Tag Archives: F. Gonzalez-Crussi

Marginalia, no.322

The ways of entering this world are limited, but those of leaving it seem infinite.

~ F. Gonzalez-Crussi, Notes of an Anatomist

For fun I once contrived a prejudice against persons delivered by caesarean section. During the brief (but not brief enough) period that I carried on the joke, I made a point of asking after every new acquaintance’s method of birth, was it caesarean or vaginal? Any physical or intellectual clumsiness on the part of persons in the first category I glibly excused with the statement that, “after all, you can’t expect much of a Caesarean, can you?”

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Reading Barth, Perl, Gonzalez-Crussi


The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth

I gave this book about three hundred pages (out of 768) before setting it aside. I enjoyed those three hundred pages. They were funny, smart, and sometimes even philosophically interesting. I just don’t have the endurance that Barth apparently expects of his readers – which is saying something, since I’m not afraid of long books and the historical setting of the novel interests me. Yes, in writing an old-fashioned comic satire a la Smollett or Fielding, Barth is being very post-modern and all that. And yes, maybe I would have found something terrific at the end of the book. But for my money, nothing makes better comic satire or is more “post-modern” in any potentially positive sense of the word than Tristram Shandy.


Antoine’s Alphabet: Watteau and His World, Jed Perl

Somewhere in this unusual, gorgeously illustrated little book, Jed Perl quotes a 1719 letter from Antoine Watteau to his friend Jean de Jullienne. “In my view,” Watteau writes, “you must either do away with ornament – or make ornament the essence. It’s not something you add. It’s not icing on a cake. It’s everything – or it’s nothing.” Watteau’s paintings, full of lovers and parties of friends singing and dancing and flirting in overgrown gardens, might at first seem to fall on the side of “nothing,” of impotent ornament. The gauzy trees, the liquid distances, the women with their backs turned and wearing voluminous pink or blue silk dresses that make them somehow look more naked for being clothed – there’s an impression of frivolity in it (if, too, a bit of melancholy.) But despite his odd decision to construct this as an alphabet book with entries written variously as fiction, history or memoir, Perl nonetheless manages to open our eyes to the “everything” concealed in plain sight.


On Being Born and Other Difficulties, F. Gonzalez-Crussi

F. Gonzalez-Crussi is consistently good reading. This was my third of his books. The author is a retired clinical pathologist with a literary bent and a charmingly dusty sense of humor. On Being Born explores the science, history, philosophy, and cultural meaning of giving birth and getting born. You may rely on Gonzalez-Crussi for some quality sentences and fascinating bits of trivia that will have you did-you-knowing everyone within earshot for days. He moves from the revolution of primordial cooperation among cells – a counter-point to the pseudo-Darwinian law of “survival of the fittest” – to Nabokovian musings (see Speak, Memory) on our differing attitudes toward the twin eternities that precede our birth and follow our death. Readers will be introduced to fun medical terms like “obtundation,” which refers to exhibiting less than full alertness, and to no end of curious facts. For example, the curious fact (and historical obsession with the idea) that the uterus moves within a woman’s body. I was particularly interested to learn about the non-chromosomal contributions of the female gamete to the zygote, which include, pre-programmed into the cytoplasm of the ovum, those polarities which determine left and right, up and down, front and back, for the developing fetus. It was Mama who taught you left from right.

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Planet Doug

You are free to imagine anything you like about an imaginary world. A former philosophy professor of mine – a man with a Tennessee drawl and a permanent smirk – liked to pick on one of my fellow students for purposes of illustration. This student he nicknamed ‘Planet Doug’ and all kinds of unlikely things were posited about him: that he was composed entirely of methane; that he orbited a giant ham sandwich; that he played host to life forms all of which resembled Harpo Marx.

It seems to me that the old notion that “every man is a microcosm, and carries the whole world about him” (in Sir Thomas Browne’s phrase) began to lose its vogue around the time that the actual globe, by conquest, exploration and trade, became more of a known quantity. I’m not sure why this should be the case, but maybe we only liked to think of ourselves as little worlds when the comparison suggested something mysterious and exciting.

It’s probably no coincidence that the shores and mountains of distant continents gave themselves up to the indignity of being named and described at the same time as the components of our physical bodies. Just as their gold and fame-hungry contemporaries were crossing seas to pin their names to various islands and territories, surgeons and doctors of the Renaissance were claiming rights of discovery to our internal organs.

F. Gonzalez-Crussi identifies a number of these inward provinces in A Short History of Medicine. The Fallopian tube, for example, was named for Gabriel Fallopius (1523-1562), and the Eustachian tube for Bartolomeo Eustachio (1520-1574). These two are well-known, the Columbuses of human anatomy. Less familiar is Johann Georg Wirsung (1589-1643) who discovered Wirsung’s duct, the “execretory duct of the pancreas,” or Adriaan van den Spieghel (1578-1625) who first described Spieghel’s lobe, “the quadrate lobe of the liver.” Glisson’s capsule, another part of the liver, was named for Francis Glisson (1597-1677).

The Sylvian fissue (“the deep cleft that separates the temporal lobe of the brain from the frontal and parietal lobes above it”) is named for Franciscus Sylvius (1614-1672). The Graafian follicle, near the surface of the ovary, is named for Regnier de Graaf (1641-1673). Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777) gets credit for discovering Haller’s ring, a tiny circle of blood vessels in the eye. Jakob Henle (1809-1885), who thrived at the close of the era, is responsible for Henle’s loop, which Golzalez-Crussi informs us is “a part of the renal tubules.”

If you, like me, never suspected that you owned any renal tubules, you do. Take up a magnifying glass to examine them and you will find a corner labeled with Henle’s name, quite legibly. I’m afraid that’s the way things are nowadays. You may pine for auld lang syne when people were pleased to think of themselves as rather mysterious microcosms of a rather mysterious Macrocosmos, but those days are over with. What you thought were your own undiscovered, dragon-haunted hinterlands have already been visited and claimed by others.

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Marginalia, no.286

When Vesalius demonstrated that the head of the human femur is not flared, stating that the ancient Greek master had used a quadruped’s hip for his descriptions, his opponents responded that Galen had not lied and, if the human hip did not conform to his description, it was because men’s anatomy had changed. This, they claimed, was due to centuries of wearing tight trousers instead of loose-fitting tunics and togas, as the ancients had done.

~ F. Gonzalez-Crussi, A Short History of Medicine

Mr. Poe may well sigh for “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome.” I see it too, as, from barbarian regions of tight trousers, the weary, way-worn wanderer returns to his own native shore, and to dear Helen’s hyacinthine something-or-other. Surely, at such a moment, not even the Nicean barking of the neighbor’s dog in the filth-ridden alley below can spoil the consolation of having preserved a flared femur. Thank the gods for superior-quality traveling togas.

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