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Three Forms of Sudden Death and Other Reflections on the Grandeur and Misery of the Body by F. Gonzalez-Crussi (Harper & Row: $15.95; 209 pp.)

December 07, 1986|Allan J. Tobin | Tobin teaches biology at UCLA and is scientific director of the Hereditary Disease Foundation. and

Dr. F. Gonzalez-Crussi confesses to having once believed in the consolations of philosophy. His delusion was that "as the hungry place an order for pizza, so do the seekers after wisdom line up at the bookshop with equal prospects of satisfaction." Notwithstanding Gonzalez's own disillusionment, however, seekers after wisdom will do well to buy and read this book.

"Three Forms of Sudden Death . . ." consists of 10 essays. Many of them concern subjects that are the expected fare for a literate and philosophical professor of pathology: procreation, sexual differentiation, aging and death. Other essays deal with less usual (and less polite) topics--cannibalism, the anorectum, the female breast. The last three essays deal with the relationship of physiology and emotions.

Following his professional bias, Gonzalez finds insight into normal life processes by "an attentive canvassing of deviancy." In contemplating wizened 3-year-old victims of progeria, he seeks clues to normal aging; in describing hermaphrodites, he illustrates the tenuousness of ordinary sexual identity; in reviewing the epidemiology of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome), he reveals the continuing limitations of medicine.

Gonzalez is a playful guide and talented raconteur, eager to put his medical reflections into historical, literary, psychological and philosophical contexts. He tells of the transvestism of Henry III of Valois; of the bizarre artistry of Il Petomano (roughly, "the wind breaker"); of the conversation of Raymond Lull ("one of the most intriguing minds of the Middle Ages"); of a gift to Confucius: a meal concocted from the flesh of his disciple; and of the more recent sequential humiliations of Mexican parvenues by an actress playing a mysterious Spanish Count. He tells these stories engagingly, with a wonderful eye for the absurd and a keen sense of irony, though without the warmth and personal sympathy found, for example, in Oliver Sacks' "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales." To the non-medical reader, Gonzalez's accounts of his own clinical and intellectual experiences are reminiscent of the voyages of Marco Polo, Charles Darwin, or Margaret Mead. Like these other celebrated writers, he constantly refers to the problems of life at home. For Gonzalez, author also of "Notes of an Anatomist," these problems are intimately connected with the body and the life cycle.

Gonzalez pithily defines the scope of his own work. "There are only two themes worth writing or reading about," he says, "love and death, eros and thanatos. " Despite his professional identity and the title of this book, however, Gonzalez deals less with the gloom of death than with the joy of life, especially of a life devoted to inquiry. He reacts to the actions and writings of saints and scoundrels, anthropologists and artists, philosophers of East and West.

Gonzalez's message is that thinking men and women have much to discuss with each other whatever their historical or cultural context. But the mysteries of love and death remain unanswered. 1097294185of sudden death, three passions. Yet each time he comes to the realization that, in matters human, all boundaries are blurred. Even sexual identity, taken by most as the simplest of binary distinction, is a continuum. Easy classification, Gonzalez cautions, is possible only if "we dress the thin sense-data with the rich garments of stereotype."

Gonzalez is finally concerned, in the last third of this book, with the body and emotions. To what extent, he asks, are the emotions explained by the simple mechanical or chemical workings of the body? Is the soul an active or a passive agent in the turmoil of the body? He discusses these deep issues in terms defined by Descartes, William James and Sartre. At the same time, however, he makes sure the reader understands that the questions still persist. We could, he says, replace Descartes' "animal spirits" with current scientific terms--acetylcholine, endorphin, serotonin, DOPA, and "much of Cartesian thought could pass for a contemporary production."

Gonzalez effectively eschews Cartesian and contemporary reductionism with a lovely thought-experiment. Look forward, he challenges us, to the ultimate triumph of neuroscience, when every cell of the brain, every connection and every signal can be defined and monitored. Imagine that a complete description of the human brain will be continuously available, with all the collected information instantaneously processed by supercomputer. Will all this data suffice, he asks, to tell what the subject is feeling at a given moment?

His own humble answer is clear: "No amount of faith in the powers of science can persuade me that we would know whether he is gripped by jealousy, wafted by joy, corroded by envy, or vibrating, like a well-tempered violin, to the harmonious chords of love." In the best tradition of skeptical essayists, Gonzalez challenges the adequacy of received knowledge.

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