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  • The Symptom and the Subject: The Emergence of the Physical Body in Ancient Greece by Brooke Holmes
  • Chiara Thumiger
Brooke Holmes. The Symptom and the Subject: The Emergence of the Physical Body in Ancient Greece. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. Pp. xxiii, 355. $45.00. ISBN 978-0-691-13899-2.

This book can be described in two ways: first, as a piece of cultural and philosophical history of a phase in Western mind-body dualism concerned with the body as a problem in the construct of, and active participant in, the development of ethical ideas. In this regard, it is a richly argued and instructive work. Even if it is not particularly new in any of its claims, its value lies in its synthesis and breadth of the sources. The material Holmes has gathered, not only medical and philosophical, but also literary, backed by solid bibliographical reference throughout and presented through a thorough examination, is impressive, making the volume a stimulating read from a variety of perspectives.

Secondly, this book can be seen as the itinerary, almost the intellectual autobiography of the author, her interests and her work in progress. As such, the book shows more elements of idiosyncrasy and arbitrariness than similar works. This is reflected both in the choice of material and evidence and in the style of presentation and argument that will be more congenial to some readers than to others, with a prose less than cogent and at times confusingly involuted, with several reformulations of key concepts, and a marked preference for certain texts or themes. For example, the treatment of fear as an especially perspicuous instance of the person as “a space of passage and transformation between daemonic force . . . and symptoms and action” (69), is an interesting section, which, however, fails to justify the uniqueness or special status of fear as opposed to other emotions and affections.

Another peculiarity of the personal style of the book is its taste for catch phrases and memorable key concepts such as “abductions,” “fragmentation,” “interval,” “the cavity,” and “hidden.” On the one hand, this web of key concepts is useful in cementing the narrative together and giving continuity to the argument; on the other, it can sometimes turn working concepts into accepted truths. Take the very word “symptom.” This is a loaded term in modern languages (both technical and everyday), but one that did not gain its current meaning until Galen, before whom it simply meant “occurrence” or “attribute.” Symptom is defined by Holmes as a “phenomen[on] that help[s] to generate and sustain worldviews,” “a disruption . . . either to the experience of self or to the outward presentation of self” (2); or as “a phenomenon constituting a departure from a normal bodily constitution or function” (9). This needed more discussion before being adopted as the smallest indivisible unit, so to speak, of the book’s idiom; and the feeling remains that some of the ambiguities, problems, and tensions that Holmes succeeds in dispeling from the interpretations of “symptoms” have been internalized in the very use of a term that is in itself ambiguous and composite, and which many would hesitate to use with reference to ancient medicine. [End Page 291]

Another comment can be made à propos the labeling and categorizing in the book. With a strategy aimed at adding didactic clarity to the exposition, Holmes has the habit of posing oppositions and dyads or triads of elements, only to undermine the “rigidity” of these divisions and subdivisions by noticing the blurring, the reversals, and the gray areas that make definitions ultimately not so fixed, if not entirely untenable. This style of writing, reminiscent of the prose found in some post-structuralist scholarship, sometimes works against the interest of the main line of thought. Even though it is obvious that no clear-cut formula in cultural studies is ever immune to exception and nuancing, too much relativization and caution undercuts the definitions and brings into question their use in the first place. Only one example out of many: at 17–18, on the definition of “felt” vs. “seen,” the “seeing” is further qualified in such a way as to blur the distinction altogether. Learned caution is...


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pp. 291-292
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