Kaloprosopia anyone?

Now that I am safely retired, I feel compelled to admit how close I came to becoming a kaloprosopiac. It’s one of those things that only retrospect brings into focus, I suppose -like living your life abjuring desperately needed corrective lenses because you had grown used to seeing a fuzzy world. But I cannot blame it all on the cataracts I eventually had removed; I think that, like the apocryphal frog swimming in slowly boiling water, I was simply unaware of what was happening.

Well, in truth, perhaps because of my recent encounter with the 19th century neologism kaloprosopia I had a long-needed epiphany. The word, coined by the French writer Joséphin Péladan, from the Greek for ‘beautiful person’, suggested the need to be noticed, to stand out -or, in the current transliteration, to live your life as a work of art.[i]

Nowadays, it is all too common for people to want emulate the styles, or affect the personalities of the rich and famous in the news, but there was once a time when self-creation was an act of defiance: Oscar Wilde being one of the more obvious examples. For some, however, it is -and was, long before Covid- a protective mask worn in public to hide the private person and their often more commonplace, unremarkable existence underneath. The disguise is, as Jung saw it, their persona -the role they see themselves playing; it is theatre.

I suspect that some careers -some roles– are more amenable to effecting disguise though, and whether or not it is required by the script, just feels more, well, comfortable. And, since I spent 40 plus years as an obstetrician/gynaecologist, the practice of medicine immediately raises its hand like a student sitting in the front row of a classroom, certain of his special importance. Of course, that student is not alone in his hubris: any endeavour requiring unique training and skills would no doubt qualify as being at potential risk for kaloprosopia; as a card-carrying accoucheur however, I can only  comment on the vectors scattered in my own field.

Perhaps it’s the uniform -well, I never wore street-clothes at any rate- or maybe it’s how special the process feels to both accoucheur and accouchee as the bond of expectation and then gratitude emerges like a butterfly from its chrysalis au moment critique. At any rate, whatever it is, the field is rife with risk for both parties, I suspect.

Still, perhaps retirement is a convenient time to reflect on my years in practice, like Marcel Proust did with In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu), but with less words.

The scope of illustrative examples is daunting no doubt, but at my age, I am often left with only the embarrassing moments to which I have appended the shards of my remaining memories. For some reason, the humbling diorama that most reminds me of the dangers of assuming a manufactured persona happened in a hospital staircase of all places.

Because I was often required to be in several areas at the same time when I was on call, I would sometimes have to delegate some responsibility to the resident on duty with me. She would assess the problem in, say, the Emergency Department while I dealt with an equally serious problem of a woman in labour in the Case Room. The two areas were on different floors, so I’d have to rush in my surgical scrubs and a covering white coat (or a clean delivery frock) from the delivery suite down the stairs to help the resident in Emerg.

Often as not, I would have abandoned my head covering and my hair, a messy bunch of curls, would be bouncing along like a shaken mop as I hurried down the stairs. I have to say, the appearance of a rushing healthcare worker was not unusual in our busy hospital, so fashion was likely the furthest thing from my mind.

The time I’m remembering must have been in the middle of visiting hours, because the staircase was also busy, so I had to thread my way carefully past distracted and often anxious visitors. But one of them, a large but elderly man I think, grabbed my arm as I passed and glared at me.

“Where do you think you’re going, Bozo,” he said, mockery -or maybe anger- darting from his eyes.

“Excuse me?” I said, angrily pulling my arm away from his intrusive grasp and feeling insulted at being addressed like that.

“There are other people on these stairs,” he blustered and shook his head in annoyance. “You in costume, or something…? The hospital clown?” he added, pointing at my dishevelled hair.

“Harold!” the woman beside him hissed. “He’s a doctor, for Chrissake. Leave him be!” She pushed Harold back against the wall to let me pass, and turned her head to apologize to me with her eyes. “He gets confused sometimes,” she explained with a little shrug.

I looked at Harold more closely, and I could see that what I had taken to be anger in his face, was really disorientation, befuddlement. In fact, he now looked more perplexed than anything; there was no anger or mockery left. He just looked puzzled… and I felt ashamed that I, too, had reacted the way I had.

Was I, in fact, in a costume as Harold had thought? Was I a different person in my medical gear -an entitled person that expected crowds to part for him?

I stopped for a moment on the stairs and looked first at the woman who had berated Harold, and then at Harold himself. “I’m sorry, Harold,” I said, forcing a smile, “I should be more careful hurrying down the stairs when it’s so busy…”

Harold looked at me for a moment, and then a smile also appeared and his face relaxed. “I’ve got a real temper, doc,” he said, extending his hand for me to shake. “I’m sorry, too.”

Oscar Wilde, in his essay ‘The Critic as Artist’ (1881) wrote that ‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth.’ I’m not so sure about that anymore…

[i] https://psyche.co/ideas/dietrich-showed-how-adopting-a-persona-can-reveal-ones-true-self


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