Different parts of our bodies have come to be associated with a variety of emotions and characteristics. Love supposedly springs from the heart, integrity is in the backbone, and inquisitiveness in the nose.
But, when it comes to truly deep-seated feelings, for some reason, we commonly attribute them to our intestines. And it’s not only our “gut feelings,” but also our actions, for which our entrails are said to be responsible. Hence, when somebody does something unusually brave, we say that they “had guts.” (More politely, we call it “intestinal fortitude.”)
In actual physiological fact, of course, regardless of courage or cowardice, we all have them. And not only we humans, but many of our fellow creatures, are gifted with these internal organs, which admittedly I know very little about – but as always, I’m happy to share my ignorance with you.
One thing I do know is the title of a book written by my Gastroenterologist – whose job it is to explore people’s intestines – nowadays with the help of a beam of light which he inserts along the appropriate route. The book is called The Tunnel at the End of the Light.
Another thing I can tell you, without looking it up, was that General George S. Patton was known as “Old Blood and Guts.”
But my own interest in that part of my body (apart from occasional dalliances with constipation or diarrhea) came to a very unexpected peak when, in my early thirties, I suddenly developed what seemed a very bad stomach pain, but which soon was diagnosed as Appendicitis. At that time (the early 1960s), I was a graduate student at Berkeley, working on my PhD in History. And the University had its own hospital, right on campus, which was very convenient, especially since I lived just three blocks away.
The appendix is a very strange organ, because, although situated in a fairly prominent position, projecting like a finger from the bottom of your Large Intestine, it has no known purpose – except, apparently, to cause trouble by occasionally getting infected. The most common treatment is surgical removal, which nowadays can be a very short procedure, often letting you go home the same day. But I was kept for several days.
My strongest recollection of that whole episode, however, was what happened afterwards. When I was released from the hospital, my first inclination was to find out exactly what they had done to me in there. So, I went to the main Bancroft Library, and soon found there, in the old bound volumes of LIFE magazine, a detailed close-up photographic account of the entire appendicitis operation. I was, at the same time, fascinated and horrified… The next thing I knew, I was lying on the floor, with several people gathered around me. Yes, for one of the few times in my life, I had fainted! (The only other times have had to do with being a blood donor.)
Anyway, getting back to the intestines: They go by a number of other names, including viscera, entrails, and bowels. As we all know, “having a bowel movement,” is a euphemism for expelling solid waste from the body. But Oliver Cromwell, in 1650, must have some other meaning in mind when he wrote to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, on a point of Church doctrine: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”
We must also observe that, throughout history, analysis of the extracted entrails of animals and people has been considered a form of divination, akin to palmistry. Science today regards such practices as no more reliable than reading tea leaves. But to the ancient Romans, who thought of themselves as a civilized people, this kind of religious observance was highly important, as it had been to the Greeks.
The intestinal area has also been termed “the vitals,” and, as a center of life, it has been a favorite target for suicide. The Roman military had a tradition of “falling on one’s sword,” which must have been a very awkward procedure, even if you could get somebody to hold the sword.
And of course, the Japanese have for many centuries had their own form of suicide by ritual self-disembowelment, called Seppuku, or Hara-Kiri.
But, to conclude on a slightly lighter note, let me add to the General Patton story that his sanguinary sobriquet was often acknowledged by his troops in this form: “OUR BLOOD, HIS GUTS.”