Anesthesia has had a tremendous impact on the field of medicine, particularly in the way it has expanded the scope of procedures that physicians can feasibly perform. By temporarily severing the connection between mind and body, doctors are able to work solely on the latter, only to rejoin the two in a matter of hours. For the patient, the experience of being anesthetized is hardly an experience at all. It is distinctly different from going to sleep, where some level of consciousness is retained.
When we wake up, we have a loose sense of how long we were resting. However, after awakening from induced anesthesia, we have no conception of what has just happened to us, or how much time has passed. Have we been unconscious for a few minutes, or a few months? We have no way of knowing. Anesthesia perfectly separates the human from the human body, which has serious philosophical implications for not only the nature of consciousness, but even the field of medicine itself.
Though we may say that medicine is a human field, anesthesia seems to question the validity of that claim. Sylvia Plath’s poem The Surgeon at 2 AM explores the mental and emotional impact of anesthesia on a nameless physician, who serves as the poem’s narrator. Through her eyes, we see the feelings–or lack thereof–that stem from operating on the body of an anesthetized patient. The Surgeon at 2 AM is a bleak piece that portrays the treatment of illness as something that, despite its natural relationship to life, is increasingly sterile, empty and lifeless.
In the first stanza, Plath sets forth the lifeless atmosphere of the operating room. In the very first line, she relates the light of the surgical lamps to a heavenly light. The effect of the patient’s anesthesia is similar to the way one’s soul might ascend to heaven, leaving the physical body behind. Here, in Plath’s operating room, the soul resides on some ethereal plane, while the body remains on the table. Plath also mentions that the light creates a sterile environment, killing any microscopic organisms on the operating surface, which serves to reinforce her point that this OR is not a place where life is welcome–human or otherwise. She then likens the operating sheet to a blanket of snow, absent of any plant or animal activity, perfectly frozen over ground that once harbored life, but at the moment is totally devoid of it. These analogies all serve to reframe our view of the patient from a live human being to a mere object. Plath confirms this when she begins talking about the patient: the body under [the sheet] is in my hands. As usual there is no face. A lump of Chinese white with seven holes thumbed in. By referring to the person on the table as a mere body and remarking on its lack of a face, Plath reinforces that she is not treating a person at this moment, only working on a sterile, lumpy white surface. Under anesthesia, the patient’s soul has receded like a ship’s light, leaving only the body behind.
It may seem that the plethora of organic imagery in the second stanza would entirely refute the arguments I have made so far, but in this part of the poem, Plath draws a distinction between the wild, primitive side of life, represented by gross anatomy, and conscious human life, which remains wholly absent. In the second stanza, Plath’s physician is a gardener, tending to the plant-like structures of the body: tubers and fruits oozing their jammy substances, a mat of roots . . . this is the lung tree. These orchids are splendid. They spot and coil like snakes. As the stanza progresses, Plath’s gardener analogy falls away. The image of a gardener evokes a tidy, well taken care of yard, with plants organized into neat rows. This is not at all what the physician experiences as she operates on the body in front of her. Rather, the plant life the physician sees in her patient’s body is primal, unabated in its growth, and the physician must worm and hack her way through. Unlike human life, this kind of dense wilderness does not drive toward higher aspirations or goals, but instead only exists to grow and survive. We can actually see this distinction at work in real-world patient cases of brain death. With modern medical technology, we can keep the body alive even when the brain–the organ that defines who we are as people–ceases to transmit its electrical signals. This is the dichotomy that Plath is exploring in this stanza, and while the body her physician is operating on is filled with life, it bears little resemblance to the human condition.