Friday, July 29, 2016

Fay Bound Alberti's "This Mortal Coil"

Fay Bound Alberti is a writer, cultural historian and advisor. She has published widely on the histories of medicine and science, gender, the body and emotions. Bound Alberti co-founded the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London where she remains Honorary Senior Research Fellow. Other areas of interest include the history and ethics of cosmetic surgery, the relationship between mind and body and gender politics – now and in the past.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, This Mortal Coil: The Human Body in History and Culture, and reported the following:
This Mortal Coil is a cultural history of the human body. It considers how beliefs about the body have been structured by, and reinforce, ideas about gender, race and sexual identity. Though we often consider Shakespeare ‘our contemporary,’ – as seen by commemorations in the 400th year since his death – the ways we view the body have changed. My title is taken from one of Shakespeare’s most famous Hamlet soliloques: ‘To be or not to be’, in which ‘this mortal coil’ that we ‘shuffle off’ after death refers to the social, political and cultural turmoil in which the body is situated.

In Shakespeare’s time a humoral model of the body predominated, in which the body was composed of blood, yellow bile or choler, black bile and phlegm. The proportion of each humor influenced one’s health and psychological state. The soul, which moved through the heart, summoned black bile for sadness and blood and choler for anger, producing the physical effects of emotion: the hair standing up on end, the flushed face, even the gnashing of the teeth. On page 99 of This Mortal Coil I describe how early modern writers invoked these physiological processes when explaining anger’s effects. Thus John Downame’s Treatise on Anger (1609), explained how the passion:
Maketh the haire to stand on end, shewing the obdurate inflexiblenesse of the minde. The eyes to stare and candle, as though with the Cockatrice they would kill with their lookes. The teeth to gnash like a furious Bore. The face now red, and soon after pale, as if either it blushed for shame of the mind’s follie, or envied others good. The tongue to stammer, as being not able to expresse the rage of the hart. The bloud ready to burst out of the vaines, as though it were a raide to stay in so furious a body. The brest to swell, as being not large enough to containe their anger, and therefore seeketh to ease it selfe, by sending out hot-breathing sighes. The hands to beate the tables and walles, which never offended them. The joyntes to tremble and shake, as if they were afraid of the mines furie. The feete to stamp the guiltlesse earth, as though there were not room enough for it in the whole element of the aire, and therefore sought entrance into the earth also. So that anger deformeth the body from the hayre of the head to the soale of the foote.
Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, medical understandings of the body were transformed. In the West, writers moved from a humoral and holistic understanding of our selves to one in which the material body was a series of parts, systems and organs. The location of our ‘selves’ moved from the heart to the brain and the soul became irrelevant. Ideas about body parts also changed: from the skin to the bones, from fat to the tongue, new narratives evolved to explain the workings of this complex material structure. These were invested with a series of beliefs about race, gender and sexuality that continue to have impact.

One of the challenges of this broad development, I suggest, is that our psychic selves are more distanced than ever from our bodies at the same time as medical understandings are more specialised. Rates of depression are increasing and our drive for perfect bodies has given rise to dangerous and unregulated cosmetic practices. The ‘modern body’ therefore presents philosophical as well as scientific challenges. Through a series of historical case studies, This Mortal Coil asks: are we really more than the sum of our parts?
Visit Fay Bound Alberti's website.

--Marshal Zeringue