Autodidactic Asphyxiation

A terminal diagnosis

The Anatomical Theater of the Archiginnasio at the University of Bologna. The room is an elegant Renaissance box: varnished spruce floors, walls, and ceiling, with rows of straight-backed benches, now empty of students and spectators. Statues of men stripped of skin stand sinewed and elemental on either side of a central, empty throne. Overhead, wooden angels gift thighbones to allegories of truth and beauty. A peep door near the rafters is provided for the clergy to inspect the autopsies for religious impropriety. The door is shut.

In the center of the theater, a white-coated doctor and doctor’s assistant stand over a marble slab, upon which lays a cadaver so dissembled it’s barely recognizable as human. It looks more like an oozing pile of body parts. The doctor’s assistant, also in a white coat, holds a clipboard with a facing page that reads: Initial diagnosis: Autodidactic asphyxiation.

DOCTOR:

There’s no piecing the examined life together.

ASSISTANT (unnerved):

Doctor?

DOCTOR:

Perhaps the unexamined life is the more ‘lived’ because whoever lived it never lathered him or herself up enough to arrive at the futility of post-examination findings.

ASSISTANT:

What are the findings, doctor? You have dismembered the patient, and so what are your conclusions?

DOCTOR:

Life is a mess.

ASSISTANT (flips nervously through the papers clamped to the clipboard):

I’m sorry, doctor?

DOCTOR:

Life is a mess. That is my conclusion.

ASSISTANT:

Doctor — your hands are covered in blood and your smock is splattered grotesquely. Those findings are meager, indeed.

DOCTOR:

Indeed. You just said, ‘indeed.’

ASSISTANT:

Will that be your report to the Journal of Philosophy, Medicine and Posterity? That well-worn phrase? That life is a mess?

DOCTOR:

At the present altitude of my senses, those are my findings.

ASSISTANT:

Meager findings, doctor. Finding, really. Singular.

DOCTOR:

I am aware.

ASSISTANT:

And the family beyond these storied walls? In the waiting room that was gifted by a pillar of the community who felt the couches were not to his liking as he awaited news of his third wife’s death? That family of Man, hands wringing, pacing, soothing tormented infants, wandering the echoing halls for conclusions and a new church of the soul? Will you appear to them like a butcher’s apprentice and tell them, simply, that life is a mess?

DOCTOR:

Not sure. Is there a backdoor in this place?

ASSISTANT:

No, doctor. We exit through the waiting room.

DOCTOR:

Well. I’m not going to tell them not to examine their lives. And I am not going to tell them that examining their lives is going to yield anything, either.

ASSISTANT (straining to understand):

And, so…therefore…the unexamined life…?”

DOCTOR:

What can I tell you? It gives more time for living, simply by spending less time examining.

ASSISTANT:

And the quality of that life?

DOCTOR:

Tough word. Quality. Lots of assumptions.

ASSISTANT:

Many assumptions.

DOCTOR:

Assumptions are made all the time. For instance, I assume there will be lunch.

ASSISTANT:

Presumptuous.

DOCTOR:

And that the ham in my sandwich will taste like ham.

ASSISTANT:

Considered a ‘white meat,’ yet not white when served in a lunch context.

DOCTOR:

Please don’t mention that word.

ASSISTANT:

Meat?

DOCTOR:

Context.

ASSISTANT:

More assumptions.

DOCTOR:

I’m shaking my stick at them.

ASSISTANT:

And your patient, doctor. Decollated, disemboweled, disfigured. Will you be reassembling?

DOCTOR (rolling his eyes):

We reassemble ourselves every day. We are never in the same configuration. It’s an assumption to think otherwise.

ASSISTANT:

Or, with due respect, to think thuswise, Doctor.

DOCTOR:

Exactly.

ASSISTANT:

Are you concluding…

DOCTOR (snaps a bloody glove off his hand):

When I am called home, I will give a short summation: The examined life is a lot of work, iffy on the payoff; the unexamined life is guaranteed extra life, with no conscious recollection of it. But still, it’s more of the “it” that an examiner would have traded all that examination for. One of my assumptions being that life, examined or not, is all there is.

ASSISTANT:

Hmm.

DOCTOR:

Hmm, indeed.

ASSISTANT:

Perhaps there is a backdoor.

DOCTOR:

Do you know that moment when you look up from working, writing, making love, and you realize that several hours have passed? That is life, lived and unexamined. Pure.

ASSISTANT:

Lost?

DOCTOR:

No. The completed work, the written page, the child born, is an examination of that pure life.

ASSISTANT:

And we…?

DOCTOR:

We live in between, while examination trails behind us, like a wake of understanding that spreads outward to…wherever. We can never wait up for it. Our job is motion. We are forever students in a final exam, and we reach, grasp, theorize, summarize, cajole, reveal — and then hand in the result.

ASSISTANT:

As if to say, ‘How did we do?’

DOCTOR (shrugs):

Who knows?

ASSISTANT:

And then something like, ‘Well — what grade did we get?’

DOCTOR:

Exactly.

ASSISTANT:

So, then…what was the actual test?

DOCTOR:

Right. You’re on to it.

ASSISTANT:

Goddammit.

DOCTOR:

Indeed.

ASSISTANT:

Life is a mess.

DOCTOR:

That’s an assumption.

ASSISTANT:

But, you just

DOCTOR (turning to the slab):

Patient: heal thyself. Any way you can conjure, trust me, you don’t look any weirder than anybody else. Some of your solutions might even catch on with others. They call that ‘fashion.’

The congealing mess of body parts begins to move with the slowness of heavy liquid.

DOCTOR:

That’s it — eyeballs anywhere, you’ll see what you see. I hope it’s enough that you don’t step into traffic or something. And the limping, the soreness, the arbitrary configuration, the overwrought metaphor? Totally normal.

Bones and muscles inch toward sockets, tendons curl into one another like garden vines.

DOCTOR:

They’re going to love you in the waiting room. Seriously? You look great. You’re perfect. You’re alive, and I love you, and you’re perfect.

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