Friday, June 03, 2005

The seat of the soul

I have been reading again after almost 30 years the surgeon Richard Selzer's marvelous collection of essays Mortal Lessons.

In Selzer's phrase, it is the "exact location of the soul" he seeks as a writer. For thousands of years theologians have sought to identify the organ of the body that is residence for our higher nature. Is it the heart? The brain? Or -- as the ancients claimed -- the liver? Medicine is the offshoot of religion, and physicians still pursue the seat of our humanity. But they are no longer so naive as to believe that the soul sits curled up in a cavity of the heart or a lobe of the liver, like a butterfly in a chrysalis, awaiting revelation by the surgeon's knife. No, the soul must be discerned in the totality of the body's animated organs and their interaction with the environment, and it is revealed not by the parings of a scalpel but by the writer's art

Why does a surgeon write? "It is to search for some meaning in the ritual of surgery, which is at once murderous, painful, healing, and full of love," says Selzer. And what does he find among the blood and gore? "That man is not ugly, but that he is Beauty itself."