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Literature and Medicine 20.1 (2001) 7-12

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A Brief History of Stories

Roger Shattuck

The English language offers a useful expression: "to come to terms with..."--with an idea, with a problem, or with a person. It means loosely that in a discussion or an encounter, one settles on a small number of words that will serve as the basis of the exchange, as a common ground of meaning. Without shared terms, a discussion falls easily into incoherence.

I should like to propose a parallel expression not in the language, but which may serve us in the context of medical humanities (a term I still hear as something of an oxymoron). I propose the expression "to come to stories..." in reference to the background of ancient and modern stories against which we can enhance and deepen our understanding of bioethics. A recent book of mine, Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, undertakes to assemble a "history of stories" on a topic that led me directly into the subjects of bioethics, the shortcomings of the Human Genome Project, and the moral dimensions of genetic research. 1 The present talk, first cousin to the book Forbidden Knowledge, will sift, inventory, and evaluate a number of familiar stories. Unfortunately, many of them are known to us in incomplete form and are therefore misunderstood and misapplied.

For the sake of simplicity I shall arrange a score of stories into three clusters.

The first cluster contains the multiple narratives from Genesis of Adam and Eve, which we tend to treat as a single story. It provides the foundational myth for the three dominant and ancient religions of the book: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Adam and Eve story answers our questions about origins, about theodicy, and about mortality. And the story entails two profound ambiguities or contradictions. At least in the Christian version, the Fall of Adam and Eve and their banishment from the Garden of Eden are transformed by the Redemption into "the Fortunate Fall." Without the Fall, there is no opportunity for Redemption. Secondly, and closer to the field of bioethics, the condemnation of the original man and woman to die because of their [End Page 7] disobedience coincided with the discovery of sexual reproduction. In his stunning book The Logic of Life, Fran├žois Jacob makes the point that the evolution of sexual reproduction (meiosis) out of cell division (mitosis) entails something new: the eventual death of the parent organisms. 2 In its alignment of sex and death in one episode, the Adam and Eve story displays its inexhaustible and very up-to-date significance. That's why it forms a cluster all to itself.

The second cluster of stories contains a whole team of legendary heroes performing their exploits of knowledge and discovery. Yet almost all these stories are in some way tainted. The hero does not always triumph and often complicates the human lives he wishes to favor. Prometheus, discoverer of fire, which he gives to man, also brought down on our heads all the woes released from Pandora's jar. He ended up chained to a rock. Daedalus, a great inventor and engineer, lost his own son Icarus to the dangers of flying, which Daedalus had devised to save them both. Daedalus cursed his talents and died badly.

The only untainted story in this group belongs to the poor fisherman in Thousand and One Nights. He catches a sealed bottle in the sea and unwittingly releases the malevolent genie it contains. When told only to this point, the story serves as a parable condemning destructive forms of scientific research and forbidden knowledge in general. But that truncated version distorts the meaning of the tale. For in the full version the poor fisherman is wily enough to lure the genie back into the bottle by flattery, recaps it, subdues and trains the genie, and then can use it for gainful and beneficial purposes. The story of the poor fisherman rebuts the stories of Prometheus and Daedalus.

Dante's Divine Comedy relates at great length how, helped by Virgil and then by Beatrice, Dante...


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