Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Lincoln's Brain: Suddenly the bullet dropped out

I first encountered Sarah Vowell through the Daily Show and then in The Incredibles. Finally picked up a copy of Assassination Vacation the other day. Was going to read only the first 20 pages or so and was 51 pages into it before I stopped to make note of the extraordinary passage quoted below.

The above video is an excerpt from a longer talk she gave to promote her book The Wordy Shipmates. She has a rare ability to add humor and charm to subject matter that is usually devoid of both. In the clip, she is discussing the differences between the Geneva Bible and the King James Bible, illustrating this with an anecdote from her youth about how she would put on a puppet show "about how people of faith needed to stand up to wrong-headed kings."

Assassination Vacation is about her pilgrimage around the US to various museums, prisons and historical homes having something to do with presidential assassinations - specifically, those of Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. The passage below is about Lincoln's brain:

Curtis and Woodward were examining Lincoln's head, looking for the bullet, this bullet now in this museum. Curtis wrote, "Not finding it readily, we proceeded to remove the enture brain."

Think about that. I know I have. For the first few days after I read that, every time I took a five-dollar bill out of my wallet I looked at the engraving of Lincoln's head and couldn't get the image of his detached brain out of my head. Curtis goes on to write that as he was lifting the brain out of the skill, "suddenly the bullet dropped out through my fingers and fell, breaking the solemn silence of the room with its clatter, into an empty basin that was standing beneath." Listen. That room was so quiet. Of course it was. When the bullet dropped in such a quiet room, it must have been almost as jarring as the original gunshot. In less steady hands, the brain could have fumbled to the floor. Curtis stares at that bullet:

"There it lay upon the white china, a little black mass no bigger than the end of my finger - dull, motionless and harmless, yet the cause of such mighty changes in the world's history as we may perhaps never realize.... Silently, in one corner of the room, I prepared the brain for weighing. As I looked at the mass of soft gray and white substance that I was carefully washing, it was impossible to realize that it was that mere clay upon whose workings, but the day before, rested the hopes of the nation. I felt more profoundly impressed than ever with the mystery of that unknown something which may be named "vital spark" as well as anything else, whose absence or presence make all the immeasurable difference between an inert mass of matter owing obedience to no laws but those covering the physical and chemical forces of the universe, and on the other hand, a living brain by whose silent, subtle machinery a world may be ruled. The weighing of the brain... gave approximate results only, since there had been some loss of brain substance, in consequence of the wound, during the hours of life after the shooting. But the figures, as they were, seemed to show that the brain weight was not above the ordinary for a man of Lincoln's size. "

1 comment:

The Daily Totem said...

One should be grateful for so beautiful a blog, however rare its doses. But I'm really missing the more regular updates!