“This unhealable self in myself who knows what I should know.” A man visiting an exhibition of exposed human tissue reflects despairingly on the disconnect between his body and his soul, and between his soul and his self.
The poem is “Dissections,” the poet C. K. Williams. When it appeared in The Atlantic in November 2002 (read it, and hear the poet recite it, here), I pasted it up on my office door. Today I took it down, and had an opportunity to reread and reflect.
Williams never flinches from graphic and even repulsive visual images. Here’s he’s gone to see the Musée de l’Homme exhibit, that collection of real preserved human bodies in various stages of tissue exposure that has been making the rounds of the world’s cities for some years now. New York was plastered with posters for it when I was last there and can’t think of anything I’d rather never see. My reaction was visceral and instinctive, but also Jewish—in a culture where I’ve taught respect for the bodies of the dead, it’s inconceivable to peer at them as objects. Yes, I’ve seen prehistoric human skeletons in museum, but skeletons are generic in their bareness; they all have the same faces. The Musée de l’Homme grotesques, with their nerves and sinews, are more naked than is humanly endurable, “his gaze so frenziedly focused that he seems to be receiving everything, even our regard scraping across him as blare.”
Williams is also a Jew. Not a religious one, but he’s moved to pray, “thought I don’t pray, I’ve unlearned how,” and his inability to pray reminds him that he’s also forgotten how to weep.
I may pray three times a day and Williams never, but here our souls meet. I have no common ground with those who claim prayer is easy, rewarding, efficacious. I pray three times a day and these are the three times each day that I squarely face the metaphysical gap between my self and the universe, my mind and my soul, my soul and my body, my being and my God. Yet, yes, there is some comfort there, the comfort Williams longs for because it is, as Williams says, a seeking, a quest, for “what fiction, what illusion, or, it wouldn’t matter, what true thing.”
I’m currently reading Williams’ Collected Poems. I find myself skipping over his early work; these poems are full of anger and the introspection seems shallow. Perhaps they would have rung true had I read them in my own angry years, the same years he was writing them. More recently Williams tends to the melancholy and reflective. Both of us, it seems, no longer get outraged as easily as we once did. Our enemies seem so pitiful now, our personal challenges so trifling in comparison with those of the world around us. We used to get mad at leaders who misled us; now we are dumbfounded by how pathetic they seem.
Redemption comes in the fifth stanza. For Williams discovers that within his jaded self there is another self who can cry, although he almost doesn’t understand why: “a cello’s voice will catch in mine, a swerve in a poem.” Music and words can still move us and break down the battlements that our physical bodies and jaded minds have erected between us and the rest of humanity. “Flint and fire, science and song”—this ancient alliteration, this chant of the ages is his prayer, uniting the physical, the mind, the soul for a brief moment of revelation.
On Sunday I’ll be attending the annual conference of the Israeli Society for the History and Philosophy of Science, and I hope to write a few posts about what I hear there. I’m convinced that science can’t prove the existence of God or of the spirit. These are things that do not exist in any scientific sense. But the thrill of rigorous inquiry, and the hard thinking it imposes on us, produce epiphanies no less powerful than those of the cello and the poem. The flayed bodies that Williams saw in the museum displayed for Williams the workings of our physiology, and also the workings of our souls.