Mario Vargas Llosa on Phrenology

October 7th, 2010 · 7:39 am @ admin  -  No Comments

Congrats to Maria Vargas Llosa on winning the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2010! He appears briefly in the book, so I thought I’d repost that here in honor of his win today.


Phrenology was a science for an uncertain time, and perhaps no one exemplified this better than the phrenologist and revolutionary Gustav von Struve. The young Struve had come to Mannheim in Baden, Germany, to practice law, but his ambitions quickly grew. He began actively to promote both phrenology and radical reform, which he saw as inextricably linked.

Ever since Gall’s expulsion from Vienna, German-speaking countries had lagged behind the rest of Europe when it came to phrenology. For Struve, this rejection accounted for Germany’s lack of progress and why it still lay captive to oppressive religious and aristocratic regimes. He set out to remedy the problem, co-founding the German-language Phrenological Journal and advocating tirelessly for the New Science. Combe recognized the value of his contributions in his own A System of Phrenology, and the Fowlers regularly translated excerpts of his work in their own journal. His colleague Alexander Herzen claimed that Struve was so devoted to phrenology that he deliberately chose a wife who lacked a “passion” bump.

Struve’s own passion was for political and social reform. He argued for vegetarianism and temperance, against capital punishment. He set aside a portion of every day to meditate on the great secular heroes of revolution, from Washington and Lafayette to Rousseau and Robespierre. Contemporaries described Struve as having a face that “showed the moral rigidity of the fanatic … with uncombed beard and untroubled eyes,” but he was sincere in his desire for reform, and in 1847 he dropped the aristocratic “von” from his name in solidarity with the common man.

Mario Vargas Llosa, in his 1984 novel The War at the End of the World, would reincarnate this archetype of the revolutionary phrenologist and put him in South America. An amalgamation of Struve and Combe, Llosa’s character, a Scotsman who takes the name Galileo Gall, comes to Brazil to foment revolution: “As other children grew up listening to fairy stories, he had grown up hearing that property is the origin of all social evils and that the poor will succeed in shattering the chains of exploitation and obscurantism only through the use of violence.” Inextricable from this revolutionary fervor is a fervor for phrenology:

Whereas for other followers of Gall’s, this science was scarcely more than the belief that intellect, instinct, and feelings are organs located in the cerebral cortex and can be palpated and measured, for Galileo’s father this discipline meant the death of religion, the empirical foundation of materialism, the proof that the mind was not what philosophical mumbo jumbo made it out to be, something imponderable and impalpable, but on the contrary a dimension of the body, like the senses, and hence equally capable of being studied and treated clinically.

Galileo Gall thus operates from a simple precept: “Revolution will free society of its afflictions, while science will free the individual of his.”

Something very similar was at work in the mind of Struve: a desire for a violent overthrow of oppressive regimes, which could in turn allow the democratic and progressive principles of phrenology to flourish. He was not alone in his democratic zeal: In 1848 democratic revolutions broke out all over Europe, starting in France and quickly engulfing the entire continent. The year Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto, all of Europe was ready for change, and men like Struve saw their chance. On March 31 of that year, German reformers gathered in a “Pre-Parliament” to discuss the establishment of a free, united German republic. During the discussion Struve read his fifteen-point plan to end the “subjugation, stultification, and bleeding dry of the people,” which included the abolition of the standing army, all aristocratic privileges, and any connection between church and state and their replacement with laws that were based on “the spirit of our age,” including phrenology.

The Pre-Parliament rejected Struve and his radical coalition in favor of a more moderate approach, and so the radicals decided to bring about emancipation by force. They raised a small army to march on the capital of Baden, but when they met the government’s forces in the Black Forest they were severely routed, and Struve and the others were imprisoned. Freed the following year, the undaunted phrenologist once again joined another failed uprising against the government—one in which, it should be noted, his “passionless” wife fought with unmatched tenacity.

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