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A The Pharmakos Figure in Modern American Stories of Physicians and Patients James C. Cowan In Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Dr. Parcival, at the climactic point of "The Philosopher," is speaking to George Willard: "You must pay attention to me," he urged. "If something happens perhaps you will be able to write the book that I may never get written. The idea is very simple, so simple that if you are not careful you will forget it. It is this — diat everyone in die world is Christ and they are all crucified. That's what I want to say. Don't you forget that. Whatever happens, don't you dare let yourself forget."1 The doctor's words, which events in die story show to be highly selfreferential , suggest a view of the physician that was common in early twentieth-century literature — the physician as pharmakos, as at once the embodiment of universal human nature and die victim of society. The choice of die physician for this role is appropriate, for both the role and ritual are rooted in pharmacological lore of classical antiquity. Jacques Derrida, in "Plato's Pharmacy," his influential deconstruction of the Phaedrus, distinguishes linguistically among the terms pharmakeia , pharmakon, pharmakeus, and pharmakos, each of which is marked by ambiguity of meanings. As a signifier, Derrida says, pharmakon regularly displays an ordered multiplicity of meanings diat permits "the rendering of the same word by 'remedy,' recipe,' 'poison,' 'drug,' philter,' etc."2 In the Phaedrus, writing, diat is, the text itself, is metaphorically "proposed, presented, and asserted as a pharmakon" (D, 73). But this association of the pharmakon and the written text means that, as "the same suspicion envelops in a single embrace the book and the drug" (D, 72-73), the same ambiguity attaches to both: "As opposed to die true practice of medicine, founded on science, we find indeed, listed in a single stroke, empirical practice, treatments based on recipes learned by heart, Literature and Medicine 6 (1987) 94-109 © 1987 by The Johns Hopkins University Press James C. Cowan 95 mere bookish knowledge, and the blind usage of drugs" (D, 72). Hence, the book, like die pharmakon, is a recipe or drug that contains inseparably the opposites of remedy and poison: "... all the while the two interlocutors, whatever diey do and whedier or not diey choose, remain within the unity of the same signifier" (D, 98). To restrict the meaning of the pharmakon to one or another possible translation is to destroy its richness. For example, "remedy" is a rendition that virtually obliterates the "dynamic references to die odier uses of die same word in Greek." This effectively destroys what Derrida calls Plato's anagrammatic writing "by interrupting the relations interwoven among different functions of die same word in different places, relations diat are . . . necessarily 'citational'": When a word inscribes itself as the citation of another sense of the same word, when the textual center-stage of the word pharmakon, even while it means remedy, cites, re-cites, and makes legible that which in the same word signifies, in another spot and on a different level of the stage, poison (for example, since that . . . [is] not the only other diing pharmakon means), die choice of only one of these renditions by the translator has as its first effect the neutralization of the citational play, of die "anagram," and, in die end, quite simply of die very textuality of the translated text. . . . Textuality being constituted by differences and by differences from differences, it is by nature absolutely heterogeneous and is constandy composing with the forces that tend to annihilate it. (D, 98) The effectiveness of power of the pharmakon is ambivalent, embodying two poles of meaning on various levels of dialectic. It is precisely this ambivalence diat both die physician and the writer must master. Both die pharmakon and writing, Derrida points out, are "always involved in questions of life and death" (D, 105). In Derrida's opinion, "in all rigor, a Platonic text, closed upon itself, complete with its inside and its outside" (D, 130), does not exist. Accordingly , "provided die articulations are rigorously and prudently recognized, one should simply be able to untangle...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6571
Print ISSN
0278-9671
Pages
pp. 94-109
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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