Academic journal article The Hudson Review

A Viking on the Loose from His Longboat

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

A Viking on the Loose from His Longboat

Article excerpt

A Viking on the Loose from His Longboat

A FEW YEARS AGO WHEN I WAS IN PARIS and wandering around the Sorbonne, I stumbled on a small museum devoted to medical history. I rang at the front door, as instructed, and the middle-aged man who answered told me that the cost of admission was eight euros, or twelve euros if I wished to take photographs. He also explained that he did not make change. When I replied that I did not have the exact change, he went on to say that there was a café behind the museum, and that perhaps I could buy a coffee there in order to get the right change. He then led me through the museum to the café, and when I saw the contents of the place m passant, I decided immediately that photographs were a must. There were hundreds of medical specimens in ancient glass jars, most of them with labels written by hand, as well as a small library that seemed to consist primarily of sixteenth- and seventeenthcentury books on shelves that ran up the wall almost to the ceiling. I bought a coffee, got the right change, walked back around to the front door, and rang a second time. This time, with the correct change, I was admitted and left to wander. It was an extraordinary place. Among other things, there were brains in jars that had been anatomized by Paul Broca, the neuroanatomist whose name gives us Broca's Area, the part of the brain where language is processed. Broca was also one of the teachers of Isidore Ducasse, the great poet better known as the Comte de Lautréamont, author of the Chants de Maldoror, the extraordinary proto-Surrealist work that would influence a later generation of French poets including André Breton. The bits in bottles ultimately became too overwhelmingly creepy and sent me hurrying from the museum, after I'd taken many photographs of parts of those who, while long gone, in this odd and eerily touching way, were not forgotten.

This was the Musée Dupuytren, named for Guillaume Dupuytren (1777-1835), who is best remembered for lending his name to Dupuytren's contracture, a hand disease in which one or more fingers will not lie flat and curl towards the palm, and for the surgery to correct the condition that he invented. I did not know then that he was also the mentor of Gustave Flaubert's father, Achille-Cléophas Flaubert, whose appointment to the Hotel-Dieu, the main hospital in Rouen, he arranged, and where Flaubert père established himself as a renowned surgeon and professor. Flaubert fils would later have to consult another Dupuytren student, Philippe Ricord, a Paris-based specialist in venereal diseases, after Flaubert contracted syphilis during his longjourney in the Middle East with his great friend Maxime Du Camp. The writer Flaubert inherited his physician father's eye for physical detail, and it is no surprise to learn from the Goncourt brothers' Journal that Flaubert had a bronze bust of Hippocrates on the fireplace mantle in his study. (A similar bust can be spotted in Dr. Bovary's home in Sophie Barthes's 2014 film version of Madame Bovary.) Flaubert the anatomist of French bourgeois life under Louis-Philippe maintained throughout his career that science ought to rule as a force of government and as the basis for civic life, not religion, not utopian theories, and certainly not bourgeois ideals of comfort and achievement. Never a success as a student-he was expelled from high school and flunked out of law school-Flaubert nonetheless turned himself into not just the greatest French writer of his century, but also a major critic of French society. Overt criticism is largely confined to his voluminous correspondence; in his fiction it is up to the reader to interpret character and story and to gage the criticism implicit in the details. It was the details, and the right words to capture them, of which Flaubert was a master.

Despite his hatred for middle-class life and middle-class people, with their bland chatter and their uninspiring aspirations, their philoprogenitive focus on family and their obeisance to the altar, Flaubert was middle class himself in almost every way that mattered. …

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