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A CABINET OF MEDICAL CURIOSITIES.\o7 By Jan Bondeson (Cornell University Press: 250 pp., $29.95)\f7 ; THE BODY IN PARTS: Fantasies of Corporeality in Early Modern Europe.\o7 Edited by David Hillman and Carla Mazzio (Routledge: 344 pp., $19.95 paper)\f7 ; THE SACRED REMAINS: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799-1883.\o7 By Gary Laderman (Yale University Press: 240 pp., $28.50)\f7 ; SPECIAL CASES: Natural Anomalies and Historical Monsters.\o7 By Rosamond Purcell (Chronicle Books: 176 pp., $24.95)\f7 ; THE BODY EMBLAZONED: Dissections and the Human Body in Renaissance Culture.\o7 By Jonathan Sawday (Routledge: 327 pp., $19.95 paper)\f7 ; PRESENCE IN THE FLESH: The Body in Medicine.\o7 By Katharine Young (Harvard University Press: 199 pp., $27.95)\f7

October 25, 1998|THOMAS LYNCH | Thomas Lynch is the author of a collection of essays, "The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade," which was a finalist for the National Book Award. His third collection of poems, "Still Life in Milford," is just out from Norton. He is a funeral director in Milford, Mich

Against the pop-psyche, New Age, millennial spiritualisms that occupy the front tables and the self-help shelves of our mega-stores, here are half a dozen titles from the darker and scholarly precincts of medical history, sociology, arts and the arcane to remind us that we are bodies in motion and at rest. We are flesh and blood and bone, beings corruptible and incorruptible. And though we may roll our own emotional and spiritual and intellectual metaphors--behaving and misbehaving, believing and disbelieving as Methodists or Buddhists or Jungians or Behaviorists or Postmodern Vegetarian Minimalists--we are bound to these bodies one and all.

None of these books will be made into a movie, nor any of their authors turn up on Oprah; still, each is an essential text, the work of uniquely curious scholarship that seeks to know the rules by investigating the exceptions or seeks to establish norms by a catalog of anomalies.

My father had a "Bell's Pathology"; he studied it in mortuary school. And I remember, as a boy, huddling over this thick tome to study photographs of dwarfs and giants, conjoined twins, victims of massive goiters, tumors, unpronounceable maladies that made them different and singular. "Gray's Anatomy" was another: diagrams of the nerves and circulatory systems, origin and insertion points of muscles, ball and socket joints. There is about such images a sense of secret knowledge, much like the illusion of pornography--that the body as object is somehow remarkable, singular and strange.

Just such a sense informs Jan Bondeson's "A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities." A hundred years after Gould & Pyle's 968-page "Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine" "discussed strange diseases, remarkable malformations, uncommon and gruesome ways of death, and unlikely feats of fasting or gluttony," the young doctor revisits this territory for us. Ten essays consider such wonders as spontaneous human combustion, a two-headed boy, folks infected with serpents and frogs, people with tails and the strange case of Mary Toft, an early 18th century Englishwoman whose hunger for a meal of rabbit was said to have changed her organs of reproduction in a way that made her give birth to bunnies. Examined by the anatomist of King George I, she was declared an example of "maternal impression."

There is also an instructive chapter on the difficulties of "Apparent Death and Premature Burial"--themes that informed horrible stories down the centuries. As Bondeson writes: "The concept of death as a process is in fact correct, for unless death is very sudden--due, say, to decapitation, a bursting aneurysm, or a massive coronary embolism--the transition is gradual. In an aged individual dying from cancer, death creeps through the tissues, taking over one organ after another." Bondeson is scrupulous about separating fact from fiction: "In several nineteenth century reports, the prematurely dead individuals are said to have eaten their own fingers or even their entire arms; modern textbooks in forensic medicine have demonstrated that such bodies were probably attacked by rodents." That he is able to disabuse us of fantasy while leaving our fears tingling and intact is a credit to the good doctor's surgical prose.

There are no surgeons or medicos among the contributors (organ donors, they are rightly called) to the wonderfully holistic "The Body in Parts," an anthology edited by two Harvard English department teaching fellows, David Hillman and Carla Mazzio. These are wordsmiths and notion-mongers, each of whom has taken a part--the belly, the brain, clitoris and tongue, rectum, breast, viscera and more--and allowed their considerable scholarship to roam in all directions. History and literature and medicine and art and gender politics and cultural studies and the hard sciences--the range is dizzying, a true anthology. Left alone, we'd expect these authors to produce titles fit only for those summer symposia where very brainy people without good hobbies might be found: "Image and Portent in Early Modern Deconstruction." But Mazzio and Hillman have, by their formal conceit, left these eager minds to range freely.

From Nancy Vickers' "Members Only," which introduces the history of the anatomical blazon--poems in praise of the parts of the female body; to Mazzio's "Sins of the Tongue," which catalogs that organ's ability to pleasure and pain, soothe and savage, tell the truth and tell the lie at once; to Peter Stallybrass' ending essay, "Footnotes," which details the art of the shoemaker and how they "cobbled together new visions of the body politic," the reader is treated to real minds at play. Scott Manning Stevens' "Sacred Heart and Secular Brain" investigates the long-standing debates between "conscience and consciousness," between intellect and intuition, between the meaning of things and their performance. "The Body in Parts" is an abundant and instructive collection--well-illustrated, finely made, bargain-priced.

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