Never were politics, power, and punch lines more intertwined than in the very strange case of John Wilmot. The second Earl of Rochester was a poet and playwright whose mischief-making lifestyle and caustic satirical writing got him banished from court (and invited back) on what seems to have been a routine basis. This was a man who lived as he wrote. Sired by a boozy Cavalier and a previously widowed aristocrat, Wilmot was, according Horace Walpole, “a man whom the muses were fond to inspire, but ashamed to avow.” David Hume judged that his “very name” was “offensive to modest ears.” And while Samuel Johnson wrote that he “lived worthless and useless, and blazed out his youth and health in lavish voluptuousness,” Andrew Marvell said that he was “the only man in England that had the true vein of satire.”
Nicknamed the “mad Earl,” Wilmot earned a reputation for unparalleled profanity that persisted for over three and a half centuries. (He was described by his own chaplain to possess a wickedness “as remarkable as any place or age can produce.”) It wasn’t until the 1920s that Rochester became the subject of academic study. Graham Greene’s biography of Wilmot, written between 1931 and 1934, wasn’t published until 1974, so obscene were the primary sources that he quoted. But who was the Earl of Rochester, and how do we square his rakish reputation with the accolades as a philosophic poet he’s posthumously acquired?Continue reading » March 11, 2014
“That sovereign of insufferables, Oscar Wilde, has ensued with his opulence of twaddle and his penury of sense. He has mounted his hind legs and blown crass vapidities through the bowel of his neck has tossed off the top of his head and uttered himself in copious overflows of ghastly bosh.”
At first glance, Ambrose Bierce didn’t look like a coldblooded verbal killer. He was tall and handsome and scrupulously groomed. He had babyishly smooth cheeks, and a cherubic mop of golden hair. He excelled as a conversationalist, drinking buddy, and womanizer. Beneath this charismatic façade, however, was nineteenth-century America’s greatest insult artist, a writer who produced some of the most vicious prose in the history of the English language.
Bierce saw life as an exercise in cruelty, a conclusion drawn from close observation. He enlisted in the Union Army at the age of eighteen and spent four years in the slaughterhouse of the Civil War, watching men die in every conceivable way. Certain images stuck: a colonel on horseback decapitated by a cannonball, a soldier leaking brains from a bullet hole in his temple. Bierce fought bravely. He distinguished himself in combat and rose swiftly through the ranks. He even got shot in the head by a Confederate sharpshooter, and survived.Continue reading » February 10, 2014
“I would rather die than read another med student note,” said George, the senior resident, when I handed him a printout of a patient progress form. I had known George for a few weeks by then so his response didn’t surprise me, and I couldn’t help laughing as I tossed my write-up in the shredding pile while he hurried out of the team room without a second glance.
The note was for an elderly man named Jack who had been in the hospital almost a month after developing septic cerebral emboli secondary to acute bacterial endocarditis. In other words, pieces of a bacterial growth on the inner lining of his heart broke off and traveled in the bloodstream up to his brain, where they blocked small vessels, causing a series of mini-strokes. The endocarditis alone was a severe illness, but the emboli tanked his prognosis and added neurological deficits to an already precarious condition.
By his second week, Jack had developed a tremor. Even his deep voice trembled, though he still managed to flirt with every female who entered his room. At first I was apprehensive asking him questions during his morning exam, but his playfulness put me at ease.
“Can you touch your nose?” I’d ask.
“You first,” he’d say.
One time I complied and pressed the tip of my nose with my forefinger. But as he waved his hand unsuccessfully in front of his own face, part of me wished I hadn’t played along.Continue reading » January 24, 2014