BOTTOMS UP! A Pathologist's Essays on Medicine and the Humanities By William B. Ober Southern Illinois University Press 335 pp. $19.95
THOSE OF us who were in tune with the greening of American colleges in the '60s have been displeased by the fallout of that gentle rebellion. One such byproduct has been the apparent abolition of cultural literacy as a requirement for admission to professional schools. Lack of attention to liberal arts has been blamed for the flawed ethics of lawyers, the skewed morals of MBAs and the decline of "humanistic" values among doctors. In consequence, medical schools have now instituted remedial courses in the humanities for graduates of even our swankiest colleges. They could do a lot worse than to use William B. Ober's essays as required reading.
Fans of Ober's first book, the well-received Boswell's Clap, are in for another treat. Once they forgive this erudite author his outrageous choice of book titles, they will find a bravura selection of essays that shows what a first-rate intelligence can do with the tools of scholarship and a sense of fun. Ober is at home in musicology, iconography and poetics; nothing in the traditional humanities is alien to his pen. His attention and prose range widely over the ground of our common culture: from Egyptian papyri to the illustrations of Fanny Hill, from Ibn al-Khabib's 14th-century monograph on bubonic plague in Granada to Robert Musil's fin-de-sie`cle agonies in Vienna.
The wide scope of these essays does not fragment the book, since as in any successful collection, the real subject of each essay is the mind of the author. The Ober who emerges from this rich assembly of facts and judgments is a congenial, cosmopolitan gentleman. He proves to be as fit a guide to Rimbaud's verse as to the poet's fatal illness, as engaged by Johnsonian rhetoric as by the doctor's melancholy. From the very first sentence -- "The story of man's inhumanity to man is older than recorded history" -- we find ourselves instructed by a skeptical and tolerant observer. Along the way, we appreciate that -- by paying attention to the traditional concerns of the liberal arts -- Ober neatly avoids what Alfred North Whitehead called the "cross-sterilisation of the social sciences."
Gentle humor abounds; here we find Carlo Gesualdo, the 16th-century madrigalist, avenging his honor by slaying his wife Donna Maria and her ducal lover. "Duke Fabrizio had been shot through the head with an arquebus and was also wounded in the head, face, neck, chest, stomach, arms, hands, shoulders, and flank by multiple sword thrusts which passed through his body from front to back." The details of the execution might suffice for the routine forensic pathologist. Ober, however, adds that a "somewhat discordant note is struck by the unexplained statement that Duke Fabrizio, when slain, was wearing one of Donna Maria's night dresses. This might pose a problem for the costume designer of this opera but not for the librettist." In this essay, Ober shifts gears; he manages to use this bizarre act as a clue to unravelling the emotional tangle of Gesualdo's madrigals. He connects the composer's music and private demons to our "later age with its own martyrdom and pain, for which his music is singularly fitting."
Ober's interest in the mental pathology of saint and sinner leads him to accounts of the history of spanking (hence the book's awkward title), to a discussion of the contributions made by hashish and absinthe to French symbolist poetry, and to an analysis of Margery Kempe's 14th-century visions. In the essay on Kempe, Ober reminds us of the difference between a martyr and a saint: a martyr is someone who has to live with a saint!
Wit is but one of the tools this skillful writer uses to engage us. He can draw lessons from legend that are as acute as they are surprising. Here he describes the myth of Osiris: "He was killed in a quarrel with his brother Set, who cut his body into pieces and threw them into the Nile. After a long search his sister-wife Isis . . . recovered the pieces -- except for the genitals which had been eaten by fish -- sewed them together, and restored Osiris to life. The idea of a mutilated and resurrected god ought not seem strange to Christians . . . One may also construe the metaphor as a statement of the scientific method, collecting the data and assembling them to form a faultless statement."
These concert-grade performances in the art of the essay constitute a reminder of what the world of books was like before the major publishers fought for space on the shelves of supermarkets to sell the memoirs of bimbos and scalawags. Southern Illinois University Press is to be congratulated for presenting us with a handsome volume of fine prose aptly illustrated. Civilization rears her lovely head in its pages, and William Ober has caught her features.
Gerald Weissmann is professor of medicine at New York University and the author of "They All Laughed at Christoper Columbus," a collection of essays.