Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Organizational Man

THE WISDOM OF THE BODY: Discovering the Human Spirit.\o7 By Sherwin B. Nuland\f7 .\o7 Alfred A. Knopf: 395 pp., $26.95\f7

May 25, 1997|HILLEL SCHWARTZ | Hillel Schwartz is the author of "The Culture of the Copy." He is also project scholar for "The Body in Question," a reading and discussion series supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities

In a mood ironic and a mode iconic, novelist Kurt Vonnegut refers to our bodies as "meat": bitterly ironic, for Vonnegut is distraught at the violence we have done to each other in the flesh; iconic because that violence has been enabled by our willingness to isolate body from heart, body from mind, body from soul.

When surgeon Sherwin B. Nuland sees meat, he thinks of blood and life and Deuteronomy 12:23: "for the blood is the life; and thou mayest not eat the life with the flesh." He remembers his mother draining the blood from meat--making it kosher as an Orthodox Jew must--and what he draws from this memory is the lesson of "the legendary power of blood." Blood is everywhere in "The Wisdom of the Body"--seeping, spurting, circulating--but the body is not meat. What Vonnegut handles with an irony as deliberate as it is scathing, Nuland handles with a breathless adoration. Those indeed are the final words of this biology book for the general reader: "Like the wisdom of the body, the real and potential magnificence of the human spirit must be approached not only with wonder but perhaps also with the awe-struck attitude of Wordsworth's nun on a beauteous evening: "Breathless with adoration."

Were it not for such a breathless tone, Nuland's 395 pages would scarcely escape from the realm of the textbook. What redeems his long expositions of the lymph system, nervous system, reproductive system, circulatory system, etc., is less the economy of his syntax than the organization of the whole. Everything fits together so neatly.

That's more than a matter of style--it's the point of the book. In Vonnegut's works, our chaotic outer world falls into place by the most extraordinary of coincidences. In "The Wisdom of the Body," our turbulent inner world writhes in dynamic equilibrium or, as Nuland writes at the beginning of his second chapter, the "constant sea within maintains the constancy within" by the most amazing of evolutionary and biophysical instances, all pulling together on our behalf. What the 19th century French physiologist Claude Bernard called le milieu interieur, and what Nuland translates as our internal environment, is organized so perfectly as to accommodate almost every challenge from our external environment.

Nuland himself is writing within three literary environments. The first is the clinician's meditation, a genre that, in English, dates back to Robert Burton's "The Anatomy of Melancholy" of the 1620s and continues today in the essays of Oliver Sacks. Clinicians rely on personal experience, grounded in anecdote, biography and autobiography, to make their diagnoses and, in literature, to make their case. Nuland's anecdotes in "The Wisdom of the Body," unfortunately, are strained or cloying. Nuland's case studies are better, for he dares to reveal his ambivalence about his patients and he quotes from their own accounts before and after surgery. Nuland's autobiographical episodes are the best and the worst, for no matter how hard he tries to make his personal experiences paradigmatic of the balancing act of the body, the episodes invite us to wonder rather at the skill of the surgeon.

Which leads us to the second genre: the history of medicine written by physicians. With rare exceptions, such histories have been celebratory of the profession and unwaveringly optimistic about prospects for more startling discoveries, more sophisticated tools, more effective pharmaceuticals. "The Wisdom of the Body" is no exception. However much Nuland seems disposed to direct our attention toward his patients, he draws us back time and again to be impressed by the historic insights of the fathers of medicine and by the contemporary dedication, responsiveness and intelligence of the surgical teams he leads or, in the case of a heart transplant, observes. Nuland asserts more than once that patients survive by force of some mysteriously intact will or spirit, but what he shows us is one patient after another living by force of his will and the supreme coordination of his surgical teams.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|