I was a fan of the tv show Frasier. Dr. Frasier Crane was a psychiatrist and the type of refined aesthete who would discuss his blend of bath salts on his radio show with the quip “Love does enter through the nose.” This naturally leads to his being lampooned by other radio hosts, but as it turns out he was not the first psychiatric proponent of such a theory.
Dr. Wilhelm Fliess, a German otolaryngologist, devised a theory of reflex nasal neuroses, which drew a direct link between the nose and the genitals. His friend and confidant Dr. Sigmund Freud espoused this radical thinking. Freud recommended that his patient Emma Eckstein undergo a procedure that Fliess concocted with disastrous results for the young woman’s face.
Peering through the curtains at the side of this historical stage is Dr. Jakov Sammelsohn, an oculist and errant Jew who chases Fraulein Eckstein into Freud’s orbit. Sammelsohn entreats Freud to introduce him to the hysterical young woman, and Freud only relents in the interest of analysis. Eckstein’s condition has manifested an interest in Sammelsohn, and Freud employs him to draw it out. Is it Eckstein’s condition, or can it be Ita, Sammelson’s spurned wife, returning as a dybbuk to possess Eckstein’s body? Was it the dybbuk’s departure or the doctor’s delusion that dealt the damage? Old World disbeliefs vie with “modern medicine” in this new interpretation of a famous case by Joseph Skibell.
Sammelsohn’s second encounter with a great thinker is also female-driven. He doesn’t take to his fellow oculist Dr. Zamenhof’s linguistic aspirations until he meets Loë Bernfeld, an ardent supporter of the universal language Esperanto. A language intended to cross all cultural barriers becomes the language of their courtship, proving that it can change the heart of one man if not all mankind. Esperanto’s embrace is directly related to Loë’s embrace of Yakov, as its rejection.
Later in life he travels to Warsaw with the ill-conceived notion of taking one of Zamenhof’s daughters as his wife. History moves about him once more and he is enclosed within the Warsaw ghetto. This third section held the most appeal for me – Mila 18 by Leon Uris is a sentimental favorite – although it was the least satisfying. It’s not without its otherworldly charm, but it has the feel of a tacked-on dénouement rather than a full third of the book. That was my impression from reading the advance reader’s copy (furnished by the fabulous Phoebe Gaston) at any rate; the finished product is likely another first-rate publication from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.