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SELZER'S SURGEON AS SEER RONALD A. CARSON* We go about blind and deaf, wefight offconvictions that we should welcome as water in tL· desert—could we possibly get ourselves into tL· right mind. TL· artist must save us. He's tL· only one who can. First we have to see, be taught to see. We have to be taught to see here, because here is everyuftere, related to everywhere else. [1, p. 12] In a moment of confession, surgeon-writer Richard Selzer permits his reader a glimpse of the conception of vision and action that implicitly informs many of his tales and essays: I am a surgeon. I do not shrink from the particularities of sick flesh. Escaping blood, all the outpourings of disease—phlegm, pus, vomitus, even those occult meaty tumors that terrify—I see as blood, disease, phlegm, and so on. I touch them to destroy them. But I do not make symbols of them. I have seen, and I am used to seeing. Yet there are paths within the body that I have not taken, penetralia where I do not go. Nor is it lack of technique, limitation of knowledge that forbids me these ways. [2, p. 156] Here speaks a doctor, one who looks squarely at the particularities of sick flesh, sees them for what they are, and does not recoil from them but takes up the gauntlet "in the crashingjoust with death" [3, p. 32]. Here is the doctor as hero indeed. For Selzer there is, however, more to doctoring than being able to look without flinching at all the outpourings of disease and being skilled at taking up scalpel and chemical in the battle against disease, important though these be. His protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, Selzer's surgeon is also a symbol maker—doctor and poet (the poet being one "who sees what no one else can") [2, p. 20]. Selzer's stories are peopled with the sick and dying, with the decrepit, the disabled, the deformed, with survivors of close calls and with casualties of the surgical theatre. For all their suffering these people are not, however, pitiable. There is Harold, the spastic resident of "Fairview" who, although it takes all the energy and concentration he can muster to ?Associate professor and chief, Division of Social Sciences and Humanities, College of Medicine, University of Florida, Box J222 JHMHC, Gainesville, Florida 32610.© 1981 by The University of Chicago. 0031-5982/81/2402-0205$01.00 284 I Ronald A. Carson ¦ Selzer's Surgeon as Seer keep his body from flailing about aimlessly, works an entire month typing a letter to an imaginary lover. There is Chester, once an athletic young man, now a quadriplegic, who manages to hang himself on the canvas chin strap of his traction sling rather than live out his years feeling most like a candle, "white, dead wax, only his head, the flame, alive" [4, p. 129]. There is Faith, the spinster, who early one morning has a vision of her saving angel outside her eighth-story window and who goes to him and throws herselfinto his winged and feathered arms—and survives, changed, healed, "recovered from her life" [4, p. 133]. There is the woman, five days postoperative, who, crazed by pain, calmly unlaces her belly "to rummage in the furnace of her body for the white ingot inside" [5, p. 34]. And there is the young diabetic woman who, in her blindness, draws for the surgeon a smiling face and a "Smile, Doctor" on the kneecap of her gangrenous leg that he must sever. These are among the patients, proud in their misfortune, who have much to teach the discerning doctor. Selzer's surgeon has attended many a patient; he has also been attentive to the likes ofJoe Riker, the short-order cook with the cancer that has eaten a hole through scalp and skull, who refuses surgery and heals himself with holy water from Lourdes. Attentive to Pete, the hospital mailman with an acute surgical abdomen: "Narcotized, he nods and takes my fingers in his own, pressing. Thus has he given me all of his trust. . . . 'Go to sleep, Pete,' I say into his ear...


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