A FEW months ago the Annals of Internal Medicine published a review of the literature on the phenomenon known as "phantom limb" -- the ability of amputees to experience sensation as if it originated in their missing arms and legs, fingers and toes. The article took note of phantom limb's important role in recent brain research, but it also pointed out that phantom limb had been a staple of folklore for centuries before medical science validated the condition. (Ship's carpenter to Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick, 1851 -- "I have heard something curious on that score, sir: how that a dismasted man never entirely loses the feeling of his old spar.") The first modern medical report on what were initially called "sensory ghosts" appeared in 1871, and was written by the eminent neurologist S. Weir Mitchell. As it happens, Mitchell had offered a glimpse of his official findings some years earlier, in an unsigned short story in this magazine, titled "The Case of George Dedlow" (July, 1866), which concerned a soldier who had undergone amputation after being wounded at Chickamauga. The story drew on Mitchell's experience during the Civil War at a military hospital for soldiers with nerve injuries. One reason for the enduring fascination of phantom limb is that it is counterintuitive without being preposterous. It is also metaphorically fraught -- a physiological version of something that happens around us all the time. Things disappear utterly ... and yet, somehow, they go on. Nerve endings remain sensitive. The missing thing maintains a presence.
The phantom-limb phenomenon is perhaps most obviously prevalent in the realm of language. The social status of "thrall," for instance, connoting a condition of semi-slavery, became obsolete in medieval times, but people continue to be in thrall to one thing or another. Nobody has used a washboard in years, and yet the concept of a "washboard stomach" seems to be more significant than ever. The practice of "leaving a calling card" may have fallen into desuetude among human beings, but as a description of pet behavior the phrase continues to have legs. (And note how the subject matter of the preceding sentence was handled "with kid gloves," which no one wears any more.)
Governmental structures, too, often remain in evidence long after acts of severance. Although the Nationalist regime ceased to rule China in 1949, when it fled across the Taiwan Strait to Formosa, it kept a rump "mainland" government in place until 1991, with representatives in the National Assembly from all of China's mainland provinces. Beginning in 1895 the construction of one waterway and the filling in of another lopped off a sliver of northern Manhattan and turned it into a permanent piece of the Bronx; in elections, however, the residents of this community, Marble Hill, still cast ballots for anything involving Manhattan.
The Spanish-American War has been over for nearly a century, and everyone who fought in it is dead, but as of this writing the Department of Veterans Affairs is still paying survivors' benefits to 810 people (elderly widows, who as young women married old veterans) because of someone's service in that war. The Scottish officers of the King's African Rifles who advanced Idi Amin through the ranks may think they have by now severed all ties with the former Ugandan dictator, but Scottish ganglia survive in the names of Amin's sons Campbell, Maclaren, and Mackenzie.
My own first recognition of something akin to the phantom-limb phenomenon occurred when I was in the second grade and a girl from Argentina named Carlota entered my parochial-school class. Every Friday, to our surprise, Carlota was allowed by the nuns to bring a thick meat sandwich to school for lunch, even as the rest of us adhered to the carnal prohibition. The explanation: Argentina may long ago have detached itself from imperial Spain, but its people still enjoyed the meat-on-Friday privilege granted to the Spanish King and his subjects for helping the Pope to defeat the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto, in 1571.
Appropriately enough (as I realized later), the wound he sustained at this battle earned Miguel de Cervantes the sobriquet "the one-armed man of Lepanto."
If the phantom limb as a social fact seems part of the natural order of things, then what about its opposite number: the advent of sensation before any causative event has occurred? This is the experience of the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, who on one occasion cries out in pain before accidentally pricking her finger. ("'I haven't pricked it yet,' the Queen said, 'but I soon shall.'") The White Queen's circumstances are, of course, special -- she is living out her life in reverse. But her urgent sense of anticipation, deriving from her sensitivity to what is to follow, has a familiar ring.