As science-fiction experiments become reality, author Hubert Haddad performs a head transplant and imagines a “modern prometheus” for the 21st century in ‘Desirable Body.’
Just over 200 years ago, Mary Shelley shocked 19th century society with Frankenstein and the patchworked human creature at the center of the novel. But 21st century science may be turning these fantastical abstractions into reality. In November, the Chinese government placed Dr. He Jiankui under investigation following the claim that he successfully made the first genetically altered human babies: two twin girls. This dubious experiment is only the most recent example of the knotty relationship between human progress and ethical controversy. Barbra Streisand made headlines as a high-profile adoptee of dog cloning, while Canadian scientists resurrected horsepox, closely related to the deadly and recently eradicated smallpox, in an attempt to better understand the disease. As biomedical research advances, transhumanist science-fiction premises become distinct possibilities—from Terminator-style transplantation of prosthetic limbs onto able-bodied individuals and Frankenstein-esque attempts to graft a living head onto a donor body.
Tunisian author Hubert Haddad takes up the second possibility with his novel Desirable Body. The book details the logistics of the first successful transplant of a human head and the ensuing identity crisis suffered by Cédric, “the head,” a newly hybrid human. We spoke to the author about his novel in the context of Mary Shelley’s “Creature,” transhumanism, and the prospect that medical science might outstrip the bounds of humanity as we understand it.
Clara Malley—What drew you to exploring the logistics and ethics of a full body transplant in Desirable Body?
Hubert Haddad—The imminence of such a transplant—which, in my view, succeeds in the creation of a hybrid human, in which the head in reality has only the status of a graft—makes me question the durability of the human and of the truncated, fallacious notions of contemporary science as a vector for transhumanism. Consequently, driven by the intuition of a sort of ethical scandal, I had to assimilate all that concerns biotechnology, procedures of neurosurgery, etc.
“Our modern societies, ultra-modeled against the backdrop of barbarism, have become monstrously self-devouring predators.”
Clara—The English translation of Desirable Body was published in late 2018, 200 years following Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Where, if anywhere, do you see Desirable Body directly in dialogue with Frankenstein, and where do you think your novel departs?
Hubert—I share with Mary Shelley a certain hyperrealism of science fiction. My novel is anchored to the current stakes of techno-sciences and the desire for eternity. Frankenstein’s creature is a hero of romantic literature. For my part, I tried to invest in phenomenology and, from a holistic point of view, the evolution of the psyche of my patient-character, by identifying with him, his gestalt, through empathy.
Clara—We’re certainly nearer now than in the 19th century to a moment when this sort of transplant might be possible. Are you in any way critical of these sort of advancements?
Hubert—We can only applaud medical advances that do not question the integrity of homo sapiens, the symbolic animal, the man. For instance, science, and this is fortunate, can render the use of the body to paraplegic individuals. [But] blinded by its own progress, science is tempted and captivated by absolute ethical transgression, as we have seen in Nazi Germany, doubtlessly recently in China. All means do not yet seem to be in place for this total transplantation to succeed, but it’s probable that the major problem, the spinal cord connection, will soon be solved. Remember, Dr. Robert White managed to graft a monkey’s head onto another primate half a century ago, but failed to “reconnect” their spinal cord. There would now be tooling at the molecular level and chemical materials capable of re-phasing the nerve circuits.
The sciences, in particular medical science, and the techniques that proceed from them, must be questioned in their origins as well as in their ends, if we hope to preserve in our biosphere the human singularity and the fragile idea of freedom of which it is only carrier.
Clara—Cédric’s head is reattached to an otherwise complete body, but Frankenstein creates the Creature from the limbs of several people Both your novel and Mary Shelley’s explore the incoherence of their protagonists—a lack of self-recognition and agency, physical and social alienation, and so on. How do you think this contemporary conception of the “non-self” differs from that of Mary Shelley’s Creature?
Hubert—Dr. Frankenstein’s creature is comprised of fragments of various dead bodies, a sort of human puzzle of the morgue or cemetary. The miracle of electricity, during a storm curbed by an improbable machinery, gives him life and understanding. Abandoned by its terrified creator, the new golem takes revenge for having been conceived. After leaving the operating room and limbo, my character experiences a dissociative, uncontrollable identity disorder–the body of another wanting to regain his instinctive rights on a head which was robbed of his [original] phantom body. Frankenstein’s “Creature” has no memory. It arises in mystery and becomes evil only because of the harm suffered, the paternal rejection. Cedric, dispossessed, lives in resuscitation, a confusion of anamnesis, permanently in rupture of identity, in cessation of pronominal illusion.
“The question posed by my book is simple: how does an individual in the hands of the most advanced medical science keep his integrity as a human person?”
Clara—The “desire” in Desirable Body operates on several planes: morbid desire, ambitious desire, sexual desire, homicidal desire, the list goes own. Do you see a connection between lapses in medical ethics and consumption–cannibalistic, lustful, or otherwise?
Hubert—As the first total transplant in history, Cédric becomes an attraction, an ambiguous object of lust. His father recovers his deceased body to bury him in the family vault, waiting for the head to follow, his lover essentially cheats on him with his new body, etcetera. There is a burlesque hide-and-seek game with desirable otherness.
It’s true that desire pushed into its last entrenchments becomes cannibal. It is also true that our modern societies, ultra-modeled against the backdrop of barbarism, have become monstrously self-devouring predators.
Clara—Desirable Body is not necessarily a “cautionary tale” per se but it seems to be a warning nevertheless. Do you agree?
Hubert—I quote in Desirable Body these explicit lines from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: “A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule.” However, in spite of all the ethics committees, no one will be able to circumscribe the imperious movement of the sciences, the infernal machine of the technique which seems to carry within it the algorithms of an exponential self-realization which cannot be controlled.
The question posed by my book is simple: how does an individual in the hands of the most advanced medical science keep his integrity as a human person? At a time when identity convulsions provoke the worst acts of barbarism, forgetting the values of otherness and the return of mortifying ideologies.