, in an early display of epidemiological research, cite numerous methods by which contagion spreads (skin-to-skin, infection via infected surface, airborne pathogens, even a tenuous grasp of the increased permeability of mucous membranes in the spread of venereal disease). Rather than allow that diabolical worms jumping from person-to-person relates in any way to the spread of disease, the authors of the Encyclopédie place the blame for the spread directly on the shoulders of the individual. Although the article cedes that disease is an invisible force – an early recognition of the characteristics of the ‘germ,’ essentially invisible until the advent of the microscope – the strength to combat the miasma is placed firmly on the shoulders of the individual.
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