BOOK REVIEW / Something nasty in the cabinet of curiosities: 'Extremes: Reflections on Human Behaviour' - A J Dunning: Secker, 14.99

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
EXTREMES both compel and repel. In a book of provocative little essays, A J Dunning, head of a department of cardiology in Amsterdam, delves into the pathology of excessive behaviour, in individuals and societies. It's clearly a personal interest, born of his specialism. He gives himself away when describing the many representations of the Sacred Heart at Paray-le-Monial: 'I recommend the souvenir shop at the convent to any cardiologist who wishes to start such a collection.'

Most pieces begin as stories, told very simply, with the soothing formality of old-fashioned schoolbooks. Until, that is, one gets the clinical detail: Gilles de Rais, for example, and his 150 boys, 'bestially murdered, by decapitation, by bleeding to death, or by bludgeoning. Before, during and after the death Gilles had anal intercourse with them, and he then dissected the bodies'. From this we progress coolly to self-

mutilation, body-snatching, cannibalism, torture, wholesale massacre and more. For cultural relief there are case-histories of Mahler and Freud,

Marat and Charlotte Corday, Verlaine and Rimbaud, and 17th-century castrati (pain for art's sake). The best essays - such as 'The Anatomy Lesson', where Rembrandt's painting leads us from Vesalius toBurke and Hare - offer an unusual and absorbing blend of medical and social history.

The material is grisly and gripping, but Dunning is aiming higher than sensation. His epigraph from Pascal, 'Man is but a thinking reed', and his opening reference to mankind's place between angels and animals immediately raise questions about reason and unreason. He refers us throughout to biological, psychological, philosophical and theological approaches (he's especially good on the convolutions of Catholicism). His tales, he says, are meant to 'instruct and entertain', but will be free of 'morals and explanations' which diminish the enormity of the actions.

Here's the rub. Without 'morals and explanations', in what sense can they instruct? However hard Dunning tries, his own no-nonsense attitudes do emerge, rather uncomfortably. He has no time for drug users and, perhaps unwittingly, presents Aids as a life-style disease analogous to fin de siecle syphilis. By avoiding an explicit theoretical framework he leaves his narratives teetering on the edge of moralising prurience. They smack of the voyeurism of the freak show, the cabinet of curiosities, the tabloid-like emphasis on celebrity, sex, death and religion (or demonism). But if the 'reflections' of the title sometimes lurch towards the goggle-eyed thrills of the Hall of Mirrors, Dunning's monstrous extremes are still telling - if only because we

see in them the distorted, but frighteningly recognisable, faces of ourselves.

Comments