Saturday, October 22, 2005

On Gallstones and Doctors

Slowly, slowly I wend my way through Montaigne. I have spent so much time with him that I might go through withdrawal when it's all over. To help forestall that I have The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne to look forward to after the final essay. I also have Emerson's Representative Men which includes Montaigne. Sadly, I have yet to find a biography. If anyone knows of one please leave the title in the comments. Montaigne's essay, "On the Resemblance of Children to Their Fathers" is the final essay in Book Two of the Complete Essays. Books One and Two were published (I think) in 1580. The third book was not added until 1588. In this essay Montaigne muses on his gallstones and his dislike of doctors. Montaigne's father died of the stone, a long painful death that affected Montaigne deeply. He was worried that he would get gallstones too and die a similar death. A quick web search on gallstones didn't turn up anything to indicate it is an inheritable disease, but Montaigne did end up with them and had several episodes of painful colic paroxysms by the time he wrote this essay. There is no surefire way to prevent gallstones, but the sites I looked at all suggest a low-fat, high-fiber diet full of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and a limited amount of animal fat. I don't think I'm going out on a limb by saying that Montaigne very likely followed no such diet. In this essay we find Montaigne suffering from what he most feared. The time would be right for him to follow his philosophical belief in suicide and do himself in before he goes into to steep decline. But he finds it is easier to philosophize such an end than to actually do it:

But my declarations were in vain, I was so far from being ready to go then that even now, after about eighteen months in this distasteful state, I have already learnt how to get used to it. I have made a compact with this colical style of life; I can find sources of hope and consolation in it. So many men have grown besotted with their wretched existence that no circumstances are too harsh, provided that they can cling on.
Still, in the pain of his illness, he finds a bright side, "whatever I had failed to do to make myself familiar with death and reconciled to it that illness will do for me: for the more closely it presses upon me and importunes me the less reason I shall have to be afraid to die." Just as Montaigne assumes he got the stone from his father, he turns to musing about his dislike of doctors and decides that he got that from his father too. The men in his family appear to live relatively long and healthy lives, his father dying at 74, his grandfather at 69 and his great-grandfather at 80 all without the aid of doctors. Montaigne is educated enough that he knows what medicine means for the 1580s. He quips:
But doctors are lucky according to Nicocles: the sun shines on their successes and the earth hides their failures; on top of that they have a way of turning anything which happens to their own advantage: medicine claims the right to take credit for every improvement or cure brought about by Fortune, Nature or any other external cause (and the number is infinite)...And when anything untoward happens they either disclaim responsibility altogether or else blame it on the patient, finding reasons so vacuous that they need never fear they will ever run out of them: 'he bared his arm': 'he heard the noise of a coach'...'he has let painful thoughts run through his head'.
Montaigne suggests that doctors started off right with mysterious and awesome teachings and making gods and daemons the authors of their doctrines. But they didn't stick with it. If doctors really want people to need them and use them then they "need to make their assemblies more religious and their deliberations more secret: no profane layman ought to have access to them." These days we are all about making medical information available. Heck, prescription drugs are advertised on television! It's all supposedly part of being an informed consumer. I am with Montaigne and do not like doctors either. I am, gratefully, rarely sick. If I am I usually tough it out unless I know it's a sinus infection which I have had my fair share of. I only see a doctor if it is bad. From my experience, doctors do not like it when you tell them what is wrong with you and what kind of drugs they need to give you so that you can be well again. Even though Montaigne does not like the medical arts, he nonetheless submitted to them from time to time. He even went so far as to tour the spas and take in the waters. He found actually drinking the water distasteful, but bathing was pretty okay, even enjoyable and good for him though not in the way it was supposed to be:
I reckon that bathing in general is salubrious and I believe that our health has suffered several quite serious inconveniences since we lost the habit (which was formerly observed by virtually all peoples and still by many) of washing our bodies every day; I can only think that we are all the worse for having our limbs encrusted and our pores blocked up with filth.
Indeed. A daily hot shower does more than wash away dirt in my opinion. Next week's Montaigne essay: "On the Useful and the Honourable"