The Sinews of Our Souls: C. K. Williams’ “Dissections”

“This unhealable self in myself who knows what I should know.” A man visiting an exhibition of exposed human tissue reflects despairingly on the disconnect between  his body and his soul, and between his soul and his self.

The poem is “Dissections,” the poet C. K. Williams. When it appeared in The Atlantic in November 2002 (read it, and hear the poet recite it, here), I pasted it up on my office door. Today I took it down, and had an opportunity to reread and reflect.

Williams never flinches from graphic and even repulsive visual images. Here’s he’s gone to see the Musée de l’Homme exhibit, that collection of real preserved human bodies in various stages of tissue exposure that has been making the rounds of the world’s cities for some years now. New York was plastered with posters for it when I was last there and can’t think of anything I’d rather never see. My reaction was visceral and instinctive, but also Jewish—in a culture where I’ve taught respect for the bodies of the dead, it’s inconceivable to peer at them as objects. Yes, I’ve seen prehistoric human skeletons in museum, but skeletons are generic in their bareness; they all have the same faces. The Musée de l’Homme grotesques, with their nerves and sinews, are more naked than is humanly endurable, “his gaze so frenziedly focused that he seems to be receiving everything, even our regard scraping across him as blare.”

Williams is also a Jew. Not a religious one, but he’s moved to pray, “thought I don’t pray, I’ve unlearned how,” and his inability to pray reminds him that he’s also forgotten how to weep.

I may pray three times a day and Williams never, but here our souls meet. I have no common ground with those who claim prayer is easy, rewarding, efficacious. I pray three times a day and these are the three times each day that I squarely face the metaphysical gap between my self and the universe, my mind and my soul, my soul and my body, my being and my God. Yet, yes, there is some comfort there, the comfort Williams longs for because it is, as Williams says, a seeking, a quest, for “what fiction, what illusion, or, it wouldn’t matter, what true thing.”

I’m currently reading Williams’ Collected Poems. I find myself skipping over his early work; these poems are full of anger and the introspection seems shallow. Perhaps they would have rung true had I read them in my own angry years, the same years he was writing them. More recently Williams tends to the melancholy and reflective. Both of us, it seems, no longer get outraged as easily as we once did. Our enemies seem so pitiful now, our personal challenges so trifling in comparison with those of the world around us. We used to get mad at leaders who misled us; now we are dumbfounded by how pathetic they seem.

Redemption comes in the fifth stanza. For Williams discovers that within his jaded self there is another self who can cry, although he almost doesn’t understand why: “a cello’s voice will catch in mine, a swerve in a poem.” Music and words can still move us and break down the battlements that our physical bodies and jaded minds have erected between us and the rest of humanity. “Flint and fire, science and song”—this ancient alliteration, this chant of the ages is his prayer, uniting the physical, the mind, the soul for a brief moment of revelation.

On Sunday I’ll be attending the annual conference of the Israeli Society for the History and Philosophy of Science, and I hope to write a few posts about what I hear there. I’m convinced that science can’t prove the existence of God or of the spirit. These are things that do not exist in any scientific sense. But the thrill of rigorous inquiry, and the hard thinking it imposes on us, produce epiphanies no less powerful than those of the cello and the poem. The flayed bodies that Williams saw in the museum displayed for Williams the workings of our physiology, and also the workings of our souls.

3 thoughts on “The Sinews of Our Souls: C. K. Williams’ “Dissections”

  1. One of the most interesting reasons for praying regularly I have read is that by the Dalai Lama in his memoirs, Freedom in Exile: to reduce fear. Two things should be noted about the Dalai Lama: he isn’t a theist so the standard ‘crutch’ dismissal doesn’t work; secondly he is not particularly known for his fearfulness. So maybe it works.

    While I agree that science can’t make any sensible statements about God, the soul or say much meaningful on religious matters, Bishop Berkeley did identify the materialistic impulse of science–if allowed to progress unchecked as a serious threat to religious practice and formulated his idealistic philosophy in response. He said in famous passage in ‘A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge’, SS6:

    Some truths there are so near and obvious to the mind that a man need only open his eyes to see them. Such I take this important one to be, viz., that all the choir of heaven and furniture of the earth, in a word all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world, have not any subsistence without a mind, that their being (esse) is to be perceived or known; that consequently so long as they are not actually perceived by me, or do not exist in my mind or that of any other created spirit, they must either have no existence at all, or else subsist in the mind of some eternal spirit—it being perfectly unintelligible, and involving all the absurdity of abstraction, to attribute to any single part of them an existence independent of a spirit[1]. To be convinced of which, the reader need only reflect, and try to separate in his own thoughts the being of a sensible thing from its being perceived.

    As I said in a comment on Computers on the Brain, it took until the early 20th century for physics to catch up with the Bishop and realise that there is an inescapably and irreducibly ideal (mental) dimension of our existence. Many philosophers and scientists in the early 21st century have still to catch on though.

  2. I have realised that I may have created some room for misunderstanding in the first part of the above post. My point was that when ‘rationalists’ criticize religious people for praying, they are generally criticizing them for leaning on an entity for which there is no evidence of existence (God). They miss the point. Non-theists pray too, though Tibetan Buddhists would also pray to entities that would be regarded as equally fictional so I realise now that the point is not as strong as I thought it was.

    Though we may invoke God or enlightened beings for support, that I think is only one aspect of prayer–the other part is the whole dynamic of continually trying to orient yourself towards God (I can’t avoid putting it in these terms) and striving for a purposeful existence, to become more loving, compassionate, open, humble and less selfish. To stop trying to cut the corners in short. The wholeness (or holiness if you like) that comes from this is healing and leads to more harmonious and balanced living (if a great deal of our literature isn’t to be dismissed as either delusional or ingenuous).

    This I think makes prayer tremendously rational, whatever the sterile metaphysical arguments. It is only inside this process that you can start to make any meaning of terms like ‘God’ and ‘Buddha nature’ and so forth, just as it is only when you start doing proper science that you can come to a proper understanding of terms like ‘work’, ‘light’, ‘gravity’ qua scientific concepts.

    Also like science (and anything worthwhile),as Haim says, we should expect prayer to be a tremendously challenging process with its full share of traps and pitfalls and wrong turns. I don’t understand why it isn’t efficacious.

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