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the sleep of reason

by Michael Swanwick

with illustrations by
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes


55. [Plate 33]
The Stone of Folly

Is this microphone on? Good.

In the Dark Ages, before the advent of modern medicine, our primitive, apelike ancestors fell victim to every manner of folly and superstition. One of the most infamous of which was, appropriately enough, the "stone of folly." This was held to be a growth or calcification inside the brain which was the ultimate cause of ludicrous behavior, impiety, clownishness, and bizarre political affiliations such as Luddism, Stalinism, or libertarianism.

The only cure was (they thought) surgery.

Small children must be removed from the auditorium at this point. Ladies will want to locate their smelling salts. Gentlemen should think of England. For in those untutored times surgery was performed entirely without any painkillers whatsoever.

First slide, please.


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This is a picture of the beginning of the first incision. Note how the patient is forcibly held in the chair by two burly attendants. Note also how his look of extreme distress is starting to give way to one of excruciating pain.

Next slide.

Now that's an unhappy camper! You'll notice that the surgeon — or, more properly, barber - has wisely abandoned his scalpel for a bone saw. That glistening bit you can see there is actually the poor man's brain.

Just one more, please.

Here, finally, we see the triumphant barber holding up god-knows-what. Some bit of brain matter, perhaps, or, if the patient was lucky, a bone fragment driven into the brain by the action of the saw. The patient has, to no one's surprise, passed out. Should he survive, it's doubtful he'll be in any shape to express his gratitude.

Lights, please. You may turn off the projector.

We should be thankful that medicine has moved beyond such crude gropings toward effective treatment. The stone of folly is now understood to be a tumor which expresses itself not in the brain but in the tonsils. Its removal is so simple that it is performed as an outpatient operation and without anesthesia. The surgeon simply reaches into the patient's mouth with a small, sickle-shaped razor, and in one deft motion hooks out the tonsils. It's as simple as that.

Well, that concludes our little talk. As part of Public Health Awareness Week, we're offering free prophylactic removal of the tonsils to everybody present. You may think you don't suffer from the stone of folly - but, really, isn't that a sign that you do? And even if you don't, isn't it better to be safe than sorry? Why give folly a place to start?

Now, don't be like that. It's futile anyway. Our burly assistants have already locked the doors.


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This is the 55th of 80 stories by Michael Swanwick written to accompany Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos. For a listing of the most recently available stories, go to The Sleep of Reason.

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