Authors: Colin Dickey
Nonetheless, people of all kinds flocked to the city, and visitors to Vienna noticed how cosmopolitan it was in comparison to Europe's other metropolises. Situated on the western edge of the Hapsburg Empire, where Eastern Europe met the West, its streets were thronged not just by Austrians but by Hungarians, Poles, Serbs and Greeks, Muslims and Jewsâeach with their own peculiarities of dress and style. It was a place where one could sample the world's richesâchocolate from Milan, oysters from Istria, wine from Tokay. “Works of art and music from Italy, France's fashions, Germany's books,” Pezzl wrote, “appear at his purse's command, as if by rubbing Aladdin's lamp.”
It was a tightly packed city, seething with energyâa city of 270,000 people with only about 5,500 houses. Land was expensive, so buildings shot upward, and Vienna was known for its five-story townhouses crammed along narrow streets that allowed little natural light. Whereas in London there was an average of
nine inhabitants for each house within the city limits, in Vienna that number was closer to forty-seven people. Houses were known not just by their street numbers and locations but also by such colorful monikers as “At the Green Wreath,” “At the Three Green Trees,” “Blue Lord God,” “Eternal Light,” or “At the Golden Bed.” One house in the Bognergasse was known simply as “At the Skull.”
It was also a city of wonder. At the north end of the Leopold-stadt was the Augarten, where the emperor released a massive flock of nightingales every year. And the Prater, a “pleasure garden,” was home to one of the largest annual fireworks displays in Europe. In those days of revolution and enlightenment, Vienna was a place where one could still believe in miracles. In August 1784, a Swiss named Boden plastered the city with placards announcing that he would cross the Danube on foot. A massive crowd turned out to see him stagger out onto the water on oversized shoes made of cork. After two attempts ended in Boden plunging headfirst into the river, the assembled crowd was so enraged at his ineptitude that the police had to hold them back from attacking him.
Among the other wonders and pleasures that Vienna displayed was Angelo Soliman, or at least, what was left of him. Born in Nigeria around 1721, Soliman had been enslaved as a young child and bought by the Austrian governor of Sicily, Prince Johann Georg Christian Lobkowitz. In the service of Lobkowitz, Soliman distinguished himself as a companion and a soldier, and his fame and stature grew as he accompanied the governor on a number of military expeditions. After Lobkowitz's death,
Soliman went into the service of Prince Wenzel von Lichtenstein in Vienna. There he became a court favoriteâhe was fluent in six languages and was widely admired for his erudition and wit. He became a Mason in the same lodge as Haydn and Mozart.
Despite this prestige, when he died of natural causes in 1796, the Hapsburg emperor, Franz II, did not see fit to accord him the same rite of burial that any other Mason would have been granted. After Soliman's death the emperor had him skinned, and his skin was fitted onto a wooden frame and put on display in Franz II's “Imperial and Royal Physical Astronomical Art and Nature and Animal Cabinet.” Wonder cabinets had been around for over a century, so when Franz II opened his in 1797, he wanted something special. In life Soliman had dressed in the latest fashions and proved himself equal to the greatest minds of Europe; in death he was decked in a loincloth and headdress made of ostrich feathers, perched alongside the birds of paradise.
He was the highlight of the cabinet.
But above all, what made Viennese culture singular was its obsession with music, which was elevated above all other forms of artistic expression. E. T. A. Hoffman, who spent years as a music critic before writing gothic tales like “The Sandman,” wrote, “Music is the most romantic of all the arts; one might even say that it alone is purely romantic.”
The English and the French
had their playwrights and their poets, the Dutch and the Italians their painters, but in Germany and Austria there were first and foremost the composers.
The Viennese believed in music as more than just a distraction or recreation. By the end of the eighteenth century Austrians had begun to regard symphonic music as a fundamental component of civilized society. As one music critic explained, “when it is appropriately practiced and employed,” music can “soften manners, ennoble feelings, spread joy and sociability among the people, and in general have a great influence on the cultivation of the moral character.” This could be doubted, he concluded, only “by those who have never had occasion to reflect on the essence and effects of this art, or by those who have still not discerned that the culture of a nation promotes its happiness.” Another writer went so far as to say, “I am convinced that music is not to be recommended to youth simply as a means to develop taste, as a noble form of entertainment, etc; it is infinitely more important (especially song) as the most excellent means of education, in order to develop a pure and noble spirit, to weave love of the good and beautiful in general, and of virtue and religion, deeply and intimately into our being, so that they remain forever inseparable.”
It was expected that all members of the Austrian nobility and upper class be well versed in music, regularly attend performances, and patronize the many performers and composers who flocked to Vienna.
Franz Joseph Gall.
T WAS TO
this city of contradictions and manic excitement that Franz Joseph Gall came in 1781. Ambling with his awkward gait through the city, Gall kept mostly to himself, taking in everything. As he began his medical studies, he found himself to be a mediocre student. Struggling to keep up and envious of those around him, he began to fixate on students who excelled at memorization, staring at them across lecture halls and dissection
theaters with admiration and frustration. How was it possible, Gall wanted to know, that these men could so easily keep track of that which bedeviled him? It seemed to him as if their brains must be structured differently. Over time Gall became convinced that there was something peculiar about these men, something worthy of attention. He started to notice that these men all seemed to have unusually large eyes. The longer he thought about it, the more he came to believe that this was not a random occurrenceâ the large eyes, he concluded, were somehow related to the faculty for memorization.
Convinced of this causal connection, Gall began to look for other correlations between mental attributes and physical appearance. “Proceeding from reflection to reflection,” he would later write, “from observation to observation, it occurred to me that, if memory were made evident by external signs, it might be so likewise with other talents or intellectual faculties.”
This simple observation became the core of Gall's system, one that he would refine in the coming years. What he came to call “organology” had four main principles: (1) The moral and intellectual faculties are innate and determined from birth; (2) the manifestation of these qualities depends on their organization; (3) the brain is the exclusive seat of the mind; and (4) each faculty of the mind corresponds to a different independent section of the brain. Though it may seem dubious to draw such sweeping conclusions
from an arbitrary connection between memory and eye size, it is worth noting that contemporary neuroscience supports many of these same principles, albeit in modified forms. Indeed, it was ultimately the third proposition, the least controversial from a modern perspective, that would get Gall in the most trouble.
Gall's fundamental discovery was
, the idea that different parts of the brain control different elements of our mind and body. Even two centuries later, with phrenology thoroughly discredited, most anatomists still recognize this concept as Gall's fundamental contribution to the study of the mind. Granted, Gall had no evidence for this belief and little way of proving or disproving it, but it was nevertheless to be a watershed moment on the road to modern neurology.
Armed with this simple principle, Gall set out looking for other correspondences between physical appearance and personality. “From this time,” he would later write, “all the individuals who were distinguished by any quality or faculty, became the object of my special attention, and of systematic study as to the form of the head.”
The question was how to go about this systematic study. What Gall needed was a way of mapping the brain and its functions. The brain's workings are invisible and silent. It doesn't work like other organs. Take the heart: Cut open a body and there it sits, at the center of the human world. You can trace its veins and arteries threading out in every direction, in order to understand its networks. If you cut open a still living body, you can see it going about its bloody work.
The brain is a different matter. It sits removed; it keeps its secrets to itself. When the Egyptians embalmed a body, they placed each organ in a separate urn; each was sacred, each was worthy of reverenceâexcept the brain. It works not with blood or food but with its own electricity, and it keeps its own counsel. The Egyptians didn't know what it was for, so they threw it away. By the eighteenth century, anatomists knew more about the brain and its networks, but it still remained remarkably aloof.
T WAS A
few years before Gall hit upon his concept, but in the end his assertion was quite simple, even elegant. His discovery was a process he called “cranioscopy,” what became colloquially known as “bump reading” and his pupil Johann Spurzheim would rechristen “phrenology.” It was predicated on a few simple principles. First, Gall theorized that, all other things being equal, size determines propensity: A bigger brain implies a higher capacity for intelligence. This was, Gall asserted, equally true of different parts of the brainâif the segment of the brain devoted to memory was larger in one individual than in another, then it stood to reason that the former would have a higher capacity for memory. Second, it was well known that the skull, like all bones, is initially malleable upon birth, only gradually becoming more rigid. So it stood to reason, Gall theorized, that the ridges and folds of the brain might imprint themselves on the bone when it was still pliable and that one could come to know the brain by understanding these imprints.
From this apparent insight Gall began to explore the possibility that the brain's workings might be made visible by the patterns it made on the skull. This is the motivation that drives phrenology: a quest for the visible. From a contemporary vantage point, it is easy to dismiss it as quackery, but it made a good deal of sense at the time, given the prevailing intellectual climate. The Enlightenment was a time when people were obsessed with sight and metaphors of visionâyou can see the obsession in the name itself, an age of illumination. To see a thing was to know it. The metaphoric connection between sight and knowledge drove much of Enlightenment thought, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau's desire in 1761 to become “a living eye” to Ralph Waldo Emerson, ninety years later, becoming a “transparent eyeball” in moments of transcendence. As one modern commentator points out, the Enlightenment conceptualized a reasoning mind whose “processes appear to have been closely akin to those of the seeing eye.”
Gall was ultimately a man of his age, who sought knowledge in sight and did his best to bring the study of the brain into an era in which only sight mattered. Maybe he can be forgiven if in trying just a little too hard to solve this problem he created one of the most egregious pseudosciences of the nineteenth century.
Two hundred years earlier, Rene Descartes had written, “All the management of our lives depends on the senses, and since that of sight is the most comprehensive and the noblest of these, there
is no doubt that the inventions which serve to augment its power are among the most useful that there can be.”
He was speaking of telescopes and microscopes, but cranioscopy would soon find its place as just one more such lens, opening up what was hitherto invisible to the eye. As if a weirdly organic precursor to the phonograph, the skull appeared to phrenologists as something like a recording device, a malleable surface onto which a record of the ineffable could be printed. The etymology of the terms is telling: whereas “phrenology” means “mind-knowing,” Gall's own term, “cranioscopy,” means “skull-seeing.” The skull, Gall reasoned, was a lens through which one could see greater things.
Even at the beginning, this line of inquiry was not without its detractors. While some people found Gall's attempt to see the mind stimulating, others thought it deeply offensive. Napoleon, for one, was utterly contemptuous of phrenology. “Nature does not reveal herself by external forms,” he said; “she hides and does not express her secrets. To pretend to seize and penetrate human character by so slight an index is the part of a dupe or an imposter. . . . The only way of knowing our fellow creatures is to see them, to associate with them frequently, and to submit them to proof.”
Napoleon would on his deathbed claim that his attempt to block phrenology in France was the best decision he ever made.