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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

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Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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Friday, November 03, 2006

Silas and Silas: that Mitchell and Wegg Look

Posted by Adam Roberts on 11/03/06 at 07:38 AM

S. Weir Mitchell’s 1866 story ‘The Case of George Dedlow’ is a strange and thought-provoking piece; one part quasi-realist neurological-speculative account, one part weird spiritualist fable, and one part grotesque comedy.  To summarise: Dedlow is a Union army surgeon and officer in the American Civil War.  He gets shot in the arm and the limb has to be amputated.  He returns to active service, but at the battle of Chickamauga gets blown up and loses both his legs.  In hospital recovering from this injury his one remaining arm becomes gangrenous and has to be amputated.  He is, in other words, a pretty unlucky fellow.  (For some reason, reading the story put me in mind of Dr Romano on ER; whose arm was sliced off in a freak helicopter accident; and who was later killed in a completely different freak helicopter accident.  As one of the hospital staff put it, ‘he must really have pissed off the god of helicopters or something’.  And with Romano’s passing ER also died as a fully functioning televisual organism, to my great sorrow, although it continues to lumber about the schedules like a George Romero special effect.  But I’m getting off the point.)

Dedlow is transferred from various hospitals, and finally to ‘the United States Army Hospital for Injuries and Diseases of the Nervous System’:

Every morning I was carried out in an arm-chair and placed in the library, where some one was always ready to write or read for me, or to fill my pipe. The doctors lent me medical books; the ladies brought me luxuries and fed me; and, save that I was helpless to a degree which was humiliating, I was as comfortable as kindness could make me.

Here he experiences the phantom limb symptoms that author Mitchell, in his function as a real-world neurological doctor, was one of the first to research clinically.

I found that the great mass of men who had undergone amputations for many months felt the usual consciousness that they still had the lost limb. It itched or pained, or was cramped, but never felt hot or cold.  … a more or less constant irritation of the nerve-fibers, producing neuralgia, which is usually referred by the brain to that part of the lost limb to which the affected nerve belonged. This pain keeps the brain ever mindful of the missing part, and, imperfectly at least, preserves to the man a consciousness of possessing that which he has not.

According to the little I’ve read on the subject (which is to say, according to what google returned search-wise over the last fifteen minutes), Mitchell returned to ‘phantom limbs’ many times both in his medical research and in his fiction, the former always informing the latter except in this case.  In ‘George Dedlow’ he wrote a fictionalised account of the phenomenon before putting his research into proper scientific order.  He even has a character provide a rather mystic, unscientific cod-explanation:

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. I found but one person who properly appreciated this great truth. She was a New England lady, from Hartford—an agent, I think, for some commission, perhaps the Sanitary. After I had told her my views and feelings she said: “Yes, I comprehend. The fractional entities of vitality are embraced in the oneness of the unitary Ego. Life,” she added, “is the garnered condensation of objective impressions; and as the objective is the remote father of the subjective, so must individuality, which is but focused subjectivity, suffer and fade when the sensation lenses, by which the rays of impression are condensed, become destroyed.” I am not quite clear that I fully understood her, but I think she appreciated my ideas, and I felt grateful for her kindly interest.

Not so much a body-without-organs, as a body-composed-of-a-cohesive-economy-of-all-organs.  Or to put it another way: no limbe is an islande, intire of it selfe, but each limbe is a peece of the Continent, a part of the Maine.

The story moves to its bizarre conclusion.  Dedlow meets a figure who (very strikingly, I thought) physically resembles contemporary English academic Adam Roberts almost to the point of doppelgangerdom.

… a tall, loosely made person, with a pale face, light eyes of a washed-out blue tint, and very sparse yellow whiskers. His mouth was weak, both lips being almost alike, so that the organ might have been turned upside down without affecting its expression. His forehead, however, was high and thinly covered with sandy hair. I should have said, as a phrenologist, will feeble; emotional, but not passionate; likely to be an enthusiast or a weakly bigot.

Now, I don’t wear whiskers, but when I have grown them in the past ‘sparse’ and ‘yellow’ describes them to the t.  Of course, there’s nothing weakly about my bigotry.  But, you know.  Apart from that.  You can imagine, as I first read this tale yesterday, how the numinous chill of mystic connection passed up and down my spine.  So, this chap persuades limbless Dedlow to accompany him to a séance.  The table-rapping evening produces various spirit presences, a woman’s dead son, that sort of thing.  But then the spirit medium ‘Sister Euphemia’ then channels two entities with the strange names ‘3486’ and ‘3487’.  With excited recognition Dedlow understands.

The medium looked up with a puzzled expression.
“Good gracious!” said I, “they are MY LEGS--MY LEGS!"

The story’s penultimate paragraph follows:

What followed, I ask no one to believe except those who, like myself, have communed with the things of another sphere. Suddenly I felt a strange return of my self-consciousness. I was reindividualized, so to speak. A strange wonder filled me, and, to the amazement of every one, I arose, and, staggering a little, walked across the room on limbs invisible to them or me. It was no wonder I staggered, for, as I briefly reflected, my legs had been nine months in the strongest alcohol. At this instant all my new friends crowded around me in astonishment. Presently, however, I felt myself sinking slowly. My legs were going, and in a moment I was resting feebly on my two stumps upon the floor. It was too much. All that was left of me fainted and rolled over senseless.

What a very peculiar turn of events this is.  One way to take it, of course, is as a facetious and even egregiously jokey satire on the contemporary world of spirit rapping and spiritualism [My friend Pam Thurschwell has written superbly on this cultural climate, in Literature, Technology and Magical Thinking 1880-1920].  The attempt to locate ‘soul’ in the material actuality of the body leads, if extrapolated, to this ridiculous extreme:  if Descartes is really suggesting that one tiny part of the brain, the pineal gland, generates a spectral post-mortem entity, then why not other parts of the brain, or the body?  Why not ghostly legs?  The absurdity is in the sense that a pair of severed legs would have enough will and sentience to hear the call of their owner at the séance; but then again, we often feel as if portions of our body have minds of their own.  Like the Adams Family’s ‘thing’, or Dr Strangelove’s arm, it feels somehow right to us that limbs, appendages, assume an actual will and life of their own.

The character’s name is presumably a pointer to the joke (he’s dead, below the waist, you see); and the final scene of him walking on his spirit-legs but slowly sinking down to the floor as they fade away surely raises a smile.  But it’s a complicated smile, I think.  In ‘Nowhere to Run’, one of the episodes of that excellent show Quantum Leap, Sam goes back in time to the body of a legless Vietnam veteran.  The fact that Sam actually has legs, but is ‘in’ a body that hasn’t, results in a scene – presumably inspired by S. Weir Mitchell’s story – where the vet ‘walks’, to bystanders appearing to float midair on his stumps.  The effect is both obscurely funny and oddly touching and potent.

Speaking more generally, indeed, I think one of the ways Mitchell’s story works, and stays in the mind, depends upon the expert way it balances the responses ‘but this is so absurd it must be all a joke!’ with ‘this is a sincerely worked-through investigation of the spirit dimension!’ Mitchell spends time stressing how well Dedlow becomes in his limbless state (‘A month later, to the amazement of every one, I was so well as to be moved from the crowded hospital at Chattanooga to Nashville’, ‘Notwithstanding these drawbacks, my physical health was good’ and so on).  But why wouldn’t he?  S Weir Mitchell is famous as the inventor of the rest cure.  And what better way of positively compelling a patient to take a rest cure than taking away his legs?  It’s easy to imagine a doctor, infuriated with a delinquent patient who keeps hopping out of his bed and running around, fantasising about how much better they would get if only their legs could be removed.

But it is a specific intertextual connection that, I think, makes plain what is actually going on in this story.  Before I go any further, and for those few of you – which is to say, Scott (hi Scott!) – who have read this far and are likely to read further: a disclaimer.  I don’t know the criticism of Mitchell and read him for the first time yesterday afternoon.  I have no doubt that critics have already excavated the rather obvious connection I’m about to make in the appropriate scholarly journals.  I’d be interested to know which articles and books on this subject are worth my time, actually.  But to continue.

It seems to me more than likely that ‘The Case of George Dedlow’ (1866) was written under the direct influence of Dickens’s last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend (serialised 1864-5).  S. Weir Mitchell’s first name was the Biblical ‘Silas’.  The narrator of another S. Weir Mitchell story, ‘The Autobiography and a Quack’, has this to say on the subject of being saddled by one’s parents with ridiculous Biblical names.

As for my father, he was rather common. ... The family must have had a pious liking for Bible names, because he was called Zebulon, my sister Peninnah, and I Ezra, which is not a name for a gentleman. At one time I thought of changing it, but I got over it by signing myself “E. Sanderaft”.

“S. Weir Mitchell” looks like a writer adopting a similar strategy.  S for Silas.  And in the same way that I was struck, reading ‘George Dedlow’ by the appearance of a dead-ringer for me in the narrative, so it’s easy to imagine him being struck by the fact that Dickens’s novel contains a character called Silas:  Silas Wegg.

Silas Wegg’s name has a cockney-rhyming-slang-esque rightness to it; for the first thing we learn about him is that he is an amputee.  He has one wooden leg; but he has not given up on the severed limb entirely.  When he falls in with the saintly Boffin and get a a bit of money, the first thing he does is go to the taxidermist, Mr Venus, who purchased and preserved the limb in question to buy it back.

‘Good evening, Mr Venus.  Don’t you remember?’
With slowly dawning remembrance, Mr Venus rises, and holds his candle over the little counter, and holds it down towards the legs, natural and artificial, of Mr Wegg.
‘To be sure!’ he says, then.  ‘How do you do?’
‘Wegg, you know,’ that gentleman explains.
‘Yes, yes,’ says the other.  ‘Hospital amputation?’
‘Just so,’ says Mr Wegg.
‘Yes yes,’ quoth Venus.  ‘How do you do? Sit down by the fire and warm your – other one.’ [p.78]

Wegg doesn’t like being separated from his leg: ‘I have a prospect of getting on in life and elevating myself by my own independent exertions’ he tells Venus ‘feelingly’.

– and I shouldn’t like – I tell you openly I should not like – under such circumstances, to be what I may call dispersed, a part of me here and a part of me there, but should wish to collect myself like a genteel person.

This is exactly the note on which George Dedlow concludes his narration: ‘It is needless to add that I am not a happy fraction of a man, and that I am eager for the day when I shall rejoin the lost members of my corporeal family in another and a happier world.’ The difference, of course, is that Wegg’s reunion is purely material (Venus brings his legs round to Wegg’s house wrapped in a parcel) and that Dedlow finds his reconnection in the spiritual idiom of the séance.  But Mitchell’s story is weirdly insistent that the spiritual world is material.  As the Robertsalike sergeant puts it:

“In space, no doubt, exist all forms of matter, merely in finer, more ethereal being. You can’t suppose a naked soul moving about without a bodily garment—no creed teaches that; and if its new clothing be of like substance to ours, only of ethereal fineness,—a more delicate recrystallization about the eternal spiritual nucleus,—must it not then possess powers as much more delicate and refined as is the new material in which it is reclad?”

So the distinction is actually that Dedlow’s legs are material but of a more refined form, and Wegg’s leg is material of a coarser sort.  His absurd pretentions to ‘gentility’ only serve to throw his coarseness into relief, and Venus’s shop is a grimy and low emporium of coarse oddity.  And this is the point.  The inescapable thing about Our Mutual Friend is the way it reads contemporary society via a single trope of waste: Wegg’s improvement in fortunes depend upon the Golden Dustman, Boffin, whose inheriting of a series of ‘dust heaps’, huge piles of waste, links ‘wealth’ and ‘filth’ in an intimate symbolic network that Dikensian critics are too this day picking apart.  Wegg’s leg, in other words, focuses the body itself as waste, a sort of excrescence: rubbish.  Wegg may assemble the various components of his body, but he lacks the vital coherence to do anything more than stick the parcel on the shelf.  It is one example of many in the novel of symptomatic alienation and fragmentation, the social divisive reification that is the point of Dickens’s autumnal satirical appetite.

The Biblical Silas was a friend of St Paul, and possibly the author of one of the New Testament epistles.  The name is actually a version of ‘Silvanus’ [‘The name Silas is a Greek nickname for the Latin Silvanus. Although a Roman in the Bible, the name “Silas” may be derived from pre-Roman Italian languages (see, e.g., the character “Asilas”, an Etrsucan leader and warrior-prophet who plays a prominent role in assisting Aeneas in Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid)’] [This is one of those Wikipediatric appropriations of the 1911 Britannica].

Now Silvanus, of course, means ‘of the woods’, and this may gives us a clue why Dickens chose the name Silas for his leggily-challenged character.  As he puts in when first introducing Wegg to the reader, in a celebrated piece of Dickensian description:

Sooth to say, he was so wooden a man that he seemed to have taken his wooden leg naturally, and rather suggested to the fanciful observer, that he might be expected – if his development received no untimely check – to be completely set up with a pair of wooden legs in about six months.  [p.46]

It’s as if he were a malign sort of Ent, a tree-man, a silvanus-silas.  And it’s an appropriate figure.  Trees, after all, are uncanny.  Chopping off their limbs can positively encourage their growth (as Dedlow might say, not so much ‘notwithstanding these drawbacks, my physical health was good’ as ‘on account of these drawbacks …’).  The scene where Dedlow loses his legs gives us no specifics on the explosion that injures him, but instead provides a vivid description of the forest in which the injury is sustained.

…we found ourselves in line, under cover of a long, thin row of scrubby trees, beyond which lay a gentle slope … At this moment a battery opened on our left, the shots crossing our heads obliquely. It is this moment which is so printed on my recollection. I can see now, as if through a window, the gray smoke, lit with red flashes, the long, wavering line, the sky blue above, the trodden furrows, blotted with blue blouses. Then it was as if the window closed, and I knew and saw no more. No other scene in my life is thus scarred, if I may say so, into my memory. I have a fancy that the horrible shock which suddenly fell upon me must have had something to do with thus intensifying the momentary image then before my eyes.  When I awakened, I was lying under a tree somewhere at the rear. The ground was covered with wounded, and the doctors were busy at an operating-table, improvised from two barrels and a plank.

It’s a thoroughly woody scene, from the trees to the barrels and plank; and like a tree, Dedwood (I beg your pardon, Dedlow) is pollarded, lopped, pruned and tree-surgeoned without suffering the sort of harm you might expect mere flesh to endure.

My colleague Tim Armstrong’s excellent monograph Modernism, Technology and the Body: a Cultural Study (1998) mentions Mitchell only in passing, to record the interesting fact that he was the son of the doctor who attended Edgar Allen Poe.  But Armstrong has interesting things to say on the matter of chopped-off limbs.

Marie Francois Bichat, in his Recherches physiologiques sur la vie et la mort (1800), had argued that life is not unitary but a collection of interrelated processes, and death as [a] series of moments applying to different systems: respiration, heartbeat, nervous control, consciousness.  Poe’s obsessive tales of detached organs and live-burial explore the terrible consequences of this dispersal.  [91]

Mitchell’s tale seems to me less terrible, more grotesque-comical (which is to say, it seems to me less Poe-like and more Dickensian), but Armstrong makes a number of interesting points about what he calls ‘negative prosthesis’, the sense in which ‘a body [is] defined by its absences, by hurt’:  ‘The body for Poe can be explored, atomized, or mesmerically arrested at the point of death … its integrity is constantly disrupted, whether through the logic of organ-removal or replacement .. The body may even by separated from itself; Poe’s doubles are in that sense prosthetic, selves distributed across different bodies.’

Doubles: like Silas and Silas.  Or like the US sergeant with the pale face and blue eyes and, well, me.  But this is to extend Armstrong’s metaphorical understanding of ‘prostheses’ into the process of textual apprehension.  Because when we read a story and are struck my resemblances in it to the world we know, perhaps even recognising characters in it amongst our friends or our selves, we are in a sense treating the text as a prosthesis of the real world.  Dickens’s London is a prosthetic London, either added on or removed from the real London (it’s curious that I can’t state it more firmly than that oxymoronic manner), layered over as it were our experience of walking the real streets of the city.  Dickens’s distinctive process of characterisation that creates individuals like Wegg who are simultaneously more real and less real than the ‘actual’ people we encounter in our lives: more vivid and more schematic, more alive and yet (as with Wegg) in some genuinely essential manner wooden.  Mitchell’s tale has a similarly double-edged feel: more ridiculous and absurd than reality, and yet somehow simultaneously more serious and penetrating too.

Discussing Poe’s prosthetic tale ‘The Man That Was Used Up’ (1839), in which a war veteran (like Dedlow) is revealed to be an accumulation of artificial prostheses (‘legs, arms, chest, wig, palate, eyes’), Armstrong quotes Mark Seltzer.

The General was “used up” in his campaigns, like the postmodern Robocop or Six Million Dollar Man, consumed by the state, and technologically recuperated.  Through what Mark Seltzer terms “the double logic of technology as prosthesis” the body is simultaneously the site of productive work and violent dispersal, with its parts the replaceable components of a machine. [92]

This is the ‘double logic’ that operates in Mitchell’s Dickensian fable, I think.  The material world has its odd doppelganger dimension, but the spirit-realm is figured in concrete terms precisely as a prosthesis of our world, in the vulgar literalist sense that you can fit your thigh-stumps into it and walk around.  We, as readers, assume that Dedlow’s character is a textual-prosthetic version of the actual Civil War amputees Mitchell encountered in his professional work; just as I am arguing that the coincidental doubling of Silas Wegg and Silas Weir M. generates the story itself as a kind of intertextual prosthesis upon Our Mutual Friend.  These lost limbs are much more than fleshly.


For the benefit of my American readers, er, reader, I might add a note by way of explaining my facetious and, frankly, off-the-point title.  There is a comedy show currently screening on the BBC in my country called That Mitchell and Webb Look.  That’s all.

By Adam Roberts on 11/03/06 at 08:58 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A post just for me! Hey, wait, aren’t I the only one here allowed to write about Mitchell?  If not, well, this post should pretty much exhaust the subject, as “The Case of George Dedlow” is the only thing Mitchell wrote non-specialists should bother reading.  Yes, he’s that terrible.  This or this are more representative examples of his literary merit.  That said:

Mitchell returned to ‘phantom limbs’ many times both in his medical research and in his fiction, the former always informing the latter except in this case.  In ‘George Dedlow’ he wrote a fictionalised account of the phenomenon before putting his research into proper scientific order.

It depends on what you mean by “research” here.  By the time “Dedlow” was published (1866), the Civil War had ended—but the book he cowrote with Morehouse and Keen, Gunshot Wounds and Other Injuries of the Nerves, was finished in 1864.  So, presumably, was his research.  In fact, when he finished writing “Dedlow” and “Autobiography of a Quack,” he turned to other interests.  I only mention this because his letter to his sister about his new interests contains one of his brilliantly terrible sentences:

I have just finished a short paper on the nervous phenomenon of frozen pigeons and shall presently write a paper on rattlesnakes.

Dr. Mitchell, would those be frozen rattlesnakes or the regular ones?  (Adam’s already read it, but others interested in Mitchell’s strange researches can click that link.) Back to Adam:

The absurdity is in the sense that a pair of severed legs would have enough will and sentience to hear the call of their owner at the séance...

If absurdity is his legs coming back, what do you call the fact that they came back drunk

S Weir Mitchell is famous as the inventor of the rest cure.  And what better way of positively compelling a patient to take a rest cure than taking away his legs?

Lisa A. Long discusses this in the Mitchell portions of Rehabilitating Bodies: Health, History, and the American Civil War.  Not precisely that, obviously, but the general connection between the Civil War and the practice of American medicine.  I think she exaggerates its importance, as it seems to me the stress of urban living was equally, if not more important, at least to Mitchell.  It’s no coincidence, I think, that nearly every single Mitchell novel consists of people walking in the woods and carrying on conversations.  They’re as fascinating as they sound.  (Too much Mitchell-slagging?  Fine then, some of the conversations the characters in Dr. North and His Friends have are of general interest.  If anyone’d like to read them, I can email you a .pdf or two.)

I have no doubt that critics have already excavated the rather obvious connection I’m about to make in the appropriate scholarly journals.

Wrong!  People have written next to nothing on Mitchell, so you may be onto something.  The only problem is that I don’t remember Mitchell ever talking about having read Dickens.  As a novelist, he certainly didn’t learn anything from him—but as a person, it sometimes seems like he wanted to transform Dickens infamously indulgent walks into sizzling narratives of conversation.  I’ll look into it for you soon, since in writing this comment, I feel more cognizant of the guilt attendant to procrastination.  More from me later.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 11/03/06 at 08:43 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Wrong!  People have written next to nothing on Mitchell, so you may be onto something.  The only problem is that I don’t remember Mitchell ever talking about having read Dickens.  As a novelist, he certainly didn’t learn anything from him—but as a person, it sometimes seems like he wanted to transform Dickens infamously indulgent walks into sizzling narratives of conversation.

How interesting.  Well, I certainly hold to the core tenet of the Victorianism: Everybody In The Nineteenth-Century Read Scott And Dickens.  Everybody Anglophone, at any rate.  It would be very peculiar if Mitchell, as budding writer, wasn’t saturated in Dickens in the US in the 1860s.

By Adam Roberts on 11/05/06 at 03:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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