December 02, 2015

The History of Emotions: Foundations

Every now and again I run into a wall. Great and sustained bursts of writing resolve themselves into deep depressions of inactivity. The marathon runner in me knows the importance of rest and recovery after a hard slog, but that knowledge makes the days of low productivity no less easy to deal with. It’s always a bit of a mystery to me how the spark gets to be reignited. I think one has to look for inspiration, not wait for it to come.

At the moment I’m trying to come up with a rigorous justification of, and outline for, the history of emotions. At the same time I am documenting the modern origins of the notion that emotions are historical. It seems, of late, that every time I think that emotional historicism is gaining some traction among emotions scholars, someone comes along and hits me over the head with the most rank essentialism. I am mining rich seams of historical evidence for emotional change over time; others simply point to their endocrine systems, spilling their guts about biological determinism. The experience is dispiriting.


It is, therefore, somewhat joyous to find an historical source to break me out of a funk. George Henry Lewes – life partner of George Eliot, critic, private experimentalist, radical, polymath – foreshadowed the debates that preoccupy emotions scholars as long ago as 1879. He saw the essentialising tendencies in psychology and physiology; he understood the links between emotions and morality. He was, perhaps better than most of his contemporaries, well versed in evolutionism and sensibly critical of it, though he recognised that humans were humans wherever and however one found them. Is not the passage below an elegant and still relevant statement of both the historicity of emotions and a compelling justification for studying the history of emotions? 
Because Psychology is interpreted through Sociology, and Experience acquires its development mainly through social influences, we must always take History into account. It shares with Society the distinctive character of progress. It is for ever germinating, for ever evolving. The physiologist recognises the same organs and functions in the savage and the civilized, in Greek, Hindoo, old German, or modern European; but not the same thoughts and sentiments. The brain of a cultivated Englishman of our day, compared with the brain of a Greek of the age of Pericles, would not present any appreciable differences, yet the differences between the moral and intellectual activities of the two would be many and vast. These are not to be assigned to the organism and its functions. The co-ordination of sensory processes in the brain of the Greek was doubtless as perfect as that in the brain of the Englishman; but the quality of the moral feelings and the range of conceptions, so far as we could test them objectively, would be very different…. Thus, while the laws of the sentient functions must be studied in Physiology, the laws of the sentient faculties, especially the moral and intellectual faculties, must be studied in History. The true logic of Science is only made apparent in the history of Science.
George Henry Lewes, Problems of Life and Mind
3rd series, 1 (London: Trübner & Co., 1879) 


November 24, 2015

Pain: The Forgotten Emotion

[Transcript of a paper given at the University of Melbourne, Australia, November 18, 2015]

Today I want simply to give you a brief insight into the work I’ve been doing over the past few years on the subject of pain, its history and its present, with a few suggestions for the potential practical relevance of the history of emotions for contemporary medical practice. This work began life in 2011 within the framework of the history of emotions, as part of a postdoc at the Languages of Emotion Excellence Cluster at Freie Universitaet Berlin, in conjunction with what has turned out to be a long stay at the Centre for the History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. I was, ostensibly, working on the history of sympathy and compassion at the beginning of that project, having previously carried out research on the history of cruelty and pain in animals. But I was obliged to make some connections that weren’t immediately obvious to me when Joanna Bourke invited me to be a Pain Fellow at the Birkbeck Pain Project in London in 2012. The focus there was supposed to be bodily pain, but I quickly realised that a mind/body dualistic approach wasn’t going to work, and that the work I’d been doing on sympathy was in fact a close and informative bedfellow of pain.

What has followed has been a bit of an adventure, which has taken me out of my modern-historian comfort zone in a number of different directions. I’ve engaged many different disciplinary approaches to pain, gone back through the ages to examine the wealth of historical literature on pain, and scrutinised many more recent historical and contemporary medical journals than I’d ever thought likely. I’ve talked with anaesthetists, plastic surgeons, bioethicists, art practitioners, lawyers and anthropologists in a bid to try and join up the thinking on pain.



The first result of all this was an edited volume that came out last year, called Pain and Emotion in Modern History, which makes one titular compromise that I would now like to undo. I’d like to swap out the ‘and’ and replace it with ‘as’. As it stands the book attempts to collapse the distinction between physical and emotional and to reassess some well worn historiographical paths by taking seriously historical claims that feelings hurt. I think I’m right in saying that for modern historians at least, this was novel and unexpected, and came with a heavy burden of proof. But I was aware that for early modernists and medievalists these claims were perhaps already in the mainstream, and indeed for some within contemporary neuroscientific research the emotional nature of pain was driving experimentation. What I couldn’t see – at all – was any sense that any of these distinct fields were aware of each other, let alone talking to one another. I saw huge potential in reassessing the historical narrative in the light of some of the latest neuroscientific research, and indeed reassessing some of that neuro-research in the light of the historiography.

That led me to take on another project, which I’m finishing up in Melbourne, to write Pain: A Very Short Introduction, which rather terrifyingly is to cover the history of pain from antiquity to the present, and to include an analysis of contemporary medical and scientific understandings of pain, all in 35,000 words. What you’re getting today is sort of a precis of the argument in that book, and I hope to at least convey my main points: first, that pain is an emotion or, if that is too stark, that pain is meaningless without emotion; second, that if emotional experience is historical, contextually contingent, mutable, then so must be the experience of pain; third, if this is true, then pain necessarily resists a definition, and treatment and management must be carried out with an attention to any sufferer’s subjective appraisal of their own pain and the cultural context in which pain is expressed.

Why do I call pain a ‘forgotten’ emotion? Well, as I combed the historical record I found that, with remarkable consistency across time and place, people seemed instinctively to know that bodily pain and emotional pain were of the same order, and while historians have carefully pointed out this fact they have done so through the lens of modernity, which has been characterised by a dualistic approach that has mechanised pain in the body and made pain of the mind a distinct kind of disorder. The effect: historical actors’ own conceptualisations of pain have been treated as novel and re-constructible on the one hand, but exotic, unfamiliar and wrong, strictly speaking. At the same time, the neuroscientific research that is convincingly demonstrating how pain is contextually and emotionally experienced has no connection whatsoever to this long view. Ostensibly, neuroscientists are confirming what the colloquial expressions of ordinary people suggest was already known – in fact continues to be known in everyday experience – but which had been forgotten in scientific and academic bowers since the time of Descartes. Meanwhile, current medical approaches to pain in clinical settings are largely disconnected from both these strands of research, still underemphasise the substantive interrelationship of body, brain and society in the construction of meaningful experiences of pain, and therefore still tend to treat people in pain according to presentations of bodily lesion or mental disturbance. If medicine could be inspired to remember that pain is an emotion or made meaningful only through emotion, then pain management would radically change.



I begin the book with a conceptual analysis of pain in history, examining how the language of pain has tended to conflate body and soul, body and mind, and physical and emotional. These are common expressions of pain that betray a fundamental fuzziness of the category of pain. The ancient Greeks had a number of words for pain and suffering that tended to overlap. Chief among these terms was άλγος (algos), which denoted physical pain as well as woe, ill, or misery. The Greeks did have a way of isolating bodily pain, if necessary, although it was only ever a short elision to a more general concept of suffering. In the Iliad, talk of όδύνη (odune) is never far away from the general state of anguish that undergirds the epic, and the same is true of the famous Herculean scream in Sophocles’ Trachiniae. The poisoned robe that slowly kills the hero in a prolonged fit of agony puts Heracles interchangeably in bodily pain and woeful misery (όδύνη and άλγος). 

The Greek term πάθος (pathos) denotes suffering or experience and, in its original meaning, the adjective ‘pathetic’ was an appeal at an emotional level. In Aristotle’s rhetoric, pathos causes pleasure or pain in an audience, as well as in its producer, depending on which emotions are mobilised. The possibility of pain without injury is clear, and it is closely entangled with affective states. As a central element of the rhetorical triad that included ethos and logos, we can assume that through pathos the potential for the feeling of painful woe was built into rhetorical emotional appeals. Aristotle goes so far as to say that the person who is angry ‘suffers pain’ (λυπεῖται). Here we see the elision of grief or vexation with bodily pain in the word λύπη (lupé). If we pursue this further, finding the Latin derivation of pathos, through πάσχειν (pashein), in the word passio, we see the continued conflation of the emotional and the physical, of suffering and pain. If the Romans emphasised the emotional level of pain through passio, they also, like the Greeks, had a generally holistic approach to the concept of pain that included what we have tended to divide into mental and physical categories. The Latin dolor is preserved in the French douleur, the Spanish dolor, and the Italian dolore. Originally, it could stand for physical pain, as well as grief, anguish, sorrow and resentment. To some extent, this conflation has been preserved in the vernacular.

The categorical vernacular conflation of old is not limited to Western civilisation. In Late Imperial China, for example, there is a rich overlapping of physical, emotional, sensational and moral categories, with an interplay of characters such as (tong), (ku), and the portmanteau 痛苦 (tongku), denoting respectively ‘painful’, ‘suffering’ and together, something like ‘anguish’. In India, the Hindi word दर्द (dard) stands for a raft of different degrees of suffering, from uneasiness to torture and from mental distress to grief to anguish. A correlate would be the word दुःख (duḥkh), which often translates as sorrow or grief, but which can signify pain just the same. It has ancient roots in Sanskrit, connoting suffering on a spiritual level, but when deployed in compound terms can indicate the whole range of pain from a cut to a cramp to a calamity. I begin with this semantic journey to emphasise both an enduring conceptual continuity in the understanding of pain, and to highlight the seismic rupture in this understanding that radically altered what it meant to be in pain, to be treated for pain, and to treat for pain (medically) in modernity. That rupture indicates an historical separation of vernacular knowledge of pain from medical specialism about pain.



Before reaching that separation I will say a few words on pain in the religious and theological context of medieval and early modern Europe up to the time of the rupture. Ecce Homo – behold the man – are the words associated with Pontius Pilate upon presenting the bloodied, tortured and pained body of Christ to the assembled masses, prior to crucifixion (John 19:5). The images associated with this scene became emblematic of virtuous suffering, and of the theological importance for humans to endure bodily pain. The representation of Christ’s passion in this moment has been preserved by the art world in the figure of the vir dolorum, or the man of pains, which has reached us variously in Europe as the ‘man of sorrows’ or the Schmerzensmann, which depicts a hurt beyond the mere physical. The wounds, the blood, the instruments of torture are all figures that invite reflection on a suffering that goes beyond the mortification of flesh.

Pain was a central pillar in Christian religious practice from the Roman world to the Counter Reformation, and arguably beyond. As Javier Moscoso and others have pointed out, pain was foundational for medieval and early modern piety, as part of an ascetic quest to imitate the ultimate pain in Christ’s passion. It was a pain not merely to be endured, but to be sought after, enhanced in any way imaginable, and, sometimes literally, sanctified. The imitation of the passion was celebrated in the lives of the Christian martyrs, whose placid countenances in the face of horrible tortures served as proof of the intervention of the saints. Meanwhile, such tortures informed medieval and early modern systems of justice and punishment. Long before pain came to be considered useful from an evolutionary point of view, pain was considered useful from moral, spiritual and judicial points of view. Religious life was dominated by the meaningful fact of being and coming to be in pain. No human pain could reach the extent of Christ’s suffering on behalf of humanity, but to embrace pain after the fashion of Christ was to offset sin and therefore reduce the amount of suffering after death. In this sense, pain was considered by many to be a blessing, or an unmitigated good, since it promised a swifter route to redemption in the afterlife. It would have been heretical, given this view, to seek to desensitise oneself to pain. Instead, people were to steel themselves to live with and through pain. As Esther Cohen has pointed out, this theological stance was the only way to resolve a tangible and all too readily observable ubiquity of suffering with the notion of an omnipresent Providence.

Doubtless this narrative is familiar, but I hope you acknowledge that already we have an account of pain that differs markedly from the kind of mechanistic or utilitarian discourse that would have all pain be bad or unpleasant, and reducible to the nervous system. I contend that the experience of being in pain in this context must have been completely different to the experience of being in pain in a secular, modern, medical context. Neuroscience is providing us with extremely convincing evidence to suggest that what pain feels like – that is, the meaning ascribed to being in pain that defines how pain is experienced – is affectively constructed. We should seriously entertain the notion of pain as ecstasy, pain as piety or a feeling of closeness to God, and pain as pleasure. When such things crop up in the historical record they should be entertained at face value and not merely as rhetorical. I’ll say more about this in a couple of minutes.

The rupture in conceptual understandings of pain is usually ascribed to Descartes, but I want to do him some justice before condemning him. Descartes’ human was, in fact, not a separable entity of body and soul so long as the body was alive, but a union of body-mind or body-soul, which could not be reduced to its components. True, in his Meditations, Descartes insisted that the thinking thing (res cogitans) did not depend on a body, but when Descartes’ body was affected by pain, he felt it; that is, at the level of the rational soul – a thinking thing – there was a disturbance (of thought), caused by the disruption or injury of the body with which the soul was conjoined. He talked of an ‘admixture’ (permixtione) of mind and body when it came to the senses (e.g. hunger or pain). The human body in pain was not merely a reflex mechanism akin to a bell on the end of a rope, but a body-mind that only felt pain because the mind was inseparable from its corporeal seat. If it were otherwise, according to Descartes, the human thinking thing would look upon bodily injury (lesion) as the pilot of a vessel would look upon a damaged boat. This account is complex, rich, and useful.



But. This image, added to the Meditations later, in combination with what Descartes said about animals being like clocks or soulless automata, prevailed. A simplistic reading of the image, contrary to what Descartes actually wrote about pain, has been enormously influential in modern medical science, beginning the search for a mechanical pain pathway. It rests on the assumption that injury = pain and that reactionary movements away from the cause of pain are the results of nervous stimulation, like a bell on the end of a rope suddenly being pulled. As science became increasingly secular and as the soul retreated into the background, so the primacy of physical pain emerged. We have lived with this vision more or less ever since. Ironically, science’s loss of interest in the soul allowed animals into the realm of beings that feel pain, but when physiologists recognised that pain was an unpleasant experience in humans and animals alike, they nevertheless set out on Descartes’ path to find the ‘wheels and springs’ that made pain work.

Modern biomedical theories of pain were preoccupied with the ‘pain pathway’ – the specific mechanism by which pain is detected in the periphery and transmitted, via the spinal cord, to the brain. It was based on assumptions that intensity of injury directly correlated with intensity of pain, and that certain nerves were specifically involved in sending pain messages to the brain. There is a kind of comfortable intuitiveness about such assumptions, but they have been conclusively found to be completely incorrect. Essentially what we see in modern medicine is the parceling out of physical pain related to injury and mental pain, which really did not belong to biomedical concerns. Even though this began to change in the 1960s, we are essentially still living with this dualism in the way medicine is practiced. It has been to the detriment of countless millions of people suffering with chronic pain syndromes and, throughout the twentieth century, saw the moral fibre or character of the war wounded called into question as they continued to suffer from the traumatic effects of combat, whether physically injured or not. Pick up a standard medical text book on pain and you will still find, as a sort of rhetorical Cartesian hangover, a tendency to label nerves that detect injury as pain detectors, which send pain signals to the brain. Such rhetorical slippages have been unsupported since 1965, but they persist and they continue to affect medical practice.



What happened in 1965? Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall published their new theory of the ‘gate control mechanism’, which in turn fostered neuroscientific research that revolutionised understandings of what pain is. Here is the circuit-board in the spinal cord. But the mechanism was coupled with a fuzzier idea that promised the reintroduction of something immaterial, or beyond the human, to make sense of the variability of pain experience. The gate control is essentially a processing centre in the spinal cord that processes signals coming from the periphery in conjunction with signals descending from the brain. It determines what signals make it to the brain to be interpreted as pain. Crucially, the receipt of injury signals from the periphery are only allowed through the gate in conjunction with evaluative cognitive and emotional involvement. The social context and an appraisal of threat determine how pain feels: what it meaningfully is. Pain is indistinguishable from the fear, anxiety, anger, or ecstasy that comes with it.
            
This has been confirmed by study of those people with rare cases of pain asymbolia, or congenital analgesia. This is a genetic condition that renders its ‘sufferer’ unable to ascribe any meaning to painful states. Injurious stimuli are perceived plainly as pressure, cutting, cramping, etc., but the person who perceives these things is indifferent to them. Research has shown that so-called ‘pain centres’ in the brain do, in fact, ‘fire’ in these people when given painful stimuli, but their ‘affective centres’ do not. It is precisely because there is no emotional context to the physical problem that the pain does not register as a problem. Far from being advantageous, people with congenital analgesia tend not to live very long, precisely because they are indifferent to the pain that comes after injury. If there is an evolutionary benefit for pain it is in restricting movement and in protecting those parts that need time to heal. A person with congenital analgesia does not limp when wounded in the leg, and would indifferently go on throwing a ball with a broken arm. This failure to conserve an injury – an affective failure – has the effect of wearing out bones, joints and muscles at a much greater rate than somebody who could feel pain in a ‘normal’ way. Pain, to put it in plain terms, keeps us alive. It depends, when ordinarily perceived, on what the neuroscientists call affect.



Neuroscientists have provided further evidence of this by demonstrating that specific brain activity typically observed when painfully injured roughly corresponds with brain activity when feeling ‘social pain’. Despite some worthy and necessary scepticism about what we are seeing when we look at an fMRI scan of a brain, there can be no question that parts of the brain strongly related to affective or emotional behaviour are involved in pain states, and that these parts of the brain are also involved under stimuli that replicate the affective conditions of pain, but which do not involve any physical harm. In other words, the thing that gives pain meaning – that makes pain painful – can be observed in situations where the body is completely uncompromised. In a now famous test Naomi Eisenberger tested the effect of social exclusion among a peer group. Using a computer game of ‘cyberball’, in which players passed a ball to each other while being scanned, Eisenberger was able to show that being excluded from the game caused brain activity similar to what one would expect to see in conditions of physical pain. Those who felt excluded went through an emotional ordeal that looked, for all intents and purposes, the same as physical pain. The meaning-making processes that are part and parcel of experiencing physical pain are the same when experiencing such things as exclusion, bullying, grief. A broken heart – the archetypical cliché of emotional pain – turns out to be painful in the same sense as a broken leg (although with different consequences, of course). If hurt feelings have been, since time immemorial, a colloquial commonplace, contemporary medicine has started down the road of providing neuroscientific verification of this fact. Ronald Melzack has, much more recently, pushed the implications of his research even further, and coined the neuromatrix theory of pain. Key to this theory is the insistence that experience is not present anywhere, but is created in the brain.



Pain is output of the brain, not input from the periphery. Melzack forcefully states that injury is not pain. Pain is a quality produced in the brain, and is not reconcilable with, or reducible to, injury per se. The neuromatrix theory posits the production of a neurosignature of the whole body – an internal neuro ‘image’ or ‘pattern’ of the body understood as the self – which is ever-present. While the particulars of an individual’s neuromatrix may be genetically programmed, it is nevertheless plastic, being formed and informed by a number of factors that together produce a sense of the self: sensory inputs, including aural and visual, are components; affective and emotional states, which are themselves forged in the crucible of culture, play a part; the meanings and values attached to body parts, proportions, postures, and movements – some of it instinctive, some of it culturally prescribed – are factored in. All these inputs are processed and, in Melzack’s analogy, ‘arranged’ into a symphonic output that equates to the body-self. A cut in the leg may or may not be painful, but I know it is a cut in my leg because of the neurosignature imprint of my neuromatrix. The neuromatrix promises the collapse of both Cartesian dualism and the distance between biomedicine and phenomenology. The brain is not merely a machine, an automaton, or a computer. The brain is plastic, subject to change, and influenced by the world in which it is situated.

This research, I think, casts the history of pain – replete with seemingly inaccessible allusions to religious ecstasy, sexual pleasure and agonies of the soul – into a new light. What might seem like metaphor or rhetoric on face value might actually be a faithful recording of the experience of pain from distinct historical and subjective perspectives. The history of pain is so rich – I’ve barely skimmed the surface of a tiny fraction of it here, that I think it bears re-visiting with a commitment to embrace the unfamiliar as, for want of a better word, authentic. Moreover, that rich history should be sufficient for biomedicine to give up its quest for a definition of pain. It is emotional, historical, contextual. This observation thrusts the emphasis back on to the subjective experience of pain. Doctors’ most reliable source for what their patients are going through is not an fMRI scanner, a prescribed pain questionnaire, or a premeditated search for a lesion, but lies in who the patient is and in what they say and do, combined with an appreciation of their circumstances and the societal prescriptions for what can and should be expressed and what cannot. In short, doctors need to become literate in the pain practices – which is to say the emotional practices – of the people around them. Maybe historians of emotion can help with that.


Pictures: Bernard Picart, The Death of Hercules, 1733; Lucas Cranach the Elder, Christ as Man of Sorrows [Schmerzensmann], before 1537; The pain pathway, from René Descartes, Traite de l’homme, 1664; Gate Control Mechanism, Melzack and Wall, Science, 1965; ‘Social and Physical Pain Produce Similar Brain Responses’, Eisenberger, Lieberman and Williams, Science, 2003; ‘Pain and the Neuromatrix’, Melzack, Journal of Dental Education, 2001.

October 18, 2015

A Shot in the Arm

Juggling multiple projects, it is perhaps unsurprising that one sometimes tries to catch all the knives in one hand. The release of a policy position-paper from the World Health Organisation on pain mitigation during child-vaccination procedures brought everything into focus recently, making me think there’s a unifying principle to my work after all.

The release of Edward Jenner is only two weeks away (that makes him sound like a hell hound, which maybe is apt), so I’ve become a sort of vaccine activist in the form of Jenner’s ghost (@EdwdJenner on Twitter). In the meantime I’m finishing off a book on pain for Oxford University Press, due in December. Lurking in the background is the daunting prospect of writing the first textbook on the history of emotions for Manchester University Press, due at the end of next year. And my book on the practical applications of Darwinian sympathy is done, dusted and on its way to the University of Illinois Press, replete with a chapter on the evolutionary rationale for compulsory vaccination.

Concerned that anxiety increases the pain of childhood vaccination, which in turn leads to fall-off rates for immunization programmes, the WHO sets out guidelines for a smooth and pain-reduced process. Interestingly, they don’t think that topical anaesthetics are worth the cost and find no evidence that orally ingested painkillers make any difference to the pain of being injected. Rather, a programme of calmness, distraction and neutral language is promoted. Caregivers are to be present throughout. Where appropriate, infants should be breastfed immediately prior to injection. Vaccinators should be even-tempered and well-informed. They should stick to straightforward speech that neither alarms nor falsely reassures (we can all see through it). There ought to be a plentiful supply of toys. It’s essentially a recipe for anxiety elimination for the reduction of pain.

Probably not what the WHO has in mind: Major and Mrs Padmore inoculating against plague in the bazaar in Mandalay, Burma, now Myanmar, 1906. Wellcome Library, London
What is striking about the WHO’s advice is the degree to which they accept and endorse a working definition of pain that includes, in fact depends on, emotion. I’ve been beating a drum for a while now about the way humans make meaning out of pain, arguing that things hurt according to the extent to which we fear them. Pain is not simply a mechanical nervous circuit, where pain experience is directly proportional to painful stimulus. Humans make pain according to emotional appraisals of the meaning of bodily harm, and this dynamic involves both the affective processes of the brain and an understanding of the world and its particular and contingent articles of anxiety. There is no universal elicitor of fear; no object that is intrinsically fearful. Meaning is made – pain is made – in cultural and historical context.

David Hume knew all this in the 1730s:
Were I present at any of the more terrible operations of surgery, ’tis certain that even before it begun, the preparation of the instruments, the laying of the bandages in order, the heating of the irons, with all the signs of anxiety and concern in the patients and assistants, wou’d have a great effect upon my mind, and excite the strongest sentiments of pity and terror. No passion of another discovers itself immediately to the mind. We are only sensible of its causes and effects. From these we infer the passion: And consequently these give rise to our sympathy.
Watching someone about to endure pain is, in itself, painful to the witness. Anxiety is well known to be ‘contagious’. In turn, the subject of the ‘terrible operation’ sees only victimhood, feeding on the anxious atmosphere at hand. In such circumstances, without something to deaden the sensibilities, doubtless the pain would be heightened. It is heartening to know the WHO has a handle on this, with a complex understanding of the ways in which the management of anxiety will diminish the likelihood of painful experience.

Vaccines, Pain, Emotions: my world to a tee, in an episode from the doctors WHO.

October 04, 2015

The Botticelli Renaissance

Botticelli died and was forgotten. Or so the story goes. Rediscovered in a substantial way by the Pre-Raphaelites, so began a long arc of repetition, quotation and homage, not yet ended. The Gemäldegalerie in Berlin has put together a story of the renaissance of Botticelli, assembling works influenced by the Florentine master. They show the diversity of inspiration found in Botticelli’s brushstrokes, and in particular in the body and beauty of his The Birth of Venus.

I find the long reach of this particular Venus extraordinary. Botticelli’s rendering of Simonetta Vispucci, half floating, half falling out of the half shell, always seemed to me to be an ill-postured, unbalanced, scoliosis affair with a small head. In any case, the Berliners haven’t got their hands on that particular rendition from the Uffizi. They’re making do with a study of the same, isolated against a black ground. I prefer it. Venus, born of nothing, makes much more sense to me than Venus born of a seafood platter. And the version they do have is the highlight of the show, being the only Botticelli actually placed directly into the context of modern works inspired by it.

The fact that some of these works are difficult to look at, and others painfully ridiculous, only draws one back to the original with the thought that genius peaked right off the bat. Rineke Dijkstra’s photographs of beached teenagers, looking for all the world like non-consentingly sexualised bully victims, stand either side of Venus, begging inappropriate questions of pubescent sexuality and nascent womenhood, forcing one to don blinkers and look all the more carefully at Botticelli’s increasingly compelling masterpiece. This is the true stroke of curatorial brilliance. The juxtaposition confronts the eye and demands we reject it, yet the trinity thus presented haunts us with the corruptibility of artistic intention and slaps us with our own corruption.

The rest of the show is anti-climactic, from the pointed photographic dross of David Lachappelle to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s own insipid obsession with square jaws and arachnid fingers. The main problem is the striking absence of Botticelli himself, save for the introductory Venus. The modern borrowings suffer for the lack of a narrative. After the striking first impression, this is more of an exercise in artistic genealogy, but with the viewer left to draw the family connections.

Botticelli’s works are, inexplicably, relegated to the rear of the exhibition, lumped together with a number of studio productions of dubious quality. The cursory curatorial narrative slips here, from one of inspiration to apology. Why not spare us half a dozen replications of a single image, each a bit more ropey than the last, in favour of contextualising Botticelli among his adoring followers. By the end, the striking first impression is utterly lost, as are we as we try to find our way to the exit.

October 02, 2015

On the Death of a Soubriquet


Long-term followers of this blog will have noted that Vir Beatum is no longer with us. He was a well-intentioned sort, somewhat pompous and acerbic. He was prolix, doubtless, but defended his florid verbosity in the name of withering wit. This forum, which retains his collected works as an archive if not a testament, was his bullpen. Honing his art, many of his pitches went high and handsome, and some grubbed along in the dirt. Such is the nature of all warm-ups, before the tosses really start to count. Unfortunately for VB, he was not meant for the big stage or the real world. The moment of his call-up to the Major Leagues was a sign that this shade had to fade. He was, in the final analysis, only a character. Somewhat Wodehousian in orientation, VB boasted a snifter-full of verisimilitude and a magnum of fiction. Be assured of this: he shall not rest in peace. Vir Beatum will remain as an agitated figment of his architect’s imagination. Should you choose to remain a follower of these pages, doubtless you will occasionally recognise a glimmer of the old chap, fighting his way into the world of print in someone else’s name.

September 29, 2015

Embodying Hope: Vaccination During the Napoleonic Wars

Vaccination was born in a time of war. Children, principal vectors of the smallpox virus, became the incubators of immunological hope.

Prior to the massive public-awareness campaign spearheaded by Edward Jenner in 1798, distributing both the knowledge and the means of safe protection against smallpox, the smallpox virus itself had been preserved and propagated in the arms of children. It was common medical practice, in fact well into the nineteenth century, to inoculate children with smallpox in the hope that they would escape with a light dose of the disease. Jenner himself had suffered the ordeal at the age of 8. It involved six weeks of preparation – purging, bleeding and starving – in order to ‘sweeten the blood’. The process left the young Jenner ‘emaciated and feeble’. In this weakened state he was given a dose of smallpox and left to endure the disease for two weeks in a Gloucestershire ‘inoculation stable’. The process of recovery took many months, but such was the norm. Inoculation was a rite of passage, a necessary evil, an awful commonplace. Between 2 and 3 per cent of those ‘protected’ in this manner died from the disease. On many occasions the ‘protected’, not sufficiently isolated from their communities, themselves precipitated epidemics. Jenner, before making his famous discovery, would inoculate many children himself, as was his duty as a country surgeon.

Jenner chases death from Parisian streets as vaccinated children play at the feet of a bankrupt inoculator and his closed premises. Paris, c. 1800. Wellcome Library, London.

Jenner confirmed, with an uncommon meticulousness and experimental rigour, that cowpox – variolae vaccinae – was a benign disease, not contagious, could be cultivated in humans and afforded protection against smallpox. The process took many years and involved many an experiment on children, including on his own. From the first, Jenner wanted to make the knowledge freely available, to broadcast it beyond political obstacles and geographical boundaries. Many thought it would have served him, and England, to make the vaccine a proprietary matter. Patent it, Jenner! Sell it to the well-to-do, the government, the army and the navy! What a fighting force it would be that could evade the most dreaded foe – disease! Here was hope at the end of a lancet.

Risking his status as a patriot, Jenner distributed his vaccine and his knowledge freely. His how-to guide on vaccination was quickly translated into French and Spanish. While England’s medical establishment were busy wringing their hands about the potential demise of a lucrative inoculation business, it was Napoleon’s army that took to the field free of one of the oldest fears. Jenner was a hero in France, the recipient of a Napoleon Medal, correspondent of the Emperor, and negotiator for the release of political prisoners held in France. From Paris to Geneva and Madrid, Jenner was a hero. In France alone, the number of deaths from smallpox went down from 150,000 annually to only 8,500. The children of the French empire had their arms raised for protection; their parents raised theirs in salute. Jenner was the man to whom Napoleon himself could refuse nothing.

Jenner’s discovery went viral thanks to the orders of the Spanish King Charles IV, who sent Francis Xavier Balmis on a vaccination voyage that took in South America, the Asian colonies, Portuguese colonial settlements, and even China. Always, the front line of defence against smallpox was embodied by children, who literally carried the virus, incubating it in their arms, to be harvested and inserted into the arms of others. Military enmity aside, Jenner thought the whole thing a ‘glorious enterprize!’, announcing that he, at least, had ‘made peace with Spain, and quite adore her philanthropic monarch’.

Jenner hoped for freedom from disease and for an end to childhood suffering and parental fear. Those who used his discovery hoped for a healthy population, for a healthy fighting force, and for victory. The bodies of children were at once the sites of all these hopes: demographic, medical and military.

This post first appeared on WarChildHope. You can order Edward Jenner: Pocket Giant here.

August 29, 2015

Liberals Narrow the Gap

Canadians have offered up the most interesting three-way I’ve seen this year. It’s election season (note the ‘l’), after all.

As the polls seem to show a straight shoot-out between the incumbent Tories, the rising New Democrats, and the resurgent Liberals, Canadian voters are making up their minds not only on a fair judgement of policy and plausibility. Voting-booth decisions are bound up with perceptions of the character, charisma and credibility of each of the party leaders. People want a Prime Minister they can trust. This boils down to the conviction with which leaders speak, and through things less tangible than words.



No Stephen, it's bigger than that

It’s no different when you set out to buy a car. Honest John only has a few minutes to persuade you that the lemon you’re about to buy has had only one careful owner, aged over 60, and the milometer reading really is genuine. In these circumstances, no consumer likes a cheap suit. Nothing screams ‘run away’ so loudly as a polyester two-piece. Luckily for us, car dealers seem not to know this.



Alarming, isn't it Tom?

It’s no different with politicians. As you can see in the montages of the three party leaders I’ve presented here, neither the current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, nor his most likely replacement, Thomas Mulcair, has any clue that the gap between shirt collar and suit jacket is classically symbolic of a man who doesn’t fit. When the finger goes down the back of a suit collar, the finger goes up to the Suit’s candidacy.

In this respect at least, the Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau, seems to have narrowed the gap. He looks tailor made for the part.




Of course, politicians are cynics. Some might tell you that Harper and Mulcair’s loose looks are deliberate ploys to make them appear men of the people. Maybe so. But what would that say of their view of ‘the people’? In a tight race, where two out of three are going to get it in the neck, I’m looking to the collar.

August 28, 2015

Dr Jenner's Dead Cut

In the summer of 1808, the already famous Gloucestershire doctor, Edward Jenner, was in London, having a miserable time. The inventor of vaccine inoculation against smallpox was stuck in the City, waiting on the interminable bureaucracy of Parliament to finalise the details for the National Vaccine Establishment. He had many enemies: anti-vaccination pamphleteers who thought his ideas were eyewash; other vaccinators who coveted his glory; and personal nemeses who seemed to block his every move. Holed up in a place he abhorred, Jenner appealed to his friends for succour, but found them wanting. He perceived his opponents, ‘by the most abominable falsities’, endeavouring ‘to ruin my private character’. So much he could bear, ‘but when I find that no friend has step’d forth even to hold an Umbrella over my head it makes me feel miserable’. He went home at the end of the year, only to find out that events had unfolded to his distaste. The new Establishment was to nourish his enemies, and to dishonour Jenner himself. In desperation, he solicited advice: ‘I may most piteously exclaim, what shall I do?’ he asked Thomas Pruen. Pruen’s reply was dismissive: ‘I am sorry for your situation, but can afford you no kind of assistance’. Jenner felt this as a ‘dead Cut’ and told Pruen so:

Dr Jenner's Lancet, Science Museum London, Wellcome Images

What if a Man had met with an old Friend who had tumbled into a Cellar or any other kind of pit & had broke his bones & had pass’d by heedless of his moanings, saying I am sorry for you but cannot stay to help you out, because I have a pressing engagement, that I must attend to in another quarter? Would this have been balsam to his Wounds or a Caustic?

A month later, after some cooling off and some mollifying correspondence, Jenner announced that ‘the Cut is heald’.

Until recently, such talk would have been filed under metaphor and left at that. Jenner was miserable, but not in pain. The ‘cut’ wasn’t real. Recent studies on the ways in which pain experience is managed by the brain have begun to change our approach, casting new light on the affective pain utterances of historical actors. We’re now in a position to say, at least tentatively, that Jenner’s misery hurt.

How so? The turn towards affect in both historical studies and the neurosciences has foregrounded the importance of emotions in giving meaning to, or in defining, painful experiences. In fact, without stimulation of the affective centres of the brain, there is no experience, only pain. On the one hand, studies of people with the rare condition of pain asymbolia have found that without affective involvement, pain is meaningless. People with this condition are fully able to sense pain, but completely unable to interpret it. Bodily injury elicits no fear, no anxiety, no compulsion to flee or fight. A hand is put into the flame and it burns, but there is no reason to withdraw it. On the other hand, there are people who have no bodily injury whatsoever, but who feel the effects of, for example, social exclusion, as physical pain. Brain imaging has discovered that brain activity in affective centres under such conditions accords with what you would expect to see in a person suffering a physical injury. In sum, physical pain requires an emotional component in order to be experienced as pain, while certain ‘negative’ emotions are experienced physically as painful.

What’s the point? The science of pain is finally catching up with what sufferers have known all along: when they communicate that their body is in pain, they’re not making it up. But the specifics of the communication are contextually grounded, culturally formed. To take such utterances seriously is to entertain new potentialities in the history of experience. Much of the emotional suffering of the historical record – hysteria, melancholia, nostalgia, for example (to all of which Dr Jenner was prone) – has been under-treated by the history of medicine, in accord with twentieth-century medicine’s dualistic predilections, where pain is physical and suffering is only emotional or psychological. To enter into the historical experiences and meanings of suffering is to open up the possibility of understanding and interpreting the emotional and physical worlds of historical actors. Both the history of the body and the history of mentalités become united in a monistic history of experience that sets out to understand the dynamic relationship among emotions, their expression, bodily sensations and bodily practices.

This post first appeared on Emotions in Dialogue. You can pre-order Edward Jenner here and here

August 26, 2015

Bestiality in a Time of Smallpox

The news is rife with fear. Influenza is abroad. Worse still, measles is said to be making a big comeback. But disease is not the only problem. The flames of fear are being fanned by the opponents of vaccination. Measles, for example, is entirely preventable, but remains among us because of concerns that the vaccine prophylactic is worse than the disease. The thoroughly debunked notion that the MMR vaccine causes autism is still at large, and with it a cluster of nebulous fears of Big Pharma conspiracies and the risks of contaminating children with manufactured diseases. Yet such fears are not new. The fear of vaccination is as old as vaccination itself. Edward Jenner’s method for preventing smallpox summoned the spectre of sinful flesh. Vaccination was akin to bestiality; the vaccine itself was a beastly sexual disease.

The original ‘vaccine’, named after the cow from which it came, was a massive step forward in smallpox prevention. Until then, children were commonly inoculated with smallpox itself, which usually resulted in a light dose of the disease. Inoculation, however, killed many who underwent it, and left the rest fully contagious. Nevertheless, when Jenner’s Inquiry into the matter finally appeared in 1798, explaining how an animal disease would prevent a human one without resorting to dangerous inoculation, it attracted as much odium as it garnered support.
Wellcome Library, London

James Gillray’s popular 1802 print of the bestial effects of cowpox  strikes the modern viewer as ridiculous: cows emerging from heads, trunks and limbs. Jenner stands centrally, penetrating the arm of a terrified patient with ‘vaccine pock, hot from ye cow’. The patient has previously been ‘opened’ by a special brew. To the right, those already vaccinated undergo a series of horrors caused by contamination with animal disease. The image is shot through with innuendo about sexual transgression (communing with the beast) and venereal disease (syphilis).The pregnant hag on the extreme right seems at once to vomit and give birth to bovine progeny, while behind her another matron sprouts the satyr-like horns of the beast. The breeches of a bumpkin are breached. The faces of others are marked by monstrous eruptions of ‘the pox’.

The image reflects the intensity of the debates and fears around vaccination. Gillray’s caption directs us to the publications of the ‘Anti-Vaccine Society’: not a formal body, but a reference to Jenner’s principal opponents. The prominent physician Benjamin Moseley was the culprit in chief, responding to the ‘Cowmania’ in 1800 with a series of concerns. While Jenner had styled cowpox Variolae Vaccinae, smallpox of the cow, Moseley called it Lues Bovilla, bovine syphilis, with all the long-term mental and nervous consequences of the human ‘pox’. He asked:

Can any person say what may be the consequence of introducing the Lues Bovilla, a bestial humour – into the human frame, after a long lapse of years? Who knows, besides, what ideas may rise in the course of time, from a brutal fever having excited its incongruous impressions on the brain? Who knows, also, but that the human character may undergo strange mutations from quadrupedan sympathy and that some modern Pasiphaë may rival the fables of old?

His classical reference might pass us by, but the invocation of bestiality would have been obvious to the educated in 1800. Pasiphaë, cursed by Poseidon, had copulated with a bull. Having built a wooden cow and covered it with cowhide, she had hidden inside it in order to receive her desired mate. She later gave birth to the Minotaur. Moseley played not only on the taint of venereal disease, but also on the fragility and sanctity of the human, warning of a hybrid and brutal progeny. Vaccination was not only dangerous, it was immoral.

Wellcome Library, London
The search was on for proof of the bestial consequences of being inseminated with animal disease. In 1805 Dr Rowley, who derived his living from the impugned technique of inoculating with smallpox, claimed to have found it and to have showed it to Moseley. Moseley marked the animalistic transformation and Rowley published exaggerated portraits of Gillray-esque figures, supposedly drawn from life. The ‘Oxfaced boy’ was presented as tangible proof of the brutal result of bestial infection. Beware the ‘modern chimera’, went the cry.

Vaccination did not properly shake the fear of bestial venereal disease until the end of the nineteenth century, with some still adamantly claiming an identity between cowpox and syphilis. From 1853, responsibility for administering the vaccine in England was put in the hands of the Poor Law Guardians. The association of vaccination with the workhouse caused a resurgence of the syphilitic fear among the well-to-do. Jenner’s innovation helped fuel concerns. After an initial vaccination from the cow, he realised that it could then be carried on from arm to arm. The matter from one vaccination pustule could be collected and inserted into the arm of the next child. What respectable mother would take her child to be contaminated with matter drawn from the arm of a ne’er-do-well? Cowpox was one thing, but what about all the other diseases that riddled the poor? The class system relied on bodies being kept apart. The State’s insistence on bringing them together seemed to risk the fabric of civilisation, even if the risk of disease was actually minute. While most doctors believed that cowpox was not related to syphilis, how could they be sure that the vaccine wasn’t tainted with the diseases of the immoral when incubated in the arms of the poor? Better to risk smallpox than to invite syphilis into one’s children.

The fearful kept their children away and a preventable disease continued to rage, often to epidemic proportions. The form taken by fear reflects the preoccupations of the society that produces it. In our times it is a fear of corporate medicine and its reckless advocates, forcing unknown risks upon our children. For early nineteenth-century anti-vaccinists, cowpox vaccination was a sordid and unholy communion, the embodiment of an immoral trinity: animality, bestiality and sexually transmitted disease. 

This post first appeared on Notches. To order Edward Jenner click here or here.
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