Microbiomes and individual identity: Alexander Pope and the archbishop of Canterbury

Alexander Pope by Michael Dahl

I learned a startling fact the other day while listening to Fresh Air’s Terry Gross interviewing Dr. Nathan Wolfe, author of The Viral Storm, a disconcerting account of his research into pandemics like avian flu and AIDS that leap from animals to humans. Although the interview contained plenty of startling information, the statement that made me jump out of my skin was this:

If we were to count the number of cells between the top of your head and the socks on your feet, we would find that 90 percent of those cells are not human cells. Ninety percent of those cells belong to various microorganisms that exist, primarily in your gut and on your skin but also in many, many parts of your body. There’s tons and tons of microbes out there.

The vast majority of these inner-space invaders are vitally necessary to our health. In a story about the Human Microbiome Project in the New York Times, one Stanford microbiologist described individual humans as being like coral, “an assemblage of life-forms living together.” Another microbiologist commented that from the
standpoint of an individual microbiome, the “I” could be considered “mostly packaging.” So if 90 percent of “me” is actually not “me” at all, who am I? I feel as if my nice empty 100-percent-paid-for house suddenly belongs almost entirely to an unknown corporation, the enormous staff of which has moved in and begun leaving its clothes and coffee mugs all over the place. How am I supposed to relax in a predicament like this, where my “house” is no longer mine? Where’s my place in this in this mess?

Right in the middle, according to the eighteenth-century British poet Alexander Pope: in between God and beasts, on “this isthmus of a middle state/A being darkly wise and rudely great… Created half to rise, and half to fall;/Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;/Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurl’d:/ The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!” Right in the middle of the mess.

I recently reread Pope’s An Essay on Man, published in 1734, and was struck by two things: I was a really bad reader in grad school and, despite the dyspepsia caused by ingesting hundreds of heroic couplets in a row, I found him to be a humane and delicate thinker. I first read his Essay just as the trend of blaming all modern injustices on Enlightenment philosophies was building steam. In rereading it, I fully expected to find evidence of thought—crimes against women, people of color, and the environment—and I came back to it ready to haul Pope and his entire extended family to prison and lock them up until they could see just where colonialism got us. What I found instead was an overwhelming sense of awe for the complexities of the natural world and a deep humility in the face of humanity’s capacity to see these complexities only partially, imperfectly, and at times buffoonishly. To scientists he says with asperity:

Go wond’rous creature! Mount where science guides,
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,

Correct old Time, and regulate the Sun….
Superior beings [angels], when of late they saw
A mortal man unfold all Nature’s law,
Admir’d such wisdom in an earthly shape,
And shew’d a NEWTON as we shew an Ape….
Trace Science then, with Modesty thy guide….

What Pope wants is to put human giftedness in its place, which is in every way reliant on and secondary to what he calls Eternal Wisdom. He wants to give us a place from which to view ourselves, especially when we think we’re masters of the universe. We can’t know who we are unless we also know where we are. Of course,
Pope the poet could himself be accused of overreaching in making his immodest pronouncements, but he nips that accusation in the bud by placing his perspective firmly on the earth with his fellows. In the poem’s introduction, he pokes fun at John Milton’s Paradise Lost, published seventy years earlier, with its lofty, near-heretical goal to “justify the ways of God to men” from the wings of the Holy Spirit. Nope, Pope knows his place, and it’s right in the middle of what he calls the “vast chain of being,” headed by God, that links all things to each other. One of the loveliest passages:

Look round our World; behold the chain of Love
Combining all below and all above….
See Matter… with various Life endu’d,
Press to one center still, the gen’ral Good.
See dying vegetables life sustain,
See life dissolving vegetate again:
All forms that perish other forms supply
(By turns we catch the vital breath and die)
Like bubbles in the sea of Matter born,
They rise, they break, and to that sea return.
Nothing is foreign: Parts relate to whole;
One all-extending, all preserving Soul
Connects each being, greatest with the least;
Made Beast in aid of Man, and Man of Beast;
All serv’d, all serving! Nothing stands alone;
The chain holds on, and where it ends, unknown.

With their wide, inclusive vision of the workings of nature, these could be Wendell Berry’s words. (In fact, Berry much admires Pope’s Essay.) We have been given a singular place in this great chain, and our work is to learn, through careful observation of the natural world, how to become a blessing to it, to our fellows, and to ourselves. Pope places the primal disruption of the fall not in Eve’s disobedience but in the violence—beginning with Cain and Abel—that we inflict on one another both individually and corporately. Not a bad vision for one of the Dead White Guys of whom I was so suspicious in school.

Despite its plasticity, however, the great chain, as Pope envisions it, is quite fragile—alarmingly so. “The least confusion but in one, not all/ That system only, but the whole must fall.” One little thing out of place, and the whole shebang comes tumbling down. It’s hard to imagine living abundantly in such a universe, hard not
to imagine a creeping paralysis arising out of fear of disruption, like someone with a slipping disc in her spine, afraid each thoughtless move might bring on a core collapse. Despite its beauty and humility, there’s a caged, claustrophobic quality in Pope’s place for us—one that might never have discovered that each one of us is
quite literally a world, perhaps a galaxy, in and of ourselves, as the mappers of the Human Microbiome Project suggest.

In a recent lecture, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave another account of where it is that human beings have a place. He talks about the need to distinguish between being an individual—someone identifiable by the facts about him and the center of his own universe—and being a person, a “more frustrating,
more elusive, and yet more adequate” way of describing who and where we are.

Primary to a definition of personhood is the reality that each one of us exists at the center of a vast network of relationships, “the point where the lines cross.” That point is never static: every encounter with every person, every creature, every historical reality, every memory, every word—indeed, with every moment—provides an opportunity for re-configuring those intersecting lines. At any given time, a person is the sum total of her myriad, shifting relationships, irreducible to one thing or to a list of attributes. Something about the human person is fundamentally mysterious and inaccessible. For Christians, this messy, elusive intersection of relationships is where the revelatory work of God has its place.

Williams asserts that because “each of us has a presence or a meaning in someone else’s existence,” a sense of personhood is impossible outside of relationship. When I think of myself as an individual, I am the center of the facts about me. When I consider myself as a person, as constituted by an ever-changing intersection of
relationships, I must acknowledge my presence in other people’s lives and other people’s presences in my own. I can’t extricate myself from this web and stand alone, withdrawing from the world. Knowing that I’m fundamentally mysterious even to myself, a creation of these innumerable, ever-accruing intersections, I must
acknowledge that this messy, sacred bundle exists within every person and that we are environments for each other. We’re in some way located outside of ourselves, a situation that calls for a very different social order than one based on the rights of discrete individuals, an order that devolves into competing, isolated, uncooperative selves.

Pope, the literary king of the British Enlightenment, articulated a profound shift in understanding of humanity’s place: he saw an interconnectedness, a democratic necessity for each link in the chain, where before, whole groups—whole races and nations—were accounted as disposable. From thinkers like Pope came the founding fathers of the United States and their insistence on the natural rights of its (white male) citizens. In order to function as it should, this chain of interconnectedness that Pope saw and that the founding fathers used as the struts and joists of a new political system had to rest not only on personal rights: it needed one more thing.

For Forms of Government let fools contest;
Whate’er is best administer’d is best:
For Modes of Faith, let graceless zealots fight;
His can’t be wrong whose life is in the right:
In Faith and Hope the world will disagree,
But all Mankind’s concern is Charity:
All must be false that thwart this One great End,
And all of God, that bless Mankind or mend.

Without the cushioning of generosity, the assertion of one’s rights can become a mere excuse to claim supremacy over another, the chain shatters, and the discrete links become disposable. It’s arguable that we’re in the midst of this shattering, and I find Williams’s elastic and eccentric network a compelling place to set up
housekeeping. His call is to look at our individual selves and find, as in a different sense did Nathan Wolf, that they’re not really “ours” at all.

What we’re reading
Robert Alter, The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary
Martin: Patti Smith, Just Kids

This entry was posted in More and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Microbiomes and individual identity: Alexander Pope and the archbishop of Canterbury

  1. Dinnis says:

    nice job, Heather. my feet smell like compost and my hair just like Irish Spring so my heart is on fire and the smoke meanders across Anderson Coffee; life could not smell better today.

    “just give me a moist towlette,” an afternoon at Barton, some Alex Pope on the blanket and just a sprinkle of free range on the iPhone.

    thank you for all of this.

  2. Roberta says:

    So smart, so intriguing. And Weird Al is always a fave. Loved it.

Leave a Reply to Dinnis Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>