BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

More than meets the eye ...

This is a profoundly strange book. Not strange as in being thematically or stylistically bizarre, but strange as in making one wonder why it exists. F. Gonzalez-Crussi's On Seeing: Things Seen, Unseen, and Obscene is one of those books that found its way into my hands through a clearance sale, in this case last year's haul from the $1.99 books on B&N's site. When shopping in this context, I find myself paging though many hundreds of books looking for things which seem “interesting” … frequently, I'm reaching out into literary niches that I am not overly familiar with, in an effort to reach the magical “free shipping zone” to maximize my discount (I just got another 13 from this year's sale, and paid about $28 for somewhere around $188 worth of books, at original cover price).

This is a collection of essays considering (as one would surmise from the title), issues of seeing, sight, vision, etc. Its author is a Professor Emeritus in Pathology at Northwestern University Medical School who has published previous volumes on anatomy, the senses, and other vaguely medical concerns. This book, while being “on seeing”, is not medical, but is more the philosophical musings of a venerable figure whose estimable career has put him in a position where enough people care to hear what he has to say that he's able to produce a volume like this.

Now, I fear that I'm sounding too negative about this book … I don't mean to, as it is quite well written, and certainly interesting within its scope, but it's odd. It begins with a discussion entitled “Female Genitals: Men's Foremost Visual Taboo”, which is anchored on the telling of a story from the French Revolution, and wends its way to the convoluted history of the near-pornographic image of Gustave Courbet's painting The Origin of the World via the Greek myth of Actaeon and Diana and eventually to modern performance artists such as Annie Sprinkle (and this is just the first chapter).

The book then moves into a look at the historical toilet and birthing rituals of the Royalty of various cultures, which then spins off into a discussion of the totemic aspects of Kings and Queens, and how they must constantly be seen, and then using this as a filter to consider the current merchandising of fame. The next chapter first notes how little previous societies cared about the inner functioning of the body (despite, like the Aztecs, having plenty opportunities for internal observation), which then shifts to considering the (dead) body from the outside, and a rather extensive discussion of the Paris Morgue in the last century, which operated as a public spectacle, with tens of thousands of visitors coming through a day when notable or particularly gruesome deaths had been in the papers!

The book looks more at art, at executions, and at medical procedures, shifting back and forth through time, through chapters with assorted nominal themes. One page may be delving into mythology, while another a few turns later will be discussing surgical procedures, and the next musing on the nature of the media. While being an eclectic educational experience, it's quite a whirl, at times almost hallucinogenic (a video version of this would certainly manifest that way!), and moves from one chapter subject to the next in a cyclonic overlay of lurid imagery, historical vignettes, and contemplations on the human condition. Gonzalez-Crussi finally “brings this home” in the final chapter, which deals with microscopy, pathology, and his own background (as a Mexican physician), but, again in a melange of levels and thematic expositions.

This is all fascinating, of course, as the author brings in a nearly encyclopedic knowledge to his subject matter, but on the whole, On Seeing doesn't go anywhere … it's a trip down a particularly framed rabbit hole, which leaves the reader chanting “curiouser and curiouser” like a mantra in trying to figure out what they've just absorbed.

Oddly enough (given that I'd acquired this via a $1.99 clearance sale), On Seeing appears to still be in print, so would be available out there if you felt like taking this particular trip … Amazon has it for less than half-price at the moment, however, and there are copies available via the new/used vendors for as little as 1 cent (plus the shipping, of course). This would certainly appeal to those with omnivorous intellectual tastes, and would be an informative read for anybody, but it's a deeply strange book, which is very hard to nail down as a particular recommendation … I liked it well enough, and perhaps you might too.

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Tags: book review
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