Doctor Metempsychotic Gloss

Benjamin Gagnon Chainey //

« What was Dr. Heraclius Gloss doing in the Old Pigeons’ Alley?
What he was doing there, good Lord!…
He was looking there for philosophical truth
–  and here is how».[1]

Doctor Heraclius Gloss, Guy de Maupassant’s last short story, published posthumously in 1921, is in fact one of his first texts, which he wrote in his youth during the year 1875. At once the death and birth of a monumental oeuvre by one of France’s most important 19th century writers, Doctor Heraclius Gloss is little known by the public but is key to the exploration of the paradoxical nature of identity and empathy. Published three years after Maupassant died from general paralysis after having slit his own throat with a shard of glass, the short story explores the contradictions in a man’s identity, a doctor whose field of specialty is fragmented and who confuses his personality with that of the great masters he reads. Above all, Dr. Héraclius Gloss is fascinated with metempsychosis, an alleged transmigration of the soul from body to body that drew much attention in 19th century Europe. He therefore appears as a body stationed between life and death, incorporating into his own voice the ghosts and the voices of those who preceded him — perhaps not unlike Maupassant himself incorporated them in his own work. The fantastic tale may be read as a metaphor for the work of medical doctors, whose identity precisely consists in working at the intersection of disciplines and integrating the works and the voices of the Other, making metempsychosis an allegory for empathy.

The short story tells the tragic fate of a man enamored with bookish knowledge, scientific doctrines and history. As he reads and heartily appropriates the knowledge he discovers as well as its authors, Dr. Gloss’ subjective identity disseminates and escapes him, washed away by the tide of an excessive empathy as he overly incorporates the story of past lives into his own. Over 150 years after it was written, and as empathy is erected as the sine qua non of humane medicine, the voice of Heraclius Gloss resonates as an archetype of tragic empathy at the heart of medical humanities.

The first level of Dr. Gloss’ metempsychosis is that of an interdisciplinary, but also intergenerational and social incarnation. Indeed, Dr. Gloss’ knowledge does not rely on a univocal foundation or authority. Is he a physician, a literary scholar, a scientist, or a poet? Is he a doctor merely because of his genealogical and sociocultural filiation? The “origins” of Dr. Gloss’ scholarly metempsychosis are both vast and multiple: at once bookish and human, they blur the personal and professional identities of the doctor, his place in the polis, and his role with respect to the Other from whom every scholar, whether healer or patient in the broader sense of these terms, seeks meaning and whispers of truth.

How was he a doctor, and in what field? No one could tell. All that was known was that his father and his grandfather were called doctor by their fellow citizens. He had inherited their title at the same time as their name and their goods; in his family, from father to son one was a doctor, and from father to son one bore the name Heraclius Gloss. Moreover, if he did not possess a diploma signed and countersigned by all the members of some illustrious faculty, Dr. Heraclius Gloss nonetheless was a worthy and very knowledgeable man. The forty bookshelves loaded with books that covered the four walls of his vast cabinet provided evidence that never a more erudite doctor had honored the city of Balançon. (HG p. 9)

Who knows? Perhaps Dr. Gloss is the archetype of the scholar disseminated through the popular multitude — who literally is the popular multitude, the crossroads of all knowledge? For Dr. Heraclius Gloss is first and foremost a scholar who incarnates within his own body, both literally and literarily, the knowledge that animates society as a whole, include in its most popular guises. The doctor’s body is a social body that does not discriminate between forms of knowledge, that is inscribed with the breath of their history. Over a century after Maupassant penned Doctor Heraclius Gloss, Georges Canguilhem, the famous philosopher of science and medicine, wrote:

The body as understood by the people has always been indebted to the body as understood by the faculty of medicine. Even today, the body as understood by the people is often a divided body. The diffusion of an ideology of medical specialization often results in the body being lived as if it were a battery of organs.[2]

That is where Dr. Gloss becomes ontologically and epistemologically daring: he is at the avant-garde of an overly specialized medicine that, a century later, turns out to be unable to see the socio-cultural inscriptions on the body, to see that the human being is, beyond organs, not only extraordinary but also extra-organic. The human body of Dr. Gloss is a body not only of bones and blood, but also – and perhaps mostly – a body of texts, of “old paper”:

When Dr. Heraclius came back home at night, he was generally much thicker than when he left. That is because each of his pockets, and he had eighteen of them, was replete with antique philosophy books that he bought in the Old Pigeons’ Alley; mockingly, the rector claimed that if a chemist had analyzed him at that moment, he would have found that old paper made up two thirds of the doctor’s composition. (HG p. 15)

Two-thirds of a doctor made up of paper, a spatial and disciplinary heterogeneity of paper. As the night falls, Dr. Gloss delves into his books and studies them assiduously in the hope to reveal the mysteries of human destiny, scientific and poetic, corporeal and philosophical.

What a strange spectacle was taking place inside of the doctor’s thought !!… A monstrous parade of contrary Divinities and the most disparate beliefs, a fantastic crisscross of doctrines and hypotheses. It was like an arena where the champions of all philosophies were jousting in an immense tournament. (HG p. 16)

Dr. Gloss teaches us, through the very teaching he imposes upon himself, that no-one can pretend to truth without tasting scholarly eclecticism. Truth can only shine through the elements of knowledge that can put to trial the histories that made their renown or condemnation, that granted them posterity or oblivion. To live through his knowledge, the doctor must know the life of his knowledge: its birth, its death, the fruits of its interactions with different elements of knowledge, as so many bodies that interact in a scientific experiment:

He would amalgamate, combine and mix old Oriental spiritualism with German materialism, the moral of the Apostles with that of Epicurus. He would attempt combinations of doctrines like, in a chemistry laboratory, chemical combinations are attempted, but without ever witnessing the sought-after bubbling of truth. (HG p. 16)

Knowledge and truth turn out to be “Philosophical Stumbling Stones,” as they reveal as much as they destroy. They are at once lighthouses towards which to orient oneself, and reefs that must be avoided: the danger of losing oneself, of dying for want to a will to live. Indeed it is not without risk that Dr. Gloss integrates his books, their knowledge, their existence. It is at the price of his skin, literally, that he opens, one night, “a voluminous parchment manuscript entitled: My eighteen metempsychoses. A history of my existences since the year 184 of the so-called Christian era” (HG p. 20). This story of past existences, made actual again through reading, becomes under the empathic eyes of Dr. Gloss, scholar in the flesh, a literature of the Other as a literature of the Self: something like “the writing that can be found on the pedestal of my statue” (HG p. 23). By reading a range of books from the past, Dr. Gloss reads himself. The body of the text becomes his own body: he consumes the author’s writing, and becomes the writing and the author. Through literature, the doctor hopes to read and write himself, to find and define himself, to invent himself: “Pythagoras – Rome in the year 184 – Memory found on the pedestal of a statue of Jupiter – Philosopher – Architect – Soldier – Plowman – Monk – Surveyor – Physician – Poet – Seaman – Etc. Meditate and remember. The tale of your life is between my hands.” (HG p. 47)

Transmutated by its interdisciplinary, intersubjective and transhistorical potentialities, Doctor Héraclius Gloss offers valuable teachings to medical humanities as well as to current clinical practice. It stresses that medicine is more than scientific knowledge; it is also a resolutely cultural praxis, incarnated in science but also in bodies of flesh and of words, that read, cultivate, and heal. In that sense, Dr. Gloss’ literary effort resonates with Georges Canguilhem, who observes one century later:

Regrettably or not, the fact is that today, in order to practice medicine, no one is expected to have the least knowledge of its history. It is easy to imagine what impression a medical doctrine such as Hippocratism can make on the mind of someone who knows the name of Hippocrates only by the famous oath, the last surviving rite, which has now been emptied of its meaning. (WM p. 27)

Canguilhem’s statement certainly echoes current-day challenges as the medical body is very much accused of being insensitive, overly specialized and technologized. Today’s medical practice always runs the risk, as science aspires to triumph over nature, of losing its empathies – interindividual, sociocultural, and transhistorical. Medicine that only relies on science may very well become uncultivated and monolithic, in contrast with the suffering bodies, little beings human and paper, that it attempts to heal and save.

The idea here is not to erect the “Insane Asylum” where Dr. Heraclius Gloss ends his days, as a (counter-)example of what should (not) be a Faculty of Medicine, or to claim that all physicians should (not) be Doctors Metempsychotic Gloss, “as sound of mind as the Seven Wise Men of Greece” (HG p. 73). However, if Georges Canguilhem is right in saying that “The untruth of the body can be manifest or latent” (WM p. 48) and that “My physician accepts that I see in him an exegete before accepting him as repairer” (WM p. 50), it appears that the good physician must first and foremost be an omni-scholar, a being who can read and understand bodies in their entirety, in order to better embody them and then heal them.

For, as Merleau-Ponty notes in The visible and the invisible, “philosophy is the set of questions wherein he who questions is himself implicated by the question” (WM p. 52), Dr. Gloss and his “alter-patient,” Guy de Maupasssant, offer examples of the power and risk of feeling stories of alterity to the point of embodying them, to the point of lending them one’s body, as empathy turns into metempsychosis. In Doctor Heraclius Gloss as in the medical humanities project, literature and books are major conduits of empathy, privileged modes through which the Doctor accesses the experience of further selves. The bookish Doctor faces a danger, described by Plato in Phedra: reading and writing are a pharmakon, remedies that are also poisons; they give access to knowledge but only at the price of transforming one’s memory and identity, and perhaps sometimes to the point of losing one’s reason.



[1] Guy de Maupassant (1921 posthumous/1993). « Le docteur Héraclius Gloss » in Le Horla et autres histoires. Paris : Seuil. p. 13. (Hereafter HG, my translation)

[2] Georges Canguilhem. (2012). Writing on Medicine. New York, NY: Fordham University Press. p. 51. (Hereafter WM)


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