December 06, 2008

Anatomy Museums


In mid-Victorian Britain there was a craze for anatomy museums- these museums were eventually by 1870 threatened with prosecution under the obscene publications act (1857) and mostly died away. For a while though, Anatomy Museums were places where the learned and scholarly met the populace in an atmosphere of equality- some Victorians saw them as a solution to the public health needs of the time, others campaigned for them to receive a tax rebate from the Treasury and the most popular museums were visited by over 2000 people a week. Dr. A. W. Bates, in Medical History, has just written an article examining the importance of the Museums- why they thrived and why eventually they fell. His arguments are worth considering when we think about the way in which modern medicine arrived at its current professionalised status.

The anatomy museum was the response to a real need. By the late eighteenth century, the dissection of bodies was increasingly difficult to maintain- it was hard to find specimens without breaking the law. As the anatomist Frederick Knox commented 'without the museums, the profession of anatomy would be in the state of a man without a language'. As the eighteenth century opened it became accepted that medical men needed some sort of a training and that that must include knowledge of anatomy. Popular anatomist teachers then arose to fulfill the need- to give pupils training in the arts of anatomy. Frequently what they did was maintain collections of anatomical models which they would demonstrate their arguments with. For people who did not wish to attend a dissection, the prospect of an anatomical model gave them a less sanguine approach to medical training. As the eighteenth century went on more and more of these collections became open to the public- between the early eighteenth century and 1800 Bates estimates that 39 establishments were opened in London. Their primary focus was on supporting the anatomical lecturer- but as the nineteenth century moved on, they became increasingly popular as attractions in their own right.

What they contained were models of the human being. Often these models were based on classical figures- a reclining Venus, a Samson, an Adonis- who could be carefully abstracted from the society of the day. There was a proffusion in particular of female models- partly this was for reasons of a rising interest in obstetrics: one might see in Joseph Kahn's museum, foetuses from the age of two weeks to birth. Anatomy advocates argued that popular knowledge of the subject fortified a more general religious sensibility within society: the knowledge of the mechanism induced in their thinking a recognition of the master mechanic who crafted it. The College of Surgeons in London attempted to monopolise the teaching of anatomy to happen within the Teaching Hospitals- they reckoned without the change from anatomical study to anatomical exhibition. By the 1840s, the Anatomical museums were largely museums- they were run to appeal to clerical and other workers who had both disposable wealth and time. The Anatomical Museums were amongst the few establishments who remained open into the evening and at weekends: both the National Gallery and the British Museum by contrast were closed save for during working hours.

So why did they close? As the anatomical musseums grew, once again they began to challenge the power of the medical proffession. Perhaps this is most noticable in Kahn's case- he started marketting from the late 1850s drugs for venereal disease within his museum. Various marginal and disputed diseases were advertised through anatomical museums. When the obscene publications act of 1857 came into law, it established that in order to publish an obscene publication the offence was not the intention to promulgate obscenity, but the effect of the action of publishing. Consequently defences based on the educative merit of anatomy were difficult to maintain. The medical proffession seized on the law as a means to prosecute some of the museums- and successful prosecutions associated the museums in the public mind with the pornographers prosecuted under the same act. Many doctors in particular disliked the focus on venereal disease- as they argued it encouraged sexual license because such diseases were punishments for sexual indulgence- a similar argument to that used about Aids a century later. The arguments for prosecution were supported by subscriptions in medical societies- and were bolstered by the fact that the law considered such matters were beyond the capacity of the public but within the capacity of the professional. The cool eyed doctor might examine female genatalia in the way that the rough mechanic might not.

In that sense the demise of the anatomy museum represents the rise of the medical proffession. It does that in two ways- firstly by granting a monopoly to that proffession of knowledge. Secondly though and more interestingly it fortified the reputation of doctors as the possessors of special abilities and knowledge. These abilities were not solely medical but also moral. Doctors possessed the ability to look into the arcana of the human body without it being erotically exciting or dangerously provocative: the general public though could not. Hence the anatomy museums perpetrated crimes under the obscene publications act, but the private collections at the Royal Colleges to which only physicians had access did not.

December 05, 2008

Julian and purity

Julian the Apostate (r. as Augustus 360-3) as an emperor attempted to take the Roman empire back from Christianity and return it to a neo-platonist form of paganism (for those who wish to read more about him, this is an encyclopedia article written by two academics which describes his career). He did this both in his policies as emperor- and also in publications. Julian thought of himself as a philosopher and mystic- a devotee of Hellenic values in the world usurped by the Galileans (as he called Christians). The focus of his arguments is what interests me here: in a fascinating article for the Journal of Late Antique Religion and Culture, Gorgio Scrofani has attacked an issue which might seem perplexing. Julian's major treatise 'Against the Galileans' includes a paean of praise to Judaism- what Scrofani does is explicate where this defence of the Jews fits into Julian's attack on Christianity and his defence of paganism.

As a defender of Judaism, what Julian sought to do was to defend Jewish ritual and tradition. He wrote

Jews agree with the Gentiles, except that they believe in only one God. That is indeed peculiar to them and strange to us; since all the rest we have in a manner in common with them, temples, sanctuaries, altars, purifications and certain precepts. For as to these we differ from one another not at all or in trivial matters.

This passage is interesting- carefully read it demonstrates that Julian established in his reader's mind that the distinction between monotheism and polytheism was less important than the distinction between a religion of ritual and one that disdained those rituals. What Scrofani argues is that Julian's point here was an attempt to do two things. Firstly it was an attempt to show that Christianity was an innovation of inpurity: Christians, Julian commented at other points, needed to be purified before they could take part in pagan rites. Julian was preoccupied by purity- he wanted priests who were morally and physically pure- because he saw in the maintenance of ritual, the way towards the maintenance of imperial Rome. He saw purity as a guarentee of the stability of the state in the eyes of the gods and therefore of men.

This was also though an attack on an area of vulnerability in the faith. What Julian did by using the Jewish example was attempt to open a breach in the Christian world. His attempt was to take the fight, as it were, to the territory of the Christians, to the old and new Testaments. This attempt to divide the Jews from the Christians picked up on anxieties within the new faith- we know from John Chrysotom and others that there were many Christians who even as late as the third and fourth centuries kept rituals like the day of atonement going. By splitting religion on the basis of ritual- Julian's argument drew together the Hellenes and Jews as heirs of the religious innovations of Chaldea against the Christians.

What's interesting about Scrofani's article is that the nature of Julian's attack and the nature of the breach that he hoped to widen should tell us something about what was new and astonishing in Christian doctrine. Those who argued against Christianity at its inception can tell us a lot about what the new religion was and what was astonishing about it. They also inform us about the preoccupations of the time. For Julian what was new and controversial about Christianity was its failure to emphasize ritual and cultic purity: he saw this as a moral failing- and suggested that it marked a boundary between Judaism and paganism on one side and Christianity on the other. He also saw this as an opportunity- because so many of his contemporaries shared his anxiety. These words from the last pagan Emperor therefore tell us a lot, as Scrofani argues, about the context in which early Christianity developed and about the thing that developed in that context.

December 03, 2008

Crito we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius

An ingenious article from Colin Wells in Arion has just come to my attention. When the Greek philosopher Socrates died, he turned to his companions and in his last words, said 'Crito we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius, see to it' and then died. Socrates died because he had been commanded to drink poison by the state of Athens- and he died quickly and quietly according to Plato. His words though have been a subject of controversy for a long time- most like Neitzsche argue that what Socrates was doing was unfurling a philosophical thesis- proclaiming a message at the moment of his death. Colin Wells though suggests an alternative explanation for the last words of the sage.

What he suggests is that Socrates was behaving as a normal conventional Greek would. He takes us through the moment of Socrates's death- first he drinks the hemlock, then he asks if someone has a drink so they can pour a libation, finding that noone in the room did he prays and then he makes this comment to Crito and dies. The sequence is interesting and suggestive. What Wells argues is that Socrates in reality was doing what all Greeks did when beggining a venture- imploring the success of the Gods for its continuance. Just as you might with a war pray to Ares, so when taking poison, you would pray to the God of medicines and poisons that he would help you die swiftly and smoothly. The sequence suggests that Socrates moved from one adequate form of offering- the libation- to an inadequate expedient- the prayer- and then settled on asking a friend to perform another adequate offering- the sacrafice. Its ingenious as an explanation and its also interesting.

Wells may well be right- I lack the expertise in Greek religion to comment. But if he is, it is suggestive that he is right and that for so long, scholars have misunderstood these words. It is a classic case of the way that we can read ourselves into the past- and read out the historical characters of a given time, read the Greeks out of ancient Greece, read Socrates out of Socrates. What this instance displays, if Wells is right, is the danger of abstracting people from the past out of their context- by reading that phrase, 'we ought to offer a cock to Asclepius' and knowing enough to know that Asclepius was the God of medicine, we can come to any number of suggestions about what Socrates was saying. It is only when we understand a bit more the function of prayer and offering in Greek society that we can get closer to what the philosopher was actually saying- as opposed to what we would like him to say (some argument about life being a disease or quip to the same effect).

Wells discusses briefly the famous question of Socratic irony in the essay- whether we take the statement as ironic is a different matter (it is always difficult to infer irony in people who we have never met and Socrates has been seen as the ultimate in sincerity before- by no less an authority than Montaigne!) but we cannot even recover the irony, if we cannot recover the meaning and this is one more incident, where a deeper knowledge of context can bring a deeper knowledge of the particular act of an intelligent and important thinker.

December 02, 2008

Changing Times


It is often said that the United States is a young country. Its often forgotten that it has a very old constitution- indeed I struggle to think of a comparatively old and unchanged constitution in the same format as the United States has in the rest of the world. Recent events demonstrate this. The election of Barack Obama as United States President, to succeed George Bush in January, was a smooth process. Since November though, numerous commentators on the Democratic side of the aisle have expressed frustration with the fact that their man cannot move straight into the White House to start dealing with the issues that the world and America faces. I am sure Republicans felt a similar frustration in 2000- when George Bush succeeded Bill Clinton. What's interesting about this is that this is a classic instance of a constitution functioning in a way that made perfect sense in the eighteenth century- even if it frustrates people now (and there are good reasons for thinking given the number of appointments to be made, it still makes some sense today).

Think back to 1787. When the United States was founded as this article discusses, the President was actually inaugurated in March- a four month gap between the election in November and his arrival in office. That situation persisted right down to the 1930s- with Presidents awkwardly attempting to be out of the way as their predecessor finished their term (Herbert Hoover in 1928 even went on a cruise around South America to avoid tarnishing Calvin Coolidge's swansong). There are reasons though for that long break- and such long breaks existed in other countries too. In the UK in the 19th Century, elections took place over several days- with party leaders standing in multiple constituencies (to give a famous example Gladstone stood frequently in two or three seats- in 1865 he was defeated in Oxford University and migrated to stand in South Lancashire a month later). The reason was simple- travel meant that Parliaments and Presidents could not physically campaign one week and arrive in office the next. In a country as vast as the United States the distances could be intimidating: travelling between Boston and New York in the far north east of the country could take as much as a day and a half even in the 1830s (after significant transport revolutions including a massive road building program in the early part of the 19th Century). That effected not merely the President but senators and congressmen as well- who needed to travel back to visit and campaign amongst their constituents.

We think of politics as something that happens on television screens. I learnt that Hillary Clinton was to be President Obama's Secretary of State hours after the announcement in Washington. But of course that was not the main means of communication in the days of the American constitution. Then the main means of communication was print- journalism, frequently biassed (just look at the election campaigns of the early 1800s if you think any modern election has been vicious), was produced by all sides. The letter in which a person in London or Washington informed those in his locality about what was going on was frequent too: Dr Cust has shown that such letters developed what there was of a national political consciousness in pre-civil war England. All of these things though were indirect forms of communication between the politician and his constituency: and given the lies and falsehoods told about Adams, Jefferson, Gladstone, Disreali, and the rest, to dispel them you had to go and see your electorate- whether in some systems in mass meetings (like Gladstone's speaking tours) or in other contexts in more intimate consultations with the local gentry. Whereas people in Richmond, Yorkshire cannot escape hearing William Hague on the television at least once a month unless they are determined not to listen, in the 19th Century a Yorkshire MP like Henry Brougham would have to travel back to speak to his constituents.

This physical change on politics has lots of effects- some of which I don't think I have probed in this brief article but I think its vital to understand if we want to understand what elections were like in the past. They looked and smelled differently to our conception of elections today. The delay to Barack Obama's inauguration may frustrate Democrats- just as Bush's might have Republicans- but it is interesting not merely from the perspective of present day politics but from the perspective of the politics of the past. The reasons that there is that delay lie in the fact that our institutions reflect those of our parents and in this case great-great grandparents to the nth degree- whether they are still appropriate is a matter for others- but what they are is an archaeological resource, a hole in the landscape which allows us to see back into the mentalites of the past.

December 01, 2008

What happened when the Gauls arrived

The Gauls arrived in the city of Rome- the consequence of their arrival was the diminution of the power of Rome within Italy. A city under seige cannot be a major power, unless the situation is unusual. The situation in Rome was not unusual- her armies were tied down either defending Rome or massing in Latium and Veii in order to retake the city. Livy invokes the idea of the contrast between the Italians and the Barbarian Gauls- but what his invocations miss are features within his own history which suggest that there were plenty of Italians who were not unhappy with Rome's fall, and plenty of Italians furthermore who assisted the Gauls.

Livy himself tells us this when he tells us of Etruscan forces who drove off 'the cattle they had stolen' from the Romans (V 45) and 'had shown so little sympathy for a city which for nearly four hundred years had been their neighbour' (V 45). The Etruscan forces that Livy mentions were easily defeated by the Roman armies at Veii (V 45) but there were more than one group- and Livy mentions at least two battles fought by Romans against Etruscans: one of which was 'bloody' (V 45). This little account by Livy is interesting- there are two features which fascinate me about it. Firstly there is the fact that these Etruscan forces existed- obviously the internal politics of Italy was not such that all Italians saw the Gauls as a barbarian force and the Romans as defenders of civilisation.

The second aspect that is interesting is the way that Livy couches the story. For Livy this is not a moment within diplomatic history but a moment with domestic history. It is a story about the betrayel of 'neighbours'- notice the domesticated noun- those whom Rome had earlier saved from a Gallic invasion (V 45) (a moment that Livy fails to mention)- to aid Rome or even to have pity on Rome in her hour of need. It is a story that reinforces one of the points of Livy's narrative- that the story of Italy is the story of Rome, indeed that the story of civilisation is the story of Rome. Livy in this sense looks at a diplomatic incident in the 4th century BC through the eyes of the imperial masters of Italy- the embodiers of civilisation in the 1st century AD- and tells us to look at it that way too.

In that sense the Etruscan diplomatic decision to harry Rome whilst she succumbed to the Gallic sword, became not a diplomatic incident between equals, but a betrayel of the city that embodied civilisation and Italy itself. What might be thought of as the exploitation of a political moment turns, in Livy's eyes, into a heinous treason.

November 30, 2008

Waltz with Bashir


A cartoon about war might seem to trivialise its subject. When the cartoon is not so much about war as it is about the memories of war, the detritus left in the mind after war, then you might add the accusation that such an account would lack the power to make you identify with the novel experiences portrayed. Waltz with Bashir therefore comes with baggage in addition to the fact that it is about Israeli, Lebanese and Palestinian politics. I want to leave that politics behind- partly because not being involved it is difficult to write about it- and partly because that's not really what the film is about. It is about the fact of the war and the fact of Phalangist atrocities in the Lebanese conflict, not about the reasons for the war or the complex issues at the heart of the Israeli Palestinian process. The Phalange were the Christian faction in Lebanon- and the film suggests that on the night of the 15th September 1982, Israeli forces stood around and watched as the Phalangists murdered hundreds and possibly thousands of Palestinians.

Waltz with Bashir is about the invasion of Lebanon by Israel that occured earlier in that year- and the way it proceeded right up until the massacre. It deals with the experience of one soldier- remembering twenty years later (so in 2002) the events that he had been through- and attempting through interviewing others that he knew to find out what was going on at that point. The characters are all shown through the medium of cartoons so though we hear their words, we cannot see their real faces. The tale is mediated already- and is a tale about the way that memory mediates experience. It is definitely true that the leading characters' main memory of the massacre was wrong: memory is not a reliable tool in this film.

It is not a reliable tool partly because of the trauma of what happened to the central character. Again and again on this blog we come back to the experience of war as much as war itself shaping later history- when you have, as this man does, the experience of shooting a kid holding an RPG in your unconscious, you cannot but be effected. There are some wonderfully dramatic moments in this where you can feel the uncertainty of a soldier in hostile territory. One that comes to mind immediatly is where an Israeli force marches down through western Beirut, and comes across a junction, there are snipers in the building shooting down and as they shoot, two Israeli soldiers squabble over which gun they will use. The winner takes the gun and moves like a beserker into the centre of the junction, shooting wildly in all directions. Another has the Israelis, again in Beirut, move through the city shooting and surreally Lebanese families standing on their balconies watching. You might pick out too other moments- young soldiers taking the wounded back to a helicopter landing pad to be returned to Israel and coming across for the first time real wounds, or another young soldier swimming away from Lebanese forces who have just killed his entire unit, and always feeling guilty of desertion from then on in his life.

The portrait of military life is convincing. In particular the way that travel to Lebanon turned into a kind of fraternity party, with soldiers in tanks singing pop songs- or the way that another kid at war decided that if he died, at least his ex-girlfriend might regret she'd just split up with him- all makes sense. Furthermore these guys do not know why they are fighting- they have no real idea of what they are fighting for. Military life for some of them is an imposition- for others it is an escape or a means to prove themselves. Its not about the actual cause that prompted the war- whatever that was. This is important- for we need to recognise what the film seeks to do and what it does not: it does not seek to give a complete picture, it gives the partial picture of these particular people going to war.

SPOILER ALERT. The experience of war is described in cartoons- but that is not the only thing described here. For right at the end- the experience of atrocity is described in actual television footage. Personally this deepened the impact of the atrocities to me- and suggested that the experience of the soldiers who stood by as they happened was in some way less important than that of the people who suffered. It contributes to the sense that the rest of the film is something of an illusion besides what happened inside the camps. The sense of guilt an illusion beside the guilty deed. A feeling which afterall has an ethical resonance for us all- however guilty you are there is nothing you can do to rebuild what you have done. The deaths of the Palestinians in the camps could never be undone and their blood never return to their bodies. That sense of the irrevocable nature of the deed may be good ethics- it is definitely good psychology for one of the key factors in guilt as an emotion at least for me is the sense that guilt has a past. Guilt is always felt about something that one cannot undo.

The film was based on the director's own experiences at the front in the war. The political issues to me are less interesting here- though they were bound to be focussed upon- than the issues to do with the psychology of the troops. The youth of troops is important- as is the fact that their experience remains a chord in the symphony of their lives right into middle age and beyond. There is interesting discussion in particular of memory in the film. The war be like a shattered glass with every character holding a separate shard- our main character seeks to repiece together the experience of war- but I was left with a lingering doubt about whether he had completed the pieces or about whether anyone could. Tolstoy captured war best in War and Peace- and what he showed was that noone at the front or in the general's tent understands war- the movement of thousands of men, their individual stories, tragedies and grim triumphs are something that escapes our comprehension. What we have here is one of those shards- and its importance lies in the way that it pierced the rest of a man's life, rendering him incapable of remembering the deeds for which he felt most truly sorry.