mare incognito

While abroad in January, I was invited to a premiere screening of De Humani Corporis Fabrica, a pretty harrowing slice-of-life documentary set in a French hospital. A bizarre experience for my first couple of days in France, as my middling language skills were tested; but many lovely moments of juxtaposition of sound and vision, particularly with surgeons discussing quotidian, often humorous, matters as we see the confronting effects of their actions on the patient on the table.

My overriding thought through the whole thing – perhaps as a kind of coping mechanism – was how amazing we are as a species. While there is still so much to learn in every realm of science (will we ever learn everything?), we know so much about ourselves; certainly enough to remedy a host of ills.

There was also something about watching this post-lockdown, post-anti-vaxxers, and during whatever social suspension of disbelief is trending right now. Something about health workers, be they heart surgeons, nurses, or morticians, just cracking on with their work, looking after everyone because it’s their job. Cracking on in spite of the horrendous rhetoric they’ve had to put up with over the last few years, not to mention even before COVID being treated, on the whole, very poorly.

The confrontational aspect is the very objective views of internal organs being sliced open or purged, or just scalpels digging into human flesh, or various other procedures of increasing or decreasing discomfort to both patient and viewer. After a while I actually found myself somewhat desensitised, while also thinking about the scientific advancements that led us to this point. There’s also something about seeing a body flayed open that made me think of old anatomical drawings, as a kind of map of the human form, but also as a visual diary of the evolution of how we think about bodies, corporeality, mortality, existence.

Old maps, too, command a kind of fascination, and a strong connection to anatomical illustrations. The visual style is sometimes similar, but particularly there is an element of the unknown present in both. We seek to fill the unknown with something, anything; in many historical cases that was some kind of ethereal force, be it religious, cosmic, or fantastical.

We are more willing now, I think, to accept the infinite, the ungraspable. This is sometimes an aspirational quality for academics, to be sure, but there is the increasingly pervasive aspiration of intellectual humility: a willingness to acknowledge one’s limits or boundaries, to hold space in one’s mind for what we do not (or indeed, cannot) know. This film put me, once more, in awe of medical professionals, and of modern science, and very willing to sprinkle a little ‘here be dragons’ over that kind of knowledge.

What a privilege it is to be able to see films like this; and what privilege to be able to think and write about them. The most any of us can hope for is to wear that privilege as humility when, invariably, we have to enter some kind of healthcare setting at some point in our lives.

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