- Romanticism in Quarantine
As we suffer through outrageously misinformed public reactions to new mandatory mask orders, what could we possibly do but laugh and shake our heads from our safely quarantined homes? If malcontents insist on shouting about the primacy of some divine respiratory system and demanding the arrests of masked pedestrians, what voice could the humanities possibly have in this polarized conversation? Instead of immediately dismissing this kind of medical denialism as mere noise, the developing field of medical and health humanities suggests that we compassionately listen to its historical rhythms. In the coming decades, humanists in general and Romanticists in particular have a crucial task: to deconstruct this dangerously false dilemma of the modern age of pandemic. On the one side, clinical authority seeks to legitimate its opaque biopower with an appeal to objective truth, medical data, and epidemiological science. And on the other, misinformed patients hopelessly rage against that medical machine. At least since Foucault, scholars have been wary of the abuses of clinical authority, but with the rise of anti-mask protests, politicized pandemics, and anti-vaccination movements, the dangers of uninformed patient activism are becoming a more pressing concern. The Romantic past, I suggest, offers a useful precedent. Romantic-era authors rejected modern medicine's false dilemma and instead effortlessly blended diseased reality with imaginative metaphor. More than mere unhinged anecdotal evidence, Romanticism's informed illness narratives helped construct the very notion of the healthy body. From the titanic ailments of John Keats's Hyperion poems, to the diseasebearing environments of Percy Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, to the disability theory of Byron's The Deformed Transformed, to the global plague of Mary Shelley's The Last Man, imaginative writing helped shape Romantic-era medical thinking.
To explore these kinds of connections at UC Riverside, we (faculty in Anthropology, History, Creative Writing, and myself in English) have established a new medical and health humanities program to accompany our fledgling medical school. Programs like these are becoming more common throughout the United States because of [End Page 189] the rising demand to explore the rich intersection between the social and the medical. In my own work on smallpox, I have argued that because of the pre-disciplinary nature of Romantic medicine, vaccination was as much a literary discovery as it was a medical one. Edward Jenner's descriptions of cowpox infections, for example, sound much closer to William Wordsworth's poetic vignettes of rural life in Lyrical Ballads than to our own modern medical case studies. Medical writing on smallpox vaccination consistently depended on both material expertise and imaginative narrative. And in my current project, I show how these pre-disciplinary Romantics became some of the first disability theorists. Now, however, medical experts and lay patients hardly speak the same language. Romanticists will in the coming years have both a responsibility and an opportunity to become translators between the social and the medical. In tracing the origins of medical modernity, we can historicize the construction of health, understand how disability became unlinked from normative embodiment, explore the structural inequities that have led to disparities in health care and access, and explain when and how institutionalism supplanted patientcentered care.
Fuson Wang is an assistant professor of English at the University of California, Riverside where he is finishing up his first book project, The Smallpox Report: Vaccination and the Genres of Romantic Disease, and beginning his second on Romantic disability theory.