Marin Marais’ “Tableau de l’opération de la taille,” a movement from his Suite in e minor, Book V (1725), has been rolling around in my brain for the past few months. A musical description of a gall bladder operation,  it is a harrowing piece of nightmarish beauty.

I discovered this piece by accident several years ago. As a flute player, it’s not something that I would generally stumble over… but I also love programmatic elements and have a decidedly morbid nature, so I was hooked. As a piece that is meant to evoke the lived experience of a gall bladder operation, it most definitely fits into the category we’d label TMI today. Do I need to know these details? Do I want to know all these details?

Nobody really knows if Marais actually underwent this operation. What is known is that it was a relatively common operation of the time. In that sense, it is a program that would have been recognizable: fear, inevitability, incisions, pain… so very much pain, blood, resignation, rest.

But why would he have chosen to put such an experience to music? What was the purpose of making this body experience visible in musical form? Why formalize the work?

I ask similar questions about about Fanny Burney’s careful narration of her mastectomy. Why was it so important, not only to record it, but to ensure its safekeeping?

In some ways, both of these works follow the tradition of the anatomy lesson paintings so common in the Dutch Golden Age – they offer the voyeur insight into the body and its workings (see, for example, Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp). A group of doctors gathered round the docile patient. The doctor playing to his captive and presumably enraptured audience. An arm – human flesh – exposed for analysis and discussion. In these paintings, the surgical body glows with an ethereal whiteness, its flesh exposed for the curious, both those who gaze in rapt attention from within the painting and those, like myself, who watch from outside.

There are elements of voyeurism in both Fanny Burney’s and Marin Marais’ works. Reading Burney’s narrative is excruciating. We feel her helplessless. We feel her bodily sorrow. We feel her fear. And we feel, too, her power as she responds to her doctor’s query: “Qui me tiendra ce sein?” It is her moment of grace, an astonishing display of strength and a powerful act of corporeal witness.

Who will hold this breast for me? I will.

The return of the ‘I’ at this point is transformative. This is no longer an anatomy lesson enacted on a docile body; this is an active subject in full control of her own bodily narrative.

Perhaps, then, it is the idea of bodily memory and corporeal agency that we are meant to take away: Fanny’s strength of character as she held her diseased breast out to her doctor in the presence of so many other men, voyeurs all in this staging of surgical skill. As a reader, I, too, bear witness. Not to surgical skill, but to willpower that it took to undergo this operation and later, to the literary prowess that enabled her to produce this narrative

Marais doesn’t include an ‘I’. Well, not directly. But Marais’ ‘I’ emerges in the act of performance. It emerges in the communion between musician and score, and then, in the spaces that unite performer and audience. The temporal nature of this work brings an immediacy that printed word or visual image alone lack. (I suppose I’ll get in trouble for saying that, but as a musician, there’s just something about live music that can’t be replicated in the ‘captured’ images). It is that immediacy that evokes the ‘I’ – in performance, the musical text becomes an autobiographical text. How might this have played itself out in the context of eighteenth-century bodily experience? If this was a common operation, how would this piece have been received, particularly with the joyful “Relevailles” that follows it? Would performers have recognized their own experiences, and would those experiences have transposed themselves onto and through the musical text?

Both Marais and Burney were masters of their respective crafts. They knew how to shape a narrative. How to build to a high point. How to release and return us to ourselves. These are not mere autobiographical recollections; these are carefully structured and considered evocations of corporeal suffering and distress.

What might we learn from them as we consider the meanings and politics of bodies past?

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