Man the Unknown
The young gymnast, a girl, is on the balance beam. What would be for most a precarious pose does not seem to be at all such for her. After a short moment of concentration, she flips backward once, twice, and again, and again till she reaches the exact end of the beam.
A few years ago, the maximum was three backward flips on the balance beam. Now it is four.... What will it be tomorrow ? And this is only one of the numerous exercises where top gymnasts of the world show amazing qualities of suppleness, strength, agility, precision and often ethereal and effortless grace.
We know that to reach effortlessness at the crucial moment requires a lot of effort in many ways. Besides the relentless training, the conscious care of the body must be intense. Probably very few are more disciplined than modern athletes. They must be careful about their diet, their rest, their emotional relations and many other aspects of their lives as all these factors may powerfully affect their performances. The results are admirable. They are supremely fit and their bodies are superb instruments to reach higher and higher goals.
When looking at these top gymnasts' performances, we hardly think of what goes on beneath the surface of their bodies. We see strong and shapely muscles playing under the skin, but muscle play is in a way the simplest external manifestation of an enormous activity which involves the totality of the body -— inside out — with great rushes of blood and
air. There are also many minute chemical exchanges, each of which might be crucial to peak performance and survival. Probably, the most amazing thing is that, in peak effort, despite all the jerks, shocks, jumps, dizzy turns and volts sustained, the orderly activity inside their bodies goes on to keep various organs within the limits of their proper functioning. It is indeed a kind of miracle that the body is performing when it manages to maintain an inner stability in the most trying circumstances.
Indeed, all bodies are marvels of complex, intricate functioning. The main actors are billions of cells of different types, all interrelated. Each cell is a remarkably complex unit performing multiple functions. Each cell also contains the full set of instructions to build the totality of the body. The amazing coordination of all the thousands functions that are going on at every second to sustain life appears effortless in healthy bodies.
There was a time when comparing human bodies to marvellous machines was thought as a compliment. Today it is finally recognized that the most ingenious machines are clumsy fixtures compared to living organisms. The most elaborate of all living organisms is surely the human body, in which spirit and matter are so delicately and intricately put together to produce this strange being called "human". In the modern age, following Descartes and Newton, the human body was seen as a machine in a universe where everything was moving according to definite and intangible laws. The body was made of parts and each part had its own law of functioning. A disorder in any part of the body had its own specific problem and remedy. It might be the liver or the heart or anything else which should be then specifically treated. The body was not seen as the totality that it is, a complex whole possessing great powers of self-healing if given a fair chance to do so. Even now, most medical practices in modern medicine continue to treat the body as a machine by dint of which hospitals are often like "body processors " functioning in a mechanical way.
However crucial shifts of perception are happening: the mechanistic view is giving way to a new vision of the body as an organic whole. The reasons for the wear and tear of the human body are being researched at a deeper level, where the body-mind connection is being addressed. In this approach, a so-called physical symptom may be the external manifestation of a less material problem of relation to one's own self as well as to others. Many experiences have shown that when the self-healing powers of the body are liberated, remarkable recoveries happen which
are found baffling by holders of the orthodox medical view.
One of the pioneers of this new way of looking at the human body was Alexis Carrel. A well known French scientist, he wrote a now classical book Man the Unknown which truly heralded in its time, shortly after the first world war, a fresh approach to the mysteries of the human body. After more than fifty years, it is remarkable to find that such was the insight, one may even say the poetic inspiration behind the book that it is hardly obsolete in its description 'of the body. Here and there, scientists of today would go further, add newly discovered details, but they might not however be able to write such an inspiring text which stands today as a classic.
In his own preface to Man the Unknown, 'Alexis Carrel begins with a personal statement about his endeavour:
The author of this book is not a philosopher. He is only a man of science. He spends a large part of his time in a laboratory studying living matter. And another part in the world, watching human beings and trying to understand them. He does not pretend to deal with things that lie outside the field of scientific observation.
In this book he has endeavoured to describe the known, and to separate it clearly from the plausible. Also to recognize the existence of the unknown and the unknowable. He has considered man as the sum of the observations and experiences of all times and of all countries. But what he describes he has either seen with his own eyes or learned directly from those with whom he. associates. It is his good fortune to be in a position to study, without making any effort or deserving any credit, the phenomena of life in their bewildering complexity. He has observed practically every form of human activity.
He is acquainted with the poor and the rich, the sound and the diseased, the learned and the ignorant, the weak-minded, the insane, the shrewd, the criminal, etc. He knows farmers, proletarians, clerks, shopkeepers, financiers, manufacturers, politicians, statesmen, soldiers, professors, school teachers, clergymen, peasants, bourgeois, and aristocrats. The circumstances of his life have led him across the path of philosophers, artists, poets, and scientists. And also of geniuses, heroes, and saints. At the same time, he had studied the hidden mechanisms which, in the depth of the tissues and in the immensity of the brain, are the substratum of organic and mental phenomena.
When we were looking for the best writing to describe the mystery of the human body, we came across Alexis Carrel's book and it touched us deeply. We felt it read like a profound meditation on the human body. We hope that the few excerpts we have selected will bring to our readers the same delight of wonder that we felt.