The Humors

           For more than two thousand years, from ancient Greece to
nineteenth century Europe, the theory of humorism dominated
Western medical thought. It maintained that our bodies are comprised
of four cardinal fluids or “humors,” and that each humor, in turn, was
associated with a particular temperament, or personality type: yellow
(chole) with an aggressive temperament, black bile (melan chole)
with a melancholic temperament, blood (haima) with a sanguine
temperament, and phlegm (phlegma) with an apathetic temperament.
When the four humors are in balance, a person is in good health. When
any one humor is in excess or short supply, however, all kinds of
maladies might arise.

The American Reader asked four different writers to each take on one of the humors.



Ben Matlock’s Yellow Bile (Aggressive)
by Chris Erickson

I suggest—I really suggest—that a certain event—event—tends to get Ben Matlock’s yellow bile up. I want to suggest this to you; I want you to kind of soak that up. An event does this to Ben Matlock.

Ben Matlock’s duodenum is hardworking equipment. And it’s absolutely coated in—really coated acrosst on the inside—with his very own yellow bile. It coats it. During this event in his daily life, it coats it and soaks it.

Let’s get real for five minutes: Ben Matlock’s a Harvard lawyer with a $100,000 retainer. Let’s soak that up. If you need him (you shouldn’t have knelt over the body), your broker won’t like it; his bile might get up for having to crunch those numbers. He’s not going to love having to crunch those numbers.

You can go out inside your community and soak it up with your neighbors. I encourage you to. Have a meeting at a restaurant in your community. Try to arrange it for yourself. It’s not all that easy. Ask your brother.

Ben can be so wonderful and gentle. Look at “The Crook.” Look at the gentle probing of the church janitor in the last ten minutes. Ben had that pathetic church janitor’s head on his chest, rubbing his hair with his fingers, tenderly leading him to a life sentence for murder one.

I wish to leave you with my suggestion. I’m ready to come out with it about the event. The event that causes Ben Matlock’s duodenum to get soaked in bile is the event of the dispassion of the propertied. It’s not a hundred things; it’s this one thing.

Every single day of my life, Ben Matlock is standing in court, straight-up bent forward, cold getting his yellow bile up, doing theatrics in the face of the dispassionate hindrance of justice by the propertied.

The propertied don’t get their hair rubbed by Ben Matlock when they’re on the stand. They are not tenderly led and redeemed. They are hunted, humiliated, and destroyed. ON THE DAILY.

And we’re at the defendant’s table, looking pretty light in the ass while he’s doing what he’s doing for us. 


When I Turn Twenty (Melancholic)
by Patrick Carroll


Yoshiko Sai, “Hatachi Ni Nareba”:

A translation:

When I turn twenty1, what will happen? I wonder.
When I turn twenty, what will happen? I wonder—
When I turn twenty, I’ll quit smoking,
and get married.

I’ll want to be called a pretty girl
and a lovely woman.

When I turn twenty, I’ll cut my hair.
When I turn twenty, I’ll turn kind.
When I turn twenty, I’ll quit smoking,
and get married,

and by kind people, always, all the time,
I’ll want to be embraced.

When I turn twenty, I’ll have long hair,
and get rid of that man with the unshaven face.
When I turn twenty, I’ll quit smoking,
and get married.

He’ll be kind, and nine years my senior, the man I marry.

When I turn twenty, what will happen? I wonder.
When I turn twenty, what will happen? I wonder—
When I turn twenty, I’ll quit smoking,
and get married.

Surrounded by children I’ll calmly, quietly live,
and die.2

When I turn twenty, when I turn twenty…


1. The Japanese transliterates to ‘hatachi ni nareba.’ ‘Hatachi’ means ‘twenty years old,’ ‘ni’ is a directional particle, and ‘nareba’ is a form of ‘become’ that plays somewhere between ‘when’ and ‘if.’ It’s a daydream of a conditional, a peek into a possible future that the speaker wouldn’t dare promise, but still expects will come. Stevie Nicks sings in ‘Planets of the Universe,’ ‘I was wrong / to live for a dream. / If I had my life to live over / I would never dream.’ To sing the sorrow of her failure she must use again the conditional that’s ruined her. To speak of dreaming she has to dream—that’s the tragedy of longing. With each ‘nareba’ Yoshiko Sai casts a new future, and herself in it. First she cuts her hair, then her hair is long; then she dies.

2. It might have been: ‘Surrounded by children I’ll calmly, quietly live& die.’ Additive conjunctions in Japanese vary across parts of speech—nouns can be joined with a simple と, but to convey sequential action the verb itself changes. The simple form of ‘live’ is ‘暮らす,’ or ‘kurasu.’ ‘Die’ is ‘死ぬ,’ or ‘shinu.’ Put them together: ‘暮らして死ぬ,’ or ‘kurashiteshinu.’ ‘Su’ becomes ‘shite’ to morphologically append an ampersand to ‘live.’ How sorrowful for a form of ‘live’ to require something follow after! 暮らして makes death not an ending, which it is, but an act. So the melancholic whines—I’ll live forever, or not at all. In 1975, when Yoshiko Sai recorded the song, she was already 22—her dream, like every dream, had already died.



False starts on ‘My bleeding head’ (Sanguine)
by Stephen Martis

The ice on ten-mile river is fat and clear. First a hole, then a small geyser. What does it mean to crack one’s head open except the hiss of water and lithium, mixed. The transubstantiation as a child with massive head trauma. Not the devil, but a lesser demon. When I fell asleep on the ice, I woke up a pervert. Nothing sexier than a bottle of ketchup. I want nothing to do with your utopia. The thicker the better. Egg yolk is at the center of the latest diet craze. When you’re out on the ice, you have the right to be cruel. The highway divider was always an easy metaphor. Back then there was so much to be done. This is my first love letter. She came out of the water pregnant with twins. None of this seemed to stop my bleeding head, but you can’t expect much. One day I might die of carelessness. A properly prepared steak is heavily salted so that the blood is desiccated. We won’t live to see habeas corpus reinstated, but I suppose the dream of a liberal democracy was overrated. This is where it begins. The storm front has shifted two degrees west. Just cut the whole thing off. To be unconscious is to commune with the global extinction event. I hit my head on the ice of the ten-mile river and it all went black. I’ve been to the source of my depravity but I had to come back. The pentatonic scale is ubiquitous, but for good reason. Misunderstanding and a no-good sense of self, they both have caused my head to bleed. The highly ordered structure of ice belies what the industry calls residual entropy. She came in from the storm but soon realized her mistake. Due to an all-time high in greenhouse gas emissions, it’ll never be that cold again.

From Adversus Haereses by Theophilus of Antioch (Apathetic)
translated by Jac Mullen 

 The following passage hails from Adversus Haereses (“Against Heresies”) by Theophilus, proto-orthodox patriarch of Antioch in the 2nd century CE. While the work exists in full only in a 4th century Latin rendering, the below was translated directly from an extant fragment of the original Greek text. 

And of baptism, a teacher of this strange sect relates the following:

In the rebirth of man through the economy of Christ Jesus, in the forging of a second Adam in the image of Lord Jesus Christ, we have thus far demonstrated the role of water—and, by extension, the secret meaning of the baptism—in the divine constitution of the body of the new man. For man, we have argued, is made from dust: “For you were made from dust,” the Lord tells Adam, “and to dust you shall return.” And yet, man is not made of dust alone: “the Lord God formed man of clay from the ground.” Man, in the essence of his flesh and its lowness from God, is dust. However, it was necessary that water be applied to the dust before the Lord made man, so that the dust could become clay, and preserve the form of its molding: “A mist used to rise up from the earth and water the whole surface of the ground.” The man who does not belong to Jesus Christ lives in death—this man already has returned to dust. All of us outside of Jesus Christ and the life promised by him through the economy of the Lord God are in death, and already have returned to dust. Therefore, in order to gain the new life in Christ, we must first bathe in the waters of baptism, so that this dead dust can be made clay, and be molded in the image of Christ Jesus and achieve a form capable of receiving the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit.”

And it is for this reason that adherents to this heresy search out the colder regions, and each day in the colder months rise at dawn: and unburdening themselves down to small, obscene loincloths—or, in the case of the women, a single tawdry shawl, wrapped around the trunk of the body—they receive each morning the baptism of the Lord. (To ensure its life, must a babe emerge again from its mother each morning? Do we partake of the body and blood of our savior with each meal? Does the Father return Israel to Egypt each year, in order only to liberate them again and establish afresh his covenant? O, this is a most egregious error!) Thereafter, they act more queerly still: for the teachers instruct their adherents to then head outdoors, with the waters of baptism still wet on their bodies; and thus damp, exposed in their cloths, frosted in their dampness, to remain thus denuded in the cold outside air. The intention, we have seen, is to recreate the conditions of man’s forging in Eden: to apply water ever again to the dusty, imperfect bodily frame—in hopes of a more perfect body, more perfectly fit to receiving the breath of life.

As like breeds like, so unlike breeds unlike, and one perversion another still: and in opposition to this strange heresy, another heresy was bred. For there was a convert to this heretical sect—a doctor, and reputed by all to be a sophist of the most pernicious sort—who objected to the disharmonizing effect of this outdoor exposure upon the humors.  It was a sinful courting, he argued, of a phlegmatic temperament, and would lead to increases in phlegmatism among the adherents’ progeny. One of this doctor’s epistles reads:

The phlegmatic is the image of the old man, before Christ Jesus. He is made in the image of the first Adam. Recall: the memoirs of the apostles relate the Lord’s story of the foolish rich man and his storehouse of grain—how, finding himself with extra grain, he built a storehouse to hold it, instead of distributing his extra riches to the poor: “And God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’”And so too the phlegmatic, in his disharmony of excess phlegm, is sloth-like and lethargic. He is a greedy, fattened cloud; he will not release his rain. The vital energy that would move a normal man from one town to the next moves the phlegmatic but a few feet.

The image of the phlegmatic is Judas, the Lord’s betrayer. In the apostles’ memoirs, he does not act: he moans and gnashes teeth—he does not act until the end. Finally, at the end, with stored seasons of anger in his heart, he does act—once, and meekly, and without strain. He sells the Lord for thirty silver pieces. In his death, he is the true image of the phlegmatic—the phlegmatic, as the Lord beholds him in life: we are told that Judas “burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.” Where the phlegmatic thinks himself storing, setting aside vital force for later use, the Father and the host of angels witness him in truth: he is burst asunder, bowels always gushing out. 

It is for this reason that disciples of this ‘doctor’ employ a strange tool of the doctor’s own devising—a small clay pot with a thin, elongated spout, which enjoys a privileged role in their cardinal ritual: filling this pot with consecrated water, they say invocations and light herbs over this pot; they insert the spout into the nostril, and filter the consecrated water through the nasal cavity, cleansing it entirely of phlegm.

I need not tire the reader with a rehearsal of their grievous errors. “All things indeed are clean; howbeit it is evil for that man who eat with offence,” says the Apostle. And indeed the Lord himself, clothed in his fleshly body, made use of his mucus in healings and miracles: “And Jesus took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and he spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him.”

 O! All things are clean, children, but the things of these heretics are most perverse!


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