Over the last several months, there have been several posts around the blogosphere on trades in human material. At the Faculty Lounge, Kimberly Krawiec has been discussing her seminar Taboo Trades and Forbidden Markets, here, here, and here. Paul Caron has links relating to the characteristics of donor commodification traits and the potential tax treatment on the sale of human parts.
Which have all lead me to think about what is the role of the sacred and the profane in the money markets of body parts. Flannery O’Connor also thought of these things, and in her wonderful short story Good Country People illustrates that body parts exist in a trade on the eternal — in Flannery O’Connor’s writing, “the characters… typically flail in semicomic, semitragic misery as they strive to break free from their religious pasts and remake the world in their own images, but find themselves pinned like butterflies by a God who will not leave them alone.”1.
In Good Country People, the person pinned is Joy (renamed by herself as Hulga) an atheist who sports a Ph.D., glasses, and a wooden leg. She is seduced in the story by a Bible salesman, who cripples Hulga in the top of a barn loft by removing her glasses and then removing her leg. In Good Country People the market in body parts is a dualism. For Hulga, it is not the embarrassment of the condition that moves her but the exalting of the appendage — the wooden leg is sacred, and something that must be cared for as being undefiled. So when the Bible Salesman asks her where her leg attaches, the narrator states:
“The girl uttered a sharp little cry and her face instantly drained of color. The obscenity of the suggestion was not what shocker her. As a child she had sometimes been subject to feelings of shame but education had removed the last traces of that as a good surgeon scrapes for cancer; she would no more have felt it over what he was asking than she would have believed in his Bible. But she was as sensitive about the artificial leg as a peacock about his tail. No one ever touched it but her. She took care of it as someone else would his soul, in private and almost with her own eyes turned away.”
Of course, Hulga misreads the Bible Salesman’s innocence. She allows him into the sacred chamber, the Holy of Holies if you will, and allows him to remove the leg, for which he will keep as a prize, rather than a sacred object. We learn in the story that the salesman does this quite often, having absconded with another girl’s glass eye, and also leaving Hulga visually impaired by taking her glasses.
The irony is deep — the bible selling nihilist and the educated dupe…. Ah, the sacred and the profane. How they live so comfortably together….
There is much more to Good Country People and to Flannery O’Connor, one of the great southern writers.
1 Charlotte Allen, Grace and the Grotesque, Wilson Quarterly p. 114-115 (Winter 2005).