Saturday, December 03, 2005

Luzhin's looks

Last night was a slow night at the hospital, so I read Luzhin's Defense for several hours before dawn. We saw the movie a few years ago and remember the earnest Italian actor (the poor guy from Quiz Show, can't remember his name), rail thin, playing the madman/chess genius.

What impresses me is the difference in the physical character of Luzhin. Nabokov paints Luzhin as a man who has lost all contact with the outside world and in the course of his loss, rather than becoming the stereotypically cachectic artist he becomes a corpulent madman. Such different phenotypes of insanity for us. There is one, the classic neurotic or schizophrenic who is thin as a rail (as the actor was): this is the madman we relish. The obvious refusal to eat seems to separate the madman from human experience, as if s/he were an ascetic refusing human pleasures for a higher cause in this case madness.

Then there is the torpid madman, the fleshy, bejoweled slob. His body mirrors his dissolute mind. No control, no energy or spirit from above to shave off those extra pounds in pursuit of higher consciousness. I suspect we feel more revulsion for this madman than for the other.

I interact a great deal with both types during my work as a physician, and I sense that this is true of many of our interactions. To a certain extent (confounded by various aspects of personality and social skills) the morbidly obese mentally ill are if possible less respected than the cachectic ones. Perhaps the cachexia reminds us of cancer patients who elicit almost universal sympathy, while the obese seem less well controlled or less tragic.

I think there's more than just the anorexia-obsession of Hollywood at work in the casting of someone so physically different from the protagonist. Though in a fitful alliance with the postmoderns, I suppose I don't really care, as the point is a fascinating one regardless.

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