Saturday, April 18, 2009

Ancient hospital, legendary surgeon

During my many years in the heart of Paris, I was mildly obsessed (I hesitated before using this word, but it's fairly accurate) by a great and ancient hospital on the Ile de la Cité, not far away from the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris: the Hôtel-Dieu.

I had always been fascinated by the way in which this hospital was perceived by Malte Laurids Brigge, the hero of the celebrated novel by Rainer Maria Rilke [1875-1926]. Everybody knows that Malte was in fact Rilke's alter ego. Well, even before my arrival in Paris, Malte had also become my alter ego.

I’m afraid. You have to take action against fear when it lays hold of you. It would be terrible to fall ill here. If ever somebody were to take me to the Hôtel-Dieu, I would certainly die there. [...] This excellent Hôtel is very ancient. Even in King Clovis' time, people died there in a number of beds. Now they are dying there in five hundred and fifty-nine beds. Of course the whole business is mechanical. With such an enormous output, an individual death is not so thoroughly carried out; but that is, after all, of little consequence. It is quantity that counts. Who cares anything today for a well-finished death? No one. Even wealthy people who could afford this luxury are beginning to be careless and indifferent about the matter. The desire to have a death of one's own is growing more and more rare. In a little while, it will be as rare as a life of one's own.

In Rilke's time, the hospital looked like this:

At my habitual bar in Paris, the Petit Gavroche, I used to run into a cultivated old Swiss fellow—a former lawyer, whom we referred to, respectfully, as Monsieur Jean—who was also a Rilke enthusiast. One evening, he whispered to me excitedly: "I've discovered a small door into the Hôtel-Dieu that is often left open after midnight, for the night staff. Would you like to visit this Rilkean temple?" With a good few beers under my belt, it sounded like a great idea. It was a totally weird excursion, strolling stealthily in the semi-darkness of the vast corridors of this ancient hospital, while knowing full well that we shouldn't have been there. Behind closed doors, just a few meters away from us, there were wards where sick people were no doubt dying "in five hundred and fifty-nine beds". You might say that Monsieur Jean and I looked upon our visit as a kind of literary experience: an outlandish way of soaking up retrospectively the heavy atmosphere of Rilke's turn-of-the-century Paris. Luckily, we didn't run into anybody. Indeed, the hospital gave the spooky impression that it was deserted... and this enhanced the Rilkean aroma of our nocturnal excursion.

At the start of the 19th century, the Hôtel-Dieu was associated with a legendary surgeon: Guillaume Dupuytren. Born in humble circumstances near Limoges, Guillaume moved up to Paris at the age of twelve, to finish his schooling. His favorite pastime consisted of reading medical textbooks. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, by the age of eighteen, he had taught himself enough about human anatomy to be hired by the Faculty of Medicine for two separate jobs. On the one hand, he gave courses on anatomy to students. On the other hand, he was placed in charge of all the autopsies carried out by the Department of Anatomy. He learned so much through these dissections that he was able to publish a successful treatise on the subject. He was awarded his medical degree in 1803, and was immediately appointed as a surgeon at the Hôtel-Dieu. He soon became renowned as the most brilliant surgeon in France, but his personality was so abominable that his colleagues feared and hated him. Indeed, he refused to speak with any of them, reserving his conversations for patients.

Well, even today, posthumously, Guillaume Dupuytren is treated rather disrespectfully by the young medical staff at the Hôtel-Dieu, who like to dress up his statue in all kinds of costumes and disguises.

On the left, Guillaume is wearing French Revolutionary pants, but he has an Elvis hairdo. On the right, as we can gather from the date and the US flag, he has become a blood-stained GI, wearing a metal helmet, on a beach in Normandy.

Guillaume can become a soccer player when the world cup is at stake...

... but he can switch to rugby, if need be, and even become the mascot (as indicated by the sash "en grève") of striking medical personnel.

One day, Guillaume's a surfer, then later he's the double of the French singer Michel Polnareff.

Sometimes, Guillaume even imagines himself as an exotic movie creature.

Malte Laurids Brigge would have been intrigued by all these individuals associated with the surgeon of the Hôtel-Dieu hospital:

For one thing, it has never occurred to me before how many different faces there are. There are quantites of people, but there are even more faces, for each person has several. There are some who wear the same face for years. Naturally, it wears out. It gets dirty. It splits at the folds. It stretches, like gloves one has worn on a journey. These are thrifty, simple folk. They do not change their face. They never even have it cleaned. It is good enough, they say, and who can prove the contrary? The question of course arises, since they have several faces, what do they do with the others? They keep them. Their children will wear them. But sometimes, too, it happens that their dogs go out with them on. And why not? Faces are faces.

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