The Magazine

Human, All-Too-Human

The Bioethics Council issues a book of readings.

Mar 22, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 27 • By GREGORY FEELEY
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Being Human

Readings from the President's Council on Bioethics

GPO, 628 pp., Free

MAN IS A REED, Pascal asserts, "but he is a thinking reed," and he retains a nobility that animals lack "because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this." Pascal is not among the great minds gathered in Being Human: Readings from the President's Council on Bioethics, but his famous line frames one of the central questions the volume proposes to raise: Does our humanity reside in our reasoning facility, or must a less rational, perhaps less material dimension be admitted?

Being Human is an anthology of prose and verse, beginning with ancient texts and proceeding to the present day. Comprising both fiction and nonfiction, the readings are mostly brief: stories, chapters of longer works, short poems, and selections--few more than a dozen pages long. No editor is given, but the introduction is by Leon Kass, the council's chairman, and the preface to each selection was prepared by Rachel Wildavsky.

Most of the ninety-five readings are good, and many are wonderful, even though some of the excerpts are mere snippets, which at times seem oddly trimmed. The quality of the translations is erratic. The passage chosen from the Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance, is from the Penguin edition, a poor translation last revised in 1972. The old Lowe-Porter rendition of Thomas Mann into English is notoriously bad, and the four selections from Homer all use the venerable translations of Richard Lattimore, although those by Robert Fitzgerald and Robert Fagles have long superseded them.

All the readings aim us at the question of what it means to be human. Humans experience the appetites of animals--but we can think about those experiences, just as we can foresee and ponder our coming deaths. Mortality haunts all of these readings, even the love poems and short stories that celebrate children and family. "The long habit of living indisposeth us for dying," says Sir Thomas Browne in Urn-Burial (unfortunately not included here), and much of human nature may indeed reside in that apprehension of mortality which we all have, as our pets do not.

But can literature offer wisdom in the sense the volume's editors wish readers to find it? Lorrie Moore's great story, "People Like That Are the Only People Here," dramatizes a young mother's discovery that her infant has cancer. Its theme catches at our heart. A poorly written account of such an ordeal would exert faint power over us, despite the fact that the account might (unlike Moore's fiction) be true. The ability of a story or poem--or even, to a significant degree, an essay--to move us is bound up more in its rhetorical power than in the gravity of its subject or the wisdom of what it seems to be saying, a fact that nearly every reader (newly affected, say, by a fresh reading of Moore's story) finds hard to accept. A volume such as this, arranged by subject matter and prefaced by study questions, urges us to ponder the insight of great writers in a way that may lead us away from the genuine worth of the writers' contributions.

The theme of Richard Selzer's short story "Whither Thou Goest" (about a young widow who releases her murdered husband's body for organ harvesting) fits tidily into the stated business of its section in Being Human: "Are We Our Bodies?" But the fit is incidental to the story's virtues and perhaps even at odds with them. Selzer, a surgeon as well as a fiction writer, writes stories that generally take the form of case histories. His story is less memorable for the ethical issues it dramatizes--which ten successive questions from the preface bid us to consider--and more for its abrupt moments of mysteriously telling detail, as when the bereaved woman stands before a butcher and finds herself looking away from his bloody hands "as though they were his privates."

THE BEST REASON to read these works resides in such moments, resistant to summary and uncertain in implication. Literature offers not maps but landscapes, whose correspondence to our own topography is too obscure for us to employ them easily. Vladimir Bukovsky's "Account of Torture" describes the KGB breaking his hunger strike by force-feeding him through a nasal tube. "Bukovsky's torturers assaulted and injured his body," the preface tells us. "Did they assault and injure Bukovsky?" The suggestion that we answer "No" leans in like an interlocutor's breath, but the reader may think to balk. Bukovsky's brief passage gives little support to the notion that the self inhabits an ineffable realm that crude physical assault cannot finally reach.

The readings in Being Human, Kass claims, are offered in order to raise questions rather than lay down answers. In furtherance of this, the prefaces to the selections all culminate in a series of questions. The reader is invited to ponder, but not told what to decide. The problem, as the reader soon discovers, is that to identify the boundaries of an issue is to impose a shape upon it. The string of queries that lead into each reading zero in on a specific theme. Every one of the prefaces leaves readers feeling they are being steered, solicitously but firmly, in a desired direction.

Perhaps the prefaces' faintly insistent tone is an inescapable result of someone having to write ninety-five of them, each (as Kass, who seems to have misgivings about them, says in his introduction) "suitable for discussion by groups reading together or for study by individuals reading alone." Kass acknowledges that the "more didactic tone" of some may "get between author and reader," and that the council's "specialized concerns" may end up urging a reductive reading. He settles for encouraging the reader to take the prefaces "with a proverbial grain of salt," but he might have done better to rethink their necessity, for their nearly hundred pages constitute the volume's weakest (and single largest) element.

The volume shows a pronounced emphasis on medical matters, with most of the contemporary short stories and essays by physicians: Lewis Thomas, Perri Klass, Selzer (who is represented in the volume four times, as much as Homer and more than Shakespeare). This seems excessive, but that does result in the inclusion of Moore's "People Like That Are the Only People Here," whose power to startle and move readers seems undiminished after repeated readings. Here in particular, the preface misses the giddy, panicked comedy in Moore's brilliant dramatization of the pediatric oncology unit where parents swap war stories in the Tiny Tim Lounge while waiting for their stricken children to improve or die. The protagonist (not "proudly countercultural," as the preface suggests, but merely an academic New Yorker still feeling culture shock from a recent move to "the Prairie") comes in for severe censure from the preface, which sternly reads the vivid extremities of her responses as failings of character. It is another pitfall of reading literature for its wisdom: The reader too intent on extracting a lesson from a work of fiction will end up imposing one.

Being Human is full of good things, and no reader will have already read all of them. Richard Selzer's "Imelda," new to me, is a deeply affecting account (not a short story, as the preface identifies it; to read the essay thinking its events are fictitious would be to diminish it) of a humanitarian operation gone disastrously wrong, and its effect on the young Selzer and the remote senior surgeon he looked up to. It is as disturbing and moving, after repeated readings, as anything else in the volume.

Humanity is the condition we can never explore from without: The thinking reed reflects on its limitations only in ways defined by those limitations. Perhaps man is unique "because he knows that he dies," as Pascal put it--or perhaps "what makes humans human is precisely that they do not know the future," as Moore's protagonist at one point is told. If both cannot be true, both are beautifully expressed, and it is very human of us to have trouble separating one from the other. What literature can say about being human reaches us by routes more sinuous and complex than the editors here acknowledge, by a ride whose bumps and sways matter more than the delivery of its cargo.

Gregory Feeley's novel Arabian Wine and novella Giliad will appear this spring.