True, there's a banality to blood. We've all got it—about ten pints each. And we all have basically the same stuff. It's a cliché—go poke Britney Spears, Saul Bellow, the Rock, Ja Rule, Yasir Arafat, whomever, and essentially the same suspension of red cells, white cells, and platelets will ooze out. You'd think its ubiquity and undifferentiation would make us indifferent.
But the shock of blood!
Even the finger-stick rivets us. That sudden hemispheric drop—lustrous and opaquely scarlet. That color! A royal dye brewed within our bodies, derived from the metabolism of life itself. (Centrifuging produces a pousse-café, three distinct layers—a clear golden plasma on top, a solid band of white blood cells in the middle, and a thick band of crimson red blood cells on the bottom.)
Those of us who have actually seen injured people covered in their own blood will never forget the visceral sensation of it. There's the sense that an inviolable vessel has been riven and the very spirit of that person—his or her life and lifetime—is seeping away.
Is there another aspect of our bodies with this dual nature—that signifies vitality and morbidity at once? We probably see blood, whether on a strand of dental floss or a kid's scraped knee, every single day of our lives. Yet Poe can write with indelibly chilling effect: "The 'Red Death' had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal—the redness and the horror of blood."
I accompanied a friend of mine, an ER physician at Bellevue, on his eight-hour shift one night. I was doing research for a television show I was writing at the time. A Chinese man was brought in with a meat cleaver in his head (apparently the end result of a rather heated Chinatown restaurant kitchen dispute between cooks). It was a broad wood-handled instrument embedded in the middle of his forehead in classic splatter-flick style, with perfect bilateral symmetry. He sat upright on a gurney with imperturbable equanimity, never uttering a word or a sound, as rivulets of blood coursed down his face, his white cook's uniform now suffused with crimson.
The men all stood there for moment—hardened ER veterans among us—dumbfounded. Women immediately went about their work. Blood is more of a revelation to men, I think. Certainly when men are confronted with their own blood, their reaction is often extremely dramatic. Think of boxers realizing they've been cut in the ring, sometimes actually tasting the blood and becoming infuriated and galvanized with aggression. Talk to any man who has ever seen blood in his urine, and he'll tell you how he immediately broke out in a cold sweat, terrified by the unexpected sight of red and what it might augur.
Women bleed every month. And I have long thought the menstrual cycle enables women to accommodate flux and impermanence infinitely better than men. And perhaps this routine bleeding makes women somehow more psychologically permeable, more accustomed to exchanges between their inner and outer worlds.
As for me, I will remain unaccustomed to blood and endlessly fascinated, fetishizing vampires, bats, mosquitoes, rare meat, the strange history of hemophilia, the blood-quaffing Masai and Turkana tribesmen of Kenya, the gruesome effects of hemorrhagic viruses like Ebola and Marburg, and that color—that stunning color—at once the most mundane, numinous, sacramental tincture in the world.