Friday, April 30, 2010

The Foreign Body

It is in sickness that we are compelled to recognise that we do not live alone but are chained to a being from a different realm, from whom we are worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body.

(Proust, Guermantes Way, In Search of Lost Time; trans. Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright)

In his essay, "On the Power of the Imagination," Montaigne gives examples of psychosomaticism: basically the physical manifestations of a robust imagination--how the imagination affects and transforms our body and bodily states as well as society, from the realm of male impotence (a psychological issue with measurable effects) to religion (belief in spirits, ghosts, saints, and gods/God). Proust, by contrast, seems to identify the self wholly with the mind, our minds are the "we" and our bodies are the "them." Nonetheless, there remains a psychosomatic trace--the great chain. It does remind me a bit of the ancient Greek notion of the body as a prison; here it is our ball and chain. But it is a quiet chain until sickness disrupts it, sending reverberations down it to the mind, reminding the mind of its own vulnerability and of its own limitations: language. Language allows the mind to express itself (notably through the body: the tongue, the mouth, the lips, the throat, not to mention non-verbal communication). Even if the body is the instrument of communication to other minds, it does not understand this language nor does the mind understand the body. Even as the body is the mediator to other minds, another mind must be our mind's mediator with our own body: the medical doctor. The physician has learned the language of the body and acts as the interpreter between the mind and the body. But the physician also belongs to the world of the mind, and so her or his understanding of body language is not that of a native speaker--the physician may miss certain nuances or inflections apparent to a native speaker; thus, cannot be fully trusted:

For, medicine being a compendium of the successive and contradictory mistakes of medical practitioners, when we summon the wisest of them to our aid the chances are that we may be relying on a scientific truth the error of which will be recognised in a few years' time. So that to believe in medicine would be the height of folly, if not to believe in it were not of greater folly still, for from this mass of errors a few truths have in the long run emerged. (ibid.)

There are only two follies available to the mind vis-a-vis the body: to believe medicine is folly; to not believe is greater folly still. To reach truth by error reminds me of Razumikhin's statement in Crime & Punishment of finding truth through lying. Or even in the Master & Margarita where the Devil (Woland) uses evil in the service of ultimate good (that is my reading of Woland, anyway--and frankly I do not find him very evil at all). Sometimes the best way to reach our desired goal is to walk in the opposite direction of it with an untrustworthy interpreter. That is the means to health, but, it seems, in health is the means to forgetfulness of one's chains.

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