Updated: Jun 6, 2019
It was just me, Simba, and his severed testicles on the table in front of me. His back was against the tray, limbs catatonically sprung outward like he had been surprised the moment before his death. I opened up the flap of skin covering his chest, revealing his pectoral muscles which reeked of dried blood and formaldehyde. I caressed them gently with my gloved fingers, desperately hoping that my current affection was not the most he had ever received.
“Okay there, little buddy,” I said to him, forcing a smile as if he could appreciate it. My lab partners came up behind me and laughed. It was bad enough that I named my cat cadaver after a beloved movie character, and even worse that I somehow maintained a semblance of empathy. The two clashing tides of reverence and progress had long plagued scientists, and now they plagued me. Reverence is an immovable object and progress an unstoppable force; they have no choice but to go through one another. At their mutual insistence, I picked up my scalpel and carefully incised his sternum.
“That’s a start, but now you need to use your hands,” my teacher said over my shoulder. She firmly grasped her hands along Simba’s ribcage, showing me how I should reveal his heart. Before I had a chance to ask her any questions, she left to attend to another student. The thought of following through with her proposed action nauseated me. Did God destine the cat for this? I looked deep into his eyes and felt his mandibles.
Long live the king, I thought to myself. A frozen horror seemingly pervaded the countenance of my subject. I continued to pet the cat with my hand, covered in his own bodily fluids, while I focused my attention back to his gaping thoracic cavity. How could I do what my teacher asked me to do? Yes, Simba was dead, long before he was called Simba. But wasn’t his body worthy of respect? What made me worthy of him?
I assumed all would be revealed when I did what she asked. Hesitantly, I placed my hands along my new friend’s ribs, finally mustering up the courage to act. I pulled my hands apart from one another, and the bones screamed as I tore them apart.
There it was. The engine of the body. The heart. It hung flaccidly in front of my face, dislodged by my earlier efforts to access it. It looked as if it could start beating at any moment. I marveled at Simba’s greatness while unknowingly fiddling with his gonads between the slime on my gloved fingers.
I hold this memory in high esteem for a variety of reasons. I learned trivial details; the content outlined in the curriculum, names attributed to certain body parts, how to clean a dead cat, and to be more mindful of the contents of my hands. Most importantly, however, I learned the power of corporeal interaction with the natural world. It’s easy for intellectuals to believe they understand the world conceptually, whether through pictures or physical descriptions. However, the same depth is simply not achieved by these simulacra. We would not say someone who has studied a catalogue of Leonardo da Vinci’s work has truly seen Mona Lisa. Likewise, our visual experience is related to all accessible dimensions of the physical world. Whether or not we can truly experience anything in the world is a divisive question, but there are certainly some sensations that are more complete than others.
Take, for example, Santiago Ramón y Cajal. In his collection of essays, Recollections of My Life, he writes, “To study the bones on paper, that is to say theoretically, would have been a didactic crime of which my master was incapable. He knew well enough that nature can be understood only by direct study, and that books are for the most part nothing but catalogues of names and classifications of fact.” These thoughts justified his excursions to his local cemetery to collect parts of the human body. He understood that there’s an intangible completeness to enhancing an experience beyond the page. Ramón y Cajal would go on to innovate techniques for viewing biological tissues, meticulously detailing the nervous system. His spirit of discovery and sober attitude towards investigation defined the world of neurohistology and revolutionized the way we see art and science within each other.
But standing in the Ackland Art Museum, carefully deciphering Ramón y Cajal’s sketches in an exhibit dedicated to him, my fascination for these intellectual topics was eclipsed by Ramón y Cajal himself. Through viewing his drawings, the scientific community gained invaluable knowledge about the workings of the nervous system. However, as viewers, we are only ever seeing the equivalent of a catalogue containing Mona Lisa. To experience the form with the dynamic lenses, the changing scents, the sounds, and the fervent emotions that insist on your attention, is to see Mona Lisa itself. But most greatly, to know the form so deeply as to reproduce it–along with any degree of the sensual pleasures it carries–is to be da Vinci himself. Who else delights more from the entirety of the artwork than the artist? To this end, Ramón y Cajal was an artist on the ranks of da Vinci, sitting near the apex of the hierarchy of experience, second only to God Himself, the Creator of creators.
This hierarchy reveals the nature of research, along with its depiction. An investigator observes phenomena, elucidates their meaning, and conveys that meaning through a medium. The medium may be word, visual art, music, or an infinite number of other methods. A genius investigator is characterized both by his aptitude for discovery and his ability to translate discoveries to others. The former is science, the latter is art. Their union is the necessary condition for all great investigators, including Ramón y Cajal. His artwork captivates artists and scientists alike in their aesthetic qualities and precision.
The artwork, however, is not significant to me because of its craftsmanship or technical virtues, but because of the mindset of its creator. Ramón y Cajal not only highlighted the potential of visual experience, but created a visual experience based on unexplored phenomena. This feat and the genius required to conceive of the idea is what separates him from any artist or scientist who views his work. Ramón y Cajal’s oeuvre reminds us of what is possible at the union of science and art: the perceptual experience to shape the collective intellect. As investigators, we must all take steps to be like him. It is not enough to discover natural phenomena. We must wrestle with the observable until it becomes the observed. We must interpret the world until it can be conveyed to all. We must create connections until there is complete unity.
Of course, none of these thoughts entered my mind while my fingers trembled under Simba’s unmoving gaze. I returned his gonads to the table from which I had obtained them, though I didn’t take enough care to see if they rolled off the table.
Now, with the assistance of hindsight, I can contextualize my complicated relationship with Simba to understand exploration itself. As I learn to think like a scientist and an artist through different facets of my education, I make myself worthy of his body. Without this honest effort to rigorously interrogate the underpinnings of our lives and convey them through all attainable critical thinking and elegance, research can be little more than senseless defilement of our companions on the Earth. And the balls stop there.