Soul hunt

Richard Selzer

Why would a surgeon quit his job to write?

In The Exact Location of the Soul, Richard Selzer gives us his answer. After spending half a career cutting people’s bodies open to “rummage around in their guts,” Selzer decided to put down the surgeon’s blade and take up language, instead, as his tool of choice. Somehow, he became compelled to search for meaning in flesh and bone, in the rituals of illness and surgery. Fortunately, his choice allows us to follow along, reading, as he conducts his soul hunt.

Many of the 25 essays in The Exact Location of the Soul involve events that take place in hospital rooms and on deathbeds, but they are really about the difference between science and art. “Science is almost always fatal to sentiment,” writes Selzer, also a former professor at the Yale School of Medicine. “The personality of the scientist is absent from his work, as it should be. It is quite otherwise with the artists, whose own taste and temperament are always visible in the work.”

Indeed, this worthy collection is a telling tribute to a scientist-turned-writer who came to reveal his own temperament—discerning, penitent, candid—as much as any artist would. Selzer’s writing style can get flowery and too elaborate, but his singular perspective and insight make this characteristic forgivable. Whilst a man of medicine, Selzer considered how lucky writers were to practice their trade. Now that he’s been a full-time writer for 13 years, he thinks how lucky the surgeons are. “For me, the body is the source of truth,” he writes. “I am convinced that my best writing was done in the hospital charts of my patients.”

For those who have followed Selzer’s work over the past three decades, be forewarned: All but six of the essays in The Exact Location of the Soul have already been anthologized.

In the diary-like “A Question of Mercy,” Selzer recounts how he was convinced by an old friend to intervene to help end the life of a man named Ramon who was dying of AIDS. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that Selzer will let Ramon down in the end, fearful that he might be caught and jailed after an expected autopsy following Ramon’s death. Ramon is left to die on his own. As with other essays in this grouping, Selzer is unremitting in his honesty, contemplative about his personal inadequacies.

The Exact Location also includes a series of essays that describe—in a manner both clinical and literary—the proper functioning of blood, flesh and organs. In “Liver,” Selzer imagines why this most crucial of organs (the proletariat “workhorse” liver with “the regenerative powers of a starfish”) has failed to catch the imagination of writers, poets and painters throughout history. Why have the human heart (wherein love blooms) and the brain (the mysterious home of “memory and electricity”) captured the artist’s imagination instead?

Of the new essays, Selzer’s best is “A Mask on the Face of Death,” wherein he describes an alarming visit to Haiti and his witness of the terrible effects of AIDS and poverty in that country.

In the collection’s final essay, “An Absence of Windows,” Selzer is at his best. First printed in Harper’s, the essay describes how Selzer performed an exploratory surgery and, ultimately, presided over the pain and death of a well-loved hospital mailman who suffered from a necrotic pancreas. In “Windows,” Selzer writes with a kind of surgeon’s grief, silent and enormous, reminding us that we are all ultimately flesh and spirit and heading—some more rapidly than others—toward life’s end.