“The Anatomical Mission to Burma“, is a thought provoking essay in November’s Science by Michael Sappol of the National Library of Medicine’s History of Medicine Division.
Sappol begins by outlining nineteenth century missionary efforts to alter the belief systems held by “the Heathen” by developing in them a thorough, visual knowledge of the body’s inner workings. He then deftly draws parallels between the rationale behind these efforts and a similar conceptual journey undertaken by their ancestors that was facilitated by the wide diffusion of illustrated anatomical texts. All of this is, of course, useful in examining our own relationships with images of the body.
Today, we are the inheritors of Victorian popularizers like Alcott and the Baptist missionaries. We believe that anatomical images–artists’ illustrations and photographs of dissections and body parts, microphotographs, x-rays, magnetic resonance images (MRIs), and computer modeling–show us a true picture of ourselves, our inner reality. Our conception of ourselves as anatomical beings is secure. The anatomical image is our mirror. And there is something reassuring about that. Our bodies are mapped, explained, controlled. Anatomy is us.
But if we see ourselves in the anatomical mirror, we also see double. The science of anatomy is founded on the dissection of corpses. The skeleton and the opened body are emblems of human mortality and monstrosity. Anatomical images represent something we fear and deny: the undomesticated body, the body of desire, disease, deformity, and death; the body that, despite all efforts, resists our control.
Well worth a read.
There is a passage from the Book of Psalms that seems particularly appropriate to a discussion of these issues:
Even the darkness is not dark to You,
And the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are alike to You.
For You formed my inward parts;
You wove me in my mother’s womb.
I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Wonderful are Your works,
And my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth;
Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;
And in Your book were all written
The days that were ordained for me,
When as yet there was not one of them.
Psalms 139: 12-16