- This is a written version of Barbare Polla’s contribution to An Infinite Love – Stockholm.
As a medical doctor and as a human being, I have been and still am essentially interested in the human soul, in the dark matter of the human soul, in the dark matter in all of us. Eros and Thanatos. Eros, the drive for desire, love, reproduction; the light in the human soul. Thanatos: the drive for death, for destruction, of oneself and others, the drive to kill. The dark matter. These drives are in all of us; we all are inhabited by both. Think of children: all of them, all of us, have once torn apart an insect, killed a fly, just for the joy to discover the limits and frailty of life. Our kids are not “bad,” they are human beings, with that dark matter inside them that we all share. Differences will develop with the ability to transform this dark matter with shimmer, beauty and thought.
Now, as a medical doctor, one could think, well if you are really interested in the human soul, then you would become a psychiatrist, a psychoanalyst. But instead, I choose to become a woman in the arts. Why is that? Well, I love images. I believe they are fantastic ways to transform dark matter into beauty, into something we can look at and think about. And unlike Plato, who described images essentially as deceiving representations of reality, I believe that images can be a threshold, that they may open the golden door towards transcendence, lead us to transform dark matter into beauty – and not only the images, but all of the arts. Including medical art and surgical art.
One of my many daughters is a surgeon. She loves to operate. One day she calls me in full excitement and tells me with such joy on the phone: “I just completed a mid-thigh amputation, so great!” I am like oh no, my baby… but congratulate. “And I saw such a beautiful stump you know.” This is art too, a transformation of dark matter in love and beauty. The patient would have died, otherwise. Surgeons love the body, they love to open it, they love to cut, to remove, to heal, to saw. It’s their excitement and pride. When they are done they are already thinking of the next operation. Often patients complain after surgery that they don’t see their doctor anymore. They should not: the surgeons gave them their ultimate love on the table.
There is amputation. Transplantation. Penetration. Penetration is an essential part of the patient-doctor relationship. Not only surgeons have to penetrate patients, doctors do as well. First come ears, nose, and throat examinations, then eventually vagina and prostate. Penetration is an essential gesture in any doctor-patient relationship. Penetration is a paradigm for Eros and Thanatos: penetration can be either or both. Penetration raises profound emotions in those penetrating (the doctors) and those penetrated (the patients). While doctors, surgeons, psychiatrists love to penetrate the psyche and the body of their patients, the love is mandatory, because they need to love to do that, to do it well. But in medicine, these emotions are hushed, hidden, not talked about, not taught.
But what is hidden might blind us, and frustration of non-expressing emotions can magnify that “dark matter” which, when it accumulates without being somehow transformed and expressed, may lead to depression and self-harm and possibly undermine social cohesion. In art, emotions not only do get expressed but somehow their expression may even guarantee the quality of the art. For this and many other reasons, art should actually be taught in medical schools – if not in all schools. And it should be taught to all of us as from early childhood, as advocated by American philosopher John Dewey, as a way not only to face our own emotions, but also as an indispensible way to support democracy.
Art is a potent, if not the most potent way to transform the darkest emotions into creative experiments.
This text served as basis for talks given in Stockholm on June 9 and 10, in the frame of the second meeting of the project entitled “An Infinite Love”.
All drawings © Julien Serve