Posts Tagged ‘Ivan Turgenev’

Frankenstein and Walt Whitman’s brain: “This is a grewsome story!”

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

Whitman and fraudulent butterfly

In the 1931 movie Frankenstein, the doctor’s hunchback assistant Franz raids the medical school’s lab to retrieve a brain for the monster.  Whoops!  He drops the jar that has the good brain and takes the bad brain instead – the brain of a demented murderer.  (Video below.)

Who would have guessed that there is some factual basis for this set piece? Walt Whitman’s brain may have been on the back of someone’s mind as the scenario was written, though it cannot be proved for certain.

You see, Walt Whitman’s postmortem brain was put into some sort of a jam jar, and somebody dropped it, and it shattered.  The brain, not the jar … or rather, probably, both.  Or neither. Actually, it’s not certain the brain ever made it into a jar, or was dropped while it was in a sort of a rubber sack.

When I posted about  “The Curious and Complicated History of Lenin’s Brain” two years ago, little did I know I would be writing a grisly sequel so soon.  But scholar Brian Burrell has written an absolutely riveting account of Walt Whitman’s brain.  I just discovered it (thanks to Twitter and Lapham’s Quarterly) in a back issue of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, the preeminent journal on America’s bard, but one not usually given to sensational revelation.  (The 27-page article, “The Strange Fate of Whitman’s Brain,” is downloadable here.)

According to our scholar Burrell:

“When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein she made no mention of brains.  To anyone who comes to the legend via the 1931 film instead of the 1818 novel, this might seem odd. But then the legend of Frankenstein has changed considerably since Shelley’s time in order to keep in step with the science that inspired it. If there are no brains in jars in Frankenstein the novel, it is because at the time she conceived the book, there were no brains in jars at all, and there would not be any for some time to come.  The modern preoccupation with the human brain, it turns out, is a relatively recent phenomenon.  Before Shelley’s time, very few people gave it much thought.”

Whitman wrote in 1855:  “I have said that the soul is no more than the body. And I say that the body is not more than the soul.” But did he expect anyone should take this thought quite so much at face value?

Eight years after Lord Byron suggested that Mary Shelley write a horror story, the Romantic poet died, and his brain was removed at autopsy and weighed.  That was the beginning.  Others joined the party: Daniel Webster, Gaetano Donizetti, Ivan Turgenev, and many others had their brains removed, autopsied, and weighed, with a religious solicitude and ritual exactitude not shown since the days of the pharaohs. Great men, it was reasoned, would have magnificent and extraordinary brains.  And by studying these brains, we could anatomize genius.  A number of famous men felt they would be fit objects for such a study, and pledged their brains to science.  Unfortunately, the weight of many of their brains fell short of expectations.

Could things get sillier?  They could.  And where else but France?  In 1876, a French group formed the first brain donation society:

“They named it, rather eerily, the Société Mutuelle d’Autopsie (the Society of Mutual Autopsy). In their revolutionary fervor, they sealed their compact with a pledge that had the portentous ring of a fraternal oath: ‘Free thinker, loyal to scientific materialism and the radical Republic, I intend to die without the interference of any priest or church. I bequeath to the School of Anthropology my head, face, skull, and brain, and more if it is necessary. What remains of me will be incinerated.’”

Whitman showed an early interest in phrenology, a means to measure the internal qualities of a man by the bumps of his head.  But he eventually outgrew this enthusiasm,  citing Oliver Wendell Holmes’s remark that “you might as easily tell how much money is in a safe feeling the knob on the door as tell how much brain a man has by feeling bumps on his head.”  However, in a moment of illness, the old faith returned.  At least enough so that he, too, succumbed and signed away his brain. He owed it to science.

The denouement was revealed years later by the renowned  anatomist, Dr. Edward Spitzka in 1907. A throwaway comment in the doctor’s magnum opus admitted that the brain was “said to have been dropped” by “a careless attendant in the laboratory.”  Investigations by Whitman’s friends revealed the dismaying facts:  the brain “was destroyed either during the autopsy or while being conveyed to the jar, or in the jar before the hardening process by formaldehyde had been completed” … “the records state quite definitely that the brain was accidentally broken to bits during the pickling process.”  Whitman’s devoted friend William Sloane Kennedy scribbled, “This is a grewsome story!”

Time has not been kind to this particular scientific endeavor, and it’s hard to believe anyone ever took it seriously.  Burrell wrote:  “The founders of the Brain Society had acted on the enthusiasm of a moment of history of science that turned out to be a passing phase.  Had someone not dropped Whitman’s brain, they would hardly be remembered at all.”

Spitzka, later the editor of two editions of Gray’s Anatomy, never recovered from the professional fiasco.  Still in his twenties, he took to the bottle, and not the pickling kind.  He began to imagine that ex-convicts were stalking him, seeking revenge for his brain snatchings at the prisons in his salad days.  He had a nervous breakdown.  He died at 46, and donated his brain – but there were no true believers left to study it.  Brains had accumulated faster than any interest in them.  Even the smart ones.

Spitzka was one of the last eminent men to be painted by Thomas Eakins, who was in his last days and could barely hold a brush.  It would remain unfinished,

“except for the depiction of a plaster brain cast which Spitzka cradles in his right hand.  (It was painted in by Eakins’s wife.) As Eakins left the work, Spitzka stands in ghostly outline, unrecognizable, still waiting to be immortalized. In the 1930s, the canvas was cut down from a full length portrait to make it more marketable, and the image of the brain was discarded, leaving nothing more than the indistinct outlines of a presumably great man. The painting now resides, out of sight, in a storage room of Washington’s Hirshhorn Gallery.”

A reminder of how speedily tragedy descends into farce and back to tragedy again.  It’s also a reminder of the tomfoolery of hubris – scientific or otherwise.  How could anyone expect that the unique concoction of an individual’s energy, will, spirit, character, élan vital, whatever, might be so easily reducible to scale measurements and creases on the brain?

After all, today we all know the real answer to the mysteries of genius and destiny lies in our DNA. That’s what the important scientists tell us.

Postscript on 6/27:  Big Think has some thoughts on Whitman’s link with Dracula – and discusses the Book Haven and this column, too. It’s over here.


“Too big to be swallowed”: Robert Hass, Adam Zagajewski, Clare Cavanagh remember Czesław Miłosz

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

Clare signs books after the event (Photo: David A. Goldfarb)

The apocalyptic scene enveloping Japan brings to mind Czesław Miłosz‘s poem, “A Song on the End of the World,” written in Warsaw, 1944, during another kind of apocalypse.  The poem ends with a white-haired old man binding his tomatoes, who would be a prophet but is “too busy to be a prophet,” repeating:

No other end of the world will there be.
No other end of the world will there be.

Sound wrong?  According to translator Clare Cavanagh, speaking at the 92nd Street Y on Monday night, it’s a new kind of right.  The line is usually translated “There will be no other end of the world.”  But the original Polish has an inversion that doesn’t always work well in English.  Antoni Miłosz has translated the poem, keeping the original inversion.  I kinda like it — the poem ends with a dactylic chant.

Clare was one of three heavy-hitters speaking about Miłosz that night and reading his poems – Robert Hass and Adam Zagajewski were the others.

Clare pointed out that, although Miłosz celebrates the rural Lithuania childhood, it is at least part an invented one.  In fact, his father was a civil engineer working in Russia, and the six-year-old experienced the Russian Revolution firsthand and traveled widely.  Movement was as much a characteristic of his upbringing as the stability he mythologized.

The venue: 92nd Street Y

She recalled the long theological discussions that I mentioned in my post several days ago.  She wouldn’t describe them in the essay she wrote for An Invisible Rope – and she wouldn’t describe them Monday night either.  I hope her silence on this subject is not permanent. “I’m not going to repeat what he said,” she finished, “but I keep wondering what he knows now.”

Bob Hass, wearing a heavy bandage on his nose, told the audience he hadn’t been in a fight, but advised his listeners to wear sunscreen.  He recalled a poet “tormented by how inexpressible experience was.”

"Please wear sunscreen"

Bob quoted Milosz, “War is only nature speeded up.”

The Berkeley prof recalled approaching Miłosz to discuss an anti-nuclear movement on campus, only to be told,  “I am against anti-nukes.”

“Blue hair?  Why does no one protest blue hair?” the elder poet responded. Beautiful young women become old ones with blue hair (note to young ‘uns: blue-tinted rinse was a common for elderly women in the 20th century).  “Who protests?”

“The true enemy of man is generalization,” Hass recalled Milosz saying.  His response to generalization was memory, said Clare. Miłosz’s memory was “beyond human – except that it’s most perfectly human, the way memory ought to be – how it should be in heaven.”

Hass recalled traveling in rural California, and on a whim going into an old secondhand shop – or rather, he said, it was as if he were drawn to it.  He found a thick book, in Polish, on the history of women’s underwear.  He plopped the $40 for the book and gave it to Milosz.

“I do not know that I have ever seen him so happy,” he said.  Suddenly, he could identify the underclothes he had seen on his aunt’s clothesline during his childhood.

"to glorify things as they are"

Adam Zagajewski spoke last – the perils of having a name that begins with “Z,” he said.

He noted Miłosz’s many contradictions.  He was drawn to the notion of “secret knowledge,” Adam said. “He craved initiation and looked for gurus” — for example, Miłosz’s influential kinsman Oskar Milosz and the man called “Tiger” in Native Realm. At the same time, he had “a longing for ignorance and innocence,” said Adam – which accounts for his attraction to William Blake, in part.

Ivan Turgenev said that poets are either rivers, absorbing everything in their current, or mountains, overlooking the world from an elevated plane of existence.  According to Adam, Miłosz decided he wanted to be “like a river and a mountain.”  The result?  A poet “too big to be swallowed,” he said.

Though Miłosz “loathed propaganda poetry,” Adam said he walked “the narrow road between pure poetry and poetry engagée, which he thought a mistake.”

In his restless questioning of existence, Miłosz took on God — “God being the strongest enemy that was,” said Adam, and objected to Blaise Pascal’s wager, which Adam said, “was like a shopkeeper saying it’s better to save some money because times can be hard.”

Adam concluded, “This is his religious vocation – to glorify things as they are.” And in this mission he was truly omnivorous. His poetic hubris – wanting to understand everything, wanting to experience everything – has caused his eclipse in current Poland.  Will his reputation wax again?

“I don’t worry.  I am totally convinced he will return.  He will have the last word.  Not I.” (Adam’s “Z” notwithstanding.)