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I wanted to quickly write about a great piece of art from the 19th century (or really two great pieces). When Honoré de Balzac died, the city fathers (or the Second Empire…or someone) commissioned a great bronze statue of the (in)famous realist. Balzac was renowned for his larger-than-life personality and for his exuberant personal life. The commissioners of the sculpture found an equally over-the-top realist sculptor to make the statue, Auguste Rodin. Rodin tracked down every daguerreotype and drawing of Balzac. He interviewed Balzac’s mistresses and intimates and went to Balzac’s tailor for exact measurements. He took casts from Balzac’s death mask and did everything but exhume his corpse (presuming he didn’t do that in secret). Then Rodin made a brash sculpture of the great novelist standing nude, with his legs apart and his arms crossed, brooding upon the human comedy.
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The patrons who commissioned the sculpture were predictably aghast (although I like to think Balzac would have been amused–and flatterd by his muscular torso). They demanded that Rodin redo the whole thing–this time properly clothed. Rodin went into a huge huff and he threw a great cowled cloak over the statue (which only showed a tiny portion of Balzac’s brooding countenance). That was that: it was thereafter impossible to get him to work further upon the project. Nobody was satisfied…but the publicity from the controversy made all parties more famous and rebounds down to this day.
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Astonishingly, and somewhat improbably, we are having a great national debate in the United States over nineteenth (and early twentieth) century sculptures (I will write more about that shortly). Eventually, inevitably, the turgid bronzes of rebels, slavers, and secessionists will be taken down or moved (like “The Triumph of Civic Virtue”). However right now they are in limbo. The most controversial of all, the statue of Lee in Charlottesville has had a great tarp cast over it (which improves it no end, to my mind). Seeing gawkers pointing at the plastic cocoon upon a plinth brought a smile to my face and reminded me of Balzac’s statue and all of the trouble that public art causes.

In recent years, bioethicists and neurological surgeons have been troubled by accounts of a controversial surgery being widely performed in China.  The procedure in question consists of surgically destroying the pleasure center of the brain in order to prevent opium addicts and alcoholics from relapsing into their addictions.  As you might imagine, destroying the physiological structure responsible for one of the most fundamental human motivations does frequently solve addiction problems.  Unfortunately, the surgery also tends to do away with longing, joy, and basic motivation to do anything.  The Chinese authors of the papers put a more positive spin on these results and described the post-operative subjects as “mildness oriented” (i.e. compliant).

3D Brain image (Nucleus Accumbens in red)

3D Brain image (Nucleus Accumbens in red)

This surgical procedure is technically known as “ablation of the nucleus accumbens” and involves cutting open a subject’s skull and using heat to destroy small portions of the brain (which are recursively located in both hemispheres of the brain). Time Magazine (in this useful article) describes the two nucleus accumbens as regions of the brain “saturated with neurons containing dopamine and endogenous opioids, which are involved in pleasure and desire related both to drugs and to ordinary experiences like eating, love and sex.” This procedure is performed while subjects (one shies away from saying “patients”) are awake and conscious in order to minimize damage to other regions of the brain responsible for speech, memory, and movement.

Painting by Mariko Vaughan (acrylic on canvas)

Painting by Mariko Vaughan (acrylic on canvas)

The western medical/scientific community is trying to figure out how to approach this procedure.  General consensus seems to be that the procedure is “horribly misguided” (apparently a medical euphemism for “a crime against humanity”), however a number of American and European doctors recommend publishing the results of these experimental surgeries in order to further understanding of the human brain–while not actually recommending the procedure.  While the surgery does result in a recovery-rate from addition a few percentage points higher than counseling or other non-surgical therapies, it also frequently results in loss of memory, radical personality change, and other emotional problems (not to mention occasional serious problems such as death or coma which are an inherent danger of brain surgery).

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A while ago I read a science fiction novel set in the far future.  People who were anxious or miserable could volunteer for Radical Anxiety Termination—a procedure which fully eliminated depression, fear, and suffering, albeit at the cost of all personal volition.  The Radical Anxiety Termination participants immediately became slaves who were sold and traded for whatever uses their masters desired.  The novel was predictably troubling. It does not seem like the Chinese medical establishment has yet perfected Radical Anxiety Termination but they are on the dark road to such an outcome and they need to leave that twisted path immediately.  Just as lobotomies performed in Europe and the United States during the early 20th century proved to be a therapeutic dead end (and a terrible, terrible mistake) so too this surgery is a collective degradation to emotionally ill victims and a fundamental attack on human dignity.

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