History Beneath the Skin

History Beneath the Skin

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It's a common idea that history and nature belong to separate realms.  In history things change,  cultures evolve, civilizations rise and fall; but, in nature, except on the vast time scales of evolutionary theory, things stay the same.  A pine tree is a pine tree, and an intestine is an intestine whether it's in ancient China or contemporary Toronto. The body is thought to belong to this (relatively) unchanging realm, now uncovered by modern scientific technique.   What appears under modern microscopes and shows up in CAT scans is taken for what is and what has been throughout recorded time.  People in the past may have had strange ideas about humours, miasmas and other phantoms, but now we know how things really are. 

German historian Barbara Duden challenges this story.   As a young historian, she discovered the writings of a German physician of the 18th Century,  practicing in the town of Eisenach, who recorded, in seven volumes called Diseases of Women, what the women of Eisenach told him about their ailments.  Duden listened carefully to these accounts, and, instead of translating them into contemporary terms,  tried to understand what these women were saying on their own terms.  This led her to "historicize" the body in two senses: first she took the experience of 18th century women seriously, rather than treating their accounts as mystifications arising from a defective understanding, and second she questioned the status of the body which contemporary persons come to believe they have as a result of having internalized the images and statistical constructs supplied to them by modern bio-medicine. 

I met Barbara Duden in 1988 State College, Pennsylvania where she was part of a circle of friends around Ivan Illich who were attempting what they called "an archaeology of modern certainties."  (The body, as defined, diagnosed and manipulated by bio-medical science, is such a certainty - perhaps the first among such certainties.)  By the time Duden and I met, she had already published her book on Dr. Storch and his patients in Germany as Geschicte Unter Der Haut (History Beneath the Skin.)  It appeared in English, from Harvard in 1991 as The Woman Beneath the Skin and was followed two years later by Disembodying Women: Perspectives on Pregnancy and the Unborn. 

Barbara Duden and I became and have remained dear friends.  My book The Rivers North of the Future is dedicated to her.  On one of her first visits to Toronto, we sat down in the Ideas studio to talk about her work, and the two programmes that follow were broadcast in 1991.  (But not without incident.  On the way home one day, in the week before the broadcast was scheduled, I set down a shoulder bag, containing the sole edited copies of the two programmes, on the counter of the World's Biggest Book Store on Edward St.  When I put the tapes up on my editing machine the next morning I found, to my amazement and horror, that the contents were completely scrambled and quite unintelligible, presumably as a result of them having come too close to some sort of de-magnetizer which, unbeknownst to me, had been on that bookstore counter.  I returned to the uncut interviews of which I had kept a copy, and, in several, largely sleepless days, I was able to re-edit the tapes in time for the scheduled broadcast.)  As a title, I used a literal translation of the name of her first book, preferring it to Harvard's English version which I found less vivid and less accurate....