Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Archibald Craven’s Problem

We watched a charming children’s story rendered into a seven-part series last night: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Significantly—in light of what is to follow here—the tale was first published as a serial in 1910. A significant if minor character of the novel is Archibald Craven, the lord of the manor; he is very rich but humpbacked. After watching the story we got to talking about it—not least Archibald Craven. Both Brigitte and I recall seeing, here and there, now and then, a hunchback in our childhood. In the wake of World War II, for instance, I knew one very well. My father employed him on occasional jobs—one of which was chopping our firewood. But looking back over the last fifty-sixty years, we can’t recall a single instance. Brigitte got to wondering about the cause of that condition—and why it had disappeared…

There are, of course, many thousands of anciently incurable conditions that modern times have made to disappear. To elucidate one on a blog like mine may be justified by the role that humpbacks have played in literature.

So (as the young begin their expositions nowadays) the human spine’s natural shape, seen from the side, is a flattened S—where the upper part is called the anterior, the lower the posterior. When the upper angle is unusually curved relative to the posterior, the back takes on a hump-like form. This curving can occur in teenage years due to uneven bone growth in the spine itself caused by the interruption of blood supply to the bone, known as Scheuermann’s disease, also known as Scheuermann’s kyphosis, using the Greek for “hump.” The disease is self-limiting; it affects its victim for a limited time only, but because the deformation is to the spine, the consequences remain in place. The condition has disappeared thanks to advancements in surgical know-how, medical technology, and metallurgy. Scheuerman’s is treated by major—and very invasive—surgery in youth. It involves spinal fusion and the installation of hardware—rods and anchoring (so-called pedicle) screws. The rods are made of titanium. What many unfortunate individuals had simply to live through today we solve with know-how and technology.

Some great challenges lie ahead of us as we enter the post-oil dark ages. One of them is how to preserve the advanced arts the Age of Oil has bequeathed us—not least the transmission of knowledge, skill, and technology the arts will continue to require. By all means let us deprive our future literature of certain categories of heroes.

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