Friday, June 22, 2012
Parts Is Parts
Edgar Poe wrote some strange stories--no doubt about it. From tales of madmen chopping up annoying old men, to weird siblings living in a falling house, to a vengeful dwarf barbecuing a cruel king, to a madman relentlessly pursuing his double, to wealthy people attending a costume ball which Death, uninvited, visits--Poe wrote stories that attacked the viscera as well as the imagination.
But one of his strangest tales--one he valued very highly (but subsequent generations have not)--is "The Man That Was Used Up." First published in August 1839, the tale concerns Brevet Brigadier-General John A. B. C. Smith (surely a satirical version of William Henry Harrison), the military hero of the Bugaboo and Kickapoo Indian wars. The narrator, visiting him, is curious about "an odd looking bundle of something" lying near his (the narrator's) feet on the floor. A voice comes from the bundle, a leg emerges, which commences to pull on a stocking. The narrator realizes that the bundle was a collection of artificial body parts. Gradually, other pieces emerge and connect themselves together to form ... the ideal version of a general, the version the public adores. The narrator leaves with a new understanding of celebrity.
I have now reached the age when the warranties (such as they were) are expiring on my parts. As Yeats observed (about something quite different), "Things fall apart." So do people. In the last, oh, fifteen years I've watched the right side of my face stop working (Bell's Palsy)--it's mostly back, but not all the way; I've experienced the sundry delights of prostate cancer (surgery, radiation) and skin cancer (surgery); I've had a knee that failed me, an elbow, a shoulder (so I will lose no more tennis matches, principally because I will no longer play any!); I've adorned some of my teeth with crowns and, most recently, enjoyed the six-month process of getting one molar replaced with an implant. When I was a teenager, I remember, I would wonder each night what strange "delight" would appear on my face the following morning. Now I wonder what part will fail--or fall off, what system will shut down.
I think, for example, of our kitchen disposer. Last Sunday, it worked fine. Monday, it sounded as if it were trying to process shards of metal. Monday--fine; Sunday--not fine. Just like the rest of us, one day.
I am not complaining about my physical/medical/dental issues, mind you. Many people have much worse experiences, ones from which they simply cannot rally. One day, we will all join them.
I'll end with a story about my father. When he was a little boy on his Oregon farm, he was one day helping his older brother split firewood. He held a piece upright on the block, steadying it with the little finger of his left hand. Which his older brother promptly chopped off, right next to the palm. This was, oh, 1919 or so, so there was no freezing the finger, no dialing 911, no ambulance to an ER where surgeons could replace the finger. It was just off, that's all, and they cauterized the wound in the kitchen and Dad was back doing chores the next day. They buried the little fellow somewhere on the property, where, in a fairy tale, it would have grown into a sturdy tree, whose seeds would possess the most amazing magic, available only to a pure-hearted child, who would discover, one hopeless day, how a single touch of a single seed from his father's tree would bless his life.