31 January 2013

Lecture Notes on Human Nature, the Body, & Suffering

Today in my Writing in the Humanities class, I gave a lecture to end our first unit, wrap up our discussion of several texts, and tie together the major themes of this first part of the course. Sadly, I did not get an audio recording, because I was running two apps at once—one for recording and the other for reading my notes—and I didn't know that they couldn't run simultaneously. So, here are my notes.

We were talking about several pieces that all appear in the anthology Being Human: Core Readings in the Humanities:
Imelda” by Richard Selzer
an excerpt from Confessions by Augustine
Wither Thou Goest” by Richard Selzer
an excerpt from The Book of Sirach
Washing My Feet” by John Ciardi
an excerpt from The Plague by Camus
Musee des Beaux Arts” by W. H. Auden
To One Shortly to Die” by Walt Whitman

I. What makes us human?
“Imelda,” on p. 54, begins with the line: “I heard the other day that Hugh Franciscus had died.” This sets up the major theme of the piece: that all humans die. Does death, then, make us human? But many other living things die—all of them, in fact. Perhaps we could add this to our definition of “ALIVE”: something is alive if it can die. But that does not help, then, in defining the human. Augustine, in his Confessions, p. 197, adds something quite different to the definition of human. He seems to suggest that to be fully human, one must go through spiritual transformation, or at least consider that possibility. Perhaps Richard Selzer suggests that in his stories, too.
In “Whither although Goest,” p. 226, Selzer asks these questions explicitly. Hannah says, “Dead is dead” (p. 228). But that is only the beginning, and Hannah goes on to question her own dictum. Is her husband not all dead? Is she a widow? Or is he living on? That is the exploration of this entire complex, bizarre story. Is Sam dead? Or is he spread out, in all the people who got his organs? Does he have 7 lives (p. 228)? Maybe that is what makes us human: we go on living if we help someone else, or if part of our body lives on in theirs.
Some of you suggested “alive” means a lot more than “just living.” Selzer seems to be of this opinion in “Imelda.” On page 55, the narrator writes: “I think he had other things in mind than mere living.” So, mere living is not living? Animals and plants merely live: they eat, fight, and reproduce. Maybe the ability, and to desire, to do more than "just live" is at least part of what makes us human.
"Imelda" seems to suggest this, too. Dr. Franciscus is driven to do more than just exist: he wants to work, to help, to make things better. He wants to perfect people. Yet he does not love his patients, so is love not necessary? But then he meets Imelda. Imelda. His response to her is complex, but whatever else it is,is must be a kind of love. So perhaps the "message" there is that one must eventually learn to love to be human, or fully human, or a flourishing human.
And what about Imelda herself? She obviously operates in an entirely different universe then the doctor -- rural, uneducated, poor, limited, suffering -- yet in his response to her and in the narrator’s loving descriptions, she is the human in the story. She is this one who matters. Her death feels like it should be the end of the universe. Yet listen to how many times the narrator compares her to an animal: on p. 58, lapping like a dog. On p. 59, like an animal. She is “a bird with a broken beak.” She is called an “angel” and a bird again on p. 241. Notice, though, that it is Hugh's loveless ferocity that reduces her to this animalistic state -- and yet without that ferocity, there wild be no chance of her healing -and yet, she is not healed in the end. Was he right to treat her like that? Was it worth it? Is it right to treat people like animals even if the goal is to make them more human? That question seems to be raised by this story.
Even the doctor gets compared to an animal at one point, p. 61, horse. Yet at the beginning, he was compared to the gods, and on p. 63, to an angel. Is a human, then, an animal that is like a god? Or an animal that is like an angel? Or, conversely, an angel or a god that has come down among the animals? Notice, too, what the narrator says about the mother on p. 62. When she learned her daughter was dead, “her eyes were deadly, human.” In our grief and anger, we are human. Do animals feel emotions? Do plants?
If it is our emotions, especially our painful and dangerous ones, that define us, then the narrator is correct when he says on p. 65 that Imelda's life was summed up in the image of her exposed defect.

II. Are we our bodies?
But this suggests that Imelda was her defect: that we are our imperfections. And yet the way the story is constructed, we are led to believe that her defect needed to be fixed for her to really live. So, then, in our continual improvements, our struggle to overcome defects, we are human? We try to rise above just our bodies, to infuse and improve our bodies with something more. But the body always wins. Imelda's body killed her.
Sam's body died, but Hannah thinks he still inhabits the parts of himself that are viable in other bodies. His heart. Even if we are our bodies, don't our bodies lose meaning we we die? I have watched one person die, and her body immediately became meaningless as soon as she exhaled her last breath. “It wasn't Sam in that cemetery,” p. 228. But it was him in somebody else's chest? And what about Hannah, what about her body? Hannah narrows to one just one sense, hearing, p. 241, and gains some kind of spiritual insight and healing. She is made whole by just one part of her dead husband.
Augustine, p. 198, uses physical deformities as metaphors for spiritual problems, for sins and for turning the soul away from God. Cf. p. 200. He uses health, p. 199, to refer to conversion to Christianity. For him, God is the healer of the soul. This is also in the excerpt from the Book of Sirach, p. 124. Hannah thinks that listening to Samuel's heart will heal her, p. 230. Augustine calls lust a disease. Then he switches the metaphor and says his soul is naked to his sight; we can never get away from our bodies. There is no way of talking about the soul except in metaphors. And Augustine uses metaphors of the body. And of course, the body shows forth the state of the soul or emotions, p. 200. When he is going through a great spiritual,change, he has to move his body: he walks out to the garden, says his bones are crying out for God, and makes wild gestures p. 201. Weeping on p. 205. Falling on the ground. Then, at the crucial moment, he stopped crying, stood up, and read. The body is easier to move than the soul. But the final step is knowledge.
John Ciardi, p. 223, infuses the small, repetitive, daily acts of the body with deep significance. In fact, he does the opposite of what Augustine does: where Augustine used physical metaphors to describe the soul, thus subordinating the body to the sol, Ciardi says that the acts of the body are spiritual, this elevating the body to the level of the,soul. He also equates art with faith : Degas, Mary, feet washing. Service, daily tasks for the body, art, faith.
Augustine also believes we must discipline the body, put it under the control of our will and our soul. He believed that complete celibacy was required for holiness, and so gave up his mistress when he was converted. The Hippocratic Oath, p. 122, seems to suggest that doctors should also be celibate, suggesting something evil or unhealthy about sexual relations. Many regions and traditions have been suspicious of the body, thinking that it drags down the soul.
It is clear that Augustine believes we are more than our bodies: see p. 201, a discussion of the will, the mind, another will, the self. Sophisticated psychology. Not dualism, but a division of the self p. 202. Multiple good and bad wills simultaneously. I think part of the point here is that the human mind is more complex than any rigorous system to define it.

III. Why do we suffer?
In "Imelda," the conclusion is that she taught him perfection and pain, p. 65, as if both are necessary. Augustine suggests that we bring suffering on ourselves by our sins, or that sometimes suffering serves to drive us towards God. Camus, p. 129, says we must work to relive suffering, as does the Oath.

IV. Does suffering have meaning?
Whether or not suffering has meaning, there are certainly ethics in relation to it. It is always wrong to inflict suffering - unless some "grater good" is the end goal. The Hippocratic oath says that a doctor will never give anyone a deadly drug - so death is worse than suffering? It says a doctor will never do an abortion - so the child's life means more than the mother's possible suffering or death?
“Imelda” ends in uncertainty. Ciardi says it gets in the way of meaning: it prevents art, it prevents faith. It drove Hannah to seek peace from physical proximity. Augustine thinks it brought him to God and to salvation.

Then we read Auden (p. 466) and Whitman (p. 144) and talked about them very briefly.

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