“The art of storytelling is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.”
“Not only a man’s knowledge or wisdom, but above all his real life—and this is the stuff that stories are made of—first assumes transmissible form at the moment of his death… Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death.”
— Walter Benjamin, The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov
Our initiation to healthcare involves a confrontation with death. When we meet our cadaver, we encounter a death that defies nature – one that is removed from temporality. With embalming, his moment of death is both preserved and made tactile – it is engaging and it is patient – it is open and it is raw. In death, our cadaver shares with us things that even his unconscious chose not to reveal to him in life. His body is an expression of the utmost vulnerability.
The act of dissection on a human cadaver seems to obliterate both ritual and nature’s course. Now, a new ritual and ceremony must evolve in their place. How do we imbue the now segmented, dissected human body with the sacred? How do we preserve human life and memory while systematically taking the human body apart? As we look inside of our cadaver and recognize the body’s container-like capacity, the organs so neatly displayed, how do we remember that it is in fact a human being?
This is the Storyteller – a gifted teacher, his insides silently speaking for him.
When Walter Benjamin talks about the death of the storyteller, it is due to a lack of shared experiences in modernity. Anatomy lab provides an opportunity to resurrect the storyteller and create a new ritual. Medical students gather around the Storyteller, carefully taking his body apart while learning how to listen to the stories it tells. His body becomes the storyteller and only those of us who have seen inside of him can carry on his tales.
Everyone dies with memories, says Benjamin, however, “these [memories] do not always find an heir”. For our Storyteller, we become his heir. It is now our responsibility as medical students to carry his bodily memories with us and let them inform our practice. For me, the Storyteller presents life itself – preserved, static, and tactile in its last waking moment.