- The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine
Rarely does a movie plot hinge on a rhetorical phrase, but literacy has its outbreaks. In the recent film Stranger Than Fiction, a character has difficulty convincing people he is not crazy after he tells them he hears the voice of an author narrating a story in which he is the central character, and his life is the plot. He finally convinces a literature professor when he reports hearing the author say, “Little did he know . . . .” A phrase that does comparably heavy lifting in Anne Harrington’s book, The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine, is “Were it not for . . . .” Harrington uses the phrase only once, on my reading, but the usage expresses Harrington’s working method and the contribution of this book as a model for the cultural study of illness.
Harrington’s “Were it not for . . . ” occurs in her book’s penultimate chapter, when she is describing the sixth of six core narratives of mind-body medicine. She calls this narrative “eastward journeys.” A protagonist, who might be a pop star or a physician, makes a journey— often physical but sometimes spiritual—to the East (most often India or China), in order to experience, learn, and bring back some wisdom about healing that is then translated into professional clinical practice or into lay health practices. What gives these stories traction? Why are they immediately recognizable and believable? The answer is that the stories are located within narratives that have already established themselves. Here, finally, is Harrington’s full sentence, referring to an episode in the Healing and the Mind public television series narrated by Bill Moyers and aired in 1993. “Were it not for Bruce Lee and Star Wars, it is possible that ‘The Mystery of Chi’ would have met a much more uncomprehending or hostile reception” (224).
Harrington, who is professor and chair of the History of Science program at Harvard, builds her history of mind-body medicine on progressions of “Were it not for . . . .” Were it not for earlier stories that establish a recognizable narrative, present stories would not readily find public acceptance. Each story is local and specific; narratives are generalizable templates that generate multiple stories. As Harrington puts it:
. . . narratives provide us with tropes and plotlines that help us understand the larger import of specific stories we hear, read, or see in action. They also help us construct specific stories of our own—including ones about our own experience—that others can [End Page 103] recognize and affirm. We learn these narrative templates from our culture, not in the way we might formally learn the rules of grammar in school, but in the way we might unconsciously learn the rules of grammar at home—by being exposed to multiple individual examples of living stories that rely on them.(24–5)
Harrington’s distinction between story and narrative—different as it might be from some literary uses of those terms—is crucial to her argument. I read Harrington as practicing a form of social constructionism, somewhere between what Ian Hacking calls historical constructionism—“[t]he least demanding grade of constructionism”—and ironic constructionism.1 Historical constructionism describes arguments in which, Hacking writes, “ . . . X is the contingent upshot of historical events. A historical constructionist could be quite noncommittal about whether X is good or bad. How does historical ‘social’ constructionism differ from history? Not much, a matter of attitude, perhaps.”2 Ironic constructionism notches up the stakes. X is not only contingent, as “the product of social history and forces,”3 but also X’s contingency is troubling because the dependability of X counts in the reliability and security of some group’s world making. As Hacking writes, X is “an inevitable part of the world or of our conceptual architecture,” and it is disorienting to realize that X “could have been quite different.”4
The health and illness of bodies are inevitable parts of our world, and so are medical explanations of disease and treatments. Readers of this...