Thursday, July 8, 2010

Learn from book reviews, Part Tres

Pain in childbirth had been considered inevitable until the 19th century, when chloroform came into more common use during labor. Donald Caton, an anesthesiologist, wrote a history on the use of anesthesia and analgesia titled, What a Blessing She Had Chloroform, itself a declaration attributed to Queen Victoria.

Interestingly, the idea that childbirth need not be painful also spurred others to consider alternatives to medication, which itself presented problems, not the least of which included serious side effects and consequences for women's own experiences of childbirth. An early proponent of "natural" childbirth in the mid 20th century was Grantly Dick-Read, an obstetrician who cited examples of painless "primitive" birth from late 19th century anthropology in his book, Childbirth without Fear.

This story has been told before, but a book review in the May 31 issue of The Nation suggests another dimension that seems well worth exploring. The review, by Paula Findlen, discusses Richard Holmes' The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. As Findlen explains:

The objective developments in science of the preceding century gave way to subjective reflection about the meaning of understanding nature. Poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats marveled at the new vision of the world wrought by science. At the same time, the British astronomers, naturalists, chemists and experimenters of their generation developed a conception of the world that was, in its own way, profoundly poetic.

One of the developments of Romantic science was nitrous oxide:

In spring 1799, Humphrey Davy invited a circle of friends to experience the giddy effects of laughing gas. He was inspired enough to write a poem about it. Davy's celebrated self-experiment, in which he inhaled six quarts of N2O on May 5, 1799, led to a loss of consciousness, feeling and memory.... The psychosomatic effects (to borrow Coleridge's term) of Davy's discovery fascinated his contemporaries. He invented a new pleasure for which they had no name.

If Romanticism began as an exploration of the enhancement of the senses, at the height of its success it grappled with the novel sensation of feeling nothing at all.

It makes me wonder what we want today - to feel more or to feel less or both at the same time - and what that means.

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