I have learned more from studying the human body than I have from all the reading of my life. For me, the body is the source of truth.
– Richard Selzer, “The Making of a Doctor/Writer”

Although he is known to most as a writer, Richard Selzer began his career as a surgeon. He has used his experiences in this field to create memorable essays that explore the world of a surgeon through the eyes of a poet. The doctor examines the human body not only as a surgeon, but also from the awe-inspired perspective of one looking beyond the physical world and above for some greater power. He says, “I am always touched by the revelation of the human spirit when I look at the body.” Nowhere is the mystery and wonder of nature more apparent than in the form of the human body, and Selzer wants to explore every facet of its complex workings. More than that, he wants to understand his own occupation as surgeon in a larger scope, beyond the walls of the operating room. To do this, he writes.The roots of Selzer’s dual desires to write and practice medicine are shown in “The Making of a Doctor/Writer,” written because his “odd marriage of professions …would seem to demand an explanation” (1), and in which essay he describes his earliest experiences following his father on house calls to patients. The young Selzer was immediately fascinated by his father’s work. He writes:

Already my eyes were in wanton pursuit of everything that Father did, watching the way the lips of a wound would open wider as if to welcome his penetration. It seemed to me that he could snuff wounds as if they were the flames of candles. A person who could do that would waste his time doing anything else. (3)

Richard was impressed by more than his father’s professional abilities, though. He cites the senior Selzer’s unpublished novel Goldie, in which a beautiful young prostitute and an atheist doctor fall in love and are heartbreakingly torn apart, as “the emblematic work of American literature” (5). From this point on, “Fate,” as Selzer’s father would say, dictated his future.

It is in this essay, the introduction to his book The Exact Location of the Soul, that Selzer also introduces atheism as an undertone in the rest of his work. We discover that his father was an atheist – which explains the lack of a Christmas tree in Richard’s childhood – foreshadowing the son’s atheistic path. This knowledge adds depth to Selzer’s recurring use of religious and spiritual language, which when combined with his actual beliefs offers an ironic twist to the surface meaning. What at first seems to be homage to the everlasting belief of a boy’s Catholic upbringing is revealed to be the bitter reflection of a man searching for his faith. He extends his search for faith in God to a search for faith in all of humanity, in the spirits and souls of every patient he examines, and even in the everyday objects that surround him.

A penchant for vivid descriptions and a slightly perverse sense of humor are found in all of Selzer’s essays. His extensive experience and fascination with the human body offers some of the most colorful writing that I have read. This is most evident in essays such as “The Knife” and “Skin,” both of which examine everyday things in uncommon ways. He expresses a skewed sense of humor in “Skin,” an investigation of the body’s most recognizable feature. “Skin” is Selzer at his most poetic – recreating the beauty and mystery of the most revealing part of the human body that is “nippled and umbilicated, and perforated,” and adorned with “adorable gewgaws” such as earlobes and fingernails. He even asks us to “imagine God as tailor” (175) when imagining the reasons for our physical differences, offering as the solution an image he himself cannot rightly picture.

The knife, a surgeon’s most vital tool, is also presented as something more than a simple blade. Selzer claims that it holds a life of its own, and we believe him because we know that he has held the scalpel many times and thus understands its power. The knife performs the unnatural act of opening the body of a human being, revealing the vulnerable insides beneath the surface. The doctor feels as if he is “trespassing” while operating, violating some rule of nature with his routine cutting of flesh. Selzer views the body as a sacred space, and to invade unnaturally upon his place of worship is a peculiar act that he is acutely aware of every time it is committed. Because it is used for such strange and perverted acts, the knife begins to take on a personality of its own. Therefore Selzer recognizes the knife as that tool which, above all others, is dominant and must be respected.

In addition, the knife can be compared to the pen in Selzer’s world. Just as he feels, at times, out of control and obedient to some higher power while in the operating room, so too does he become subservient to the pen in his writing. “Writer’s Block” is a departure from Selzer’s typical work, as it does not deal with medicine in any way. Instead, he discusses the process of writing itself, and reveals his inspirations and methods in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Whereas many writers need to hide away in a sanctuary to write, he thrives in a loud and busy atmosphere. This is most likely a result of his career as a surgeon, in which he would have to find time to write amidst chaotic surroundings, in any spare moments he could find. When he begins to write, though, he feels as though the words are flowing from his pen, and that he is simply a mediator in their expression, with no real control over them.

As we have seen, objects are often personified in these essays. The most obvious example, of course, is “The Knife,” in which the important tool takes on a life of its own. Also come to life, though, is a strange insect that has burrowed beneath the skin of a patient in “The Exact Location of the Soul,” stubborn hair follicles in “Bald!” and even a candle and pair of pants in “Writer’s Block.” This is an extremely effective method, as the reader becomes ensnared in the actions of even the most seemingly insignificant everyday object. It also reveals something about Selzer’s personality – his attention to detail, his acute concentration, and his interest in living things over inanimate objects, to the point that he gives even these life. The doctor gives faith and personality to these sundry objects, almost in place of his faith in some higher deity. In fact, further examination of Richard Selzer’s work reveals this to be true.

It is ironic that Selzer, a proclaimed atheist, seems to employ so much spiritual imagery in his essays. Words such as “piety,” “sacred” and “blessed” are not uncommon in his writing. In fact, “The Exact Location of the Soul” utilizes some of the most overtly religious language of any of his work, while also featuring clear references to atheism. This is found in the story of a faithless priest who is still “adored by all the people for his piety, his kindness, and the majesty with which he celebrates Mass each Sunday” (19). This man lives a lie and sacrifices his own beliefs for his parish, becoming “not so much a saint as a martyr.” He continues to live a hypocritical life because he knows that his people need him, and that “their need is greater than his sacrifice” (19), which is suggestive of the sacrifice that a doctor makes for his patient, and reveals the double meaning present in much of Selzer’s work. While he relates to the priest in his lack of faith, he also relates to feelings of undue pressure and the high expectations of those who rely on his services. Therefore, Selzer can never relax in his efforts, lest he be the cause of someone’s demise.

Selzer clarifies his stance, as well, saying that while he does not believe in God, he is a “highly spiritual person.” The body, Selzer says, is a “sacred space.” He feels more touched by a wounded man than a healthy individual, because of the sympathy and tenderness aroused by the wounded form. He says in an interview that “the body is the only thing that, the more wounded it is, the more beautiful or holy it becomes.” While he holds no belief in God, Selzer has strong faith in the human spirit itself.

“An Absence of Windows” is a somber test of this faith. Selzer must face the death of a patient and friend, due to unavoidable yet heartbreaking complications from a risky surgical procedure. He regrets the fact that operating rooms, once open to the world through their wide windows, are now reminiscent of windowless dungeons. He feels that this has led to a lack of faith among doctors and patients, who are no longer able to see the heavens, thus severing any former ties with some higher understanding and belief in God. Selzer himself acknowledges that he has “spent too much time in these windowless rooms” (331), feeling that the death of a man has affected him very deeply for the reason that he has nowhere to turn but his own soul, his own grief. He cannot look to the heavens, for he has no faith in what he finds there.

“I contemplate the body, dead and diseased as well as alive and healthy,” Selzer says. He has learned about both life and death from the human body, and remains in awe of it despite his extensive experience. In fact, Selzer feels that by examining the body, he is able to see even deeper, to the soul. Writing then becomes a healing process, in which he is able to learn about death and explore his feelings more profoundly on paper. As a surgeon, Selzer naturally must confront death on a daily basis, until it becomes an old adversary like some villain from a sci-fi comic book, with whom he must battle again and again in seemingly endless episodes. This familiarity with death is expressed throughout his writing, and his two professions have allowed the doctor to grow more mature about death, which he says is the “natural course of events” and thus should not be a cause of fear.

Although Selzer does not fear death, neither does he accept it. Strong feelings of loss are revealed in almost all of his work. This is most pronounced in the essay “Lessons from the Art,” in which he tells four separate stories of surgical loss, from a surprise death on the operating table, to the drowning of a sick child in Korea, to the sudden passing of a professor due to complications of an ulcer, to the partial loss of facial mobility in a young woman after surgery. Selzer matures visibly in this essay, which can be seen as representational of a surgeon’s learning how to deal with loss in his profession. At first, the young doctor believes that everything is his fault; guilt is later relieved when events that are clearly out of his control cause loss of life; the harshness of death is then softened in the third episode, in which a kind nurse, alleviating some of the patient’s pain, becomes the sick man’s “wife in his new life of dying;” at last, Selzer finds himself in awe of a newly deformed patient and her loving husband, who deal not with death but cosmetic disfiguration, and are even stronger because of it. Selzer recalls the awe that he felt upon witnessing the young woman and her husband after the operation.

He bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works. I remember that the gods appeared in ancient Greece as mortals, and I hold my breath and let the wonder in. (81)

Throughout, the reader is swept away on feelings of increasing well-being and, and even redemption, for the guilt-ridden doctor. However, Selzer’s subtle irony is always present. Once again he alludes to “the gods,” as if expressing some feeling of remorse for being unable to actually believe in the fictions he presents.
Following the theme of redemption, Selzer explores the motivations in his work in “The Exact Location of the Soul.” Once again, the doctor offers examples in the form of stories that both amuse and enlighten. Selzer writes of wounded pride and the slow realization that in order to be a good doctor, he must also write. He knows that the poet is the true doctor, who “heals with his words, stanches the flow of blood, stills the rattling breath, applies poultices to the rattling breath” (22). As a writer, Selzer can appreciate more fully the beauty of every life, and remove himself from the clinical confines of the operating room. In a recent interview, the writer admitted that the title of the essay was originally conceived in jest, implying that the soul could be discovered “under the kneecap or in a fold of the baby’s neck.” He came to realize, however, that where a body is wounded is where the soul is most likely to be found. Thus medicine became a “spiritual endeavor” as well as a professional one. He says that when he began to write, this was fully expressed and became even more apparent.

Richard Selzer performs a miraculous balancing act in his dual career as both a doctor and a writer. While at first criticized by his peers in the medical community for revealing what he calls “the rites and secrets” of the “priesthood” of surgeons, he eventually came to be renowned in this same community. Now, Selzer considers himself their voice. His writing has even become required reading in medical schools across the country, as much a necessity for the young doctor as his first lab coat.

Each of Selzer’s essays questions the presence of a higher power that others believe in blindly. Even though he acknowledges his own disbelief in God, he also notes his desire to hold that very belief:

Probably the biggest, saddest thing about my own life is that I never had faith in God. I envy people who do. Life without faith is rather a hard proposition. On the other hand, I have tried to live as if I did believe there was a God.

This sentiment is an illuminating glimpse inside the mind of Richard Selzer, and allows the reader to understand the turmoil that seems to churn beneath the surface of the doctor’s writing. Selzer’s humorous and touching essays, upon closer examination, carry a great deal more import than is at first realized.

Richard Selzer fascinates me as a writer, not because of his surgical subject matter or his detailed descriptions filled with complex medical terminology, but because in writing about these things, he also writes about subjects that hold a far greater meaning. Themes of death and loss, faith and redemption, and certainly life itself, are all explored in subtle yet meaningful ways. It is undeniable that whether grasping pen or scalpel, Selzer can rest assured that his hand has, in one way or another, healed so many.

Works Cited:

“Interview with Doctor/Writer: Richard Selzer.” Teen Ink. Nov 2003.

Selzer, Richard. The Exact Location of the Soul: New and Selected Essays. New York:
Picador USA, 2001.
— “Introduction: The Making of a Doctor/Writer.” 1-15.
— “The Exact Location of the Soul.” 16-22.
— “Lessons From the Art.” 74-82.
— “Skin.” 169-177.
— “The Knife.” 178-187.
— “Bald!” 199-203.
— “Writer’s Block.” 204-206.
— “An Absence of Windows.” 331-336.

This essay was written Dec. 2003 for the NYU course “Writing the Essay.”