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Book Forum: Psychiatry and the Humanities   |    
The Wounded Body: Remembering the Markings of Flesh
Am J Psychiatry 2000;157:1536-1536. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.157.9.1536
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Columbia, Mo.

By Dennis Patrick Slattery. Albany, State University of New York Press, 1999, 384 pp., $68.58; $22.95 (paper).

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There once was something pure, perhaps even naively noble, about psychiatry’s focus on the ethereal mind. Nowadays our thoughts turn to the magisterial brain. The body has never really been our thing. It bleeds when stuck. It excretes foul substances. It oozes puss when infected. It is prone to hideous malformations, hairy moles, crusty growths. We tend to ascribe a higher value, a greater purpose, to our "inner" life of thoughts and feelings and spirituality, but our "outer" life is more than just a shell or a vessel or a machine. A net of nervous tendrils enmesh the brain with the entire body. Typically we believe that the mind-brain gives meaning to the body, but the relationship is reciprocal. In fact, the body must endure the insults of twisted thoughts, chaotic emotions, and demonic spirituality when the mind-brain sputters and goes awry. The body must have its due and the wounded body its respect.

For two decades I have been a connoisseur of self-inflicted wounds, some the product of psychopathology and some the product of culturally sanctioned rituals that tap into profound experiences of salvation, healing, and orderliness. The Wounded Body, by Dennis Slattery, examines all sorts of wounds—accidental, naturalistic, and self-inflicted—described in literary works. His premise is,

The wound is where something bruised or hidden splits open, breaches, and reveals a memory, a site of pain, of suffering and death, but it can also include a joyful sense of new freedom as well.…Our wounds, scars, and markings may be the loci of place that put us in the most venerable and vulnerable contact with the world, with divinity, with one another, and with ourselves. As such, the body may invoke an entire cosmology; it is cosmic in its symbolic nature. (p. 16)

Just after being named by his grandfather, Odysseus was gored deeply on the thigh by a wild boar. Like a rite of passage that marks the end of innocence, the boar’s gore opened Odysseus to the world of animal appetites and set his destiny. After 20 years of adventure, plunder, and deceit (Dante placed him in hell), Odysseus matured and wove his way home to find a group of suitors lusting after his wife. So greatly had he changed that his identity was established only when an old maidservant recognized his scarred thigh as she washed him. The suitors called him a "wild pig," and then he killed them all.

The "wound" of Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose Confessions mark the first full modern literary expression of self-consciousness, was a congenitally malformed bladder. Rousseau’s purpose in writing was to display a word portrait of himself that was in every way true to nature and to bare his secret soul and character. Although he exposed his own imperfections, he also exposed the imperfections of others. He was repelled by the imperfection of a beautiful prostitute when she removed her clothes: "I saw as clear as daylight that instead of the most charming creature I could possible imagine I held in my arms some kind of monster rejected by Nature, men, and love. I carried my stupidity so far as to speak to her about her malformed nipple." Embarrassed by this cruel honesty, the prostitute told him to forget women and to study mathematics instead. Slattery cannily links Rousseau’s desire to come clean of his self-offal ("Anthropology becomes linguistic detox," p. 11) to the contemporaneous construction of the Parisian sewer system. In truth, Rousseau was terrified of dying an agonizing death because of the urine, gravel, and stones that polluted him. He had to catheterize himself often to open up his system and purify his body just as his confessions purified his soul.

The rest of the book discusses purely fictional characters, including Oedipus (a.k.a. "Swollen Foot"), Zossima (the decaying corpse) in The Brothers Karamazov, Queequeg, Ahab, and the white whale in Moby Dick, Chekhov’s Ivan Ilych, Flannery O’Connor’s Ruby Turpin (Revelation), O.E. Parker (Parker’s Back), and Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Although the book is in the State University of New York Psychoanalysis and Culture series, it contains very little of things psychoanalytic. It certainly is not a clinical text, and the brief concluding chapter is a bit of a letdown. Yet I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Maybe I am just tired of struggling to add some meaning to addled neurotransmitters. Or maybe the book stirred up exciting undergraduate memories when the study of great poetry and fiction expanded my world view. Perhaps I’ll even take some time to reread the classics (I can’t even remember if I got through all of Moby Dick the first time around). Perhaps I’ll be a better person for doing so and, just maybe, a better psychiatrist too.




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