Tuesday, February 23, 2010

`The Very Heart of the Planetary System'

My new student has suffered frequent seizures so her parents had a vagus nerve stimulator (VNS) surgically implanted in her upper left chest, below the clavicle. The device is a battery-powered generator that sends programmed electrical impulses through the vagus nerve, the longest of the cranial nerves. The idea is to restore regularity to her brain’s impulses and thus reduce the severity and frequency of seizures.

Her mother said she’s down to one seizure every seven to 10 days but I still carry a magnet on a lanyard around my neck. When she seizes, I’m to hold the magnet over the device for five seconds, sending a jolt to the electrode attached to her vagus nerve. In theory, that will stop the seizure.

“Vagus” has the unfortunate homonym “Vegas,” though wearing a VNS is a sort of gamble. The word is from the Latin vagus, meaning “wandering, rambling, vacillating.” The nerve earns its name by wandering from the brain stem throughout the neck, thorax and abdomen. Related English words include vague, vagabond, vagrant and my favorite, vagary. Today, the last refers to a capricious or unexpected act, though it once meant an aimless digression – not always a bad thing, as in Burton, Sterne and Lamb.

When young I vaguely surmised “vagary” meant vagueness, which it does at several removes. Let Sterne turn the vagary of his medium into his vagabond message. This is from Book One, Chapter XXI, of Tristram Shandy:

“I was just going, for example, to have given you the great out-lines of my uncle Toby’s most whimsical character;—when my aunt Dinah and the coachman came across us, and led us a vagary some millions of miles into the very heart of the planetary system…”

3 comments:

William A. Sigler said...

That poor kid! FWIW, I once came across parents of a boy in a similar situation. They consulted a world-leading expert on serious seizures, who recommended a strict diet of heavy fat--what they call a Ketogenic diet. It worked for this kid, who was ready to check out because he was getting hundreds of seizures a day.

Nice Sterne quote, and thanks for the clarification on the root meaning of vagus. I think immediately of the wandering monks living on alms known as dervishes and fakirs. The Western term is gyrovague (Wandermönch in German), but as the relative obscurity of the word suggests, the practice is considered far less reputable in Christian tradition than in other religious traditions.

(One may rightly ask why the church would frown on the practices of its so-called founder. I guess the answer lies in the political origins of the Christian church, formed as it was as a bulwark against the rise of Islam, and heavily dependent of an almost-Romanesque level of bureaucracy and hierarchy. The concept of monks outside of orders asking for alms -- Sts. Francis and Assisi aside -- would be threatening to this structure, and so a whole iconography of beggar as removed from God developed in the West. Even today it is shocking in Western art to see a mendicant as an embodiment of God, whereas it has always been quite commonplace in the East.)

Ah, words ask many questions, but they offer few answers.

m said...

While reading this, I kept thinking about vagary in terms of the Underground Man's discussion of man's most profitable profit, "caprice." That this is what makes us human, and not just piano keys. And this kept circling back to her unexpected and frequent seizures, caused by the vagus, or capricious, nerve. But in this case, the will to vagary, or desire to caprice, in no longer a will of the conscious subject, but something vague and bodily. Which brings us back to the UM's problem: How to assert your caprice in a determined world, when you have no will to caprice?

I really, really enjoy your blog, and found this to be a really gorgeous entry.

Buce said...

There's also the badinage etymology of "Las Vegas" as "lost wages."