We have more than one body, says the retired pathologist.

fgc1.jpg Courtesy of Frank González-Crussí=

My chief preoccupation has been the human body. After all, I spent 40 years as a pathologist, no stranger to looking into the body’s interior, with all its intricacy, its wonder, its supreme resilience—and its incredible frailty. This is perhaps why I was deeply impressed when I read the essay “The Problem of the Three Bodies” by the late French thinker, essayist, poet and critic Paul Valéry. One body, I thought, was probematic enough.

Still, the body is plural. There is the body that we perceive as “ours,” and speak of as one of our possessions. Yet, we know it imperfectly, catching glimpses of it only by reflection. Then, there is the second body, the one that the others perceive: agreeable or repulsive, sometimes loved, sometimes loathed. But, it is all surface. What lies beneath is the third body, the one I thought I knew so well: liver on the right side, a spleen on the left and a devilish entanglement of fibers and conduits throughout. For most people, it is incomprehensible, and so, ignored, manifesting its presence only in disease or pain.

Valéry brazenly suggests the possible existence of a fourth body, one, he wrote that, “could be indifferently called Real Body or Imaginary Body.” It is ungraspable, unknowable and unseen. It is the sort of reality that physicists describe as a thing made of forces, of atoms, of movement, of energy. Technology allows us access to this previously unaccounted for fourth body through the fields of electric energy generated by the heart; the electroencephalogram that captures the waves that emanate from the brain; the colors of thermography, which renders body heat visible.

Are these idle thoughts of a litterateur? Hardly. We go through life influenced by these different bodies: psychologists see the first; artists, the second; physicians, the third; speculative thinkers, the fourth. Each one works in his discipline, his cubicle.

In my writing, I strive to bring the four entities together; they have been sundered too long. Some say that in merging philosophy and medicine, or biology and poetry, I overstep the bounds of my expertise. I say I cultivate an “oblique” discipline: the path that links these four bodies.


FRANK GONZÁLEZ-CRUSSÍ is Emeritus Professor of Pathology at Northwestern University School of Medicine in Chicago. He is the author of On Being Born and Other Difficulties (2004). His latest book is titled On Seeing: Things Seen, Unseen, and Obscene (Overlook Press, 2006)

Originally published May 16, 2006

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