Cover art designed by Bruce Mau for Zone Books, MIT Press
The Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
The body is unfathomable and breeds astonishingly diverse perspectives precisely because it is a basic and intimate reality. The task of discovering the truth of the body is inseparable from the challenge of discovering the truth about people.
The truth about people is hard to know.
There is much that they will not say, and much of what they say is only partly true. There is also much that people simply cannot say, because they themselves don’t know, because many realities defy introspection.
~ Shigehisa Kuriyama
I’ve read The Expressiveness of the Body cover to cover three times in the past decade, and I will gladly read through again. The book is divided into three parts: Styles of Touching, Styles of Seeing and Styles of Being. Through the trope of the manner of doing in a discussion of the use of the senses, Shigehisa Kuriyama has written something of a tour-de-force on embodiment.
On one level his book functions as a well-researched comparative history of medicine. In its detail and accuracy it is a foundational education about the need for a non-heroic perspective of science; in its anecdote and reach it is unfailing intellectual entertainment.
Yet, The Expressiveness of The Body goes after much more than its unique and valuable contribution to the record of the medical endeavor. On another level Kuriyama’s The Expressiveness of the Body is a relentless interrogation of the slippery territory of all we are ready and willing to vouch for as reality.
As he mildly suggests,
Though we may allow abstractly for the relativity of perspectives, our own viewpoint is often so vivid that it doesn’t seem like a viewpoint at all, but simply the way things are.
Being human between two systems of meaning
Kuriyama begins by comparing two medical illustrations: the Western body as shown in a 16th century drawing by Vesalius, and the Eastern body as given in a 14th century drawing by Hua Shou.
Viewed side by side, the two figures each betray lacunae. In Hua Shou, we miss the muscular detail of the Vesalian man; and in fact Chinese doctors lacked even a specific word for “muscle.” Muscularity was a peculiarly Western preoccupation.
In setting up this comparison. Kuriyama allows us to look deeply into the true dilemmas of translation and the conveyance of ideas. It is truly deforming and misguided to behave as though words and concepts have natural or complete analogs across time, across language, and across culture.
More than saying things are different today than they were long ago, Kuriyama demonstrates that entire systems of meaning can be predicated on learning to see what one is “educated” to see.
Rather than proposing this as a theoretical construct, The Expressiveness of the Body provides evidence in the form of medical practices, in order to demonstrate Chinese knowledge about the body is not simply a foreign or anachronistic version of European ideas.
In point of fact, what we take to be real is something we have to learn to apprehend, and Kuriyama’s discussion of muscles – a concept for which there was in Hua Shou’s time not even a specific word – is a gem of an example.
It’s not only the Chinese who did not “see” muscle:
In his textbook on drawing of 1755, Charles-Antoine Jombert asseverated, “A beginner sees almost no muscles in a nude body.” Envisioning musculature is an acquired skill.
The trained gaze sees what the beginner’s vague sight does not, because the anatomical eye knows exactly what it is supposed to perceive.
It is a lesson that we must always bear in mind: the musculature so crisply delineated in engravings, paintings, and sculptures mirrored a vision of the body in which what was seen from the outside was inseparable from what was imagined, anatomically, beneath the skin and obscuring fat.
Once you know what you’re looking for, you can’t miss it
What we take as real in turn constitutes what we know. Once we have set upon a model of how things work, it’s well documented that we do not “process” what doesn’t validate our view.
Yet Kuriyama is no philosopher. He doesn’t wage this argument as a theory of perception, but as a history of what has been perceived. With well chosen examples and extensive documentation, he demonstrates the central fact of all phenomenology: the perceiving body cannot stand outside the world it claims to observe.
How can perceptions of something as basic and intimate as the body differ so?
We are apt here to speak vaguely of different ways of thinking, or more slyly, of alternative perspectives: witnesses to an event often disagree, and not because of any dishonesty or clouded judgement, but just because of where they stand.
Yet what might “standing somewhere” involve, concretely, in the context of medical history?
A major theme of this book is that conceptions of the body owe as much to particular uses of the senses as to particular “ways of thinking.”
The use of the senses
What Kuriyama examines is not the sort of sense distortion shown by the doppler effect, nor is he looking at how one might see the glass half empty or half full. Instead he is asking, if, for example, one of the senses we use to diagnose patients is touch, does touch – even in the same places on the body – necessarily take everyone to the same conclusions about what it is that is being felt?
The Expressiveness of the Body asserts the sense of touch comes with its own cultural history, and, culture to culture, it comes with its own very specific embodiment of meaning and possibility.
To clarify his point, Kuriyama compares Chinese and European pulse taking.
Looking at historical photographs of Chinese physicians at work, it’s easy first to assume they are doing the same thing a doctor does during an average American check up.
Upon learning that the Asian doctor is in fact examining the qiemo it’s hard not to fall into imagining that, really, the Chinese doctor is doing the same thing as a European doctor, “taking a pulse,” but calling it something else. Worse, we might succumb to thinking the Chinese doctor “only thinks” it’s qiemo when “in reality” it’s the rhythm of the blood flow.
Today it’s nearly impossible to shake the hold of this tradition. You put your fingers on the wrists and you immediately envision the pulsing artery, as a matter of course. You can scarcely even imagine what else you could feel.
Timeless wisdom is neither
That our most basic concepts of how a body works might be misguided constructs can be a terribly strange concept to grasp and this is precisely why The Expressiveness of the Body shines an invaluable light. Kuriyama aims for the particular rather than the grand, and brings down the structure through which “the way things are” is propagated.
Versions of the truth sometimes differ so startlingly that the very idea of truth becomes suspect.
“In the end,” says Kuriyama, “the mystery persists.”
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.