Quaeries, part II

Justin E. H. Smith

GuillotineTo all those men of science who have occasion to attend a beheading: we have heard that the head remains conscious and agitated for up to thirty seconds after separation from the body. Won’t you kindly make an arrangement with the prisoner (and, as needed, the executioner), so as to measure its inevitable loss of vitality? You might agree with the head’s owner upon a system of signaling by blinks, at intervals of, say, five seconds, until such a time as the head can blink no more. We would not recommend that you get rough with the head and slap it about. This was tried by an earnest physician during the Reign of Terror, who only wanted to sustain the quickness and apperception of a woman’s severed caput for as long as he could by means of a few harsh blows to the cheeks. She was affronted, and gave him a bitter scowl, and would no doubt have lashed him harshly with her tongue, had she still lungs to bellow. Yet what, we would like to know, is so offensive about a few bracing and inquisitive strikes when one has, after all, just had one’s head sliced off?

We have heard talk of “free radicals” in the foodstuffs eaten by the great mass of common people, as in their maize chips, their fried poultry “nuggets,” and their “Bologna.” We would like to know how these radicals gained their freedom in the first place, and what precisely they aim to bring about in the people’s preferred snacks. How strong are the antioxidant forces? With which side does the palate sympathize? With which side the stomach? &c.

One of our Scientific Society’s members suffers from mighty head-aches, and has got stuck in his aching head the idea of travelling to Paris in order to undergo a trepan at the hands of the renowned barber-surgeon, Pierre Grossejambe, who is said to have drilled holes in the skulls of more than 200 patients. It is said that trepans were already performed by the ancient Egyptians and Chaldaeans, and that they are useful not just for relieving the pressure of the blood upon the head, but also for the having of mystical visions, most often just of lowly beetle- and ibis-headed divinities, but also, on occasion, of the true Lord and Creator of this our Universe. We would like to know why, if the benefits of trepanning are so great, this procedure remains forbidden in our land, and can only be performed openly in that country where, so it is said, tout est permis.

We have heard also of a “plague of corpulence” menacing the American people, of “all you can eat” restaurants they call variously “buffets,” “king’s tables,” “smorgas boards,” “smorgies,” and “sties,” where men and women the size of Nile river-horses will eat without pause from break-fast to dinner, and from dinner until supper-time. Is this plague a miasma of some sort, that has descended upon the New World and made its inhabitants sick with appetite? Or is this “plague” in fact only the deadly sin of gluttony?

It is reported that with the aid of convex lenses a sharp-eyed Hollander has discovered countless little animals in the male seed, which do propel themselves about, like so many tadpoles, by means of a long, whip-like tail. We would like to know whether these spermatic worms might play a role in the generation of animals and men, or whether they are not rather the product of putrefaction, like the worms that we see spontaneously generated in rotten meat, and in the interstices betwixt our teeth. We would also like to know how this Hollander obtained his seed sample, whether his wife was not implicated in its procuring, and whether in his view the abomination of Onan is not in some way cancelled out by the great contribution this “waste” of seed has made to the advancement of medical knowledge. 

We would sincerely like to know, in view of the tremendous recent advances in the science of embalming, why anyone would commission a statue to be raised of himself. Today, thanks to the ingenuity of our morticians, each man may become his own statue!

Should men eat eggs, or should they not? Will this matter never be settled?

We ourselves have, by use of tubes, and in front of a full auditorium, made the blood of a dog flow out of its body, and into that of another dog, and back again. This amazing spectacle went on for some time, until one of the dogs began to cry most pitiably, and a rather effeminate man in the audience, a certain “Mr. Frilly” who is no member of our Society and who generally prefers to pass his time writing in a journal at great length about his favorite condiments, himself cried out: for the love of God, have you no mercy, &c. We halted the experiment, but in any case what interests us most is the possibility of performing the same feat with two animals of different kinds, or with a man and an animal. This latter experiment might prove to have tremendous therapeutic benefits, as the blood of a docile and pacific lamb, for example, could be made to flow through the veins of a mad hospital patient unable to have his sanguinity subdued by the usual method of applying leeches. 

We have received news of the “science wars” raging in the universities of lands less advanced than ours. It appears one of the belligerent camps asserts that science is only a “narrative,” and is in no way superior to other folk practices, like musical theatre, or gin-rummy. Are these people mad? Could they perhaps use a drop of lamb’s blood in their veins too? And what could they know of science? Do they belong to Scientific Societies, such as ours? Or do they teach English literature, like The Red Badge of Courage, Oliver Twist, and Old Yeller? Please tell us: what do these people know of science?

Berlin, March 25, 2008

For an extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.