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JS^ Williams's Force David B. Morris Sometimes I speak of imagination as a force, an electridty. - William Carlos Williams, Spring and All We sat in the front room and talked. He . . . wanted to know about my literary affiliations. I told him I was in medical school and he seemed disappointed that I was not in literature. — Richard C. Zbornik, describing a visit to Williams1 Imagine an ethics or moral philosophy that took as its central concern the innumerable, almost invisible, commonplace acts and passions which accompany our progress through each day. This ediics of daily practice would ignore —or relegate to the margins of discourse — the gawdy, public, contemporary life-and-death issues (from nuclear policy to genetic engineering) which make headline news. It would excuse itself from speaking in the abstruse, technical dialect which has increasingly dominated philosophical discussion since the late eighteendi century. Suppose that we encountered a plain-talking ediics which asked us to consider what choices we make in spending our weekly income, how we discuss matters with our children, whom we select as friends, why we read specific books or magazines and refuse to read others, where we permit our gaze to linger, either seeing or unseeing. Such an ethics of daily practice would examine the unthinking habits and half-consdous assumptions which control much of our lives. It would consider nodiing too little or too trivial to provide insight into our experience as ethical beings, because ordinary events sometimes reveal motives or prinriples lost in the complexity of great actions and of weighty issues. It would insist that no one — from skeptic to libertine — stands entirely outside ediics, outside the system of choices which defines our practical pursuit of the good life. An ethics of daily practice would describe its goal as examining areas of human behavior which we automatically consider free from ethical content: the furnishings with which we surround ourselves, die turn of a phrase, die daydream which passes unnoticed as we round a familiar comer. Literature and Medicine 5 (1986) 122-140 © 1986 by The Johns Hopkins University Press David B. Morris 123 In medicine, an ediics of daily practice would require a healtiiy shift of emphasis away from casebooks and from standing committees. It would discover some of its richest materials, in fact, in an unexpected convergence of medicine and literature. We cannot begin to examine our daily practice until it emerges from utter invisibility or neglect, and literature holds the power to make ordinary experience suddenly visible. Further, writing allows us to encounter the rich texture of explanation and detail which accurately reflects the way we live our lives. Novels and poems and essays, we might say, offer us a vision of human moral experience frequently ignored or excluded by textbooks of ethics.2 This natural convergence of literature and medicine needs to be fully explored if we hope to explode the mythology diat doctors and writers inhabit alien, irrecondlable worlds. Yet, while we are exploring the newly discovered or rediscovered ground that writers and doctors may be said to share, we should not ignore areas of conflict and moments of genuine division. An edûcs of daily practice will need to respect the possibility that certain divisions between medicine and literature are, to a degree, permanent and irreversible , reflecting differences so fundamental that the convergence of writer and doctor is frequently unstable — and sometimes dangerous. William Carlos Williams almost single-handedly restored commonplace experience and everyday language to modem American poetry, while simultaneously pursuing a vigorous daily practice of medicine mainly among die impoverished immigrants of Rutherford, New Jersey. Not surprisingly, he has been elevated recently into something like the patron saint of medical humanities: an emblematic figure in whom medicine and literature are perfectly, triumphantly, reconciled. There are strong grounds for recognizing in Williams a fruitful alliance between the normally separate lives of doctor and writer. Indeed, the analogies and points of agreement between Williams's literary prindples and his practice of medicine have been traced in detail by Joanne Trautmann.3 When an English professor ("an obvious Britisher") slyly asked Williams where his defiantly Americanized poetic language came from, Williams shot back: "From die moudis...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6571
Print ISSN
0278-9671
Pages
pp. 122-140
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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