Myths and mysteries of the human body

ACCORDING to Hugh Aldersey-Williams, most westerners live at a great distance from their bodies.

We cheerfully go about our daily business, he suggests, engrossed entirely in our thoughts and feelings, until the body reminds us of its existence by falling ill.

When that happens we groan, and try to muffle its cries for help with medicine – hardly a healthy or a happy way to live.

This duel between mind and body is, it seems, a legacy of our traditional “dualistic” religious and philosophic modes of thinking – all those Platonists, stoics and saints who regarded the body as a corrupt corpse they were condemned to drag around.

Modern science ensures that the fight continues today, by offering a vision of the body as a “complex biological organism” that is alien and incomprehensible to us.

With its “relentless narrowing of focus” on the body’s “smallest components”, science encourages us to view our corporeal parts in high resolution and in isolation.

But the close-ups don’t foster in us a feeling of closeness — the more we learn, the less we know our bodies as a whole. Scientists spouting esoteric jargon doesn’t help; their highly technical vocabularies, used chiefly to “keep knowledge to themselves”, make the rest of us feel like strangers in our own skin.

Anatomies is an ambitious attempt to promote a more positive and holistic vision of the body.

Although in terms of structure it resembles a traditional anatomy (with chapters on the “separate” organs, “the blood”, “the bones”, and so on) this is a dissection with a difference. Anatomies is one long, inspired and idiosyncratic meditation – a pleasure, as well as an education, to read.

With its inter-disciplinary approach, and its elegant combination of scientific rigour with artistic vision, it embodies the very inter-connectedness that is its theme.

Written with the heart, and the body, as much as the mind, it produces emotional and sensual, as well as intellectual, vibrations. And in giving the reader access to so much arcane scientific lore, it is a genuinely democratic book. – The Daily Telegraph

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