In 1632, twenty-six year-old Rembrandt van Rijn accepted a commission to paint the prominent Dutch anatomist Professor Nicolaes Tulp at work in a public dissection. Professor Tulp, sporting a natty van dyke and wide-brimmed black hat, cuts into the forearm of a dead criminal, making a delicate gesture with his own free hand, perhaps demonstrating the function of the tendons and muscles he is slicing. Several wealthy and influential citizens of Amsterdam, who would have paid handsomely to be included in the painting, peer with great interest at the demonstration.
“The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Nicolaes Tulp” represents the liberal curiosity of 17th century Holland. The Dutch placed great value on the study of the human body, believing elements of God were to be found in our inner minutiae. That they equated knowledge with godliness well over three hundred years ago continues to surprise.
I wonder if godliness gleamed forth when a surgeon cut me open for the first time, when I was just a few years younger than Rembrandt had been when he painted “The Anatomy Lesson.” I’m guessing it was business as usual for my Michigan Dutch urologist, the kidney pulled out of my back like a little meatloaf, dead part removed, then the loaf reattached to the ureter.
But it was not business as usual for me.
The body never returns to its previous form after being cut open. The changes are irrevocable. Not just the tender pink scar to remind, but indescribable shifts in feeling, physical and emotional. I remember sensing a change in trajectory, the beginning of descent, like when a passenger plane first drops from its highest position, still miles from its destination. I remember struggling for weeks just to stand up straight.
Although loss of the body’s pristine condition hurts, recovery offers the human spirit something to chew on. Simple and concrete goals. Walking unassisted to the bathroom, twenty minutes on a stationary bike, running again. The loss also opens possibility—once you’ve dinged your guitar, that thing is a player, not a wall-hanger. We should hope so much for ourselves. We should pray for life to cut us open, to shove our bodies off the pedestal, to let the tiny and heroic inside us reflect what’s courageous in the world and be damaged and healed and never look back.
In gently cadenced lines, Michael Spring’s poem “blue wolf,” cuts into us to find the wildness of a true nature. Split into four sections, each an arresting image, the poem lulls and lunges, cracks open and closes with careful precision.
When the narrator of “Nervous Asphyxia,” a flash story by Shane Hinton, discovers a swollen cyst behind his ear, he takes a decidedly American approach to its treatment: he calls in sick to work and picks at it while watching soap operas. What the doctors find later when they cut into him will surprise you. “Nervous Asphyxia” makes a funny and just-out-of-reach statement on our domestic lives, our own elusiveness.
Prepare to be cut open and changed by “Reinvention of Elizabeth Barns,” Caitlyn O’Grady’s short story, which features sharp, rhythmic prose and a unique heroine. O’Grady draws the Elizabeth character—an OCD wall-flower—with skill and frank sensitivity, the tension in the piece building expertly. In the plot’s fairly simple action, much deeper themes emerge: our vulnerability, our need to be noticed, what pushes us toward courage, toward action.