Bodies: Big Ideas/Small Books
By Susie Orbach
Paperback Trade, Picador: New York
$14.00, 208 pages
Experimental Man: What One Man's Body Reveals about His Future, Your Health, and Our Toxic World
By David Ewing Duncan
384 pages, $25.95
John Wiley & Sons: Hoboken, NJ
That inescapable animal walks with me,
Has followed me since the black womb held,
Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
A caricature, a swollen shadow,
A stupid clown of the spirit's motive ....
The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me
For psychoanalyst Susie Orbach, the human body in the 21st century has become--as it clearly was for Delmore Schwartz when he penned "The Heavy Bear" more than forty years ago--a burden. "Our bodies," she writes, "no longer make things." They "are and have become a form of work. The body is turning from being the means of production to the production itself."
The new idea that our bodies are and should be an individual creation rather than the simple outcome of biology means that the body takes up enormous amounts of energy and becomes a source of considerable difficulty for many, many people today.
Worse, she claims, "Our body is judged as our individual production." This assignment of body as our "production" means we are responsible for it, in all its manifest messiness and inescapable breakdown. No matter how healthy our diets, how rigorous our workout routines, how dedicated our appearance regimens, we're going to age, wither, wrinkle and ultimately, decay. Failure of our physical body is, obviously, inevitable; previous generations often wore theirs out with hard brutal use. Today, we witness our own often more genteel declines and despair.
The fact that in the modern era fewer and fewer of us do physical work with our physical beings has made us psychically a mess, Orbach claims, both distanced from our physical selves yet dysfunctionally preoccupied with them. This preoccupation and accompanying questioning--Is it ornament? Luxury? Unused tool? Wasted on the psyche within?--has created a great dis-ease that has driven patients to seek out a wide array of body/mind specialists to try to resolve the ill fit. Nutritionists, personal trainers, beauticians, therapists, hypnotists, masseuses-- all speak to a desire to "treat" or "improve" our physical birthright. And how many industries now depend on this very discomfort with our bodies for their financial survival? From weight loss to gyms to cosmetics to plastic surgery .... Imagine how many dollars would be lost to the economy were everyone to wake up tomorrow morning feeling perfectly at home with their so-called natural bodies. Yet there's a catch: "In this time of body instability," Ohrbach writes, "what becomes ever clearer is that the natural body is a fiction."
In Bodies Ohrbach explores all the ways this "fiction" troubles us, using case histories from her own professional experience. Some of her patients are not unexpected--sex reassignment seekers, adolescent girls who cut themselves, anorexics. But others are more puzzling and mysterious, like the man who searches the world for a surgeon willing to amputate his legs because he's always felt, psychically, like an amputee. What are we to make of this? Aside from this desire, he has no other oddities that would point to mental illness. And at the risk of sounding like the mother that I am, discussing tatoos and piercings with my daughters, the case of the amputee raises the question of how far we dare take science and its promises, both of adornment and improved health. Just because we can and want to do something irreversible to our physical selves, should we? So much possibility for willed change exists, it seems it would be hard to know when to stop, once begun. And corporations, of course, know this:
The numerous industries--diet, food, style, cosmetic surgery, pharmaceutical and media--that represent bodies as being about performance, fabrication and display make us think that our bodies are sites for (re)construction and improvement. Collectively, they leave us with a sense that our bodies' capacities are limited only by our purse and determination.
Ohrbach's exploration of the relationship we have with our bodies is both thought-provoking and disturbing. Where our minds end and our bodies begin has always been a mysterious boundary, and modern science has become punctuated by studies that evidence that optimists are healthier than pessimists and that pessimists are more prone to dementia.
Yet, like the question of Should we do to ourselves all that we can do?, the question posed by the second book under review, David Duncan's The Experimental Man, looks at the state of modern science today and asks: Should we know all that we can know?
Journalist Duncan, a National Geographic and Wired contributor, had a notion a couple of years ago to undergo every test he could that's out there now in order to get a fix on his own body. In his effort to "humanize science" for readers, Duncan became a human guinea pig for sophisticated testing, from in-depth genetic analysis to brain and full-body scans, from dozens of blood analyses to examinations of all his organs.
In a sense, he voluntarily and intentionally undertook what Ohrbach is seemingly deploring: the body experienced as a project. From this intriguing premise--that as a journalist he would learn all the knowables he could about the machine that is him, and then share the experience with readers--some very unexpected issues arise, many of which raise more questions than they answer:
- There is more information available about our bodies than we know what to do with. By the end of his vast scientific self-exploration, Duncan is the proud possessor of far more data about himself than he could ever hope to sort through (at least for now) in his lifetime. What all this data means cannot even begin to be fully interpreted--science right now is in the stages of mastering the gathering of information, not necessarily in interpreting what a majority of it actually means.
- So much information can be amassed, with such a small proportion of it completely understood, that much of it appears to contradict itself. Genes may predict one outcome for a certain propensity for, say, heart disease, while blood markers may predict another. Probably a majority of Duncan's tests came out this way -- with quite a muddle from which to pick and choose.
- With all these possible tests and results--most of them conveyed to Duncan via email--how do we as citizens protect our privacy as we move into a brave new frontier wherein our maladies become more identifiable and predictable? How do we as a society put into place safeguards against insurers, employers, government, heck ... even future romantic partners from accessing our innermost physical selves from unsolicited probing?
- Our environment lives with us forever. Duncan, age 50, was still carrying around within him traces of toxins from pesticides and toxic waste dumps he lived near as a child. Alternatively, he also was able to make his mercury levels spike by simply having one meal of fresh fish and testing himself the next day. Our chemical selves are highly responsive to both our past and our present, no matter how safe a life we think we've lived or are conscientiously, currently living.
- Sometimes our bodies are not only about ourselves. Discovering information about yourself can raise questions not just about how you would handle knowing your innermost physical time-bombs, but those of your relatives as well. Duncan learns he carries some genes that could raise the risk for his daughter of having breast cancer. She too has volunteered simultaneously to undertake comparative genetic testing. What does such knowledge about her genes mean to her when thinking of her future?
Ultimately, Duncan discovers that for his age, he is one healthy guy, with good indications that he’ll live a longer than normal life. But what if the journey had revealed the opposite? Obviously, if something already wrong with him had turned up, he’d have begun treatment. But so much of what he was tested for could only be discussed in terms of trends, statistics, probabilities. How does one live (and would one want to), knowing more specifically the likelihood of dying in one age bracket as opposed to another? If we were purely creatures of cold logic, such information would probably be welcome for all sorts of reasons (financial planning for retirement, for instance). But clearly, we’re not. The emotional reality of our own death is something we generally keep at a distance, and it’s unlikely that many of us would be comfortable with a more specific date than the hazy "some day" hanging out there.
In this way, both Ohrbach’s and Duncan’s book come to a nice circle together. How we think about ourselves, how we define ourselves, is both assigned to the physical body and the unmeasurable mind that is doing the thinking and deciding about ourselves. We are projects, inescapable ones, somewhat artificial ones as well, who think about thinking with an organ assigned to do so. And how we deal with that, and create societies and civilizations and science as well is what makes us unique humans with shared but differing experiences.
In terms of quality and mode of writing, both books' styles serve their purpose, but neither is earth-shatteringly lyrical. Ohrbach's shorter work reflects her technical background, and the prose leans toward the academic. Duncan strives for a storytelling approach, describing test settings in detail and diagnosticians as characters. There are passages where this doesn't work well and he'd be better off just telling of his journey more journalistically; at times he becomes entangled by setting a scene when he gets news, then enters a flashback to when the test was given, then refers back to a previous portion of the book. In one instance, he never does return to the cafeteria where he's being given the results at the opening of a chapter, and it's hard to escape the thought that there's just a little too much literary affectation in such a case. Sometimes straightfoward chronological reportage works best, dull as it may sound to undertake.
Still, both works are highly engaging and well worth the read. Thoughts about bodies, their secrets and mysteries, the use of information about them, and how our physical selves feed into our personal identities (and in Duncan's case, our ultimate personal demise) will haunt for days afterwards--a sign that a book has hit a sweet spot.