Thursday, April 03, 2014

`We Must Go Some Other Way to Work'

A colleague’s daughter’s fiancé called off the wedding just days before the big event. She’s a painfully sensitive young woman, I’m told, with feelings easily bruised. She doesn’t get angry; she cries and falls to pieces for days. My colleague said his daughter has “a heart of glass,” an old-fashioned expression that brings to mind a passage in The Anatomy of Melancholy. Burton writes of “fearful melancholics,” many of whom suffer from what we confidently pigeonhole as delusions and phobias, including those convinced “that they are all glass, and therefore will suffer no man to come near them.” Burton turns an early-modern psychological category into a useful metaphor for emotional fragility. 

The notion of glass body parts recalls another book -- Tristram Shandy. In Vol. 1, Chapter 23, Sterne’s narrator riffs on glass-covered beings. He remembers Momus, the god of writers, satire, mockery and blame. According to Lucian’s Hermotimus, Momus mocked the man formed by Hephaestus because he “had not made windows in his chest which could be opened to let everyone see his desires and thoughts and if he were lying or telling the truth.” Sterne’s narrator approves of Momus’ idea: “…had the said glass been there set up, nothing more would have been wanting, in order to have taken a man's character, but to have taken a chair and gone softly, as you would to a dioptrical beehive, and look’d in—view’d the soul stark naked…--then taken your pen and ink and set down nothing but what you had seen, and could have sworn to.” 

But it’s never that simple, and a woman with a heart of glass might demur at having a window installed in her chest, though it pleases writers and other voyeurs. The narrator of Tristram Shandy concludes: 

“But this, as I said above, is not the case of the inhabitants of this earth;--our minds shine not through the body, but are wrapt up here in a dark covering of uncrystalized flesh and blood; so that it would come to the specifick characters of them, we must go some other way to work.”

No comments: