Tuesday, June 16, 2009
The Fourth Hand, by John Irving
Where do you draw the line on what constitutes "you"?
Whatever your stance on the metaphysics of soul* and body, you have an innate sense of what is "you" and what is not. I realize that I cannot speak for everyone, but I think most of us would consider trimmed toenails and cut hair as no longer part of one's self; hell, a lot of people don't think of those growths as part of the self even when they're still attached to the body.
*And by "soul" I mean the non-physical essence of a person. Not getting into anything religious here. Even if you believe that a person's soul/mind/essence/whatever is nothing more than electrical energy in the brain, there is a point at which you distinguish between "you" and "not you." And even if you believe your essence to be completely bound in non-corporeal form, you still have a sense of your physical self being "you" -- or at least "yours."
But where do you draw the line? If I cut off my finger instead of my fingernail, I still call it "my finger" and certainly believe it to be mine. But is it still part of me? If a dog bites my finger while it's attached to me, I exclaim, "That dog bit me!" But if he bites it after it's been severed, I shout (probably among other things, like, "Hey, I just cut my finger off!"), "That dog bit my finger!" And are there differences of degree? If I cut off my hand, or my arm, instead of just a finger, does the removed limb contain more of "me"?
I imagine the answer might be different for different people. As for me, I believe that my self isn't wrapped up in my flesh to the degree that I am less myself if I lose a limb, even though there might be less of me. And thinking ahead a long way here, I know that I do not consider my body to be my self any longer once I die -- which is why I'm able to list myself as an organ donor. If someone can use my heart or my liver, great. I won't be using them any more, and they will no longer be part of who I am.
And all these ideas -- really, I promise -- are what make The Fourth Hand so intriguing. According to Irving's acknowledgments, the whole concept of the book came from his wife asking, after watching a news report about a hand transplant, "What if the donor's widow demands visitation rights with the hand?" The what-if in reality would probably entail a whole lot of lawyers and medical ethicists, which Irving addresses without disturbing the inherent intrigue of his story. But an underlying question to Irving's wife's inquiry is, "At what point is the self separated from the body?"
Really, that point probably comes before the body parts are being attached to other people. But for some of us, maybe not. And the question is interesting enough to open up the storytelling possibilities for someone like Irving to run with.