O Body, where art Thou? – Part 2

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September 29, 2015 by Dr. Geyser

In part 1 of the ongoing series “O Body, where art Thou?”, I began the search for the medical body by aggressively dissecting across the primary layers of the Western tradition, Christianity, morality, censorship, beauty, shame, life, and death. As the knife cuts, so the patient bleeds, and so we must keep a close eye on the patient’s physiology – the anesthesthetists, anesthesiologists, basic numerical indicators, and flashing red lights. The beeping noise is nothing to worry about it – ignore it, and grow wise. Suction may be necessary to clear the local buildup of anatomical sludge acquired in the preceding hack-a-thon that got us inside the door. So long as the patient is still stable – he is – we may procede with the rest of the operation.

The search for the medical body cannot end with a simplistic reduction to the intuitive biological notion of the normal human being. As the admitting physician repeatedly noted in the MR, “Man is sick.” Yet it seems that there is a strong tendency to ignore the biological significance of illness among scientists not directly studying homo- or zoopathology. Similarly, maternity, sexuality, death and dying are seen as short-lived phenomena over the course of evolution. “Survival of the fittest” seems to capture the modern imagination more than any other term, no doubt because the need to survive is no longer an essential aspect of daily life in technologically privileged nations like the United States. We are mesmerized by the concept of having to survive.

Suffice it to say, biologists estimate that 99% of species that have ever existed on earth have gone extinct. More to the point, every organism will eventually die. The fact that most species become extinct is surely a challenge to the notion of extinction itself, since evolutionary change inevitably leads to the extinction of transitional life forms that remain bound up in a reproductive species group. When Nietzsche states that “Man must be overcome,” he is operating upon a concept of evolution that is at least superficially similar to that articulated by his English contemporary, Charles Darwin. Intuitively, this makes sense. Man will not always be man, irrespective of whether we continue to refer to him as such. And, lest we forget, Man was outdated long ago – by Woman.

It was actually Herbert Spencer who coined the phrase, “survival of the fittest.” Darwin merely borrowed it, and with much less gusto. Nietzsche reviled it, as an incomplete explanation of biological change.

In dealing with the normal body, we often begin with the assumption that there is an essential difference between health and disease. Although there are certainly many different conceptualizations of “being in health” – according to Nietzsche, “There are innumerable healths…” – the popular meaning of “health” in the United States is closely related to longevity. There are certainly many other health metrics – Quality of Life (QOL), for instance – but these are not as closely connected to the entitlements associated with longevity in the United States (and elsewhere). The shadow of illness and death casts a much longer shadow than it once did. A few generations ago, a pregnant mother did not need to look long in anguish at death’s shadow. Death was not merely some unfortunate improbability that could be managed, but rather was like an emergency midwife, there to support whatever life is able sustain.

Death is the most effective form of “comfort care” in the history of medicine, though those who remain may resent the pain of an irretrievable loss. In the midst of our profound grief, it is far easier to blame death, “to deny death its victory.” The physiological value of “death” as a concept is that it maintains the rhythm of life across a seemingly impossible material boundary. Blaming death, looking for justice just beyond the material horizon: there is a rhythm that is bound up within the patterned motion of the cosmos, of light, of the beating heart, the pounding feet, the thrusting hips, the blink of sleep, the rhythms of speech, the rise and fall of great men, and the undulating waves of our mindful soul. The prerequisite of eternal life is the acceptance – the passionate embrace – of death, of dying, of pain. The suffering of the body, and the suffering of the soul, are the real source of living power.

Security, comfort, preference, weekends: these heighten the feeling of power, while the source of power is masked. It may be there, right beneath your feet, but there is no way of transforming the feeling of power into knowledge of its source. This is a simple consequence of the methods used to obtain the feeling of power, none of which are capable of identifying the wellspring of life in themselves.

More is necessary, but rarely sufficient, for recreating the feeling of power. Like a drug, the mind exhibits tolerance with respect to material excess, ‘reality,’ and even life itself. When life is no longer enough, what can the living do?

The solution to our material tolerance is close at hand. Yet we have been shamed out of our inheritance by 1,500 years of religious materialism, the origins of which were not merely Christian. As Peter Brown notes in The Cult of the Saints, Christianity was not just some political faction or isolated mystery cult, but rather rose to the fore because it successfully challenged existing notions of health. The close association of early Christians with the bodies of dead saints shows that they actually had a powerful conception of the body. After death, the life of the saint could still be found by means of the relics of the saint’s body. The death of the animated body was not the end of the saint’s bodily power.

To modern ears, this all sounds very spiritual, an admixture of historical narrative and outdated superstitions. The ease with which we have written off the past as something dark, immaterial and vitalistic – “Is history even a science?” – betrays a real source of insecurity. The common practice of invoking Isaac Newton every time we intend to write down one of “his” laws is as much a form of ancestor worship as the Christian cult of the saints was an extension of secular Roman law. Every time a scholar cites a dead philosopher like Nietzsche or Hume, every time a (Darwinian) biologist invokes the spirit of Charles Darwin, every time a justice of the peace decides a case based upon legal precedent, we must raise the cry of supernaturalism, science fiction, and the illegitimacy of every type of dogma, secular or not.

Yet, even here, the power of life is amplified in the midst of suffering. It is futile to attempt to refute what one already knows, and dysfunctional to refute knowledge itself. The only way forward is to bury ourselves in the deepest recesses of knowledge, somewhere beyond hope, and permit ourselves the agonizing climb upwards towards the light we have left behind. For we know – we knowers – the source of that superficial light. Rejecting death’s shadow, we seek that which will endure.


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