Fall 2012

Ingestion / The Greek Detox

Aristides and the dream of the gut

Brooke Holmes

“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.


The gut has a life of its own. Of all the networks peripheral to the central nervous system, the enteric nervous system is the most autonomous, as well as the most remote from consciousness. It is densely populated: the bowel contains more nerve cells than the spine. The digestive tract, no mere transit corridor, is a mostly uncharted biofloral landscape unique to each organism. These, in any case, are the terms of art for describing life in the age of bioscience. There are, of course, other ways of imagining what goes on in the gut. For the second-century CE Greek orator Aelius Aristides, the way in is the dream.

Aristides was famous in his own day on the imperial lecture circuit for a standard repertoire of rhetorical showpieces: impersonations of Greatest Generation Athenians like Demosthenes standing down the Macedonian juggernaut; exhortations to civic concord; fulsome paeans to Rome and its emperors. He’s known today, when he is known at all, as the most famous patient of antiquity or, less charitably, as the greatest ancient hypochondriac. The work on which his fame now rests consists of five extant books (and scraps of a sixth) of “sacred tales” (hieroi logoi).

Marble relief of man dedicating a votive leg in gratitude for being cured of varicose veins, 325–300 BCE.

The books recount a lengthy, multiform illness that first hit the young Aristides in 125 CE en route from the provinces to Rome with a dream of jumpstarting his career. But despite consulting with the capital’s finest doctors and submitting to a series of invasive examinations, he failed to get a diagnosis, let alone a cure, and he returned an invalid to his hometown of Pergamum, on the west coast of Asia Minor. It was around this time that he started receiving dreams from Asclepius, the most popular healing god in classical antiquity (and one of the most stubborn holdouts against that arriviste healer Jesus Christ). Not even the dreams provided all the answers. But they did offer clues, triggering a practice of daily decoding and therapeutic response to what settled into a chronic condition, as well as a lifelong cult of devotion whose most tangible evidence is the hefty bulk of the Sacred Tales (itself culled from a larger lost archive). The process of interpretation unfolded through biofeedback: a cycle of suffering, dreaming, interpretation, and relief, which starts over again when pain inevitably returns. It gets harder and harder to tell whether Aristides dreams because he suffers, or suffers in order to keep dreaming a story he doesn’t want to see end.

The Greeks had been dreaming about the insides of the body for as long as they thought they had bodies. That turns out to be less time than you might expect. The concept of the physical body, a body with a life of its own happening below the threshold of consciousness, only arrives on the scene in the fifth century BCE. It brings with it a new species—perhaps the first in the West—of self-estrangement. In earlier periods, a symptom usually would have signaled a rupture in your relationship with gods or daemons or a larger-scale crisis in the larger community. With the physical body’s emergence, the meaning of the symptom changes. The crisis is now inside, its origins mysterious. The black box of the chest cavity becomes a plac

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