Injured Democracy Needs An Honest Surgical Knife

Thank God our time is now when wrong Comes up to face us everywhere. Never to leave us till we take The longest stride of soul we ever took.
-- Christopher Fry

The greatest threat now, it seems to me, both to our democratic republic and our spiritual well-being is the cowardly refusal of people in power to seek accountability for their acts. I purposely said "seek accountability." Common people must necessarily have the courage to hold the powerful accountable, but a principled person seeks a reckoning, desires an honest tabulation for the virtue of his or her acts, knowing that history will eventually separate the honest from the knavish as surely as blood from snake oil.

I thought it might be instructive to consider this subject through one of the great American prophetic paintings of 19th Century, Thomas Eakins' The Gross Clinic. Painted in 1875 when Eakins was 35, it celebrates the Philadelphia surgeon Dr. Samuel David Gross from whom Eakins had learned anatomy. Many people found the monumental painting disturbing, even repulsive when it was first exhibited. Many people do today. The dramatic setting is a darkened surgical amphitheater. Lighted from above, it conveys a sense spiritual significance reminiscent of Rembrandt's paintings of Christ in the Temple.

An operation is being performed on the left leg of a young man who is lying on the operating table. His naked legs and thin buttocks are exposed to the viewer. His body appears as quiescent and vulnerable as a lamb on an Old Testament alter. The painting has the ominous portent of the moment when God interceded to save Isaac from Abraham's sacrificial knife. But here, ironically, Dr. Gross makes the cut because his knife is intended to prolong life rather than end it. The faith being celebrated is in scientific exploration, the skill and wisdom of the surgeon, and the desire to expand the limits of what's possible to help another person. Dr. Gross, standing and heroically dominating the scene like George Washington Crossing the Delaware, has just made a deep incision down to the bone of the boy's lower left thigh and has turned away from the procedure to address the audience of medical students seated in the dark, pew-like rows above him. He holds a short scalpel in his right hand. Both the scalpel and his fingers up to the second joint glisten with the boy's fresh red blood. The doctor's willingness to wear the boy's blood, to go to the bone, suggests a profound ritual of the search for truth.

Just below Dr. Gross's right elbow sits the diminutive figure of a woman dressed in black --- the boy's mother. She buries her face in her left arm out of fear and squeamishness. If there is another sound in this somber painting besides the doctor's calm explanation, it is the mother's muffled whimpering. No one consoles her; the focus is on healing the sick, not the fearful. She is present to witness and support her son, but can do neither. Eakins meant her to signify the reaction of affection and sentiment without knowledge --- a kind of caring that winces and looks away when most needed. In fact, the contrast between her hidden face and Dr. Gross's powerful presence --- think of Frederick Douglass or John Brown, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Jr. or William Sloane Coffin --- emphasizes the quality of character necessary to confront and deal with diseased reality and is a source of the painting's intense energy.

Dr. Gross is middle aged. His head is haloed by his graying hair which stands out as though electrified by his generative thoughts. Light from a skylight far overhead illuminates his high, radiant forehead, the bridge of his nose and his bloody hand. His demeanor is one of confidence, authority, courage, mission, and integrity. Obviously, Eakins wanted to impress the viewer with the doctor's skill, the intensity of his dedication to both heal and teach. I suspect also that Eakins identified with the doctor, implying that the doctor's red-fingered grasp of the scalpel is not unlike his own on the brush --- that in both professions one must be courageous enough to dip one's hands in blood, either literally or figuratively. More important, though, is the sought after burden of responsibility. The surgeon diagnoses, cuts, and attempts to heal in public. A transparency that means just that. Not the slippery shell-game transparency promoted today that really means secrecy, hypocrisy, and sanctimonious irresponsibility. Imagine for a moment the face of Bush or Cheney or Pat Robertson collaged in to replace the face of Dr. Gross.

No more needs to be said.

Imagine your own.

Eakins has emphasized the blood on the doctor's hand to ritualize the painting, to stress the sacred metaphor of the cost that must be paid in the search for truth and well-being. The patient/citizen offers his body and faith; the doctor/priest/politician takes on the burden of healing and protecting blood and life. For me, today, the political metaphor is more important than the medical or religious. Like the boy on the operating table, our body politic is infected to its very bones. Our plagued and weakened democratic skeleton barely supports the flaccid, overweight flesh of our arrogant, preposterously compromised myth. People with political prominence are either reveling in the corruption or denying its seriousness by offering superficial cures. They are the classic co-dependent enablers. The media treats them with respect and deference while it scoffs at or ignores those voices who diagnose the sickness and prescribe the necessary radical treatments.

Martin Luther King, Jr., once described non-violence as "the sword that heals" and he said that it's a sword that "ennobles the man who wields it."

The same could be said of truth and accountability --- they are the alloy that must be forged into the sword that heals. When people of power don't demand truth and accountability for themselves and their peers, they demonstrate that they have no respect for the system they pretend to venerate. They forfeit any respect that might be accorded them. The longer the people leave them in power, the more damage is done to the integrity of the system. And the longer the people leave them in power, the more we demonstrate that we have no respect for that system.

There is much to be learned from the good doctor Gross. William Sloane Coffin used to say that true compassion demands action. Otherwise it is merely sentimental. A person who identifies the sickness of a situation, agonizes over it, and does nothing, might as well be the boy's mother in Eakins' painting --- so absorbed in squeamish grief as to be unable to be of any help. Now, as Christopher Fry says, that "... wrong comes up to face us everywhere/ ....we must take/ The longest stride of soul we ever took." The first stride is the insistence on accountability, political and moral.

The boy in the painting would not heal if he were given Prozac and a pillow to prop his leg. He needed an honest doctor with a knife. Our democracy, infected to the bone with money and cowardice and complacency, needs the honest knife.

You can see the painting The Gross Clinic:

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