- Using Literature to Understand the Human Side of Medicine
Literature and Medicine has heard from Arnold Weinstein before. He is the author of the opening essay in last year’s issue on unruly texts, where he demonstrates definitively that all literature, properly read, is unruly, and that the farther we get from the so-called realistic text, the closer we come to life as it is actually—i.e., unpredictably—lived. 1 In “Using Literature to Understand the Human Side of Medicine,” however, Professor Weinstein addresses a wider audience. The Teaching Company envisions that audience as people who seek “a way to capture what [they] loved about university learning” by listening to a number of the country’s “superstar teachers” on a variety of course subjects taught at the undergraduate level. 2 The central question, then, is: what will the specialized readers of Literature and Medicine, already familiar with Weinstein’s approach to their field, find valuable in these lectures?
The answers begin close to home. For one thing, the tapes are selling very well, which tends to confirm the field’s inherent attraction for the general educated public. 3 We might even speculate that the tapes will help to create a broader support base for the field as developed in this journal, for Weinstein gives his listeners an accurate picture of Literature and Medicine’s history. Journal articles and even entire volumes (he likes 10 and 11) are on his “essential” or “suggested” reading lists in the short pamphlet that accompanies the tapes. His concepts and language are consistent with the terms Literature and Medicine writers have used all along. In fact, a major value of these lectures lies in their extremely positive, if unwitting, evaluation of the journal’s concerns over time.
In addition to opening and closing presentations that do far more than introduce and conclude, Weinstein gives a lecture on physician figures from the commedia dell’arte to Richard Selzer, another on the doctor-patient relationship, four on disease in literature (an overview—Job to Sontag, nineteenth- and twentieth-century works in particular, mental trauma, madness and addiction), and two on death as observed and experienced. Journal readers will appreciate that literature’s humanistic aims, its enjoyment of language as a living tool, are at the forefront of Weinstein’s enthusiasm for his subject, as is his compassion for troubled patients and suffering society. He also expands the idea of the text in the manner of cultural studies, which this journal has done [End Page 317] expressly since volume 10. 4 Moreover, his listeners know very well which theories he values (Michel Foucault and other French writers, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Elaine Scarry, Kathryn Montgomery Hunter, Rita Charon, Anne Hunsaker Hawkins); however, the theories are always background to the primary sources, from which he quotes in big pieces. 5
If all this puts Weinstein in the Literature and Medicine tradition, as I hope and believe, it does not mean that his work is completely distinguishable from what I think of as a parallel approach to literature and medicine. This second approach starts with “the body” as primary subject. Its scholars are consciously descended from Maurice Merleau-Ponty and various feminist critics who tend to value postmodern theory at least as much as literature. 6 As a result, the body-people wrestle as philosophers of culture with profound paradigm shifts. This parallel road to literature and medicine has been increasingly represented in this journal (see, e.g., the special issues of volumes 16 and 17), but often the two types of scholars walk on without so much as waving at the other party. Writers in Literature and Medicine have been alert to their fellow travelers, but neither group has yet taken enough account of the other’s contributions. Arnold Weinstein is an exception. He has quietly merged the best of both approaches, and, as such, his is an admirable model.
Of course, Weinstein cannot do everything. One of the aspects...