Empiricism and The Disordered Gut

In Martin Martin’s early 18th century account of the Western Isles he places a defense of his ambitious project to see second sight as an object of scientific scrutiny. He demonstrates that the air, water and food of the islands is such that its visionaries are not prone to meloncholia.

Neither gut or vision are disordered. The sight is true. The argument seems designed to function in a culture which cannot escape the observation that the mad are nothing if not mad. A state of mind which cannot be overlooked or escaped.

Examine the local traditions associated with second sight a strong correlation with mind in a disordered and wandering state is found.

Form of sight is presented as a curse, the evil eye, a source of unwanted anxiety for the seer. Wandering aspect of mind mirrors itself in physical movement. Vision and the internal and physical landscape that will give birth to it is the result of a curse, a wisp is placed around the head of the subject, ‘the wisp of wandering.’

The diffrence here is not in the association of internal states of being with vision but with cultural attitudes towards madness.

Martin Martin appears to be performing a slight of hand in claiming no association between a disordered gut and disordered vision. Overtly defense, but presumable has to survive in an enviroment were the mad are eternaly mad and it becomes the defining property of individuals.

In Scottish and Irish cultures the states of mind assoiciated with vision are presented as temporary states. The body can and often is, healed and so can the mind.

The healing here involves a full return to society with no reputational damage to position or status. Or this at least is the presented ideal.

Changes in attitude towards vision are not a straightforward rejection of ‘unscientfic belief’ and seem to depend on embracing the vision of a mind which can never attain a scientific thought and by its very nature cannot alter its state of being.

The early 18th century scoffing empiricist has to cling to that vision and not let it change.


Martin Martin’s argument was not sucessfull. Weary discriptive epitaph that has long marked the grave for ‘Celtic poets’, it runs consistently through time from Robert Burns to Dylan Thomas.

‘Genius’ and the ‘spirit’ of celtic poetry are presented as a specific form of high altitude sickness. It’s poetic vision a form of melancholia born on misty mountian tops. Melancholia makes genius soar but utterly entraps and constrains lesser souls.

Its a descriptive feature very much associated with the frozen North and its deployment within the wider British state of mind.

The non-emprical soul of the frozen North is given to wildness and has a distinct taste for romance rather than the hard- headed reflection found in the well ordered feilds and fertile ground that lie to the south.

Its genius contianed in the ripe fruits of it’s eternal summer.

The inflection of melancholia is not fixed but can blow hot or cold; depending on the geography and climate we find it deployed within.



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