“Let him prepare the soul as a ready sacrifice to the Lord by earnest prayers…For it is not small presumption to dismember the image of God”
– 17th century (?) surgeon’s handbook, on how to advise the patient on the coming amputation
The above quotation is found in the book The Island at the Center of the World, which in often somewhat overly enthused prose tells the compelling story of the Dutch Colony of New Netherland, centered on the island of Manhattan – a forgotten, non-Puritan ideological root, in the tree of American history. An early Capitalist wonderland.
This sentence just haunts in all that it prescribes, evokes and circumscribes. I see its truth echo back down through the history of philosophy, literature and politics. Perhaps to get the sense of it one requires the descriptions of amputation that precede it, the extraordinary experience and act of limb severing:
There were many techniques, all of them hideous. Typically, the patient, fully awake, was placed in a chair with two men holding him down. The doctor would use his hands to “pluck up the skinn and muscles” of the limb in question, then, as one wrote, “we cut the flesh with a razor or incising knife…to the bone, the said bone must be diligently rubbed and scraped with the back of the sayd knife, which back must be purposively made for that effect, to the end of the periost which convereth the bone, may be lesse painful in cutting of the bone. Otherwise it teareth and riveth with the same, so causeth great dolour…This being done, you must saw the bone with a sharpe saw…” Without anaesthetic or sedative the horror was often enough that the patient died before the saw finished its work.
Aside from the cringe-worthy description, I want to point back to the quote at the top of the page. We are told by people like Lacan that there is a Big Other which symbolically constructs our universe. While I don’t favor his theoretical reductions and the dominance of the signifier, I think something is to be said for the general equivalences that map from our experiences of rational coherence, and the coherence of our body as a whole: agreement between persons help constitute a kind of body, not in metaphor, but rather a REAL body which involves the transfer of affects across the boundaries of our limited selves. Experiences literally travel from flesh to flesh, in waves because the mutuality of our flesh makes of us a community. In this way I think often there is an anaesthetic when it comes to occasions of disagreement and dissent, one in which we seldom have an eye upon the living body where amputations are falling. And where there is personal commitment, we often cannot see the extended limbs of sense with which that person is expressing themselves. When the handbook tells “It is no small presumption to dismember the image of God” our eyes must turn to the images of god that populate our mutuality of perceptions. And when we amputate we must really grit our teeth with a sense of just what we are cutting and why.
Cutting At the Body Politic
Now this may lead to some who have great desire for transformation to simply want to grit their teeth for the sake of teeth gritting, and chopping for the sake of chopping, usually those that disassociate themselves from the limbs that they are cutting. The Body Politic is desireously seen as diseased and need of acute address. For these I suspect, aside from the eros of violence there is a dream-for union with a New Body, floating there in the future. So much more I would think that we should look at the bodies around us, trace the lines of affect confluence, the mutualities of perception, the living wholes that shadow through.
I have in mind the example of Antigone who I often return to under questions of morality. She just will not cut that limb of her family as it possesses its own health, and the State will sever her all too willingly. I have in mind the discussions we have had on Kant lately, over at Mikhail’s place [Metaphysics and It Ethical Consequences.; Running The Red Light, Being Late For A Poker Game. ] which seem to come down to not whether Kant’s ethical framing can be rigorously justified, but rather that Kant is saying to those that love him something like “Its no small presumption…” And with this I agree. One disrupts the body with a great weight of consciousness, and should know what it is that one cuts, like the chiseler with marble. Even the experimenters with the body should appreciate the range of their actions, the richness of what they contribute. I have in mind as well the difficult and interesting questions surrounding Apotemnophilia and realize that given this post, though I’ve been putting it off I should probably finally watch Quid pro Quo (I wish they made these kind of transitive movies with more depth):
It is important to see that even as Apotemnophilics look to sever their bodies, they do so as to form other bodies, microbodies, cross-transfers of wholeness, a kind of reaching of the “image of God” through imperfection. It is notable perhaps that those with the so-called Body integrity identity disorder (BIID) are predominantly white, middle-aged males who form a kind of idealized and banalized core of middle class Western society. A hideous perversion put on us by the perversions of Capitalism as some might have it, or alternate forms of corporeal development, selves made obliquely.
What fascinates me is the search for already present “images of God” body wholes, the circuits of completion that are already operating upon which we bring together our greatest powers. These are the viabilities of rationality, though many of them are nascent to awareness.
As Hölderlin concludes in “Mnemosyne” that last hymn of his sanity:
Himmlische nemlich sind
Namely, the Heavenly are
Unwillig, wenn einer nicht
Unwilling when one does not
Die Seele schonend sich
Take care of their soul
Zusammengenommen, aber er muβ doch; dem
Summoning-it-all-together, but yet he must; for him
Gleich fehlet die Trauer.
Thus lacking is lament.
It is only that “the soul” is ever not something in one’s possession, bled across others in time and space as it must.