The human body is the only machine for which there are no spare parts.
Dr. Hermann Biggs (1859-1923)
Last week, Professor Harrington described “the beauty and the terror” of the study of human anatomy. The secret workings of the body’s interior are beautiful in their intricacy and precision; however, the study of life by means of death – not to mention the often crooked means by which a body was obtained for such study – could equally inspire terror. I can only imagine (at least until I finally get to dissect something, hopefully this autumn) the feeling of looking at the exposed viscera of a deceased organism, particularly a human. I imagine feeling vulnerable and exposed – a strange sensation of seeing and smelling and touching solid manifestations of the parts of me that usually exist only as abstract concepts. I know that I have a liver like I know that Bangkok is the capital of Thailand: it is a semantic fragment with which I have no direct experience. Our skin usually protects us from knowing ourselves too intimately for comfort, but in an instant of involuntary identification with an opened cadaver, the dermal barrier is breached, and we are turned inside out. If we gaze long into a body, the body will gaze back into us. To me, this would be a paradigmatic experience of sublimity, in the Burkean sense.
Why should a man’s mind have been thrown into such close, sad, sensational, inexplicable relations with such a precarious object as his own body!
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
If you pity Mr. Hardy, consider the predicament of every poor man who is thrown into relations with a far more precarious object: a woman’s body. This is an issue that seems to have flustered many a nineteenth-century doctor. Women’s bodies were embarrassing, mysterious, and inevitable, and nobody really knew what to do with them. The female body’s place in Victorian culture is a web of contradictions – a nebulous swirl of ignorance, allure, prudery, dignity, exploitation, and general awkwardness.
The nutrition labels on my cereal boxes not only list every single ingredient, they also warn consumers about potential trace allergens...
...and provide a detailed nutritional breakdown of the contents.
We tend to ask a lot of questions – and demand a lot of answers – about what we put in our bodies. Is it organic? Is it all-natural? Is it genetically modified? Is it processed? Where did it come from? Was it traded fairly? What happened to it between harvest and hearth? How salty is it? Does it contain MSG? Does it contain animals? Does it contain animal products? Has it ever touched anything that touched an animal product? Has it ever come within thirty feet of a tree nut? Will it send me into anaphylaxis?