Being Human: Readings from the President's Council on Bioethics
Chapter 4: Are We Our Bodies?
What is a human being? And what sort of life have we been
given to live? In the next several chapters we turn our attention
to our selves and our natural life cycle.
We begin in this chapter by acknowledging that we have both
corporeal and noncorporeal aspects. We are embodied spirits
and inspirited bodies, (or, if you will, embodied minds and
minded bodies). This alleged duality, easy to assert, is,
however, hard to understand. Many are tempted to resolve the
difficulty by belittling the significance of one or the other
aspect, declaring instead that either our minds (or souls)
or our bodies are the seats of our “real” identities.
But does either declaration do justice to everything we
are? Are we or are we not “double” creatures? In what does
our identity reside? Just what do I mean when I say “me”?
Our first reading in this chapter, Galway Kinnell’s “The
Fly,” expresses some of the disquiet we may feel as creatures
with lofty longings who are burdened by being bound to our
flesh. Our second reading, from Plato’s Symposium,
invites us to wonder whether one of our deepest longings—love—is
a bodily thing. Our third and fourth readings—“What The Body
Knows,” by Chitra Divakaruni, and a pair of excerpts from
Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace—explore the powerfully
corporeal basis of our spiritual experience by considering
the complex aftermath of surgery.
The trio of readings that follows presents various attempts
to separate the body and the mind. St. Augustine, in an excerpt
from his autobiographical Confessions, attempts to
renounce the desires of his body in the name of celibacy and
piety. One American poet, Walt Whitman, asserts joyously that
“the body is the soul” in “I Sing the Body Electric,” and
another, Delmore Schwartz in “The Heavy Bear,” expresses the
anguish of a soul who longs to be free of his body and its
Our ninth and tenth readings describe remarkable accomplishments
of the “pure” mind and “pure” body. Remarks by a former political
prisoner, Vladimir Bukovsky, relate the mind’s ability to
triumph over the body under the stress of torture. In an excerpt
from Late Innings, Roger Angell introduces us to a
pitcher who accomplishes great physical feats on a baseball
Our eleventh writer, poet John Ciardi, considers the importance
of ritual when touching the body in his “Washing Your Feet.”
Richard Selzer’s enigmatic story “Whither Thou Goest” invites
us to wonder whether a body and its separate parts are one
and the same. Finally, writer and undertaker Thomas Lynch
reflects on the meaning of the dead body in his essay “Good
Grief,” suggesting that it deserves funeral rites and an escort
by those who loved it in life to its final place of rest.
War and Peace
Cannon Fodder and The Operating Tent
by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Aylmer and
Tolstoy’s War and Peace follows the
lives of various Russian noblemen from the onset of the
war against Napoleon until after its conclusion. The two
excerpts that follow concern the wealthy and high-born Prince
Andrew Bolkónski. In both excerpts, Andrew is abruptly confronted
with human corporeality, but under very different circumstances
and with very different effects.
Andrew enters the war in his late twenties,
full of expectations about it and of dreams of glory for
himself. Months later, disabused of his illusions and war-weary,
he returns home, arriving just as his wife dies in childbirth.
A few years later, his fiancée, Countess Natásha Rostóva,
the inspiring young woman with whom he fell in love after
his wife’s death, is seduced and abandoned by a shallow
and despicable man. Andrew severs his ties with Natásha
and returns to the war, determined to hunt down and kill
the rake who seduced her.
The first excerpt begins as the Russian
army, having abandoned the important city of Smolénsk, is
in retreat. Andrew, in command of a retreating regiment,
passes near Bald Hills, the Bolkónski family estate where
he grew up. In a passage not reproduced here, Andrew leaves
the regiment briefly to view the devastation of his home.
When he rejoins his men, he finds them
bathing happily in a dirty pond, and is disgusted and horrified
by the sight of so much naked flesh flailing about in the
In the second excerpt, Andrew’s regiment
is under fire and he has been badly wounded. Despite his
recent unhappiness, when he knew he was about to be hit
he was seized by a “passionate love of life” and a desire
not to die.
Now, in great physical distress, Andrew
is taken to the operating tent, where amid the profusion
of bodies he is once again struck by “the same flesh” that
had “filled the dirty pond.” In this tent he both witnesses
and experiences the horror of nineteenth-century battlefield
surgery. In the aftermath of this ordeal, Andrew observes
an excruciating amputation occurring on the table next to
his own, and recognizes the sufferer as the man he has been
pursuing: the seducer of his beloved Natásha.
Andrew feels “disgust and horror” because
of “that immense number of bodies splashing about in the
dirty pond.” Why? What evokes this response? Why does it
extend to his own flesh?
When Andrew sees the “naked, bleeding
human bodies” in the surgical tent, he believes he sees
“the same flesh” that had disturbed him in the pond. Is
it the same flesh? Does he regard it in the same way? Why
or why not?
Why does the amputee beg to see the
leg that has been taken from him?
In the operating tent Andrew experiences
fear for his own life, terrible pain, tender care, and the
sight of acute human suffering. What accounts for the revelation
that comes to him? What does flesh have to do with it?
What does human flesh teach Andrew
about the human soul?
From Smolénsk the troops continued to retreat, followed
by the enemy. On the tenth of August the regiment Prince Andrew
commanded was marching along the highroad past the avenue
leading to Bald Hills. Heat and drought had continued for
more than three weeks. Each day fleecy clouds floated across
the sky and occasionally veiled the sun, but toward evening
the sky cleared again and the sun set in reddish-brown mist.
Heavy night dews alone refreshed the earth. The unreaped corn
was scorched and shed its grain. The marshes dried up. The
cattle lowed from hunger, finding no food on the sun-parched
meadows. Only at night and in the forests while the dew lasted
was there any freshness. But on the road, the highroad along
which the troops marched, there was no such freshness even
at night or when the road passed through the forest; the dew
was imperceptible on the sandy dust churned up more than six
inches deep. As soon as day dawned the march began. The artillery
and baggage wagons moved noiselessly through the deep dust
that rose to the very hubs of the wheels, and the infantry
sank ankle-deep in that soft, choking, hot dust that never
cooled even at night. Some of this dust was kneaded by the
feet and wheels, while the rest rose and hung like a cloud
over the troops, settling in eyes, ears, hair, and nostrils,
and worst of all in the lungs of the men and beasts as they
moved along that road. The higher the sun rose the higher
rose that cloud of dust, and through the screen of its hot
fine particles one could look with naked eye at the sun, which
showed like a huge crimson ball in the unclouded sky. There
was no wind, and the men choked in that motionless atmos-phere.
They marched with handkerchiefs tied over their noses and
mouths. When they passed through a village they all rushed
to the wells and fought for the water and drank it down to
Prince Andrew was in command of a regiment, and the management
of that regiment, the welfare of the men and the necessity
of receiving and giving orders, engrossed him. The burning
of Smolénsk and its abandonment made an epoch in his life.
A novel feeling of anger against the foe made him forget his
own sorrow. He was entirely devoted to the affairs of his
regiment and was considerate and kind to his men and officers.
In the regiment they called him “our prince,” were proud of
him and loved him. But he was kind and gentle only to those
of his regiment, to Timókhin and the like—people quite new
to him, belonging to a different world and who could not know
and understand his past. As soon as he came across a former
acquaintance or anyone from the staff, he bristled up immediately
and grew spiteful, ironical, and contemptuous. Everything
that reminded him of his past was repugnant to him, and so
in his relations with that former circle he confined himself
to trying to do his duty and not to be unfair. . . .
. . . Prince Andrew was somewhat refreshed by having ridden
off the dusty highroad along which the troops were moving.
But not far from Bald Hills he again came out on the road
and overtook his regiment at its halting place by the dam
of a small pond. It was past one o’clock. The sun, a red ball
through the dust, burned and scorched his back intolerably
through his black coat. The dust always hung motionless above
the buzz of talk that came from the resting troops. There
was no wind. As he crossed the dam Prince Andrew smelled the
ooze and freshness of the pond. He longed to get into that
water, however dirty it might be, and he glanced round at
the pool from whence came sounds of shrieks and laughter.
The small, muddy, green pond had risen visibly more than a
foot, flooding the dam, because it was full of the naked white
bodies of soldiers with brick-red hands, necks, and faces,
who were splashing about in it. All this naked white human
flesh, laughing and shrieking, floundered about in that dirty
pool like carp stuffed into a watering can, and the suggestion
of merriment in that floundering mass rendered it specially
One fair-haired young soldier of the third company, whom
Prince Andrew knew and who had a strap round the calf of one
leg, crossed himself, stepped back to get a good run, and
plunged into the water; another, a dark noncommissioned officer
who was always shaggy, stood up to his waist in the water
joyfully wriggling his muscular figure and snorted with satisfaction
as he poured the water over his head with hands blackened
to the wrists. There were sounds of men slapping one another,
yelling, and puffing.
Everywhere on the bank, on the dam, and in the pond, there
was healthy, white, muscular flesh. The officer, Timókhin,
with his red little nose, standing on the dam wiping himself
with a towel, felt confused at seeing the prince, but made
up his mind to address him nevertheless.
“It’s very nice, your excellency! Wouldn’t you like to?”
“It’s dirty,” replied Prince Andrew, making a grimace.
“We’ll clear it out for you in a minute,” said Timókhin,
and, still undressed, ran off to clear the men out of the
“The prince wants to bathe.”
“What prince? Ours?” said many voices, and the men were
in such haste to clear out that the prince could hardly stop
them. He decided that he would rather souse himself with water
in the barn.
“Flesh, bodies, cannon fodder!” he thought, and he looked
at his own naked body and shuddered, not from cold but from
a sense of disgust and horror he did not himself understand,
aroused by the sight of that immense number of bodies splashing
about in the dirty pond.
The militiamen carried Prince Andrew to the dressing station
by the wood, where wagons were stationed. The dressing station
consisted of three tents with flaps turned back, pitched at
the edge of a birch wood. In the wood, wagons and horses were
standing. The horses were eating oats from their movable troughs
and sparrows flew down and pecked the grains that fell. Some
crows, scenting blood, flew among the birch trees cawing impatiently.
Around the tents, over more than five acres, bloodstained
men in various garbs stood, sat, or lay. Around the wounded
stood crowds of soldier stretcher-bearers with dismal and
attentive faces, whom the officers keeping order tried in
vain to drive from the spot. Disregarding the officers’ orders,
the soldiers stood leaning against their stretchers and gazing
intently, as if trying to comprehend the difficult problem
of what was taking place before them. From the tents came
now loud angry cries and now plaintive groans. Occasionally
dressers ran out to fetch water, or to point out those who
were to be brought in next. The wounded men awaiting their
turn outside the tents groaned, sighed, wept, screamed, swore,
or asked for vodka. Some were delirious. Prince Andrew’s bearers,
stepping over the wounded who had not yet been bandaged, took
him, as a regimental commander, close up to one of the tents
and there stopped, awaiting instructions. Prince Andrew opened
his eyes and for a long time could not make out what was going
on around him. He remembered the meadow, the wormwood, the
field, the whirling black ball, and his sudden rush of passionate
love of life. Two steps from him, leaning against a branch
and talking loudly and attracting general attention, stood
a tall, handsome, black-haired noncommissioned officer with
a bandaged head. He had been wounded in the head and leg by
bullets. Around him, eagerly listening to his talk, a crowd
of wounded and stretcher-bearers was gathered.
“We kicked him out from there so that he chucked
everything, we grabbed the King himself!” cried he, looking
around him with eyes that glittered with fever. “If only reserves
had come up just then, lads, there wouldn’t have been nothing
left of him! I tell you surely. . . .”
. . . Like all the others near the speaker, Prince Andrew
looked at him with shining eyes and experienced a sense of
comfort. “But isn’t it all the same now?” thought he. “And
what will be there, and what has there been here? Why was
I so reluctant to part with life? There was something in this
life I did not and do not understand.”
One of the doctors came out of the tent in a bloodstained
apron, holding a cigar between the thumb and little finger
of one of his small bloodstained hands, so as not to smear
it. He raised his head and looked about him, but above the
level of the wounded men. He evidently wanted a little respite.
After turning his head from right to left for some time, he
sighed and looked down.
“All right, immediately,” he replied to a dresser who pointed
Prince Andrew out to him, and he told them to carry him into
Murmurs arose among the wounded who were waiting.
“It seems that even in the next world only the gentry are
to have a chance!” remarked one.
Prince Andrew was carried in and laid on a table that had
only just been cleared and which a dresser was washing down.
Prince Andrew could not make out distinctly what was in that
tent. The pitiful groans from all sides and the torturing
pain in his thigh, stomach, and back distracted him. All he
saw about him merged into a general impression of naked, bleeding
human bodies that seemed to fill the whole of the low tent,
as a few weeks previously, on that hot August day, such bodies
had filled the dirty pond beside the Smolénsk road. Yes, it
was the same flesh, the same chair à canon, the sight
of which had even then filled him with horror, as by a presentiment.
There were three operating tables in the tent. Two were
occupied, and on the third they placed Prince Andrew. For
a little while he was left alone and involuntarily witnessed
what was taking place on the other two tables. On the nearest
one sat a Tartar, probably a Cossack, judging by the uniform
thrown down beside him. Four soldiers were holding him, and
a spectacled doctor was cutting into his muscular brown back.
“Ooh, ooh, ooh!” grunted the Tartar, and suddenly lifting
up his swarthy snub-nosed face with its high cheekbones, and
baring his white teeth, he began to wriggle and twitch his
body and utter piercing, ringing, and prolonged yells. On
the other table, round which many people were crowding, a
tall well-fed man lay on his back with his head thrown back.
His curly hair, its color, and the shape of his head seemed
strangely familiar to Prince Andrew. Several dressers were
pressing on his chest to hold him down. One large, white,
plump leg twitched rapidly all the time with a feverish tremor.
The man was sobbing and choking convulsively. Two doctors—one
of whom was pale and trembling—were silently doing something
to this man’s other, gory leg. When he had finished with the
Tartar, whom they covered with an overcoat, the spectacled
doctor came up to Prince Andrew, wiping his hands.
He glanced at Prince Andrew’s face and quickly turned away.
“Undress him! What are you waiting for?” he cried angrily
to the dressers.
His very first, remotest recollections of childhood came
back to Prince Andrew’s mind when the dresser with sleeves
rolled up began hastily to undo the buttons of his clothes
and undressed him. The doctor bent down over the wound, felt
it, and sighed deeply. Then he made a sign to someone, and
the torturing pain in his abdomen caused Prince Andrew to
lose consciousness. When he came to himself the splintered
portions of his thighbone had been extracted, the torn flesh
cut away, and the wound bandaged. Water was being sprinkled
on his face. As soon as Prince Andrew opened his eyes, the
doctor bent over, kissed him silently on the lips, and hurried
After the sufferings he had been enduring, Prince Andrew
enjoyed a blissful feeling such as he had not experienced
for a long time. All the best and happiest moments of his
life—especially his earliest childhood, when he used to be
undressed and put to bed, and when leaning over him his nurse
sang him to sleep and he, burying his head in the pillow,
felt happy in the mere consciousness of life—returned to his
memory, not merely as something past but as something present.
The doctors were busily engaged with the wounded man the
shape of whose head seemed familiar to Prince Andrew: they
were lifting him up and trying to quiet him.
“Show it to me . . . Oh, ooh . . . Oh! Oh, ooh!” his frightened
moans could be heard, subdued by suffering and broken by sobs.
Hearing those moans Prince Andrew wanted to weep. Whether
because he was dying without glory, or because he was sorry
to part with life, or because of those memories of a childhood
that could not return, or because he was suffering and others
were suffering and that man near him was groaning so piteously—he
felt like weeping childlike, kindly, and almost happy tears.
The wounded man was shown his amputated leg stained with
clotted blood and with the boot still on.
“Oh! Oh, ooh!” he sobbed, like a woman.
The doctor who had been standing beside him, preventing
Prince Andrew from seeing his face, moved away.
“My God! What is this? Why is he here?” said Prince Andrew
In the miserable, sobbing, enfeebled man whose leg had just
been amputated, he recognized Anatole Kurágin.1Men
were supporting him in their arms and offering him a glass
of water, but his trembling, swollen lips could not grasp
its rim. Anatole was sobbing painfully. “Yes, it is he! Yes,
that man is somehow closely and painfully connected with me,”
thought Prince Andrew, not yet clearly grasping what he saw
before him. “What is the connection of that man with my childhood
and my life?” he asked himself without finding an answer.
And suddenly a new unexpected memory from that realm of pure
and loving childhood presented itself to him. He remembered
Natásha as he had seen her for the first time at the ball
in 1810, with her slender neck and arms and with a frightened
happy face ready for rapture, and love and tenderness for
her, stronger and more vivid than ever, awoke in his soul.
He now remembered the connection that existed between himself
and this man who was dimly gazing at him through tears that
filled his swollen eyes. He remembered everything, and ecstatic
pity and love for that man overflowed his happy heart.
Prince Andrew could no longer restrain himself and wept
tender loving tears for his fellow men, for himself, and for
his own and their errors.
“Compassion, love of our
brothers, for those who love us and for those who hate us,
love of our enemies; yes, that love which God preached on
earth and which Princess Mary taught me and I did not understand—that
is what made me sorry to part with life, that is what remained
for me had I lived. But now it is too late. I know it!”~
From WAR AND PEACE by Leo Tolstoy.
George Gibian, editor, translated by Aylmer and Louise Maude. Copyright
© 1996, 1966 by W. W. Norton & Company. Used by permission
of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. This selection may not be reproduced,
stored, or transmitted without prior written permission from the publisher.