Whenever my wife prepares a meal I know to stay in my library until summoned. Her kitchen is stocked with very expensive cookware that must not be touched by untrained hands. Our territories are both well protected, mine by a barrier of book mold, which she avoids due to allergies, hers by an impressive collection of German and Japanese knives, which I avoid because they're very sharp. Years ago, before my exile, one sliced off the tip of my thumb with very little effort at all.
The loss of body parts has always fascinated me. I run across many such cases in my study of early modern medicine. Tycho Brahe, better known for his astronomical interests, is one of the more famous victims. As a youth of the Danish nobility, he was permitted to carry a sword and had a habit of using it in tavern brawls. In one such incident he failed to parry and paid with his nose, clipped right up to the septum.
Recently, while my wife worked on some veal chops with asparagus and potatoes, I dove into the new biography of Brahe by John Robert Christianson, eagerly anticipating more of the gruesome details. To my disappointment, the author makes short work of his subject's early days, relegating the disfiguring incident to a mere footnote.
"How can the loss of the man's nose be a footnote?" I complained aloud, but I don't think she could hear me over the oven timer. After all, I might have continued, lose an ear and you can grow your hair down over the scar. Lose an eye and you can wear a simple patch over the hole like Lord Nelson or Moshe Dyan. Everyone will think you're a war hero. The loss of a nose, however, is more difficult to conceal and a much more fundamental blow to one's vanity. Think of what it did to Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera - such a terrific organ player lost to the world for the lack of a qualified plastic surgeon. The nose, the phantom well knew, is the focal point of the face, the anchor that keeps the rest of the parts from rearranging themselves into a cubist montage. It may work in oil on canvas. But in the flesh, you are a monster.
Today people willingly give up pieces of their face in an effort to improve its overall symmetry, or consent to have their buttocks tissue grafted onto their physiognomy to replace something missing, often to good results. I know this from peeking into my wife's People magazine, which helps celebrities keep score. Early reconstructive surgery, by contrast, seldom fared so well. If Brahe ever underwent any such procedure, it must have failed. His wound never healed properly and was treated for the rest of his life with salves. In public he wore a prosthesis.
While dependent upon the generosity of his patrons for most of his adult life, Brahe was no peasant, nor did he ever think like one. I suspect he owned a nose for every occasion, which he glued into place with a temporary adhesive that he always carried with him. He made one himself of gold and silver but I have trouble imagining that he wore it often. Considering the weight, he must have feared it would pop off any time he laughed or sneezed, an especially embarrassing event at the table or at court. I doubt that I would ever have been allowed to invite him over for dinner, not the way we use pepper.
Like anyone with a chronic affliction, the injury must have been a constant irritation for him. But I will argue that he owes his place in the annals of science to his artificial noses. On the basis of his cosmology, an unhappy compromise between Ptolemy and Copernicus, he would have been long forgotten. However, we still celebrate Brahe today and for good reason. He created the first complete catalog of the visible stars, all plotted over many years of careful observation. One has to ask what would possess a man to gaze upward for the better part of his waking life, without the aid of a telescope, if there wasn't an immediate benefit to keeping his head back.
I remember explaining all of this to my wife across the dinner table instead of eating. "The data he collected," I continued, "provided Kepler with the basis for his three laws of planetary motion, paving the way for ... um"
I noticed that she had stopped chewing the lamb and put her fork down. But not the steak knife.
"Is there something wrong with it?" she asked.
"No!" I stuffed another slice into my mouth and put my jaw into overdrive. "Tastes great, honey," I mumbled, the scientific revolution to remain incomplete.
I had already lost a thumb.
About the author:
J. R. Salling is a professional housesitter who often forgets to water the plants but doesn't eat much. Most of his stories have been hidden in a sock in the bottom drawer of the bureau. Don't tell anyone.
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