29 Sept 2022

Life in Vein (With Reference to D. H. Lawrence's Undying Man)

Homunculus created by alchemy 
(from a 19th-century engraving for Goethe's Faust Pt. II)
Some readers may recall a post from May last year in which I reported on (what I believe to be) a vaccine induced blood clot in my lower right leg, but described on my medical record as superficial thromobophlebitis and said to be of unknown cause [1]
Sixteen months later, and my leg is still a mess and a consultant vascular surgeon has advised that due to long saphenous vein reflux and associated varicosities, I undergo either endovenous or open surgery to address the problem [2]
Funny enough, the first thing I thought of when told this was D. H. Lawrence's unfinished short story 'The Undying Man' [3] ...
Written in 1927, 'The Undying Man' is a reimagined version of a Jewish tale translated by his Russian friend S. S. Koteliansky [4]. In it, Lawrence toys with the idea of creating human life via a pre-scientific form of the technique we now term cloning
He opens his story thus:
"Long ago in Spain there were two very learned men, so clever and knowing so much that they were famous all over the world. One was called Rabbi Moses Maimonides, a Jew - blessed be his memory! - and the other was called Aristotle, a Christian who belonged to the Greeks.
      These two were great friends, because they had always studied together and found out many things together. At last after many years, they found out a thing they had been specially trying for. They discovered that if you took a tiny vein out of a man's body, and put it in a glass jar with certain leaves and plants, it would gradually begin to grow, and would grow and grow until it became a man [...] a fine man who would never die. He would be undying. Because he had never been born, he would never die, but live for ever and ever. Because the wisest men on earth had made him, and he didn't have to be born." [5]
Unfortunately, the donor of the tiny blood vessel will die as a result of the procedure. Nevertheless, Aristotle consents to the removal of a vein, having first made Maimonides promise that he will not obstruct or terminate the process once the vein has started to develop into a homunculus (i.e., a miniature but fully formed man) [6]:
"Aristotle asked Maimonides to take him by the hand and swear by their clasped hands that he would never interfere with the growth of the little vein, never at any time or in any way. Maimonides took him by the hand and swore. And then Aristotle had the little vein cut out of his body by Maimonides himself." [7]  
Maimonides places the little vein in the glass jar amongst the leaves and herbs. Having sealed the lid, he places the jar on a shelf in his room and waits:

"The days passed by, and he recited his prayers, pacing back and forth in his room among his books, and praying loudly as he paced, as the Jews do. Then he returned to his books and chemistry. But every day he looked at the jar, to see if the little vein had chaged." [8]
For a long time nothing happens. But then at last the vein begins to grow:
"Maimonides gazed at the jar transfixed, and forgot everything else in all the wide world; lost to all and everything he gazed into the jar. And at last he saw the tiniest, tiniest tremor in the little vein, and he knew it was a tremor of growth." [9] 
Soon, the little vein begins to glow red, "like the smallest ember of fire" [10]. Maimonides knew he was witnessing the spark of life itself, and he was afraid of what might be. For it seemed to him that this tiny red light glowed with an ungodly power - Fierce and strong! Fierce and strong! as he muttered to himself - rather than with divine goodness.   
Unable to sleep, Maimonides lies in bed "thinking of that little red light which alone of all light was not the light of God" [11] and fearful of what will happen when the undying man is fully grown ...
Unfortunately, Lawrence's manuscript ends here and so we don't find out what Maimonides decides to do; whether he keeps his word to Aristotle not to interfere with the development of the undying man, or whether he acts decisively to ensure the latter never leaves his jar.  
Fortunately, however, we do have the complete version of the story translated by Kot, and here we discover that, tormented by the thought that an immortal human being will be worshipped by the people as a living god, Maimonides allows his chickens to enter the room where the jar is stored, ensuring they knock it over by deliberately spooking the birds:
"Once the jar has crashed to the floor, however, the tiny creature points an accusatory finger at Maimonides for breaking his oath [...] and he spends the rest of his days praying for forgiveness." [12] 
That's a terrific ending, I think; one that is frightening, humorous, and realistic. Although Lawrence would doubtless have altered (and probably extended) it in his own unique manner, I'm confident he would have kept the accusatory finger (as I certainly would have).     
Finally, to return to where we began this post, I really rather hope that if I do have a vein removed from my leg it too is placed into a little glass container where it might grow into a new type of (transhuman) human being; one not born of a womb, and so soulless, sexless, and immortal ... For is this not the tragic destiny of mankind? [13]  
[1] This post can be read by clicking here.  

[2] Apparently, there is very little difference between the two types of surgery in terms of complications or risks. Whether a scalpel or laser is used, there's likely to be post-operative pain and discomfort as well as aesthetically displeasing lumps, bumps and bruises. And let's not mention the possibility of sensory nerve numbness in the leg and a 1-in-200 chance of a deep vein thrombosis. 
       So it's a big thank you to those who - whether with sincerity or cynicism - assured us all that the Covid-19 vaccines were extremely safe and effective, when, as we now know, they're neither. 
[3] D. H. Lawrence's 'The Undying Man' can be found as Appendix III to The Virgin and the Gipsy and Other Stories, ed. Michael Herbert, Bethan Jones and Lindeth Vasey, (Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 241-244.  
[4] Koteliansky published 'Maimonides and Aristotle' along with a second tale - 'The Salvation of a Soul' - in translation from the Yiddish as 'Two Jewish Stories' in London Mercury XXXVI (Feb 1937), pp. 362-70.
[5] D. H. Lawrence, 'The Undying Man', The Virgin and the Gipsy and Other Stories ... p. 241.
      This isn't as preposterous as it perhaps sounds; in 2013 it was announced that scientists in Japan had cloned a mouse from a single drop of blood collected from the tail of a donor subject. The cloned female mouse wasn't immortal, but she did live a normal lifespan and could sexually reproduce. And the donor mouse was also unharmed after the procedure (unlike poor Aristotle who dies).
[6] The Homunculus - a Latin term meaning 'little man' - was a popular idea in both 16th-century alchemy (Paracelsus is credited with the first use of the term) and 19th-century literature (see Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) and Part Two of Goethe's Faust (1832), for example). 
      As a concept, it has its roots in folklore and the pre-scientific theory of preformationism which taught that organisms develop from tiny versions of themselves. For Jung, the homunculus is a symbol of the inner man or, indeed, inner Christ (i.e., the divine aspect of human being).   
[7-10] D. H. Lawrence, 'The Undying Man, The Virgin and the Gipsy and Other Stories ... p. 242.
[11] Ibid., p. 243.
[12]  Editors' Introduction to The Virgin and the Gipsy and Other Stories ... p. xxxi.
[13] I'm referring here to Baudrillard's thinking in his essay 'The Final Solution, or The Revenge of the Immortals', which can be found in Impossible Exchange, trans. Chris Turner, (Verso, 2001), pp. 27-8. Long time readers (with good memories) may recall that I discuss Baudrillard's thoughts on cloning in a post published back in April 2013: click here.

1 comment:

  1. This Aristotelian/Maimonidesian story appears on the face of it to be a variation of the Jewish folkloric story of the golem, albeit this traditionally makes reference to the creation of an anthropos from inanimate clay. However, I'm as interested as to why the writer uses another recent post to critique the philosophical idea of 'because' (causation) in a Nietzschean vein while here clinging so determinedly to the concept to attribute the complications in his poor leg to the Covid vaccine. I'd be interested to have the contradiction explained and learn more what his evidential base is for this bit of clinical dogmatism (or why he thinks having your philosophical cake and eating it is OK).