May 22, 2024

The Sea and Poison

Today, I'll take a break from controversy. Let's talk about literature. 

In 2003 the President’s Council on Bioethics published an anthology about bioethical dilemmas. It was a surprising contribution by a government committee. Such bodies are better known for generating reports which are dismal, dull, dreary and destined for pulping.

The selections in the anthology ranged from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan to Plutarch. Not only were they thought-provoking, but also enjoyable. At the time I thought it was the last word in the literature of bioethics, but since then I have discovered other texts.

One of these, which I highly recommend, is the Japanese novel The Sea and Poison, by Shusaku Endo, who, like Graham Greene, was a perpetual also-ran for the Nobel Prize. Endo is better known in the West as the author of Silence, which Martin Scorsese recently made into a film.

Silence was a 1966 historical novel about the apostasy of a Catholic priest in 17th Century Japan. The Sea and Poison, an earlier work published in 1958, is also about tormented consciences. It is based on an incident which happened shortly before the end of World War II, when Japanese doctors vivisected several American POWs. The focus of the story is not the gory procedure, which is described very briefly at the end of the novel, but the inner lives of the doctors and nurses. How could they have allowed themselves to participate in something which was so clearly evil? It’s extraordinarily insightful – and very relevant at a time when we are debating conscientious objection.

The Sea and Poison is out of print in English, but can easily be obtained second-hand on the internet. It’s well worthwhile for anyone teaching bioethics.  

Michael Cook
The literature of conscience
conscientious objection