Tuesday, July 15, 2014

`Not Many of Our Syndromes Get Such a Statue'

I’m touched that the Czech immunologist and poet Miroslav Holub (1923-1998) would devote an entire essay, “The Statue” (The Dimension of the Present Moment; Faber and Faber, 1990) to an American president, Abraham Lincoln. He writes of Lincoln familiarly and admiringly, assuming his greatness without having to defend it, and begins his essay like this, free of irony: 

“The huge statue in the Lincoln Memorial at Washington radiates serenity, nobleness and dignified kindheartedness. The elongated head, rimmed by a beard and receding hair, is turned to the entrance, and from underneath the heavy eyelids it watches the miniscule figures of visitors who climb the stairs and walk among the massive Doric columns, to stand in absolute silence in in the open space of this semi-temple.” 

The Memorial is a rare public space that elicits powerful, reverential emotions privately. The nearby Vietnam Veterans Memorial is another, as are Gettysburg and other Civil War battlefields I’ve visited. Even in crowds of strangers, one feels alone with Lincoln and one’s thoughts. Because he was homely and grew up poor, because he loved books and knew severe depression, and because he wrote like an angel and embodied so many American ideals, we feel an inexplicably personal link with Lincoln, almost a friendship, as some do with Dr. Johnson, and for similar reasons. When I visited the Memorial in 1986, I bought a copy of Benjamin P. Thomas’ Abraham Lincoln: A Biography (1952) in the gift shop near the president’s left foot. As a physical object, the book is nothing special – a Modern Library reprint when those editions came in drab, buff-colored covers – but it ranks high among the small collection of valuable books on my shelves. 

Holub quotes General Sherman (“Out of all the men I have ever met, he had the most traits of greatness combined with goodness”), notes Lincoln’s “extreme melancholia” and his odd physical appearance, and reviews the details of Lincoln’s assassination. He writes (and one mustn’t forget that Holub is writing in the late days of the Soviet Empire): 

“In the political arena, he bore everything with resignation and singularly moderate humour. He was incapable of rhetorical improvisation, but filled his speeches with straightforward wisdom that is still quoted. However, even as President he gave an impression of permanent exhaustion: `as he walked, melancholy was dripping from him,’ in the words of a contemporary [Lincoln’s law partner and biographer William Herndon].” 

Holub, who worked as a clinical pathologist as well as an immunologist, seems to endorse the theory that Lincoln had Marfan’s syndrome, a genetic disorder of the connective tissue. Post-mortem diagnosis of great men and women is always interesting and seldom convincing (again, like Dr. Johnson, who is said to have suffered from Tourette’s syndrome). The condition is named after Antoine Marfan, the French pediatrician who first described it in 1896. After reviewing the evidence scientifically, Holub takes a playful, metaphorical approach for the first time in the essay. He concludes the president probably had Marfan’s syndrome and “a deviation in the pituitary gland,” which, he says: 

“…is undoubtedly a safer diagnosis than that of a political and cerebral cause of death. The establishment of a safe diagnosis of such a syndrome certainly does not follow the usual historical path of celebrating the celebrities, nor is it within the boundaries of historically acceptable ailments of great men, which include mainly diseases of the heart and lungs, exhaustion from statesmanship and wounds inflicted in battles, and, at the extreme, endocrinologic deviations and deformations of body and personality. It appears however, that this diagnosis does not spoil anyone’s fun either.” 

Daniel Chester French’s statue of Lincoln in the Memorial, made of Georgia white marble, weighs 159 tons. The seated figure of Lincoln measures nineteen feet from the sole of his shoes to the crown of his head. If he were upright, the sculpted Lincoln would stand twenty-eight feet tall. Here’s Holub’s conclusion to “The Statue”: 

“In any case, the statue in the Lincoln Memorial is also a six-metre-tall marble monument of the external symptoms of Marfan’s syndrome. Not many of our syndromes get such a statue. Not many of us, despite all syndromes, get to be Lincolns.”

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