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The meaning of knife

Surgeon-turned-writer shares his ‘Mortal Lessons’ with Savannah

By Leigh E. Rich

Maimonides. Chekhov. Keats. Rabelais. William Carlos Williams.

Richard Selzer chuckles while ticking off names of his predecessors as if seating arrangements for an Algonquin soiree. He is but one, he says, in a long line of physician-writers.

“I’m the one that’s just alive,” the former surgeon and Yale Medical School professor, now almost 78, explains with a grin. “I see myself carrying on that tradition.”

And carrying on he is. Humble but with a scalpel-sharp wit, this New York native placed pen in hand—when it wasn’t mending the weak and wounded—nearly four decades ago and has since authored books, essays, short stories, plays and articles. His works enjoy a certain immortality, having survived several reprintings as well as stints as required reading in medical schools.

Selzer’s 1974 collection, Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, has become recommended reading for the Coastal Empire.

The book of essays with titles such as “The Surgeon as Priest,” “The Knife,” “Bald!” and “The Corpse,” is this year’s pick for AASU’s weeklong “Savannah Reads” program that begins Monday. Selzer himself will speak about “The Doctor as Writer” on April 6.

Still poignant three decades later, Mortal Lessons offers readers front-row seats in the operating theater. But it’s not blood and gore a la ER that make up Selzer’s wise and readable pages. Rather, Mortal Lessons provides philosophical and poetic perspective on the art of medicine and the nature of the body.

For instance, in “The Exact Location of the Soul,” Selzer’s insight could make French philosopher Rene Descartes sit up in his grave:

“In the recesses of the body I search for the philosophers’ stone. I know it is there, hidden in the deepest, dampest cul-de-sac. It awaits discovery. To find it would be like the harnessing of fire. It would illuminate the world.”

Spiritual, though not necessarily a believer in God, Selzer describes himself as an “essentialist” who searches for truth in the body—particularly the wounded body.

“The wound of the body,” he says, “is revelatory. Gazing (at the body), as I have done it over the years, is rather a sacramental act. I’m searching for, if you permit me, the holiness of the body in its suffering and illness.”

To wit: In Mortal Lessons, Selzer writes of a diabetic woman whose leg he had to amputate, despite attempts to trim away the dying tissue.

“At last we gave up, she and I. We could no longer run ahead of the gangrene. We had not the legs for it. There must be an amputation in order that she might live—and I as well. It was to heal us both that I must take up knife and saw, and cut the leg off. And when I could feel it drop from her body to the table, see the blessed space appear between her and that leg, I too would be well.”

But Selzer admits that such musings about medicine didn’t fully develop until he began putting fountain pen to paper at the age of 40.

“After so many years of surgery and entering the body to repair it, I did want to find a deeper meaning for the whole thing. And I found that through my writing. The act of writing was transformative for me.”

Retired from surgery and now a full-time writer, Selzer’s life hasn’t revolved solely around medicine. Later essays in Mortal Lessons depict bird watching, young love, car sickness, and growing up in Troy, New York, the son of a family doctor and, as he describes it, “Troy’s only diva.”

“I lived between medicine and the arts,” he says of his father and mother, “so it was almost my destiny that I would become a doctor as he wanted me to do and then become a kind of artist as she wanted me to do.”

When asked if he misses surgery, Selzer responds without hesitation: “No.”

Instead, he spends his days—and nights—writing, with some time allotted for his wife, bird watching, and daily jaunts to Yale’s library. He’s currently editing 30 years’ worth of his diaries, which will be published by the University of Iowa Press.

Even though he traded in scalpel for pen years ago, Selzer’s dreams are still full of surgery.

“I’m still there in the operating room contending with the disease. No wonder I wake up exhausted.”

Richard Selzer speaks Thursday, April 6 at 7 p.m., at AASU’s Fine Arts Hall Auditorium. 

Rich, L. E. (2006, April 3). The meaning of knife: Surgeon-turned-writer Richard Selzer shares his ‘Mortal Lessons’ with Savannah. Connect Savannah, p. 18.

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