Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Four Humors

Weather: Snow still visible in the Jémez, though with larger patches of dark; I’m told the lakes at San Juan are thawing; last slight snow 1/8.

What’s still green: Juniper, other evergreens; leaves on yuccas, grape hyacinth, garlic, vinca, hollyhock, winecup mallow, pink evening primrose, snapdragon, anthemis, golden hairy asters, most low or buried; June, pampas, and cheat grasses.

What’s blue-green or gray: Leaves on Apache plumes, four-winged saltbushes, pinks.

What’s red or purple: Stems on roses, young peaches, sandbar willows; leaves on coral beard tongues, alfilerillo, purple asters.

What’s yellow or brown: Arborvitae, stems of weeping willows.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geraniums.

Animal sightings: Rabbits, small birds.

The man trimming my trees cut down the winterfat that was sheltering the ground squirrel. We found an area of branches filled with debris that apparently was an awning, and a deep tunnel opening.

Weekly update: Any understanding of medicine in an historic period is limited by the sources that survive. Often, that means treatises. They’re as useful in explaining people’s responses to disease as the constitution is to describing modern presidential elections.

The primary source of information for the Four Humors is Aelius Galen, who lived in modern Turkey around 200 ad. That’s about 1500 years before Miguel de Quintana moved to Santa Crux from Mexico City in 1693.

Surprising, there’s a Chinese novel written in the mid-1700s, just a few years after Quintana died, that reproduces the texture of life when health was so precarious everyone had to know how to react to sudden changes.

In Cao Xeuqin’s The Story of the Stone, there never were enough qualified doctors, even to serve a family one stratum below the emperor’s household. They based their diagnosis on reading the pulse at two points on each wrist. Since men weren’t allowed to see their female patients, they only saw the arms through a curtain, and received any descriptions of symptoms from male relatives.

When medicine failed, Cao’s characters resorted to experts in the supernatural calling upon Buddhist divination and contra witchcraft magic. This hierarchy of cures based on their efficacy was little different than the world described by José Ortiz y Pino in Galisteo in the 1930s where people first saw the curandero, and when that didn’t work consulted the brujo. The same movement from the known to the unknown exists today, only now it occurs when people like Annette Funicello, who suffer from diseases that have no cure, become willing to try anything, no matter how experimental.

In the past, both groups of professionals, the medical and the supramedical, were sustained by sets of ideas passed within families. Today, family lore is supplemented by advertising and mass media dramas.

In Cao’s novel, when Bao-yu, the adolescent male hero, says he prefers cold wine, a female cousin his same age warns him: "Wine has an exceptionally fiery nature, and therefore must be drunk warm in order to be quickly digested. If it is drunk cold, it congeals inside the body and harms it by absorbing heat from the internal organs."

Everyone in his household, male and female, servant and master, divides the world into hot and cold, wet and dry. Thus a maid tells Bao-yu’s mother, he "kept complaining that he felt dry. He wanted me to give him plum bitters to drink, but of course that’s an astringent, and I thought to myself that as he’d just had a beating and not been allowed to cry out during it, a lot of hot blood and hot poison must have been driven inwards and still be collected round his heart, and if he were to drink some of that stuff, it might stir them up and bring on a serious illness, so I talked him out of it."

Later, Bao-yu himself intervenes in the treatment of a young servant girl. He looks at her prescription and says, "He’s prescribing for her as if she were a man. However bad the congestion is, you can’t expect a young girl to stand up to drugs like thorny lime and ephedra."

On his recommendation, another doctor is called. He reads her pulses and makes the same diagnosis as the previous one, "but there was no ephedra or thorny lime in his prescription: their place was taken by milder drugs such as angelica, bitter-peel and white peony root; and the quantities were smaller."

Knowledge of the four humors is so pervasive, it allows a mere daughter-in-law to tell the matriarch of the clan, she’d told her a joke because "laughter makes the humours circulate. We’re going to be eating crabs shortly, and I was afraid that the cold of the crab-meat might settle on your heart. If I can make you laugh and stir your humours up, you’ll be able to eat as much crab as you like without taking any harm from it."

After reading Cao’s novel, I still don’t know any more about how Miguel de Quintana coped with his pain, but I have some idea how ideas so alien to mine were transmitted. The greatness of the novel is the exotic seems so familiar because I met so many of his characters at summer camp where antidotes for mosquito bites were passed on the same way and the camp director served stewed prunes every Wednesday morning to ensure we weren't constipated when our parents arrived on Saturday.

Notes: Cao is also called Tsao Hsueh-Chin. The novel’s title has been rendered Dream of the Red Chamber and A Dream of Red Mansions. I read the five volume translation by David Hawkes (v1-3) and John Minford (v4-5). I can’t judge anachronisms and other cultural lapses, but the two English scholars did a wonderful job of creating a narrative that meets our culture’s expectations of great literature. It’s role in establishing a vernacular literary tradition in China is comparable to that of Dante in Italy.

Sources for quotations:
Wine - volume1, chapter 8
Plum bitters - volume 2, chapter 34
Prescription - volume 2, chapter 45
Laughter - volume 2, chapter 38

Other notes: Funicello suffered from multiple sclerosis. José Ortiz y Pino III discussed Galisteo medicine in Don José, The Last Patrón, 1981.

1. The telltale sign of winter maintenance, the raw cut seen from a distance; peach tree in my yard, 31 January 2016.

2. Ground under the cut-down winterfat where the ground squirrel lurked, 31 January 2016.

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