While alive, most of us enjoy a degree of privacy and protection that we probably do not appreciate. Despite the omnipresent human inclination to gossip, rumor, and chit-chat, the laws of libel insulate us from public exposure most of the time.
Not so once we are dead. The legal concepts of libel and slander change drastically after the spirit departs the body. By the time we have been dead for a time our lives are in the public domain and our shortcomings, real, speculative or fabricated, can be written about with impunity.
William B. Ober, a pathologist from New Jersey, has made this point resoundingly in his interesting book, "Boswell's Clap and Other Essays." In it he analyzes the careers and medical problems of a dozen men of letters from Socrates to William Carlos Williams. Sifting the evidence carefully and with erudition, the pathologist looks into the dank corners of his subjects' lives and diagnoses not cancer or stroke but rather addiction, premature ejaculation and venereal disease.
The title essay, on James Boswell's 30-year experience with gonorrhea, is a classic example of the literary pathologist at work. Using the 18th-century biographer's journal as well as a great deal of secondary material, Ober pieces together 19 separate episodes of venereal infection. He also sketches in the balance of the writer's life, concluding with a neat diagnostic analysis of Boswell's death agonies. The essay tells a story of prurience that will amuse the average reader, probably offend any descendants of the man himself, and present a new dimension of the writer to Boswell scholars.
Ober's technique, which he calls "paleodiagnosis," is also applied to the poet John Keats and his use of opium. Keats, having first used opium for an eye injury sustained on the cricket field, continued to dabble in the drug for the balance of his short life. The use of drugs [alcohol, marijuana, opium, etc.] by writers is a longstanding medico-literary issue, and the case of Keats seemed an apt opportunity to develop it. Unfortunately, the pathologist's attitude toward drugs comes through as rather simplistic and moralistic. The essay is consequently disappointing, never looking into the fascinating questions of creativity and consciousness alteration.
Dr. Ober also writes at length of poet-physician William Carlos Williams who lived to a healthy old age and was a model of good citizenry and good health throughout his career. Williams in fact provides little for the pathologist to dissect or exhume, so Ober confines himself to a literary commentary on Williams' works. The problem here is that Ober's discussion of Williams as a physician and as a writer is generally stingy, whereas Williams himself comes through as a warm and devoted humanist in both of his professions. "My 'medicine' was the thing that gained me entrance to . . . [the] secret gardens of the self," writes Williams. "It lay there, another world, in the self. I was permitted by my medical badge to follow the poor, defeated body into those gulfs and grottos."
Ober, writing to the same point as only a pathologist might, state that " . . . general practice in Passaic County is no great tax on the intellect and does provide one with a certain amount of raw human material." So much for patient care.
Ober, in the end, seems to understand his point of view and makes no apologies for it. "I seriously question whether an indiscriminate liking for people is a virtue; it is, rather, a confession of uncritical acceptance. Yet this may be one reason why Williams went into general practice and I became a pathologist. He was willing to accept the world and people as they were; I reserve the right to review them under the microscope and look daily at their weaknesses, faults, malformations, and diseases."
While "Bowell's Clap" makes provocative reading, the major insight it leaves behind is that all of us are in deep trouble when we have a pathologist for our physician or our biographer.