The New Yorker:
In the spring of 1876, a young man of nineteen arrived in the seaside city of Trieste and set about a curious task. Every morning, as the fishermen brought in their catch, he went to meet them at the port, where he bought eels by the dozens and then the hundreds. He carried them home, to a dissection table in a corner of his room, and—from eight until noon, when he broke for lunch, and then again from one until six, when he quit for the day and went to ogle the women of Trieste on the street—he diligently slashed away, in search of gonads.
“My hands are stained by the white and red blood of the sea creatures,” he wrote to a friend. “All I see when I close my eyes is the shimmering dead tissue, which haunts my dreams, and all I can think about are the big questions, the ones that go hand in hand with testicles and ovaries—the universal, pivotal questions.”
The young man, whose name was Sigmund Freud, eventually followed his evolving questions in other directions. But in Trieste, elbow-deep in slime, he hoped to be the first person to find what men of science had been seeking for thousands of years: the testicles of an eel. To see them would be to begin to solve a profound mystery, one that had stumped Aristotle and countless successors throughout the history of natural science: Where do eels come from?
The nineteenth century had brought Darwin and Mendel, Pasteur and Mendeleev, and a growing sense that scientists (a word coined only in the eighteen-thirties), with their studies and their systems and their microscopes, were at last equal to solving the great quandaries of the natural world. Questions that had befuddled mankind for centuries—where life comes from, what it is made of, how it changes, why it ends—were now seen as knowable, quantifiable, explicable. Just two years before Freud arrived in Trieste, the German biologist Max Schultze, lying on his deathbed, observed, perhaps wistfully, that he was leaving a world where “all the important questions . . . had now been settled.” All of them, that is, “except the eel question.”
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