- Le Corps souffrant: littérature et médecine
A year ago, as I was trying to come up with a viable and exciting syllabus for a graduate seminar, which I intended to teach on poetry and suffering in French literature since Charles Baudelaire, I realized that much of the mandatory reading for the M.A. and Ph.D. exams at Rutgers, where I teach, would qualify. But I had much more difficulty locating secondary material in French, particularly a French equivalent of the U.S. field of literature and medicine, a field that holds that medical activities may benefit from literature and focuses on the why and how of such benefits. Léon Binet and Pierre Vallery-Radot’s Literature and Medicine, Medicine’s Prestige (1965) still reads like a solid repertory of medical motifs in mostly French literature, with an emphasis on the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. 1 But what of more recent French and European literatures? And what of the less superficial understandings of the interactions between literature and medicine? [End Page 305]
I finally found Gérard Danou’s The Suffering Body, subtitled Literature and Medicine. Upon reading the first section, I knew that I had come precisely upon what I most wanted: a concise introduction, in French, to a variety of concerns shaping the interaction between literature and medicine today. The Suffering Body not only adds to previous compilations of literary material concerned with medicine but it also addresses a number of issues pertinent to the field of literature and medicine. In addition, Danou’s essay allows its readers to think anew about the relatively recent discipline, as it has evolved in the U.S., with nothing less than the presentation of what might be termed the French way to approach it. “The questions and hypotheses that I formulate mostly through literary texts are not new,” writes Danou in the opening paragraph,
but I formulate them anew in the perspective of a doctor-person who must confront certain concrete realities. For instance: What is medicine’s direction? What does “illness” mean? What happens between a patient and a doctor? Is “truth” due to a patient? Is it possible to conciliate a Hippocratic vision of health care and a modern scientific medicine bent toward scientism? What is “therapeutic medical nihilism”? Is it really possible to learn how to coach an individual into the dying stages of life?
As I’m going to try and present it, literature not only asks these same questions, it also offers partial answers to them; answers that belong, I think, to what shapes any doctor’s practical thinking.(P. 9)
In the best tradition of the French essai, The Suffering Body presents a series of readings or partial interpretations, revealing both their objects and their subject (their author, Danou). None of its twelve parts ever pretends to have conducted an exhaustive study of the literature around which each section revolves nor to offer the reader anything more than reasons to have more questions and thoughts about the topic under consideration. Danou does not work within any given framework in literary criticism either: he draws equally from Roland Barthes, from Jean Starobinski, from George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, from Gaston Bachelard, and from Gilbert Durand (all within Chapter 1).
In the range of its selections and in their presentation to the reader, The Suffering Body qualifies as the most extensive and efficient guidebook to literature and medicine in France that I know. Writings by Jean Reverzy, Marguerite Duras, Jean-Marie Le Clézio, Thomas Mann, Hervé Guibert, Guy Hocquenghem, Axel Münthe, Arthur Schnitzler, Honoré de Balzac, Jean Métellus, William Carlos Williams, Gottfried [End Page 306] Benn, Jean Giono, and Georges Perros constitute the literary material from which most chapters are drawn, material discussed in an often detailed and convincing manner. Duras, Guibert, Balzac, Williams, and Benn cannot be considered surprises in a book on literature and medicine. On the other hand, the lesser known Reverzy, Le Clézio, Métellus, Giono, and Perros do add to...