“The nuns in attendance reminded me of a phone conversation I had with my father after the autopsy of the young motorcyclist. Over the course of the conversation, he asked how my time at the hospital was going. I recounted to him, without going into much detail, that the process of autopsy is quite difficult to watch.
“‘Is it just that the body is being treated so brutally?’ he asked. I paused for a moment to consider the question, then decided that it wasn’t actually that at all. The process is brutal, I told him, but the upsetting part of the autopsy is not the way the body is handled, but rather that such handling makes no difference whatsoever. What one cannot quite comprehend, in the end, is that no matter what is done to the body, it has absolutely no effect on the person who once inhabited it. The horror is not what is present and cut apart but what has so completely and irreversibly gone.”
—Body of Work by Christine Montross, Penguin, 2007.
There was recently a very spooky “Fresh Air” interview with Dr. Atul Gawande, dealing with how we draw the line between life and death. He describes new uncertainties that physicians have about the clarity of “brain death,” and what the brain can recover from. You only have to sit through one medical examination of someone you love to connect with the eerieness of how the body is not the person, and how freeing and terrifying that is.
The interview is at:
“Evil. I am cast upon a horrible desolate island, void of all hope of recovery. I am singled out and separated as it were, from all the world, to be miserable.
“Good. But I am alive, and not drowned, as all my ship’s company was. But I am singled out, too, from all the ship’s crew to be spared from death; and He that miraculously saved me from death can deliver me from this condition.
“Evil. I am divided from mankind, a solitaire, one banished from human society. I have not clothes to cover me. I am without any defence or means to resist any violence of man or beast. I have no soul to speak to, or relieve me.
“Good. But I am not starved, and perishing on a barren place, affording no sustenance. But I am in a hot climate, where, if I had clothes, I could hardly wear them. But I am cast on an island where I see no wild beasts to hurt me, as I saw on the coast of Africa; and what if I had been shipwrecked there? But God wonderfully sent the ship in near enough to the shore, that I have gotten out so many necessary things as will either supply my wants, or enable me to supply myself even as long as I live.”
—Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, first published 1719.
The vision of a man alone on an island, struggling with himself and methodically building a system of nourishment and protection, is deep in our Western consciousness. I was making Robinson Crusoe style good/evil lists and charting out matters pretend and practical from a very young age.
There is a lot of crazy racist, patriarchal, colonialist nonsense in the book, but its confessional, sweet spirit still shone through to me. It’s a great adventure, and Crusoe seemed like a really honest guy to me. I frequently feel like I am trapped on an island and don’t know what to do with myself. And I often make good/evil lists without even noticing what I am doing, like so many western thinkers.