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Enlightenment and the Dirty Philosopher

Enlightenment and the Dirty Philosopher

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Copyright © 1997 The Johns Hopkins University Press and the Society for Literature and Science. All rights reserved.
5.3 (1997) 369-424Access provided by Virtual University of Pakistan
Enlightenment and the Dirty Philosopher Emily Jane Cohen Figures 
Speed = Modernity, hygieneSlowness = Rancid romanticism of the wild, wandering poet and long-haired bespectacleddirty philosopher.F. T. Marinetti"I had recourse to several medicines, and was at last obliged to have recourse to theapplication of leeches to the anus." In 1799, as the eighteenth century drew to a close,Christoph Friedrich Nicolai presented his
Memoir on the Appearance of Spectres or Phantoms Occasioned by Disease
to the Berlin Academy of Sciences. Having experiencednumerous unsettling visions of deceased persons during a period of about one year, Nicolaiwas happy to be able to share the secret of his purging with his fellow philosophers. Hedescribed in detail the final moments of his definitive cure of April 20, 1791, at the hands of a trusted surgeon. Whereas the room had swarmed with human forms at the beginning of the operation, as the afternoon waned and digestion commenced, the ghosts slowly fadedbefore his eyes, first losing their color and then vanishing altogether. "At about eight o'clockthere did not remain a vestige of any of them, and I have never since experienced anyappearance of the same kind," he concluded emphatically. 
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  At pains to apologize for speaking of himself, Nicolai could justify this "impropriety" becausehe was the object of his own investigation. Moreover, though he wore a variety of hats, hewas careful to speak as a philosopher, thus taking advantage of what can most aptly becalled a certain immunity: "Philosophers divide the human being into body and mind,because the numerous and distinct observations we make on ourselves oblige us toconsider man particularly, as well in respect to his corporeal as his mental functions." 
 Onlymomentarily terrified, Nicolai was able to serve as his own expert witness.The unglossed pairing of philosopher and surgeon in this personal anecdote hardlysurprises. The Age of Lights might also be known as the Age of Hands. From the
's engravings of machines highlighting various types of labor, to the cult of sensibility, defined by the same source as the disposition of the soul to be easily touched,there was a dizzying proliferation of reflections on the manual. 
 The privileging of the once-renegade sense of touch is so multifaceted and so widespread that the scholar is better off imitating those philosophers who eschewed seeking ultimate causes and restrictedthemselves to detailing effects. It is, at the very least, fair to say that one of the first signs of the new emphasis on hands was the rise to prominence of surgeons and the consequentrenewal of the art of anatomy. The history of surgeons' political struggle against the
"thinking" physicians is well chronicled and can in part be summarized as a debate over theutility of their hands-on experience as opposed to the abstract reasoning and book-learningof a group unwilling to give up a long-entrenched educational monopoly and an officiallysanctioned superiority. The progressive triumph of the surgeons took place first andforemost in France, where they formed their own institutions, including a Royal Academyand a school of dissection, and officially broke with the barbers. The lines betweenphysicians and surgeons became increasingly blurry. Far outnumbering their competitorsand, as general practitioners, far more of a visible presence in the private lives of individuals, surgeons came to have an impact on the way the Enlightenment reasoned andphilosophized. 
[End Page 370]
 Indeed, surgery and philosophy nourished one another. It was surgery that greatly furtheredmedical knowledge during the eighteenth century. Surgeons legitimized themselves byadapting the methods, arguments, and tactics of the philosophers; philosophers,meanwhile, in their attempts to grapple with the meaning, origins, and functioning of their universe, looked to surgeons or to doctors trained in anatomy as sources of new scientificdata. Their encounter was fortuitous, for the philosophical interest in anatomy anddissection went well beyond the literal. Anatomizing, involving at once an unearthing of hidden mysteries or origins and a dividing into parts so as to reassemble a coherent whole,was
paradigm of all philosophical enterprises and was duly reflected in all branches of knowledge and artistic activity. 
 Nicolai's memoir hints at such anatomical gestures. The model philosopher is he who iscapable of distinguishing the real from the illusory, of abstracting eternal mind fromperishable body. The eighteenth century was heir to a dualism that posited the world as theproduct of a fall away from oneness, purity, and eternal bliss into mixture, contamination,and the transitory. 
 Though part of the traditional role of the philosopher was to restoreknowledge to its prelapsarian state, hopes of such an enterprise began to erode. TheEnlightenment's fascination with origins, its museums, its massive encyclopedias, and itsarchaeological resurrections of lost cities all attest to the feverishness with which it tried toovercome a growing sense of the abyss, "a yawning gulf stretching between absence andpresence." 
 The Deists' God washed his hands, so to speak, of the
hic et nunc.
And worseyet was the creeping sense that there is no beyond at all, no difference between inside andoutside, between self and other.In this essay, I will focus on some of the problems that the dualism of body and mind posedto Western epistemology in the eighteenth century, presuming that in any attempt to knowor to represent reality, the status of the body must be negotiated. More specifically, I willreflect upon the hand of the philosopher in the
[End Page 371]
quest for and transmissionof knowledge, particularly in scientific and artistic representations of the human body.(Nicolai's predicament, for instance, springs from what Edmund Husserl critically termed the"natural attitude," the attitude that there is some reality out there to be unproblematicallycaptured--itself said by Norman Bryson to entail the suppression of all that is bodily in thename of mimetic art.) 
  As my comments have already begun to suggest, I use the term
in the broad eighteenth-century sense of the educated individual, competent ina variety of domains. The eighteenth century did not divide disciplines as we do today, andarrogation of this title was one way to facilitate the ascendancy of one's opinions. Thenarrative I construct will be one of the progressive attempt to efface the presence of thehand or body of the experimenter and to finally turn hopefully toward the machine as theperfect, most hygienic way of generating scientific images and information. In so doing, mywork contributes to the recent scholarly reflections on proof and evidence across variousdisciplines, and to related attempts to contextualize and historicize notions of objectivity. 
 While the anonymous surgeon in Nicolai's anecdote remains in the shadows, the surgeonwill here emerge as a sort of doppelgänger, a figure whose acknowledgment turns out to bea harbinger of the philosopher's own potential demise.I begin my story in the spirit of the Enlightenment, by seeking out origins in order toexamine a few ancient hand gestures that helped confer a special spiritual status on thehand of the experimenter or philosopher. Moving into the Middle Ages and beyond, I dwell
primarily on surgeons and anatomists from Vesalius to William Hunter, in whose palms Iread a struggle for legitimacy. I then turn to manifestations of a breakdown of the notion of the authoritative hand in science as well as literature. My discussion includes areexamination of the official French investigations of mesmerism's salutary hand motions,and an analysis of works by such authors as Diderot and the Marquis de Sade, whosematerialism calls
[End Page 372]
into question the cognitive powers of a philosopher become all too corporeal. From masturbating hands to ghostly apparitions of unattachedextremities, what will emerge is an increasing wariness of the tainted touch. Using theanatomist as a figure of the late-eighteenth-century philosopher and writer, and focusingparticularly on his encounter with feminized or sexualized bodies, I conclude by pushing theorigins of what has been called, perhaps too readily, a "new moral objectivity" of the end of the nineteenth century, back a hundred years to the Age of Enlightenment.
"He's got the whole world in his hands," goes the refrain of a popular gospel song, chantingreassuringly of our security, and suggesting by extension that the withdrawal of God's handwould usher in a reign of catastrophe in the most literal sense: the world would turn upside-down. 
 This image of God's powerful hand is a legacy from antiquity and derives from thefirst of two ancient hand gestures, signs of power and of witnessing, that I discuss in thissection of my argument. The outstretched "saving right hand" of the gods, and of the priestsand kings who were their divine descendants, can be traced to remote Egyptian andBabylonian civilizations as well as to the Old Testament. 
 Underlying various rites of thesecultures is the idea of a mysterious potency that may be communicated by contagionthrough divinely empowered hands. In late antiquity, when Eastern traditions moved west,this gesture of transmitted force and salvation thus became the particular province of divinepatrons of healing and child-bearing, as well as that of Roman emperors.When Christianity became a state religion, it borrowed the imperial iconography of the outstretched hand to portray Christ as Cosmocrator. At the same time, it was heir to a related iconographical tradition, illustrated most clearly by the aniconic religion of the Jews. Until the middle of the third century, the Judaic prohibition against imagesforbade any figuration of sacred character, let alone of any living being. In the earliestJewish images, if God is represented at all, it is only through his disembodied hand--reaching out, for instance, to resurrect the dead in the wall paintings of the synagogue of Dura Europos. The hand of God, far from symbolizing His body, indicates that He is allspirit. Early Christians began by representing
[End Page 373]
[Begin Page 375]
God inidentical fashion. In a later image from an Armenian gospel(Fig. 1), the iconography of  resurrection meets the older gestures of the conferral of power and the anointment of kingsin an illustration of the baptism of Christ: an invisible vertical line equates God's hand, thedove of the Holy Spirit, and the hand of John the Baptist.The second meaning attributed to the raised right hand that I should like to discuss isthe Eastern gesture of the oath, also found in the Old Testament and still practicedtoday in our courts of law. 
 The earliest Christians were martyrs, persecutedwitnesses to their faith (as the etymology of "martyr" denotes). Some early imagesshow the saints, one hand raised in oath, bearing witness or testifying next to Christ. Thesymbolic reward of martyrs was the palm branch,
in Latin designating both the treeand the hand. Figure 2,an early-seventeenth-century image of Saint Cecilia commemorating the 1599 discovery of her sarcophagus and her miraculously intact body,demonstrates this enduring tradition: hands unify the picture, and are formally echoed bythe cherub's conveying of the martyr's palm.These two hand gestures are not unrelated. A martyr's wholeness testifies to theauthenticity of the Resurrection, an event guaranteed iconographically by the saving handof God. The Resurrection narrative itself can be read as a founding moment in the history of touch. At Christ's insistence, the doubting Thomas thrusts his hand into Christ's openwound to assure himself that he is not experiencing a hallucination of the body of Christmade whole again. "Noli me tangere" was Christ's cautionary response to Mary Magdalene

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