Saturday, October 24, 2009

Descartes' Bones

A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason

Descartes is:

a) the father of modern philosophy
b) the intellectual father of modern France
c) the author of one of the most influential books of all time
d) as peripatetic after death as before

Who would have guessed the last point? In 1650 Descartes died in Sweden, where his remains stayed for 16 years until exhumed and returned to France. But upon opening the casket, the skull was discovered missing and the rest of the skeleton to be in poor condition. Many of the bones had dissolved into dust.

The unravelling of this mystery spans several centuries, and sounds as fantastic as a Dan Brown novel. When the skull was finally located, it was covered with graffiti -- a poem in Latin and the signatures of successive owners.

This part of the story reminded me of the bizarre travels of Einstein's brain, and the stuffing and mounting of Jeremy Bentham's body topped off with a wax head, which itself has wandered off on more than one occasion.

But no less fascinating is the role that Descartes' bones continued to play in advancing science. In telling this part of the tale, the author elucidates some aspects of the Enlightenment, drops in on the French Revolution, and spends time with Broca, Cuvier, and other famous figures. Phrenology, the Society of Mutual Autopsy, and the weight of Byron's brain are just some of the odder corners of science visited.

The world's greatest assembly of scientists had reached a conclusion, one that rested not on an ideal of certainty but on the modern notion of probability. They had applied their doubts to the very head that had introduced doubt as a tool for advancing knowledge. And in the end they gave the head a nod.

This is a great book. Check out its website.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Saints of Big Harbour

Lynn Coady's prose is a magic carpet that speeds the reader smoothly through this 400-page coming-of-age story. It's set in the fictional Cape Breton community of Big Harbour, where most of the men are drunken louts.

The worst of the lot is Isadore Aucoin, a charismatic bully and self-pitying alcoholic. He tries to fill some of the gaps left by Guy Boucher's absent father. But what Guy wants most is a girlfriend, and he thinks he's found one in Corrine Fortune. Trouble is, she's a nutjob, and convinces herself, her brother Howard, and her best friend Pam Cormorant, that Guy is harassing her.

The self-absorbed Hugh Gillis strikes up a friendship of sorts with Howard. Both are recent high-school grads and bright enough to escape the limited opportunities of Big Harbour. Inexplicably they have chosen not to leave, despite being "bored to the point of wrath." Soon they begin trolling the streets looking for Guy and picking fights with strangers.

A dash of humour keeps the story from becoming too grim:

She necks at parties. Necking. Necking is weird. Everybody just necks with everybody. It doesn't really have anything to do with who you like and who you don't. It's just like trying everybody out -- taking them for a test drive.

"You watch your mouth!" Mackie screamed hysterically. "I'll fuckin kill ya next time I'll fuckin kill ya won't see me comin 'cause I'll fuckin kill ya."

If you could just call me a cab, ma'am, I'll be on my way. I don't need to come in, I don't want to bother you. Please. Just a cab. I know the number. Yes, look at me like I'm scum, that's fine. Loathing is good. I'm sure you don't want me on your step any longer than I want to be here. Could start vomiting, you never know. Not pleasant for either one of us. So. Please. A cab.

The book's title is an ironic reference to the inhabitants of Big Harbour, and to two rival hockey teams, the Big Harbour Giants and the Port Hull Saints. It's also a tip of the plaster hat to the statue of Saint Anne, which inspires a sad thought in Guy's mother -- religious statues avert their eyes downward out of embarrassment over the pathetic lives of the people around them.

Saints of Big Harbour was published to extravagant praise and selected as a Best Book of 2001 by The Globe and Mail.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


Walking home at night, the weight of the tank on my shoulder, I'm thinking about partial pressures, and residual nitrogen, and how your mouth resembles a second-stage regulator.

All around me houses are hunched like wrecks at the bottom of the sea, lovers inside groping for each other like divers at 20 fathoms.

Bottom time, you and I once referred to it with sly smiles, but that was long ago, and still there are months of decompression ahead of me.

Now the raw winter wind slices at my eyes so I put on my mask and gaze up at the inverted sky, where an ocean of air ends in breathless space.

Finally I arrive home, and swim inside through a gash in the hull.