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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 inescapable appetites.

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 diamond.

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.



Sample Reading

Excerpts from

War and Peace

Cannon Fodder and The Operating Tent
by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Aylmer and Louise Maude

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 muddy water.

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?


Excerpt 1

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 the mud.

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 pathetic.

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?” said he.

“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 pond.

“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.

Excerpt 2

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 the tent.

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 away.

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 to himself.

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.


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