by Eric Byrd
A few years ago I found a copy of the 1990 English translation of Guido Ceronetti's The Silence of the Body: Materials for the Study of Medicine in a used bookstore's Humor section. Those are usually dead zones of joke books, cartoon compilations and political jesters, over which the eye skims. I had never before heard of Ceronetti, who on reading turned out to be my favorite kind of writer, an “admirable monster” like Baudelaire and Cioran, an anatomist who finds cheer in perfection of phrase, monstrous because he so elegantly exposes our monstrosities, and I have idly wondered, when drawn to my copy, hunting after a half-recalled aphorism, why the book had been put where it was, how this unclassifiable thing was so classified (a librarian, I think this way); and then, this week, while Googling for a cover image to insert into this column, I noticed that the dust jacket says, “Translated by Michael Moore.” Michael F. Moore is a prize-winning translator from the Italian, of Manzoni, Moravia, Levi and Eco. Sub-sub-Borgesian mystery solved.
“Admirable monster” – by contemporary lights, sure, but by others, simply a humanist. In the world Ceronetti evokes, and to which he truly belongs, painters slice and study cadavers and the philosopher reads by Caravaggian candlelight, a skull at his elbow; the comedian is a poet of venereal and urologic affliction, and the tragedian devises serial slaughters and eulogistic pomp; and all who are literate transcribe remedies. It is a tradition increasingly macabre, marginal, and self-conscious as a society begins to believe in perfectibility, to conceal or euphemize bodily horrors, becomes accustomed to surgery as a polite profession and adopts the taboo of mortuary secrecy. As we suffer less visibly and live longer and hope more and more to defeat death, “the curse of dragging about a corpse” – what Cioran identified as the “very theme” of The Silence of the Body – recedes as a mainstay of literature.
Poet and venereologist Gottfried Benn, on the divergence of his occupations:
I saw [a colleague] before me with his instruments, his otoscope, his pincers, germ-free and nickel-plated – way behind him lay the Moorish epoch, the age of the herniotomists and lithotomists, the Galenic darkness, the mysticism of the mandrake. I envisioned his hospital, spick and span, a very different thing from the herb gardens and distilleries of the medieval urine watchers.
Ceronetti approves of Petronius' maxim “Medicus enim nihil aliud est quam animi consolatio (For a doctor is nothing more than consolation for the spirit),” which, he says, “reduces medical practice to its essence – psychology – and equates medicine with landscape, poetry, perfumes, and love.”
The Silence of the Body is a library. Leopardi, Leonardo, Confucius, Schopenhauer, Junger, Joubert – and a host of tracts – stand and speak. Aphorisms and enigmatic citations alternate with long disquisitions. Among the topics: infanticide, industrial pollution, cunnilingus, chemotherapy, coprophagy, executions, grave robbing, obstetrics, syphilis, totalitarianism, demagoguery, meat as murder, pesticides, witchcraft, menstruation, masturbation, excretion, assassination. “A procession of physiological secrets that fill you with dread,” Cioran again.