Wednesday, May 22, 2024

'I Like to Think of Pasteur in Elysium'

In 1985, the year Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary by the Politburo, the scholar and translator Clarence Brown published The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader, a selection ranging from Tolstoy and Chekhov to Voinovich and Sokolov. In the introduction he says provocatively and correctly: 

“I now look back on this banquet of words with much pleasure, which I hope nothing will prevent your sharing. These writers, after all, continue in our time the tradition that has made Russian, along with English and classical Greek, one of the three supreme literatures of the world.”


Even the most sophisticated among us long for a Golden Age of prosperity and artistic accomplishment, a longing especially acute in a third-rate era like our own. For the credulous, that would be the future. For the rest of us it’s often some past period we have romanticized. The impulse is sentimental but understandable. When we remember Nabokov, Swift and Homer, representing Brown’s three “supreme literatures,” we’re reminded that genius, though scarce, is not a pipe dream.


Last week Di Nguyen of The Little White Attic blog, in a post titled "My Favorite Centuries," identifies hers as the nineteenth and seventeenth. On Tuesday she asked me to write about mine. Call me a spoilsport but I think immediately of the essential things we didn’t have in the past, beginning with antibiotics. On New Year’s Day 1842, while stropping his razor, Henry Thoreau’s brother John nicked the tip of his left-hand ring finger. Within a week it had become “mortified,” probably meaning the tissue had turned black and necrotic. On Jan. 9, his jaw stiffened and by that evening he experienced the convulsions associated with lockjaw. A Boston doctor examined John and concluded he could do nothing for him. No one could have until the vaccine for tetanus was discovered in 1890. John Thoreau, age twenty-seven, died on Jan. 11 in the arms of his helpless brother.


Louis Pasteur, one of the great heroes of humanity, didn’t begin formulating his germ theory of disease until the decade after Thoreau’s death, and doctors and laypeople remained skeptical of it for years. Joseph Lister would soon pioneer antiseptic surgery but millions would go on dying from small pox, typhus, tuberculosis, cholera, diphtheria and malaria – all treatable and often preventable today. Potable water was at a premium, and water and sewage treatment frequently nonexistent.


Putting all of that aside, what is my favorite century despite the obvious dangers? Probably the eighteenth century in England, strictly on the basis of the literature produced. Consider some of the bookish roll call: Swift, Pope, Defoe, Johnson, Boswell, Fielding, Sterne, Smollett, Gibbon and Cowper, among others. I would love to have read issues of The Rambler as it was published and Tristram Shandy and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as the volumes appeared.


Even the twentieth century, the most barbarous in history, has its literary attractions. Consider late Henry James, Conrad, Proust, Yeats, Valéry, Borges, Babel, Cavafy, Pessoa, Elizabeth Bowen, the Mandelstams, Evelyn Waugh, Zbigniew Herbert, Henry Green and Eugenio Montale. Edgar Bowers, instead of centuries or eras, celebrates individuals, three from three different centuries, whose birthday he observes annually. This is from his title poem in For Louis Pasteur (1990):


“I like to think of Pasteur in Elysium

Beneath the sunny pine of ripe Provence

Tenderly raising black sheep, butterflies,

Silkworms, and a new culture, for delight,

Teaching his daughter to use a microscope

And musing through a wonder—sacred passion,

Practice and metaphysic all the same.

And, each year, honor three births: Valéry,

Humbling his pride by trying to write well,

Mozart, who lives still, keeping my attention

Repeatedly outside the reach of pride,

And him whose mark I witness as a trust.

Others he saves but could not save himself—

Socrates, Galen, Hippocrates—the spirit

Fastened by love upon the human cross.”


Tim Guirl said...

I have read a lot of books about the history of medicine, and am currently reading the excellent book, The Great War and the Birth of Modern Medicine: A History, by Thomas Helling (Pegasus Books, 2022).

Given the miraculous improvements to our lives due to modern medicine, it is incomprehensible to me that there is a vast minority of people who disbelieve, against all scientific evidence, in getting vaccinated against disease-causing microorganisms, including Covid-19.

Hai Di Nguyen said...

Don't be a killjoy, Patrick.
I was just talking about favourite centuries in terms of the arts. I never would have chosen to live in the early 20th century, let alone 19th or 17th.