December 13, 2007
Excerpt: ‘Proust Was a Neuroscientist’
(Page 4 - Previous Page)All his life, Whitman would remember the time he spent as a volunteer in the hospitals. "Those three [wartime] years," he later remembered in Specimen Days, his oral autobiography, "I consider the most profound lesson of my life." Never again would Whitman feel so useful, "more permanently absorbed, to the very roots." "People used to say to me, 'Walt, you are doing miracles for those fellows in the hospitals.' I wasn't. I was .o.o. doing miracles for myself."
As always, Whitman transmuted the experience into poetry. He told Emerson that he wanted to write about his time in the hospitals, for they had "opened a new world somehow to me, giving closer insights, new things, exploring deeper mines than any yet." In "Drum Taps," his sequence of poems on the war-the only sequence of poems he never revised-Whitman describes the tortured anatomy he saw every day in the hospitals:
From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood,
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv'd neck and side-falling head,
His eyes are closed, his face pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump.
Whitman did look at the bloody stump. The war's gore shocked him. Volunteering in the canvas-tent hospitals, he witnessed the violent mess of surgery: "the hiss of the surgeon's knife, the gnawing teeth of his saw / wheeze, cluck, swash of falling blood." Amid the stench of dying soldiers and unclaimed corpses, Whitman consoled himself by remembering that the body was not only a body. As a nurse, Whitman tried to heal what the surgeon couldn't touch. He called these our "deepest remains."
By the second year of the war, just as Whitman was learning how to wrap battle wounds in wet cotton, doctors working in Civil War hospitals began noticing a very strange phenomenon. After a soldier's limb was amputated, it was not uncommon for him to continue to "feel" his missing arm or leg. The patients said it was like living with ghosts. Their own flesh had returned to haunt them.
Medical science ignored the syndrome. After all, the limb and its nerves were gone. There was nothing left to cut. But one doctor believed the soldiers' strange stories. His name was Silas Weir Mitchell, and he was a "doctor of nerves" at Turner's Lane Hospital in Philadelphia. He was also a good friend of Whitman's. For much of their lives, the doctor and the poet wrote letters to each other, sharing a love of literature and medical stories. In fact, it was Weir Mitchell who, in 1878, finally diagnosed Whitman with a ruptured blood vessel in the brain, prescribing "mountain air" as medicine. Later on, Weir Mitchell financially supported the poet, giving him fifteen dollars a month for more than two years.
But during the Civil War, while Whitman was working as a nurse, Weir Mitchell was trying to understand these illusory limbs. The Battle of Gettysburg had given him a hospital full of amputee patients, and, in his medical notebook, Weir Mitchell began describing a great variety of "sensory ghosts." Some of the missing limbs seemed unreal to the patients, while others seemed authentic; some were painful, others painless. Although a few of the amputees eventually forgot about their amputated limbs, the vast majority retained "a sense of the existence of their lost limb that was more vivid, definite and intrusive than that of its truly living fellow member." The bodily illusion was more real than the body.
Although Weir Mitchell believed that he was the first person to document this phenomenon, he wasn't. Herman Melville, twelve years earlier, had given Ahab, the gnarled sea captain of Moby-Dick, a sensory ghost. Ahab is missing a leg (Moby-Dick ate it), and in chapter 108, he summons a carpenter to fashion him a new ivory peg leg. Ahab tells the carpenter that he still feels his amputated leg "invisibly and uninterpenetratingly." His phantom limb is like a "poser." "Look," Ahab says, "put thy live leg here in the place where mine was; so, now, here is only one distinct leg to the eye, yet two to the soul. Where thou feelest tingling life; there, exactly there, there to a hair, do I. Is't a riddle?"
Weir Mitchell, unaware of Melville's prescience, never cited Ahab's medical condition. He published his observations of the mystery in two neurology textbooks. He even published a special bulletin on the phenomenon, which the surgeon general's office distributed to other military hospitals in 1864. But Weir Mitchell felt constrained by the dry, clinical language of his medical reports. He believed that the experience of the soldiers in his hospital had profound philosophical implications. After all, their sensory ghosts were living proof of Whitman's poetry: our matter was entangled with our spirit. When you cut the flesh, you also cut the soul.
And so Weir Mitchell decided to write an anonymous short story, written in the first person. In "The Case of George Dedlow," published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1866, Weir Mitchell imagines himself a soldier wounded at the Battle of Chickamauga, shot in both legs and both arms. Dedlow passes out from the pain.
When he wakes, Dedlow is in a hospital tent. He has no limbs left: they have all been cut off. Dedlow describes himself as a "useless torso, more like some strange larval creature than anything of human shape." But even though Dedlow is now limbless, he still feels all of his limbs. His body has become a ghost, and yet it feels as real as ever. Weir Mitchell explains this phenomenon by referencing the brain. Because the brain and body are so interconnected, the mind remains "ever mindful of its missing [bodily] part, and, imperfectly at least, preserves to the man a consciousness of possessing that which he has not." Weir Mitchell believed that the brain depended upon the body for its feelings and identity. Once Dedlow loses his limbs, he finds "to his horror that at times I was less conscious of myself, of my own existence, than used to be the case .o.o. I thus reached the conclusion that a man is not his brain, or any one part of it, but all of his economy, and that to lose any part must lessen this sense of his own existence."
In his short story, Weir Mitchell is imagining a Whitmanesque physiology. Since soul is body and body is soul, to lose a part of one's body is to lose a part of one's soul. As Whitman wrote in "Song of Myself," "Lack one lacks both." The mind cannot be extricated from its matter, for mind and matter, these two seemingly opposite substances, are impossibly intertwined. Whitman makes our unity clear on the very first page of Leaves of Grass, as he describes his poetic subject:
Of physiology from top to toe I sing
not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the
Muse, I say the form complete is worthier far.
After the war, Weir Mitchell's clinical observations fell into obscurity. Because phantom limbs had no material explanation, medical science continued to ignore the phenomenon. Only William James, in his 1887 article "The Consciousness of Lost Limbs," pursued Weir Mitchell's supernatural hypothesis. As Harvard's first psychology professor, James sent out a short questionnaire to hundreds of amputees asking various questions about their missing parts (for example, "How much of the limb can you feel?" "Can you, by imagining strongly that it has moved, make yourself really feel as if it had moved into a different position?"). The results of James's survey taught him only one fact about sensory ghosts: there was no general pattern to the experience of lost limbs. Every body was invested with its own individual meaning. "We can never seek amongst these processes for results which shall be invariable," James wrote. "Exceptions remain to every empirical law of our mental life, and can only be treated as so many individual aberrations." As Henry James, William's novelist brother, once wrote, "There is a presence in what is missing." That presence is our own.
Copyright (c) 2007 by Jonah Lehrer. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.