Of Reading Over the Writer’s Shoulder

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The following is another one of my random thoughts from one of my [many] journals, not initially intended for a public audience, but after reflection I thought some folks might be able to relate to it.

And although I do not like any one to look over my shoulder while I write — it disconcerts me somehow…”  – George MacDonald, Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood

To look over a person’s shoulder as he or she writes is the closest one can get to peering in at the working thoughts of one’s mind. This is why, even if the written words are not of a personal nature, it is felt as such an intrusion. It could even be viewed as an invasion — to say “Stop looking over my shoulder” is really no different from crying out in exasperation, “Would you please get out of my head?”

I’m sure some people wouldn’t mind having extra company in their heads and would welcome all the audience they can get. That’s very nice of them, but I also think that may be a bit of a vanity. As for me, such behavior makes me want to wash out my cranium with insect repellent. Or carbolic acid. Whichever is handier.

I understand it can be a temptation difficult to resist. Imagine being given the chance to read over your favorite writer’s shoulder. Now imagine that author spilling his or her wrath upon you. Please, just be patient and wait for the finished product.

George MacDonald says, "Back off, please."

George MacDonald says, “Back off, please.”

And to get back to the George MacDonald quotation, he goes on to say, “…yet the moment the sheet is finished and flung on the heap, it is her property, as the print, reader, is yours.” My translation is, once it is finished (and polished and revised and presentable) you may read it. But to read during the process is to induce cringes and annoyance and will cloud if not totally destroy the writer’s train of thought. The quality of writing may deteriorate if the process does not cease altogether.

Part of the pain of having greedy eyes follow your self-conscious pen may even date back to school, when teachers mercilessly march about the room, burning their eyes upon papers as students scribble feverishly away because they have the sadistic authority to do so. It scares the assignment at hand straight out of their heads and replaces scholarly musings with frantic thoughts like, “What is she thinking?” or “What I’m writing must be terrible!” or even “Would you just go away and stop breathing down my back?!” (I was a silent, sullen child, whose thoughts were most often of the latter variety when in such a situation.) I’m so thankful that my school days are now behind me.

I don’t consider writing to be a social activity. I don’t see how it could be… but I’m sure those who are phobic of independence will try to find a way to alter that. Meddlers. But don’t fret. The point of writing (one of the many points, rather) is to have a work read by others. So don’t worry. You’ll have your chance to read it. Just be patient — and wait for me to finish!

–originally written January 17, 2014

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

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The following picture is part of an advertisement for a “new” medical text in the back of Calvin Cutter’s A Treatise on Anatomy, Physiology, and Hygiene: Designed for Colleges, Academies, and Families, a book from 1855 that I scooped up at a used  book sale a couple years ago, found under the mysterious heading “GENERAL” (because, curiously, the good medical books are never categorized under “medicine” at these sales):

STUDYME

I find this both amusing and interesting at the same time. “STUDY ME,” it states, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” With his finger thrust authoritatively in the air, and decently clothed (not prancing about in exposed muscles, bones, and sinews as people often appear in medical texts), this little boy’s method of calling young scholars to educate themselves about human anatomy is fittingly stern (got to love the all-caps) yet subtle… and refreshingly modest. It is also religious.

My only annoyance is that it doesn’t attribute that it is a Biblical quotation, for it comes from Psalm 139:4. In full, it is, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” (NIV) However, I doubt a reference would have been necessary in the 1850s, in the days before reading Bibles in schools raised disapproving brows…

We ought to be educated about anatomy — in spite of any fear it might bring forth — because we truly are fearfully and wonderfully made. When considering how little we truly know about how we are made, how we function, and how we fall apart, we are fearfully made. Yes — we know a great deal more than we did two-hundred years ago. I feel we often need to be reminded that we still have a great deal to learn. One cannot forget how many consider anatomy fearful in the grotesque sense. I was a member of that crowd for many years. But the more one learns, the easier it is to cast the shivers and cringes aside and appreciate our admirable mechanics. And we are wonderfully made in terms of how intricate, sturdy, and complex the human form is. We are more resilient than you may think — and yet so delicate at the same time. No mortal man could conjure anything as amazing as what God has wrought.

We are fearfully and wonderfully made — and not one breath, swallow, blink, or twitch of the finger is to be taken for granted. To be educated of such matters is to better appreciate some of God’s finest work.

And I’m happy to have that little fellow from 1855 remind me of that which I should not need to be reminded… But we’re woefully forgetful creatures.

Of Nineteenth-Century Hiccup “Cures”

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When I’m in a public place, I find that I have to restrain myself when I encounter a person I’m unacquainted with who is suffering from a stubborn bout of hiccups.

I’d love to say, “Poor thing, it appears you’re suffering from a case of synchronous diaphragmatic flutter!” I’ve tried it on family members. It scares them right away (the hiccups, not my kin). But I know better than to scare unsuspecting random mothers out of their wits when their young children sporadically pop in the air making ridiculous hic! noises every few seconds. That would be very naughty of me, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s tempting.

Synchronous diaphragmatic flutter is actually nothing other than hiccups or hiccough in medical lingo. It is also known as singultus, that being the Latin terminology. I like to call it the curse of the wobbly diaphragm from time to time. However, I think I enjoy German word, Schluckauf, even more.

It’s indisputable that hiccups are nuisances. We all know the basic cures. Hold your breath. Gulp cold water at top speed or in various ridiculous positions. Startle the hiccup victim senseless. I always found sugar to be the most effective cure; however, my high school biology teacher swore that drinking water while holding your ears and nose closed was the one-and-only true method. It worked like a wonder for a little while. I still prefer sugar.

I’ve read somewhere that Hippocrates recommended sneezing as a cure for hiccups. I wonder how many people can do that on command.

But what was done for hiccups in the 1800s? I did my best finding off-the-wall treatments. Most books I found only mentioned hiccups as symptoms for ailments, but few said what to do about the hiccups themselves. I did come across the old water-guzzling, sugar-dissolving, breath-holding, scare-the-patient standbys.

In Our Home Physician (1873), George Miller Beard also suggests swallowing vinegar or lemon juice, and goes on to say, “…when it occurs after a full meal, everybody* knows that a little brandy generally puts it to a stop.” Count me out of that everybody. For hiccups accompanied by fever or inflammatory diseases, Beard recommends “opium, henbane, and similar narcotic medicines.”** Opium, needless to say, had many purposes in those days, and this suggestion did not surprise me in the least.

And then there’s good ol’ Dr. Gunn. I came across a digital edition of Gunn’s New Domestic Physician from 1861, which I thought I would compare with my tangible copy of Dr. Gunn’s Household Physician from 1901 (the two-hundred and tenth edition, revised and enlarged — oh, how I love this book, for it is a source of endless entertainment). The two books are very similar, but after so many editions, a few changes are inevitable — even in regard to hiccups.

The 1861 edition includes my favorite sugary method, the strict “‘nine swallows’ of cold water, taken without breathing”, fennel seed tea, compound spirits of lavender, anise, castor oil and spirits of turpentine, mustard drafts applied to the stomach and abdomen, sweet oil and fresh milk (if the hiccups come from poison, which happens to the best of us), warm baths, peppermint with sulphuric acid, tincture of musk and tincture of hyoscyamus (if nervousness if the culprit), and, the biggest eye-opener (or eye-shutter), “Inhaling chloroform will also be good.” That single sentence stands out to me. He does not elaborate any further. Not in the 1861 edition, that is.

...I'm sorry, but I couldn't resist this image here.

…I’m sorry, but I couldn’t resist this image here.

Forty years later in the two-hundred and tenth edition, it is no longer necessary to take nine swallows of water, or any specific number at that. All of his other cures still apply. However, he has more to say about the chloroform: “It may be necessary to completely anaesthetize the patient with Chloroform or Ether.”*** In other words, just knock ‘em out full-force. The fact that this is a “household guide” both amuses and frightens me.

I’ll stick with the sugar.

__________________________________

*My emphasis.

**Please, please, PLEASE do not exercise these methods — they are listed for historical amusement only.

***The same applies with chloroform and ether. Please refrain from this “cure.”

Of Those Unmatchably Comical Victorians

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I was tickled by a claim I read last night that was penned in 1840 by Percival Leigh in his introduction to The Comic Latin Grammar. He says that the Victorian Age ought to be known as the “Age of Comicality,” and that:

…it is only of late years that the ludicrous capabilities of the human mind have expanded in their fullest vigour. Comicality has heretofore been evinced only, as it were, in isolated sparks and flashes, instead of that full blaze of meridian splendour which now pervades the entire mechanism of society, and illuminates all the transactions of life.

Wow. What a mighty claim to smother all the chuckles that have ever been let out in all earlier periods of history, and how delightful it must be to view the world in… such a roaring blaze of comicality? But then again, considering this noble portrait by John Leech of the author, I doubt this fellow is capable of looking at life from a serious perspective.

The one and only... Percival Leech.

The one and only… Percival Leigh, shown here as an ever-smiling victim of static electricity… or simply a benevolent magister.

It also doesn’t surprise me that Leigh left the medical profession to favor writing. And not any writing. He was drawn towards the mighty art of comic writing. Not to mention that he wrote for Punch.

So, what of this claim that the Victorians out-sillied all buffoons that preceded them? I should repeat that was made early on in the Victorian era — in 1840. I also think it was a pretty good prediction, because the Victorians, as I see them, were a very silly people. Some may stereotypically view the Victorians as stuffy or dour, but I strongly beg to differ. They amuse me to no end. I don’t think I could devote so much time to the 19th century as opposed to any other if it were to be devoid of silliness. That would be no fun at all.

For an example of their silliness, consider Obaysch the hippo. He arrived in the London Zoo in 1850, produced a total mania, a plethora of senseless merchandise, immense crowds that would send me into a state of total panic, and, most importantly, he inspired a dance:  The Hippopotamus Polka.

The cover of the Hippopotamus Polka. The unlik...

A very dapper hippo, indeed.

Such are the fruits of a comical society.

Velocipedomania was another comical occurrence, concerning various breeds of multi- or uni- wheeled, pedal-powered vehicles, which people today blandly refer to as bicycles. Ah, the rich variety of velocipedes never ceases to amuse me! Ever perused through The Velocipede: Its Past, Its Present, & Its Future by Joseph Firth Bottomley? You ought to. I’m sure you’d agree with me. Percival Leigh calls hot air balloons and railroads funny, but I say velocipedes are funnier by far… and I am particularly fond of the monocycle, the variety in which the person rides inside the wheel. Somewhat like a gerbil.

English: Drawing of various antique bicycles, ...

A flock of velocipedes.

And then there is the one aspect of Victorian life that out-comics them all: whiskers. I don’t think it requires any explanation other than this:

English: photograph of Edward Askew Sothern as...

Edward Askew Sothern as Lord Dundreary… I dare you to deny the silliness of such a face.

Percival Leigh states, “The truth is, that people are tired of crying, and find it much more agreeable to laugh. The sublime is out of fashion; the ridiculous is in vogue.” Of course, we all know the Victorian era was not an age dominated by laughter and devoid of tears. It was a difficult time. But — they did know how to lighten up and be silly now and then. Besides, an era full of nothing but comedy would be mind-numbing to me, as much as Leigh would have enjoyed it. I need a healthy helping of both the sublime and the ridiculous in order to remain sane.

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NOTE: As for The Comic Latin Grammar itself, introduction aside, I do not recommend it if you want to learn Latin. You won’t. You might be amused by some of it if you already have some Latin under your belt, but I wouldn’t call it useful, and some of it is even offensive. If your goal is to learn a language, I can guarantee confusion if this is the resource you consult. My apologies to Mr. Leigh.

Of Medicinal Leeches and Sophia Hawthorne

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“Those incomparable, lovely, delicate, gentle, tender, considerate, generous, fine, disinterested, excellent, dear, elegant, knowing, graceful, active, lovely, animated, beautiful leeches have done me a world of good.”

That’s what Nathaniel Hawthorne’s future wife, Sophia Peabody, said of leeches when she was a teenager. I don’t think I’d ever be able to speak of a leech with such exuberance, but… I’m happy for Sophia that they gave her such delightful relief, or that she at least thought they did.

Sophia Peabody Hawthorne (1809–1871)

Sophia Peabody Hawthorne

Sophia was an invalid of sorts, starting in her youth. Headaches plagued her. Loud noises set her head throbbing, and she was the sort to languish about with the typical 19th-century melodrama of her suffering. She tried numerous treatments — leeches among them. Pursuing art brought relief as well, and I personally believe it was this distraction from her malady that did her more good than any bucket of leeches.

I recently laid eyes upon my first live medicinal leeches at a local science museum. Knowing their significance in medical history, I was excited to see those two serpentine, blobby beasts clinging to the side of their little watery aquarium. Certain Youtube videos of the Mütter Museum’s director and his pet leeches came to mind (I admit they make me cringe to watch and make me feel somewhat faint, but I do think it’s cute that their names are Harvey and Hunter). And as I watched those real-life leeches, I was so thankful that I’m not living in the heyday of blood-letting via leeches (not that I’d want to endure any sort of blood-letting for that matter). Of course, you cannot forget mechanical leeches, either!

Leeches: Interesting enough to look at from a safe distance. But I’d rather not have them clinging to me. And no, I would not like to have one for a pet.

As for Sophia… she ought to curb her enthusiasm, or all the leeches will be after her.

Hirudo medicinalis. Leeches for bloodletting

Medicinal Leech: “I’ll alleviate your ills and you’ll give me dinner in payment. What’s not to like?”

Of Surgery in Melville’s “White Jacket”

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I love reading surgical narratives — factual or fictional, old or new, but that of the 1800s definitely intrigues me the most, as folks who have traipsed by here already know. I was delighted to find an entertaining example of such in Herman Melville’s novel White Jacket. In fact, I think this particular scene is a literary gem, dripping with darkly comical mockery of nineteenth-century surgery in general.

Aside from the surgery, it is a very good book as a whole for those who enjoy things of the Melvillian, nautical sort (as I obviously do). I’m amused by the woes that befall the poor narrator because of his unfortunate, less-than-practical white jacket, the lavender-infused Selvagee who ought not have gone to sea, and the “fire it right into ‘em” method of publishing. As for the beard massacre, however — the poor fellows! Rather distressing. There are many passages that are either informative or chuckle-inducing, much like the case with Moby Dick, except White Jacket lacks strong a driving motive like the obsessive hunt in his better-known tome. In White Jacket, the Neversink is simply…  going home.

Herman Melville, American author. Reproduction...

Herman Melville

Ah, but the surgery! — and what makes it the most fun and satirical, the surgeon. His name is Cadwallader Cuticle, M. D., and he is the learned surgeon of the fleet who loves to dive in the teaching role in the midst of operations. His person is mangled. His teeth — artificial. His eye — well, he only has one. He’s bald, scrawny, and could look much more lively. As expected, Cuticle is a devout collector of medical specimens and curiosities that have a tendency to horrify everyone but himself. And although he says he likes to avoid amputations if possible, he cannot hesitate when he sees a chance to take up the saw. Besides, it’s dull work for a surgeon on a man-of-war when there are no battles. This is his first major case in three years.

And Cuticle isn’t the only surgeon mentioned in the book. One cannot forget the aptly named surgeons Bandage, Wedge, Sawyer, and Patella. And while Cuticle’s colleagues are against the operation, all it takes is one lop-sided, deferential “yes” from young, obsequious Patella to encourage him to pronounce that an operation must take place immediately — at 10:00 tomorrow morning.

There are certain aspects of the scene that make it particularly entertaining to me. The surgery is performed not on a traditional operating table, but on a death-board. And, of course, a reference is made to the surgeon’s negligence of hand-washing — Cuticle offers Sawyer to wash at a basin after the procedure since it is time to eat dinner, but admits that he never uses it. A mere wipe of a handkerchief is suffice.* A sprinkling of anatomical jargon spills forth from Wedge, much to Cuticle’s annoyance, and much to my pleasure. Plus, there is the cadaverous appearance of the toothless Cuticle coupled with the presence of a skeleton (used for an educational prop) that sends the patient into a state of terror, who has a strong tendency to faint.

I did wince when one of the younger surgeons noted that Cuticle can remove a leg in one minute and ten seconds. All I could think was, “Liston could have done that so much faster, you sluggard!” But, sadly for the majority of non-fictional patients, Robert Liston’s speed was far from the norm.

Robert Liston (1794 - 1847), Scottish surgeon

Robert Liston–swiftest saw in 19th-century surgery

Melville ended up poking fun and pointing out lamentable realities at the same time in a very skillful manner. It got me excited, especially considering that many authors of fiction from that time period would shy away from the amount of grisly detail that Melville was brave enough to portray. (NOTE: The description of the amputation itself is not for the squeamish.)

*Now, Melville was obviously disturbed by this breach in hygiene. Bear in mind this book was written in the late 1840s… And it took several decades after that for hand-washing to fully catch on in the medical profession, even though Melville’s mentioning of this makes it obvious that some contemporaries of the general public found these habits disgusting. Very interesting.

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