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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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.