The reader will note,” Dr. Ober explains, that psychopathology occupies a prominent place in these essaysmelancholia, masochism, hysteria, autoerotic asphyxia, and other dinner table topics.” The book opens with a brisk discussion of flagellationstudded with rare illustrations. Like all of the essays in the book, this is an illuminating chapter, scholarly and good natured at the same time, and one that gives rise to speculation concerning human nature and human history.Ober provides medical answers to many mysteries. In a discussion of infertility in the Bible, he speculates medically as to why Onan and his older brother Er died during coitus. In the eyes of the doctor, these biblical antiheros may deserve our pity, but not our scorn. He also explains the role of Reuben’s mandrakes in fertilizing the barren Rachel. Equally fascinating is his discussion of the mandrake, a wondrous weed and sire of legend and superstition. Ober shows why an unfamiliar composer named František Koczwara got himself hanged in a London whorehouse. He tells of the aborted homosexual sadism in Robert Musil; the murder, madrigals, and masochism in the life of composer Carlo Gesualdo; the iconography of leprosy; the iconography of Fanny Hill (or how to illustrate a dirty book); the melancholia of Johnson and Boswell; the short, miserable life of Rimbaud; and other mysteries to which medicine may hold the key.
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