29: Is There a Doctor in the House?

“Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em.
Little fleas have lesser fleas and so on, ad infinitum.”

Dinner concluded, the company settles down for a seminar or three. If Cyrano hasn’t had dessert yet, he may not want any after this...

My guide was interrupted as the boy brought back the philosopher he had escorted to the other dining room.

“Well then, finished dinner already?” asked my familiar spirit. The philosopher said yes, all but dessert, and that the physiognomist had given him permission to share ours.

The boy did not wait for me to ask him to explain this mystery. “I see that this custom surprises you. Let me tell you, then, that health is treated more casually in your world than ours, and the health care of this world is nothing to sneeze at.

“All homes have a physiognomist, who is a public servant. He is more or less what you might call a doctor, except that he cares only for the healthy. He determines treatment by the proportion, shape and symmetry of the parts of our bodies, the lines in our faces, the coloring of our skin, the delicacy of our scalp, our agility, the sound of our voice, and the color, strength and durability of our hair. Did you notice a rather short man who looked at you for a long time? That was the house physiognomist. You can be sure that he adjusted the exhalations of your dinner according to what he saw in your complexion.

“Notice how far removed your dinner mattress is from ours. He must have concluded that your temperament is very different from ours, and he feared that the odor that evaporates from the little spigots on your nose might spread to us or that ours might reach you. This evening, as you will see, he will choose the flowers for your bed just as meticulously.”

While the youth was talking, I signaled to my host to try to have the philosophers expound on some aspect of their knowledge. As a good friend he immediately rose to the occasion. I won’t go into the conversation that accompanied his request, and the difference between the comic and the serious was too slight to translate. Finally, after some other discussion, the last of the learned gentlemen continued thus:

“I will prove that there are infinite worlds in an infinite world. Imagine the universe as a great animal, and the stars as worlds like other animals inside it. These stars serve in turn as worlds for other organisms, such as ourselves, horses and elephants. We in our turn are worlds for even smaller organisms such as cankers, lice, worms and mites. And they are earths for other, imperceptible beings.

“Just as we appear to be a huge world to these little organisms, perhaps our flesh, blood and bodily fluids are nothing more than a connected tissue of little animals that move and cause us to move. Even as they let themselves be led blindly by our will, which serves them as a vehicle, they animate us and combine to produce this action we call life.

“Tell me, if you will: is it hard to believe that a louse would think our body is a world? Is it hard to believe that when one of them has traveled from one of your ears to the other, his fellow lice say he has traveled to the two ends of the earth or gone from one pole to the other? Surely this little organism considers your hair as the forests of his country; the pores full of perspiration as fountains; pimples and sores as lakes and ponds; abscesses as seas; and excrescences as floods. And when you comb your hair in front and in back, they take this agitation for the tides of the ocean.

“Doesn’t itching prove what I say? Is the mite that causes it anything but a little animal that has cast off civil society and made itself a tyrant in its country? If you ask me how come they are larger than other imperceptible organisms, I will ask why elephants are larger than we and why northerners are larger than the Spanish.

“As for the blister and scab you do not know the cause of, they must be due either to the rotting cadavers of the enemies that these little giants have massacred; or to rebels who have gorged themselves on food, with a resulting plague that has left heaps of bodies to rot in the field; or to a tyrant who has expelled his fellows from his presence when their bodies were blocking our pores and has thus let the lymph separate from our circulatory system and become corrupted.

“You may ask why one mite produces a hundred others. That is not hard to understand. Just as one revolt leads to another, these little organisms, incited by the example of their rebellious comrades, aspire to take command, each and every one, and they ignite war, massacre and famine everywhere.

“But, you may say, some people are less subject to itching than others. However, everyone is equally full of these little animals since, as you say, they cause life. That is true; thus we see that the phlegmatic are less likely to have the organisms of impetigo. These organisms sympathize with the climate in which they live and are slower in a cool body than in one that is warmed by its natural temperature and that moves briskly and cannot stay in one place. A bilious person is therefore much more delicate than a phlegmatic, because he is animated in many more parts. Since the soul is but the action of these little animals, he is capable of feeling the herd of them moving about in all parts of his body. However, the phlegmatic is not warm enough to allow them to move about in more than a few places.

“And to prove yet again this universal miteness, you have but to consider how blood rushes to a wound when you are hurt. Your doctors say it is guided by provident nature, which wishes to come to the aid of the injured parts of the body. But that is just a fantasy. If that were so, our bodies would have, in addition to the soul and mind, a third intellectual substance that would have its own separate functions and organs.

“It is much more believable that when these small animals sense that they are being attacked, they send to their neighbors for help. It arrives from all sides. The country is incapable of holding so many people, and they starve to death or die stifled by overcrowding. This die-off happens when the abscess is ripe. The evidence for that is that these animals of life are then dead, and the rotten flesh becomes insensitive.

“Bleeding is very often prescribed to lessen swelling. and it is effective because many little animals have been lost in the opening that they tried to close. They refuse to assist their allies, because each has only a very mediocre capacity for defending itself in its own place.”

And so he concluded. The other philosopher then saw our eyes were fixed on him and exhorting him to speak in his turn.

Pimples and excrescences right after dinner? Where is good etiquette now that we really need it? And yet... such topics will be perfectly appropriate a century hence, in the cultured conversations of 18th-century Enlightenment salons. And from a century earlier we can hear a distant echo of the original “good doctor” François Rabelais, who made it abundantly clear that both the refined and the gross are human and that since the joke’s on us, we may as well get a good laugh out of it.

In the 17th century, everybody had fleas, and everybody scratched continually. Cyrano repeatedly uses the word ciron as a generic term for “mite” or any tiny creature. It is, strictly speaking, the cheese mite and causes “grocer’s itch.” Have you ever heard of either in this day of soap and water? Louis XIV took one bath in his whole life, and then only because his doctor ordered him to. No wonder perfume became such big business at the time.

It must seem strange to begin a discourse on medicine with reference to the plurality of worlds. And yet... Cyrano is emphasizing the unity and coherence of nature from the smallest organisms to the farthest reaches of space. Pascal will find God beyond the two infinities while Cyrano finds the microcosm and the macrocosm sufficient in themselves. The physicist-theologian and the free-thinking philosopher both delight in the world, each in his own way.
Cyrano has accepted your invitation to come and pay you a visit. He climbs into your time machine with you, and you set the dial for plus 350 years. Upon arrival, you first make him take a bath. Then you take him to a barbershop for a thorough shampoo. He prefers to keep his hair long, in the style of his time, but he does accept a shave.

Finally, you take him to a physician for a checkup. While waiting in the doctor’s examining room, he peruses a wall chart depicting the circulatory system. The doctor arrives, does a few tests, examines Cyrano’s old war wounds and pronounces him in remarkably good condition.

You have an idea. Could Cyrano use a microscope to see some cells from his own body? Cyrano is intrigued. The doctor scapes a few cells from Cyrano’s skin, puts them on a slide, adjusts the microscope and invites him to look. While peering at them, Cyrano smiles and then begins to laugh. “If only some doctors of my acquaintance were here; what would they think of the sphère de circulation, the système immunitaire, these cellules? They still do not accept Copernicus! I think they would be in far greater need than I of the physician’s care. Moi, I am fascinated but not surprised.” You know that Cyrano will remember nothing of his visit when he returns to his time; but it doesn’t matter: you are able to show him all this because he is already on the right track.