A new article on Phineas Gage gives us a new opportunity to appreciate the Gothic aspects of the poor guy's story. Gage, readers may recall, was a New England railroad foreman who survived having a massive iron rod driven through his skull.
"What," asks the innocent reader, "could be Gothically horrific about such an event?" We may aggregate the gory bits in a single blog post for your convenience, o reader. Let us start with Sam Kean's neat description of the explosive incident:
The iron entered Gage’s head point-first, striking below the left cheekbone. It destroyed an upper molar, passed behind his left eye, and tore into the underbelly of his brain’s left frontal lobe. It then plowed through the top of his skull, exiting near the midline, just behind where his hairline started. After parabola-ing upward—one report claimed it whistled as it flew—the rod landed 25 yards away and stuck upright in the dirt, mumblety-peg-style.
Points for detail: "Witnesses described [the stuck rod] as streaked with red and greasy to the touch, from fatty brain tissue."
Or how Gage presented to the first medical specialist:
The first doctor to arrive could see, even from his carriage, a volcano of upturned bone jutting out of Gage’s scalp.
Next, some treatment, which Kean warns us about: "As for what happened next, readers with queasy stomachs should probably skip to the next paragraph." Infocult readers are made of stronger stuff than those Slate weaklings:
Harlow shaved Gage’s scalp and peeled off the dried blood and brains. He then extracted skull fragments from the wound by sticking his fingers in from both ends, Chinese-finger-trap-style. Throughout this all, Gage was retching every 20 minutes, because blood and greasy bits of brain reportedly kept slipping down the back of his throat and gagging him. Incredibly, Gage never got ruffled, remaining conscious and rational throughout.
One ocular detail stands out for us: "The next morning his head was heavily bandaged and his left eyeball was still protruding a good half-inch..."
Once healed, Gage set off for a diverse career. This involved some Infocult-style showmanship at
P.T. Barnum’s museum in New York—not Barnum’s traveling circus, as some sources claim. For an extra dime, skeptical viewers could “part Gage’s hair and see his brain ... pulsating” beneath his scalp.
Moving on to our time, one recent visualization of the injury moves Kean to a nice observation:
Peter Ratiu... determined that, based on the angle of entry and lack of a broken jawbone, Gage must have had his mouth open and been speaking at the moment of impact. Ratiu’s renderings of this moment—with the iron rod piercing a gaping mouth—have an unnerving quality, reminiscent of Francis Bacon’s paintings of screaming popes.
A subtler horror appears when we consider the idea that Gage's injury changed his personality (to some degree; read the whole article). The idea of our selves being dependent on accidents of our body can be disturbing.