Friday, August 17, 2012

The Pyschic Surgeon, Shamanism, and the Irrationality of Disease

At Lapham's Quarterly, psychaitrist Daniel Mason describes the eerily shamanistic career of a Brazilian psychic surgeon:
Jose Pedro de Freitas, known by his nickname Zé Arigó was born in 1921 or 1922 at a farm site six kilometers outside the town of Congonhas do Campo, in the mountainous state of Minas Gerais. As a young man, he was different, tormented by headaches and a strange white light, and then, as he grew older, dreams. In these, he found himself in an unfamiliar chamber, watching gowned and aproned figures speaking a foreign tongue. One night, a severe, stout, bald man, frock buttoned to his chin—a monster, Arigó would later say separated himself from the others, identified himself as Dr. Adolph Fritz, a German killed in World War I, and announced that he’d selected Arigó to carry out his earthly work. That night of revelation, Arigó awoke screaming. He sought help from doctors and the local priest—to no avail. It was only when he obeyed the surgeon that the nightmares ceased. Speaking German (a language he had never learned) and operating without anesthesia or antisepsis, Arigó used any tool at hand—butcher knives, scissors, rusty garden shears. He removed tumors and kidney stones, scarcely shedding blood. He cured blindness by sliding a blade high behind the orbit. Other times, like Jesus and the paralytic at Capernaum, Arigó simply commanded an illness to desist. As word of his successes spread, visitors began to arrive, first the ill and then others: incredulous doctors from São Paulo, foreign parapsychologists, journalists.
As to why people continue to seek out such healers in a world of modern medicine, Mason offers this:
At the periphery of the old footage stand crowds of patients, waiting quietly: a mother with a limp child, a fashionable girl in dark glasses, a thin man, a weeping white-haired woman in a dress of blue calico. Then Arigó steps forward and takes the old woman’s head in his hands. Suddenly, the arguments over what is happening seem to vanish. What matters are the warm calloused fingers on her face, the tears, the sense of wonder, light. She did not come here looking for reason. There is no reason to illness. There is no science that can justify why disease chooses whom it chooses, or when. There is no sense in why my heart has failed me, why I am blind, why my baby is sick, why I keep falling down. We are told to distrust otherworldly cures. But illness is otherworldly, monstrous, magical. If we are to believe the impossible, then who am I to decide whether it is the phantasm spreading inside our skull, or the ghostly hands that will cut it out?

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