The early bird pre-gets the worm

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."

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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.

Consider the growing prevalence of the prefix "pre-" in popular usage. The application I have in mind is not the ordinary one, whose purpose is to make a simple statement of sequence -- as in the terms "pre-school," "pre-prandial," and "pre-First World War." Nor is it the one whose purpose is essentially euphemistic (as in cars that have been "pre-owned" or books that have been "pre-read"). The "pre-" at issue here asserts a more ambitious claim. Combined with a noun, it signals a backward-cascading race for precedence. Movies once had their first showing at an event known as a premiere. Today many of them make their debut instead at a "pre-premiere." In advance of televised sporting events broadcasters offer not only pre-game shows but also "pre-pre-game shows." Books are sometimes sold at a "special pre-pre-publication price." I have come across a reference to a "pre-pre-marital workshop," and wondered if there is now also something called "pre-premarital sex." One garden writer refers to working with plants as "pre-pre-parenting." The "pre-" clusters become longer. The performer Iggy Pop has called himself "America's favorite pre-pre-pre-punk punk," and teenage angst has been described as a form of "pre-pre-pre-midlife crisis." Governor Lawton Chiles, of Florida, a few years ago characterized a mole that had been removed from his face as "one of those pre, pre, pre sort of things."

Combined with a verb, "pre-" leads into complex terrain, in which the starting gate for action is impossibly pre-positioned. Everyone has heard airport announcements like the following: "We will now pre-board our first-class passengers and those with small children or who need special assistance." Pre-board? For those who complete the pre-boarding process, does "boarding" still lie ahead? Warehouses have set up systems to "pre-receive" goods for storage, and bureaucrats hire consultants to "pre-study" a problem before deciding whether to actually study it. Real-estate agents urge couples to "pre-argue" about what they're looking for in a house. Certain diets call for a person to "pre-eat" a box of raisins or a piece of fruit in order to dull the appetite before a meal, even as food writers advise cooks to "pre-savor" an aroma before taking it into the dining room. A newspaper article about the annual spring break in Florida described vacationing students as beginning to "pre-frolic." Another newspaper account took note of a term for embryos that have been fertilized in vitro: apparently they have been "pre-born." Corporations routinely "pre-announce" their quarterly earnings when they have bad news, as a kind of inoculation against the impact of the announcement itself. ("I haven't pricked it yet, but I soon shall.")

In the world of marketing it is apparently not unusual for executives to pre-meet for the purpose of pre-discussing whether to pre-decide how to pre-hype a product, which may still be in pre-production, and at the same time to pre-solve problems arising from its pre-promotion. If the marketing relates to an election, a politician may find himself pre-campaigning in a pre-primary contest even as he seeks to pre-neutralize any charges expected to be made by the opposition. Consider this passage from a recent article in the English newspaper The Guardian: "'Rebuttal is old hat,' says an official. 'We are into pre-rebuttal now, even pre-pre-rebuttal.' And don't bother arguing: they'll have pre-pre-butted you before you start."

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It has often been said that one hallmark of our time is a lack of self-definition. This is an age best seen, the argument goes, not as anything in itself but as "post" something else: "postmodern" (even "post-postmodern"), to cite the most common example, not to mention post-industrial, post-Freudian, post-feminist, post-literate, post-human, post-grunge, or post-God. No doubt there is something to this argument. As a practical matter, though, we may be more beholden to what we're pre- than to what we're post-. And "pre-" will only proliferate as anticipatory tools -- genetic assays, medical diagnostics, environmental-impact analyses, demographic forecasting, economic modeling, market research -- further ease the path of its preferment.

I wear pre-washed jeans. I have outstanding loans for which I was pre-qualified and which I hope to pre-pay, and hold credit cards for which I was pre-selected and pre-approved. I make pre-retirement deductions from my pre-tax earnings. I pre-medicate before going to the dentist, because of a pre-existing condition. My children were pre-tested in advance of pre-school. They will clamor, I predict, to see the prequel.

"Milton," Wordsworth today might sigh, "thou should'st be pre-dead at this hour."

Cullen Murphy is The Atlantic's managing editor. His latest book is (1998).

Illustration by Greg Clarke

The Atlantic Monthly; November 1998; Anticipation; Volume 282, No. 5; pages 16 - 18.