Comic Books, Astral Planes, and ‘Strange’ Biology.
Recently I watched Marvel’s Dr Strange, which stars Benedict Cumberbatch as a gifted and ambitious surgeon who suffers devastating neurological damage to his hands in a car accident. With an almost complete loss of dexterity, Stephen Strange is barely able to write his own name, never mind perform intricate surgical procedures. His life’s work and passion are suddenly rendered alien to him and he spectacularly fails to cope with the consequences. Finding no solution in modern Western medicine, he travels to Kathmandu, Nepal, to search of ‘Kamar-taj’—a fictional enclave. There he meets ‘the Ancient One’, a sorcerer who eventually agrees to train him in the mystic arts under the auspices of curing his condition. Their first conversation cleverly depicts the tensions between modern and traditional forms of medicine. Strange has heard that the Ancient One cured a paraplegic, allowing him to walk again. He asks her how it was done.
SS: “How did you correct a complete C7, C8 spinal cord injury?”
AO: “I didn’t correct it, He couldn’t walk, I convinced him that he could.”
SS: “Your not suggesting that it was psychosomatic?”
AO: “When your reattach a severed nerve is it you who heals it or the body?”
SS: “It’s the cells.”
AO: “And the cells are only programmed to put themselves back together in very specific ways.”
AO: “What if I told you that your own body could be convinced to put itself back together in all sorts of ways?”
SS: “You’re talking about cellular regeneration! That’s leading edge medical tech, is that why your working here without a governing medical ward? Just how experimental is your treatment?”
SS: “So you figured out a way to reprogram nerve cells to self heal?”
AO: “No Mister Strange, I know how to reorient the spirit. To heal your body.”
Here Strange tries to understand the mystic arts by translating them into western medical language. The implication here is that what might be termed by some people ‘magic’, is simply yet to be fully articulated by modern medicine. However, when the Ancient One makes it clear that her ‘treatment’ relies on a more holistic understanding of the body, he can no longer accept its veracity, despite having seen it with his own eyes. “I don’t believe in fairytales about chakras or energy or the power of belief,” he responds, and she is forced to resort to pushing his astral form out of his physical form in a bid to prove to him that the spirit exists. He quickly rationalises this as an effect of the psychedelic tea he assumes she has given him. She then sends him reeling into the many time-and-space-bending dimensions of the multiverse, to which he returns visibly disturbed and begging to be taught.
This significant exchange underpins the entire film, in which Strange must learn that his own knowledge is not absolute, and critically, that ‘it’s not about [him].’ ’You’re a man looking at the world through a keyhole. You’ve spent your life trying to widen it,’ asserts the Ancient One, and yet when presented with this widened view, he is dismissive and closed minded. Given the tone of the rest of the film, this seems like a striking indictment of the dismissal of traditional forms of medicine by the western world. Dr. Strange bullishly insists on maintaining his title, correcting enemies mid-fight when they mistakenly call him Mr. For Strange, his medical education is part of his social identity, and his subsequent introduction into the world of the mystic is predicated on these same lines. When baffled by his inability to master sorcery, the Ancient One reveals that the methodologies of both are the same. “How did you become a doctor?” she asks. “Study and practice, years of it,” replies Strange. Although much of the film is really about manipulating time and space—or as the members of Kamar-Taj explain: harnessing energy to shape reality—the basic theme of completing systems of knowledge persists throughout.
Being a nineteenth century scholar this reminded me of the changing landscape of medicine in the Victorian period and how successive paradigm shifts throughout the century highlighted the tensions between Western and alternative forms of knowledge. Support for the humoral model of health, for miasmatism, and for contagionism, waxed and waned as the British were brought into contact with other cultures, landscapes, and disease experiences. Germ theory in the late nineteenth century appeared to supplant discourses about pathogenic ‘Eastern’ climates and landscapes (now considered to be unempirical beliefs); however, these were really part of complex disease aetiologies that were yet to be fully appreciated. The belief largely held in malarious countries that miasma from swamps caused malaria, for example, was in part vindicated by the discovery that mosquitoes, which breed in stagnant swamp water, are vectors for this disease. Thus as Ronald Ross wrote in 1900, ‘Malaria is due to a miasma given off by the marsh, but the miasma is not a gas or vapour—it is a living insect.’1 In fiction, ‘Eastern superstitions’ were paired with ‘Western empiricism’ to demonstrate the tensions between these two competing and often complementary forms of knowledge. This latest Marvel blockbuster explores these very same tensions.
Given that much of the film is concerned with Strange getting to know and so mastering his own body, it is perhaps unsurprising that the film makes so many ideological and visual dialogues between the micro- and the macro-cosmic. The Ancient One reveals to Strange that there are in fact multiple co-existing worlds or dimensions, including ‘the mirror dimension’ and the ‘dark dimension’. This latter world is home to Dormammu, a god-like tyrant with a narcissistic desire to possess all the realms in the multiverse. Most striking to me were the similarities between the dark dimension and depictions from cellular biology. One wonders whether director Scott Derrickson in designing this dimension was inspired by SEM images of phagocytosis…
These parallels between the microscopic and the macrocosmic were also being made in the nineteenth century. English scientist Giddeon Algernon Mantell, when viewing microorganisms under the microscope in 1846 asserted, ‘the air, the earth, and the waters teem with numberless myriads of creatures, which are as unknown and as unapproachable to the great mass of mankind, as are the inhabitants of another planet’2—a statement that was echoed by colonial administrator William MacGregor’s comparison of the discovery of the life cycle of the malaria parasite, with the pinpointing of the position of neptune3 in 1900, and by H. G Wells’ famous opening to his 1898 novel The War of the Worlds. Wells invokes both the telescope and the microscope when he writes that
As men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.4
The imaginative connection between astral and somatic space then—and the anxieties that accompany the systems of knowledge that elucidate them—have long been and continue to be concerns that preoccupy our thoughts. Stories like this one demonstrate the heuristic power of comparative metaphor, whether exploring alternative therapies or alternative dimensions.
1 London, LSHTM. RC. Ross/105/06/50. ‘The Practice of Malaria Prevention by Ronald Ross, Major I.M.S. Ret. Professor of Tropical Medicine, University of Liverpool’, pp.3-4. [emphasis his own].
2 Gideon Algernon Mantell, Thoughts on Animalcules, or, a Glimpse of the Invisible World Revealed by the Microscope (London: John Murray, 1846) p.7.
3 William MacGregor, ‘An Address on Some Problems of Tropical Medicine’ British Medical Journal. 2(1900)2075 pp.977-984.
4 H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds ed. Patrick Parrinder (1898; London: Penguin Books, 2005) p.7.