'Aw, c'mon, have a heart!'

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Like a lot of other folks, when I don't have anything immediately pressing that calls for my attention (like an Irish setter whimpering to go out and relieve himself), I sometimes sit down at our computer, in my study, and fool around with the Internet. That's how I came across an article recently that intrigued me: "Poland says no to DNA testing of Chopin's heart." Since I've always been an ardent fan of Frederick Chopin's piano music, I read on, to discover that "scientists" (names and nationality not revealed, of course) desperately want to dig up his body, to determine, by way of DNA testing, what killed him at the tender age of 39. One of the problems, however, seems to be that, while his body is buried in France, his heart -- as per his own request -- was sent to Warsaw, Poland, the place of his birth.

Well, and this is where it begins to turn a bit comic, Chopin's heart, preserved in a cognac-filled jar, was "sealed inside a pillar at Warsaw's Holly Cross Church" in 1849. (Boy, does this sound like one of Tom Sawyer's goofy adventures for which he hopes to enlist Huck Finn, or what?) The report says the scientists want to perform "DNA tests to see if Chopin actually died from cystic fibrosis, and not tuberculosis, as his death certificate stated."

So, do you get a vivid picture, of a few surgeons standing around an operating table, carving away at the bloodied heart of a national hero and inspiration, watching its blood drain onto the floor, like a scene out of "The Shining?" And all this atrocity for the sole purpose of finding out whether Frederick Chopin died of cystic fibrosis, an "incurable genetic disease [that] was not discovered until many decades after Chopin's death," or tuberculosis. I mean, who cares enough to violate what remains of a national hero's human remains? Leave the guy alone, why don'tcha!! It all sounds like some short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, who sometimes created characters (How about Roger Chillingworth, in "The Scarlet Letter?") whose scientific passions sometimes lead them to stray from normal human behavior and begin to act like inhuman freaks. That's how the scientists who would -- in the manner of Indiana Jones -- rip Chopin's heart out of the Warsaw pillar, perform their DNA tests, and then, of course, write a scholarly paper on the experiment that they can deliver at a medical convention, in Chicago -- appear unflatteringly.

You want a body on which to experiment? Dig up Joseph Stalin, Nicolai Lenin, Francisco Franco, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra. Be careful whom you dig up. Some of the dead mean a lot to us, the still-living.