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Of Bacteria, Scientists, and Women: Ramón y Cajal’s “El pesimista corregido”

Loredana Comparone

Abstract


Written in the final years of the nineteenth century and published
in 1905, Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s Cuentos de vacaciones provide wide-ranging reflections on the cultural import of science and the social ramifications of new scientific discoveries. “El pesimista corregido,” the story discussed in this article, mixes the conventions of nineteenth-century realism with science fiction as it explores the possible pitfalls of a slavish commitment to scientific instruments that promise miraculously enhanced vision—in the story’s case, the microscope. Influenced by Lorraine Daston’s notion of “the moral economy of science,” Comparone delves into an aspect of this story that has been ignored until now: the role of gender and gender relations in the context of scientific hubris. Taking into account the epistemic ramifications of magnification, this article examines the narrator’s view of gender, marriage and fatherhood, claiming that these views are difficult to dissentangle from the author’s view of scientific objectivity. As Comparone notes, Ramón y Cajal, himself a Nobel Prize Winner in Physiology, has a surprisingly ambivalent view of his obsessive scientist protagonist. The article further argues that a preoccupation with aesthetics plays a role in the story’s treatment of the issues raised when science becomes so infatuated, or horrified, with the cellular level that it loses sight of the living organism.

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