In Mortal Lessons, why does Selzer refer to himself as a "hierophant" while performing an operation?

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belarafon | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Dr. Richard Selzer's autobiographical book Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery was published to great acclaim in 1976.

In the section "The Surgeon as Priest," Selzer writes:

I paused in the midst of an operation being performed under spinal anesthesia to observe the face of my patient, to speak a word or two of reassurance. I peer above the screen separating his head from his abdomen, in which I am most deeply employed. He is not asleep, but rather stares straight upward, his attention riveted, a look of terrible discovery, of wonder upon his face. Watch him. This man is violating a taboo. I follow his gaze upward, and see in the great operating lamp suspended above his belly the reflection of his viscera.
But it is too late; he has already seen; that which no man should; he has trespassed. And I am no longer a surgeon, but a hierophant who must do magic to ward off the punishment of the angry gods.
(Selzer, Mortal Lessons, Google Books)

A Hierophant is one who is in charge of exposing people to holy or sacred things. Priests are hierophants; they bring the "holy spirit" to people and pray on their behalf. In Selzer's case, he sees his actions as a surgeon as one who is delving into things Man was not meant to experience. He interferes with the inner workings of the body, which are meant to be enclosed, and intercedes with "gods" and nature, which would kill a man before his time. The things he brings into the sacred human body are his skills, his knowledge, and his tools.

Selzer's passion for surgery thus is a religious experience for him; he knows the delicacy of the human body and how he privileged to be one who can cure people with his actions. His "magic" is surgery, and the "punishment" he is warding are the consequences of his actions; if he performs well, the patient will live, but if he makes a mistake, the patient will die.


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