Once upon a time a nobleman lost his grip on reality, and began tilting at windmills in the name of a farm girl.
Poor ingenious gentleman of La Mancha, Alonso Quijano, read a few too many chivalric novels, and loved the reality so much he escaped his life to become the very knight of his dreams.
As Don Quixote, he constructed his own reality and made it powerfully real inside his mind. But consequences of actions in the illusory world of Quixote often had dire consequences for Quijano, including being beaten up and left for dead.
If we think we are immune from illusion’s charms, we should think again. For each of us nurses Quixote within us.
It is Daniel Goleman who opened my eyes to the power of illusion. He argues, in his book Vital Lies, Simple Truths, that our lives are a necessary dance between attending to things and choosing to ignore them. It’s self-preservation.
I stumbled on the most startling instance of this the other day when I read an apocryphal story of medical lectures given in the 1530s: in which a sidekick turns out to be the central character.
Animal bodies were far more likely to be dissected than human ones, back then. The idea was that as an animal was dissected the lecturer would expound the theories which had been prevalent since Roman times: those of Galen the invincible.
Course, they didn’t actually call him that. He was actually Galen of Pergamon, he of the second century AD who advanced understanding of anatomy by dissecting pigs and monkeys (human dissection was outlawed by Roman law), he who adopted Hippocrates’ ideas about the four substances in the body, the humours. He was incredibly prolific and everyone loved him; he was the first to look at the significance of the circulatory system, the function of the heart and the difference between dark and bright red blood.
For two thousand years, Galen’s medicine ruled.
Until now. in these lectures it was customary for a lecturer to stand in front of a body and, as it was dissected, he expounded what Galen had written 2000 years before: about apes and pigs.
In the theatres of the day sat a young student of bluestocking background: Andreas Vesalius. His great-grandfather was a celebrated lecturer in medicine, his father physician to Emperor Maximilian.
But here he was, sat watching the dissection of animals. Surely human cadavers were the only way to learn about human anatomy?
Vesalius was a veteran of dissection: he had been one of those unsettling children who likes taking insects and small animals apart to find out how they worked, and loved to draw conclusions from first hand evidence. Dogs, it is said, would disappear from the streets in his direction. And cats. And moles from their holes.
Now, he did what any self-respecting empirical anatomist would do in the circumstances: he hotfooted it home to Brussels and stole a corpse after a hanging.
It did him no harm at all. By 1537 he was taking up a professorship of Surgery and Anatomy at the University of Padua. Here, as everywhere, dissections took a fixed path: a professor droned on from Galen; a surgeon dissected; and there was a special ‘demonstrator’ to point at things.
He watched as the lecturer was unable to find some of the features described in Galen’s work.
Such is the power of illusion that the lecturer did not question Galen’s findings. Rather, he blamed it on the unfortunate dismembered corpse.
Vesalius was having none of this. In The Fabric of the Human Body, he recounts a conversation between him and a learned professor – Curtius – directly after a dissection. Even though they are standing over the dissected body looking at the evidence of Galen’s inaccuracy, the professor insists Galen is right.
Vesalius addresses him: “Excellentissime Domine, here we have our bodies. We shall see whether I have made an error. Now….Galen is in the wrong, because he did not know the position of the vein without pair in the human body, which is the same today just as it was in his time.’
” Curtius answered smiling, for Vesalius, choleric as he was, was very excited: ‘No’, he said, ‘…we must not leave Galen, because he always well understood everything, and, consequently, we also follow him. Do you know how to interpret Hippocrates better than Galen did?’
Curtius was staring at the evidence. But he was under a 2,000 year old illusion.
We are an extraordinary species. We can play Don Quixote, choosing to build stories and block out that which doesn’t fit in with them, no matter what our intellect.
And the results, if they were not tragic, would be comical.
Picture source here
Witten for Side View’s Weekend Theme which is ‘Illusion’. You can find her challenge here