Richard Selzer is a comfortable surgeon to be around, except he is a writer, too, and you know that beneath the calm competence there is probably something strange, because you know how writers are.
"There was Melville and Whitman and Emily Dickinson," Selzer said the other day while waiting for an old-fashioned to arrive, "in the 19th century. They're all we have," he said with a slight sense of loss for Cervantes, perhaps, "and all of them crazies."
He is not sure what has become of himself. For 24 years he has been a surgeon dutifully cutting gizzards out at New Haven and teaching at Yale and having a wife and three children and generally behaving like a good sound steady person.
But then eight years ago he felt an urge to write, and of course he feels guilty about it.
His eyes are direct and intense as he talks and he remains well aware of all that is going on in the room. He regarded his shrump salad with the resignation that befits a man of his decade, but apparently has found no conspicuously foreing substance in it - everything appears to have been run through a meat grinder, and you sense he may comment on this, but he is above easy triumphs. Instead he quotes a quatrain of Emily Dickinson's, one of those verses that makes you think you are lost forever on a moor somehow with the sun turned strange and white.
He speaks of Shiloh, the terrible battle, where the peach trees were all in bloom and the horse pond ran red with blood. He wishes he had time to see the hospital here where Walt Whitman worked with bandages.
His new book, "Mortal Lessons," is a collection of essays or, as he subtitiles it, "notes on the Art of Surgery!"
This slender volume has been extravagantly praised by many readers and has already led to one embarrassment. The other day Selzer says he showed up for a television show to talk about surgeons as priests, intruders, violators, mediators and other themes of his book (though it is not all that solemn and has several splendid assaults on virtue in it) only to learn that the show's "thrust," as they told him, was cosmetic surgery and how it can make you feel better about yourself.
He had to bow out, he said, because cosmetic surgery is not his bag and he thinks you might as well go through life with the nose God gave you anyway.
This television experience rattled him a little, but once he decided his later interviewer was not going to ask him how to be beautiful, he loosened up:
"Joyce Carol Oates told me she feels her work is sort of like automatic writing, she is possessed, and in writing like, say, St. John of the Cross, there is something exalted and not of this world about it.
"I do not agree at all that St. John of the Cross had to stop and pee and then get back to it. Isn't it being cynical to think that?
"With me, I do not sweat as a rule, I am one of those people that simply doesn't perspire. But when I write I am drenched with sweat."
The question about St. John was not resolved, nor the question how much control the writer has over his words, but Selzer continued:
"A surgeon never gets over that awe of what he is doing. To reach inside a body, up to the elbow - except for a surgeon, the only time one is ever inside another body is when one is an embryo, or in an act of sex. When I treat of this awe, these anxieties and guilts, in my writing about surgery, I feel a little that I am betraying a priesthood."
The sacred mysteries of violating another human body - undertaken after vows, a long novitiate - are never far from Selzer's consciousness. If an operation fails, he says, a surgeon torments himself with thoughts that maybe another doctor or another day or another judgment . . .
But isn't it enough to be technically prepared, careful and rational in judgment, pure in motivation?
No, that is not enough to ease a surgeon's pain, he says, if death results. His book touches sometimes on deliciously ghoulish fact - the final dissolution of the body is the topic of one of the most notable pieces - and sometimes on horror, as in the vividly evoked scene of aborted fetuses among city garbage. But sometimes the absurd and manageable aspect of life is dealt with too, as in the case of an ant (that diligent insect of the genus Formica) that turns up on an operating table where all else is sterile.
Selzer as surgeon is horrified that so filthy (however innocent) a presence should dare intrude into a surgery:
"All at once the ant is there, emerging from beneath one of the sterile towels . . . For a moment one does not really see it, or else denies the sight, so impossible it is, marching precisely, heading briskly toward the open wound!
"Art mad for the reek we handle? Or in some act of formication engaged?"
The ant is caught and slaughtered, the defiled towels are replaced and reconsecrated and the solemn ritual of the operation resumes.
But for Selzer the writer, it is too late to be merely a priest at the surgery. He has already committed the "act of fornication" about that ant.
He says, also in this light vein, that bald men should remember hair can grow back, there is no physiological damage to the follicles to prevent it. Hair could come back. It doesn't, but that's the sorrow of life for you.
He is a middle-aged fellow approaching 50, of a trim slight build, the sort of body that comes of tennis and a long habit of saying no to French sauces.
He smokes and does not intend to stop.He had two whiskeys, on the basis that he is facing the dark unknown (he has been interviewed only once before in his life) and owes a couple of libations to the gods.
The point of the book, in a sense, is that violation can lead to wholeness, terror to health, and risk can lead to safety.
But then there is no point writing the obvious, and in a grander sense the book is not about that at all, but about a surgeon's fears and guilts, or as you might say a priest's unworthiness, however disciplined and pure, before his altar.
Because the theme is a great one, applicable to all humans in their works and loves, Selzer loves irony and counterslants and laughter and horsing around a bit, to make the high theme approachable.
He permits himself a reasonable blast at joggers, who symbolize those who think that by taking thought they can gain a cubit or a mile:
"Jogging, which is the sweaty, self-righteous business of pious accountants and such like, all with their gaze fixed firmly on longevity, as opposed to eternity . . . Personally I regard jogging, cold showers and flagellation with whips as perversions, and not the interesting kind. I fully expect a college of High Cardiologists to announce one day that jogging is, heh, heh, injurious to your health."
Look at the flowers of the field. They don't jog, yet Solomon in all his glory - and what about the ravens that continually do cry? You don't see them jogging.
Vain son of man.
It is something like this - the folly of hubris and assertion and self-grandeur before the awesome gods of life and death, that strikes Selzer as funny and terrible. And yet he, as a surgeon, with the shining knife, asserts more than any jogger who merely runs for his health, while the surgeon dares assault death itself.
To make sense of what he does, to explain it to himself, Selzer writes about surgery. He blurts out an image, over his ordinary coffee at the Jefferson Hotel, that he has in his mind, a fictional scene:
It is the Civil War and a man is a wound-dresser on a boat carrying wounded on the Mississippi. A pateint is a 14-year-old boy with a bloody gape in his forehead. Nothing can be done. "Take me to the railing," the boy says.
So the doctor does, lifting him in his arms.
The boys looks down to see his reflection in the quiet deep water of the Yazoo River. The sun is hot in the sky, the bandage is red in the reflection beside it.
"Take off the bandage," he says.
"Why?" says the doctor, well past tears.
"Take off the bandage. I want to see my wound."