Tag Archives: book review

‘The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine’, by Lindsey Fitzharris – review

The Butchering Art: Joseph Lister's Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian MedicineThe Butchering Art: Joseph Lister’s Quest to Transform the Grisly World of Victorian Medicine by Lindsey Fitzharris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One thing that inspires me to utter “Thanks be to God” is to be born after the age of butchering, so to speak,  without the use of anesthesia during an operation or any invasive surgical procedure. And never forget a bottle of Listerine that has become a household name. In consideration of the aforesaid, the preeminent triumph of medical science in the west is arguably the invention of antiseptic methods that has saved thousands of lives. The linchpin of this epochal achievement in the history of medical science is Joseph Lister, an English Quaker surgeon whose dedication to the profession was wonderfully interacted with his altruistic character and diligent pursuit of knowledge in his profession. The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris enlightens the reader about the macabre world of nineteen-century surgery and its progress by advancement in antiseptics pioneered by Promethean Lister.

In this highly entertaining and informative book, Fitzharris guides the reader to Lister’s medical path with fittingly concomitant case history of surgery, hospital care, and germ-theory, all of which essentially contribute to his advocation of antiseptic methods in post-operative treatments. The author’s vivid illustration of the horrifying surgical procedures before the advent of anesthetics is not surely for the faint-hearted, but it is an axiomatically effective means to introduce the reader to the staging of a young medical student named Lister, who was solemnly determined to prevent a patient who endured such demonic pains from dying aftermath due to the persistent infection caused by putrefaction of germs in the operated area. Fitzharris’s employment of in-between vignettes about his contemporaries, family members, and others who influenced Lister both personally and professionally also intends to provide the reader with a variety of causes that led Lister to his dedication to the championing of antiseptics in the applicability for precluding unnecessary deaths of patients. She does it all with her consummate narrative skill that grabs the reader’s attention on every page.

Although this book is about Joseph Lister and his benevolent medical munificence to humanity, it is hard to strictly categorize it as biography because it does not purport to deify him with an Olympian laurel wreath. Rather, the book is focused on the magnificence of scientific triumph over human frailty, which is achieved by a collective effort to find the sine qua non thereof on the principle of betterment for humanness. Fitzharris does an excellent job of delineating this collegiate endeavor to make human life better by reconstructing Lister as a practical idealist with a vision to match in his revolutionary invention of antiseptic methods based upon a scientific theory and his zeal for continuous pursuit in learning of knowledge. Drawing on a wealth of research on the subject and her erudition, Fitzharris creates polyphony that intelligently interweaves multiple strands of her learning. This is a scintillating read that educates the reader on the history and science without a bore.

names do matter

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Some brand names have become unique nouns in days of our lives: a box of Ziplocs to carry leftovers from last night dinner for lunch, an iPhone that has become a safety blanket, a Kindle for all-around entertainment, and a box of Kleenex to wipe away make-ups or tears… Then there are the ubiquitous Starbucks stores for perk-me-up coffee or regular hangouts… The panoply of brand names is illustrated in the ordinary scenes of our daily life as a byproduct of endless human cultural and social enterprise. Hence, I think it worth noting the origin of some of the globally proverbial brand names of products that we are familiar with.

The first and foremost principle of naming a product is to make it as catchy and snappy as possible to effortlessly remember. In this regard, Nomitative determinism can be also linked to a name of a product because it can decide its longevity and popularity based upon the ingenuity of name that matches its purpose with brilliant ideas taken from literary inspirations, cultural influences, or historical artifices. Take Mazda, which is originated from Ahura Mazda, the ancient Persian God of light, wisdom, intelligence, and harmony, the highest supreme being in Zoroastrianism. It is also a symbol of eastern and western cultures. Nike is the winged goddess of victory with the resounding slogan of “Think Nike”. Starbucks comes from the chief mate in Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick. It is also interesting to know that the name Starbucks belongs to the famous wealthy Quaker shipowner of Nantucket in Massachusetts as featured in Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, a nonfiction narrative of the tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. And there is Yahoo, which is a deformed savage in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

Some brand-names are curious blending of words. Vodafone stands for Voice, Data, and Telefone. Here is a classic example of ASICS, a Japanese sport goods company, whose cool name is derived from Latin, “Mans Sana in Corpore Sano,” meaning “Healthy mind dwells in healthy body.” Which is a motto of ancient Greek’s competitive spirit manifested in Olympiad. Then there is Volvo, meaning “I roll” in Latin, while Lego actually comes from Danish word for “play well”. And who else can ignore the presence of Amazon, the largest river in the world?

That which we call car, cellphone, or coffee by any other name would remain as functional and purposeful to make our life convenient and accommodate to our whims and desires. So why not give it a clever name to remember with a burst of pep? It’s all about the art of witty soul of brevity that penetrates the psychology of the mind in the world of adverts.

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‘Socrates: A Man for Our Times’, by Paul Johnson -review

Socrates: A Man for Our TimesSocrates: A Man for Our Times by Paul Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the constellation of philosophers in the intellectual firmament, there is none other than Socrates whose influence on humanity, ranging from academic disciplines to everyday cultural memes, strikes the chords with the contemporary minds at its simplest form. It is this essence of Socrates’s simple but profound moral philosophy that has been enshrined in the pantheon of Immortal Knowledge of our collective human civilization for thousands of years. In Socrates by Paul Johnson, this immortal philosopher is hard to resist and difficult to find fault with through the author’s cicerone guide to the streets of the ancient Athens, where Socrates is in his usual convivial mood to speak in public and welcomes the reader with his genuine warm smile to join his conversation.

The stratagem of moral education in the form of philosophy is to tame the appetites (the senses or the id) and to guide spirits (emotions or the ego) in man to reach the highest level of humanness, which is the reason (the judgment or the superego). The process of this moral education is civilization, a standard by which barbarism is judged and separated from the educated mind, and Socrates thought it essential to implement it in all aspects of Athenian life because it was the surest avenue to happiness, meaning of human life. In fact, Socrates was the first philosopher to democratize the concept of philosophy from lofty abstraction of an academic plane to practical realism of a living guide. Johnson describes Socrates as something of a Prometheus, who translated the heavenly into the terrestrial in the sense that Socrates wanted to unlock the goodness of life for the benefit of mankind. For Socrates was the one who brought philosophy down from the wondering skies, domesticated it the huts and villas of people, and familiarized it with the ordinary life in examination of good and evil.

Socrates seems even more likable thanks to Johnson’s historical accounts of Socrates’s personal traits and physiognomy: the corroboration comes from his young, handsome, controversial, but nonetheless valiant aristocratic friend Alciblades that (1) Socrates was a selfless comrade in battle, fearless in fighting, and artless in helping his battle buddies: (2) commendable hardiness enabled him to wear thin clothing despite the cold and the snow; (3) he disliked letting his emotions show on his face; (4) he regarded poverty as a shortcut to self-control; and that (5) he kept fit in the stadium and gymnasium and even danced because he believed that a healthy body was the greatest of blessings. It is also well known that Socrates was an ugly man with a flat, broad nose and beer belly, especially by the standards of Greece in the 5th century that highly valued regularity of features we would call Byronic today. And yet, Socrates, ever imperturbable and optimistic, was not depressed by his ugliness because to Socrates beauty was not inherent in itself but was by the virtue of its use. It was more of utilitarian nature for practical purpose. Socrates’s way of accepting himself as he is relates to logotheraphy, neuroplasticity, and habit of positive thinking, now bestriding the domain of self-help literature.

I have always been a fan of Paul Johnson’s writing style in harmony with his wealth of erudition and fountain of humor, a fascinating combination that makes his reads so likable and interesting. And here again, he did it again: with his customary witty narrative packed full of lots of unknown anecdotes and personal tidbits on subjects he writes about, Johnson tells the reader about Socrates as precisely and candidly as possible based upon historical evidence to resurrect him in the textual theater of literature. His interpretations draw on his exceptional knowledge of the philosopher and the history of his time, but he wears his learning lightly and always writes with a general reader in mind. Hence, the figure of Socrates in his book is no longer seen as the ancient adumbral thinker but a jovial, avuncular teacher who really cares about the lives of his students of all walks of life in this highly entertaining book. This book presents a pleasant banquet of the mind and spirit hosted by the consummate storytelling narrative of Johnson in the honor of Socrates, the people’s philosopher.

the ancients already knew it

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The brain is a foundation of the universe that controls our physical as well as mental being. In a similar manner of the cosmos constantly moving across the great divine space, the brain fires nerve cells called neurons and expands their territories from the physical realms of perception to the world of consciousness, which creates a model of our own reality. The brain is the leviathan enterprise that puts together the tesserae of our existence under our constant attentive care of its functional longevity by understanding its fabulous varieties that neither age cannot wither away nor custom can stale away.

Our brains keep learning and adopting throughout our lives by the two neurological processes: Neurogenesis by which the brain creates neurons and neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to rewire the connections between the neurons. These processes continue to change and grow our brains into very old age as scientifically corroborated by the finding of these neurological processes in the brains of 70-year-olds with terminal illness. Also, Albert Einstein whose brain was dissected after his death to unravel the secret of the genius was found to have more interconnections between the neurons in his brain. This is very telling evidence because Einstein was considered “slow” during his high school years. What Einstein made genius was his use of imaginations and reasoning skills that required of him the use of the faculties of the mind to the extent possible by firing and wiring millions of neurons. To further illustrate the wonder works of neurogenesis and neurolplasticity, scientists have found it in the avian world. Unlike other birds, canaries produce new melodies every ear to attract a mate. On examining their brains, scientists discovered that canaries generate each neurons each spring.

The theory of the brain is not as complex as it seems. Simply put, thoughts are like “sparks” rising from a campfire or sunlight’s igniting fire when focused through a magnifying glass. A thought repeated with intense focus becomes concentrated mental power, which becomes a dominant, archetypal energy that authorizes our thoughts and actions. These thoughts in the form of neurons form neural networks, which are like paths through a meadow. What we should do is a change in our brain by rewiring the neural pathways that drive our thought and actions. Einstein, whether or not he knew about neurology, constantly expanded the neural networks by engaging himself in finding a Rosetta Stone for Relativity Theory and other questions of the Universe.

The workings of the brain are in conjunction  with the upkeep of physical exercise, social interactions, and new daily challenges because they are portent stimuli to ignite ongoing mental sparks in the brain. In fact, the ancient Greeks and Romans already knew about the key elements of keeping the body and mind fit with the slogan of “Mans sana in corpore sano” (Sound mind dwells in healthy body.” Father of western narrative history Herodotus noted a holistic connection between diet, drink, exercise and lifespan. Socrates pointed out that many people did not think clearly because their body wasn’t in good health. His pupil and founder of Lyceum Aristotle added that physical exercise was essential for general mental and physical capacity. Then there was famous Roman orator, writer, and statesman Cicero proclaimed that soundness of mind depended on applying one’s energies to something of interest. This relates to the empirical finding of keeping the mind fit and alert in spite of horrible existential situations as evidenced by founder of Logotheraphy Viktor E. Frankl, who endured the horrors of daily life at Auschwitz and other subsequent concentration camps by persistently forcing this thought to turn to drafting his books on the tablet of his mind to publish them after the war. It’s both a priori and a posteriori illustration of how channeling one’s interest to intellectual or creative activities keeps his mental state stable and fit in such a dreadful mire of despondency and atrociousness.

In light of the above, it is not a hyped fashionably cliched mantra that we are what we think and what we do all the time. Popularity of self-help literature bestriding the bestseller charts has the origin of truth in the workings of the brain in the form of neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. For my own brain at the moment of writing this essay is firing and wiring neurons, expanding the neural pathways and the yonder territories of my consciousness. The brain is then also plastic because it is being shaped by everything we do and what we opt not to do. It’s really a self-fulfilling prophecy without recourse to deities or even demons. Consequently, the more actively we use our brain to accomplish new daily challenges by fulfilling demands placed upon our daily tasks however trifle and insignificant that may seem and learning something creative or intellectually stimulating, the healthier our bodily and mental health becomes. Which is elegantly summed up by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Still achieving, still pursuing… Learning to labor and wait.” For this reason, the brain and the mind are concomitantly intertwined to constitute our wholeness so fascinating, so awesome that even a Psalmist praised God because we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Surely, the praise is worth the singing, for our brain and its works are indeed a wonder.

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solo button for joe meek, really

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Joe Meek at work (from google)

I had thought Joe Meek as an imaginative character in the eponymous title of electronic music by Matmos until I came upon an article about the real Joe Meek from this month’s History Revealed. Since I liked the music, I read it with relish, which was also a great pleasure entertaining a long commute time on the last train home after work. It was indeed worth the reading because the article was both informative in telling about this highly sensitive artist who was ahead of his time and reflective in leaving the reader to ponder about what rushed into to cancel his own fate in his own hand.

Joe Meek was an innovative and unique record producer in 1960s, but he was more of a maverick figure in the music industry because of his uncompromising individuality in musical taste paired up with his blazing volatile temper, which were attributed to his thespian epilogue. But according to the article, the most capital assumed factor contributing to the tragedy of Meek was said to be his homosexuality in the time when it was an illicit tendency of warped minds and degenerate souls that belonged to Sodom and Gomorrah. That is to say, shoehorning obsession with sexuality into the sine qua non of a man’s demise is a non sequiter without considering other evidentiary elements.

It seems that Meek had cultivated the trauma of violently depressed, pitifully unstable childhood into a grand unified theory of self-loathing that in turn became self-indulgence to an inordinate measure. It was more of a lack of parental love and support in his childhood that fueled Meek’s high-strung disposition like an unquenchable prairie fire in wilderness. It is a precipitately formulated hypothesis that Meek’s tragedy ensued from his paranoia of persecution of homosexuals in his time. For a panoply of unpleasing manifestations, including alcoholism, drug addiction, compulsive copulation, enduring guilt, and an inability to form a lasting emotional relationships, are also shared with heterosexuals. To me what Joe Meek suffered from was his inner conflicts with his unhappy past, his sovereign artistic sensibilities that made him uncommunicative and estranged, and his sense of insecurity, all pitchforked in existential reality of life where he as an indie producer had to constantly worry about what to do next if his records did not produce lucrative results. To corroborate this hypothetical theory, Joe Meek was said to have a Janus personality, redolent of the characters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, because he was also a very affable person with polite manners and a sense of good humor in to the bargain.

Such a man of complex inner world is often prone to fatal mental breakdown, which happened to Joe Meek. What carried Meek over the last sacristy of his sanity was his being interrogated by the police for the infamous “Suitcase Murder,” an epochal murder plastering the headlines of the media in January 1967 when the raped and dismembered body of 16-year-old Londoner named Bernard Oliver was found in two suitcases near the city. The police was hell bent on investigating all homosexuals in the city, especially the high profiles ,one of whom was the unfortunate innocent Joe Meek. Consequently and patently, the Inquisition let loose his sanity, resulting in his shooting his landlady and ending his own life thereafter. He was only 37 years old.

Therefore, to conclude that it was all about his homosexuality and nothing more causing his tragic end seems to ignore other more mental, spiritual, and existential matters that Meek must have struggled with. A spiral of loneliness, insecurity, frustration, and disorientation was Joe Meek’s quagmire, and from this quagmire in turn came his own killing field. “See though fear. Face the fear. Recognize a lie or a masquerade for what it is and deal it with a mortal blew,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson during his lecture to young men. But sadly, Joe Meek was too beaten down in harsh existential life where he felt unwelcome all the time despite his great artistic achievements. Thus, to end himself seemed to be the only escape from emotional turmoils, “for who would bear the whips and scorns of time… the pangs of despised love… when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin?” –Hamlet, Act III, sc I.

Author’s Note: This writing is based upon my review of an article about Joe Meek from this month’s historical magazine History Revealed. Normally, I would bypass an article of similar nature, but this one held my attention for the following reasons: (1) Joe Meek’s dilemmas ensued from his inability to cope with the demands imposed on daily tasks in life due to a constant grip of depression and anxiety;  and (2) application of Freudian psychoanalysis on his miserably repressed sexuality in public to the proximate cause of his tragedy disregards the more essential elements of humanness. For these reasons, I felt pathetic toward his life, and thus wrote this writing.