Pathologist-turned-author González-Crussi (On Being Born, 2004, etc.) produces another astute series of essays on human mortality and the function of art, this time concerning the sense of sight.
He begins his study with an exploration of “men’s foremost visual taboo,” tracing through history the complex male reaction to a glimpse of female genitalia: “allurement . . . commingled with the horrid fascination of death.” González-Crussi displays here a characteristic breadth of reading that spans recondite archives and modern-day newspaper reports. In “The Body as Will and Representation,” the author observes that the desire to see the body inside and out leads to such disparate phenomena as the medical art of dissection and 19th-century Parisians’ morbid delight in visiting the morgue, where cadavers were displayed to public view and onlookers could confront “the material embodiment of the Great Leveling that shall take place one day.” “Seeing Is Believing, and Believing Is Seeing” moves from “last sights” (the religious images 16th-century priests held before the gaze of prisoners about to be executed) to inquiries into what exactly passes before the eyes of those on the verge of death, speculating that they may be looking at “the supreme mystery that lies, beckoning us all, in the infinite distance.” “More Power to the Gaze” recounts ancient Mesopotamian and Greek theories about how the eyes derive their puissance—by sending out rays of inner “fire” toward an object, the Pythagoreans believed. In “Spectacular Vision: Three Ways of Looking at the Mirror,” González-Crussi offers examples of artists’ fascination with reflected personality and duplication, from medieval painters to such 19th-century writers as Poe and Dostoevsky. A final essay, “The Clinical Eye,” explores the extension of the medical gaze, from psychoanalysis to microscopy.
Intriguing and thoughtful work from a doctor and thinker as comfortable quoting Longfellow as discussing Charcot’s cases at Salpêtrière.