I have mixed feelings about Harvey. On the one hand, he spurred me out of a cheerfully leaden complacency, and forced me to become who I am today. And yet in doing so he upset me a great deal.
Well, it’s not fair to pin all the blame on him – after all, there were many, both before and after, who contributed, and Harvey was, like me, merely responding to the influences and pressures all around him, trying his best to make sense of a world that I, the Western Medical Paradigm, was obscuring. But I’m still singling him out because he personifies a cusp, a kink, a brink, a pivot: he stood neither in one era nor the next. He was witness to and instrumental in my greatest and most abrupt transformation.
Oh Harvey, you met me when I was old and accomplished, my eye resting comfortably on eternity. You left me young and seething, ripe for the cascades that continue to mould my outer faces. I should have realised that someone would pull the laurel rug from under me! Many were already toying with its corners… And my tumble has taken me places you would never have expected.
But I should begin the story closer to the beginning, before Harvey, back when my soul was an everlasting thrall to the Ancients, Hippocrates and Galen, those high priests of medical lore. And you have to bear in mind that these priests lived not in the gilded academic or professional towers that they’d inhabit today; these priests were familiar with the people, they spoke the vernacular, and their basic tenets were so closely threaded with the culture as to be almost invisible. Every child knew, for instance, that a person’s health was maintained by the flow and balance of the four bodily humours (blood, phlegm, bile and black bile); and the physician, though perhaps more experienced than the patient, was of no higher status: just as a carpenter has the tools to work wood, a physician was a craftsman for the human body, an interlocutor, a counsellor, a butcher, a theologian of Galen, a folk-pharmacist, a peddler of equilibrium through diet, diuretic, and the leech.
I can guess you’re appalled at this benighted state of medical knowledge; you may be further appalled to learn that it persisted for over a millennium! But, please, don’t be so beholden to your own eyes that you cannot appreciate the deep aesthetic of my alien world of the past: for I, the Medical Paradigm, was layered into a rich Universe, inseparable from Music, from Astrology, Material Textures, an individual’s Character, the Fundamental Substances, the Seasons – yes, all these elements and more interlaced to form the grandest cosmic unification ever devised in the Western world!
My goodness it was a beautiful union! We were bound together by Plato’s philosophical idealism and the surviving metaphysics of Aristotle. I was accepted, embraced, by all, by king and commoner who all avowed the rich suffusing bass of a coherent cosmology. Forgive me that I thought not to question it! When you are a god, replicated down the centuries in the minds of millions, questions seem so irrelevant.
I know what you will all say. These days you are cynics, and you will say my “coherent cosmology” is a naive, a Panglossian interpretation of events – for you’ll have caught the whiff of festering dogma.
Yes, I suppose it was also that. When people are exposed to enough ambient doctrine and hardship, potentially, their awareness frays, they suffocate and, gasping, they grope to grasp the system that subjugates them; but their purpling fingers barely brush it; and barely recognise what they barely brushed. Orthodoxy, be it of the Medical Paradigm or of something else, thrives on your human capacity to distort any experience into an existing narrative, into a collective obsession. How paradoxical that you thrive on stories, yet are so stubborn about which ones you allow yourselves to hear!
(I don’t mean this as trenchantly as it sounds – after all, I exist in and emerge from your minds, so I suffer all the same faults. This whole tale will attest to that.)
But look, I have strayed from my tale, which was in fact about to turn a corner. So, there I was, all lazy confidence. And even when I spied my undoing as a speck on the horizon, I didn’t really imagine it was heading my way. So what was this undoing? In short, it was a growing fashion for humans to take interest in themselves.
I remember the concern of my old friend Paradigms-of-Theology when he told me that you’d started to wrench your attention off your books and away from the heavens, and, with deliberate piety, began to connect God with the natural world around you, to see His responsibility for all things, and to worship them as a glorious manifestation of His will.
Dour Art brought similar tidings. And Philosophy too, though she took a little while to make herself heard over the thundering of Theology (it really was a different time – nowadays he mostly just splutters). But when she did, breathless and trembling, she announced that the idealist paradigms of Plato and Aristotle were disintegrating, their ruins revealing an embryonic empiricism, which in turn was feeding off newly re-discovered proto-physicalist teachings from the ancient world.
The Paradigms crowded around as she revealed to each of us how our staid inner peaks were already beginning to crumble into sunlight. It wasn’t just that humans were becoming interested in themselves and in the physical world, she said: they were rediscovering and improving powerful tools of exploration. Their new mantra? Mistrust knowledge! What the deified Ancients had discovered should be complemented and superseded by their methods of discovery: “I could believe you, but I prefer to see for myself”. You can well imagine my scowl, my dark unease: after centuries of monolithic peace, surely I would not be dragged into some intellectual upheaval.
And so we come at last to Harvey, who delivered my dreadings to me in full-throated tones. Harvey did not merely quibble the lore of the ancient physicians: he rejected and derided it. Harvey did not merely side-step the core idealist tenet of knowledge, that knowledge must exist within a complete theory founded on reason alone: he openly mocked and defied it.
For him, careful observation of the world produced knowledge in its own right. At the time, I considered this an occult vision of truth; yet Harvey was undeterred; Harvey pursued. Through the innovation (well, the resurrection) of comparative anatomy, innovative unshackled experiment, and the ungodly dissection of human cadavers, he constructed an unthinkable theory: that the body’s blood vessels form a great circulatory system, with the heart at its core.
How was it possible? Everyone, everyone knew that the liver was the centre of the vascular system, and that blood emanated from the liver to form flesh. Harvey’s methods and his findings were a direct attack on the Medical Paradigm: a direct attack on me. And though I harumphed that surely nobody would follow his lead, a gruesome tetanic prescience gripped me, dripping in my ear its whispered rasps that Harvey was just the beginning, that it was only a matter of time before, one by one, the fibres of my flesh would be torn from me, would be twisted and knotted or discarded before my eyes as I shrieked and I writhed through my transformation, and was rewoven into something that wasn’t me, something that I had no way of knowing.
What could I, the abstraction of a collective cultural psyche, do but fight back? So back I fought, with righteous Gadarene furies: Harvey the heretic! Harvey with his hellish delving! I invigorated the learned in the tradition of their books; I shaped their breath to febrile denunciation of the miscreant Harvey, who would be claiming next that the Sun rose in the West!
My efforts availed little: the tide had turned, and even as I struggled I felt myself turning with it; the reweaving that I’d so feared after my long and gentle stasis had arrived; the me-of-becoming that was not me, yet was becoming me, its terrible new flesh appearing on every side from the dim reaches of unknown possibility. And – gasp – there – what betrayal! – my own quivering substance, and the substance of me long-forgotten, coalescing, lacerating through old cracked skin worn smooth, bursting, roiling, reconfiguring, penetrating, extending, extruding…
…It wasn’t all that bad in the end. But the world did become a messier place, a confusion of pursuit. Pursuit of the simplicity of God, the complexity of the human, the rich recalcitrance of Nature. And as my former self had feared, I recognised him only with revulsion.
My transformation did not stop there, however. The physical empiricism that had afflicted me went on to bleed through the likes of Descartes and congeal into a mechanistic philosophy which sought to strip me of whatever bare remnants of metaphysical mystique Harvey had left me, degrading the body to a mere machine of levers and hydraulics, a grotesque chimera of physics and physiology. In this race to elevate the human intellect, the Cartesians scorned the dignity of the human body.
And in so doing, they scorned my dignity too, they would further reduce my stature. I had already lost to Harvey, but I could still fight Descartes; so fight I did, and oh!, what a mistake it was, for we soon reached a vicious stalemate, and I, the prevailing paradigm, so recently accustomed to being a being of broad uniformity, to being a monolith, I found my loyalty split, torn, with those radical mechanistic Cartesians on one side and the traditional vitalists on the other. Simultaneously, I had to serve both masters. Bitterly did I sneer across the battle lines at… myself! Yes, it was a tense and confusing time for me, whoever that was.
What’s more, I had lost so many bosom friends – Music, Fire, Gemini, Melancholy, … – they had become strangers with whom I shared little. True, I was now closer kin to Natural Philosophy, who I hadn’t properly noticed before; but the overall result was a rending of concepts, a disunification, an atomisation, an isolation that quickly spread among the human minds that gave me existence. For as the increasingly sophisticated investigations of scientists revealed a decreasingly comprehensible world, the average person became distant from me. My voice grew weak and vague, echoing in heads increasingly voided of cosmic understanding and increasingly filled with the terror of death.
So now I must span the gulf between those who have devoted their lives to amassing medical expertise, and those who have no choice but to trust them. The plurality has left me so elasticated that many “medical” theories have insinuated themselves into the middle ground, preying upon ignorance and upon our throbbing desire for agency over our own bodies. And the educated elite, busy in their corridors of learning, so eminent, sometimes booming, but still not immune to their human weakness.
I do not claim that this is Harvey’s fault – his legacy has instead reverberated into the pitter-patter of shock and trauma which underpins modern science. Yes, I resisted it at first, and yes it destroyed who I thought I was; but now I welcome it. I have settled, if you will permit the oxymoron, into a dynamic stasis: nothing like the rich, integrated stasis of my pre-Harvey years – too fractured, too multifaceted, too wary and wired. But at least for now, my deepest pockmarked soul seems serene enough.