Thursday, November 02, 2006

Invitation to a Shipwreck: For Emile B., and Others

This is an invitation to a shipwreck. If you come along, the only life raft I can offer is to keep the tone light. Perhaps I have spent too many years sprayed by the pungent, cynical, raunchy, and irreverent humor of soldiers--the humor of Aristophanes--to take awful stuff any other way. I am a physician, an unlicensed philosopher, and a missionary for the veterans I serve. . . . But it's also fair to say that I am a shameless intellectual, deeply immersed in the perennial philosophic quest: what is this wonderful/terrible critter, this Human?—Jonathan Shay, "Just One Critter"

Perhaps when Anatole Broyard was dying and called upon people to recognize that illness is dramatic and thus can be enjoyed, what he meant is that humans can learn to persevere in an expanded sense. We can be not only where we are but also where we have been and will be, in all those different stories, and we can know where we are, not only through our own bodies, but through those other people who effect our participation in the world. Those possibilities may be the transformative communalization of suffering.Arthur W. Frank, "Telling the Dramas of Suffering"

Hoping entails the ability to to maintain what Hirokazu Miyazaki calls a "prospective perspective." It generates a narrative task. The narrative work entails more than telling stories about past events. It also involves the creation of stories about personal transformation required in order to continue to hope, and to revise one's hopes, no matter how desperate the circumstances or how bleak the prospects. Thus, these stories concern the future as much as the past, and the moral struggle entailed in finding a way to live with uncertainty. Willing enters the picture in a central way because the struggle is so difficult. . . . Above all, moral willing is connected to the project of coming to be a different, better kind of person, one who acquires the strength to face unexpected hardships and to treat the world more compassionately. This project is a long one, and its achievement is not guaranteed.Cheryl Mattingly, "Hoping, Willing, and Narrative Re-envisioning"

I believe technology is the future. But we need balance technology with humanism, and I think that’s why the term that will increasingly become important for medicine in the future is the term “medical humanities.” Embedded in this will be everything from bioethics to medical anthropology, and also the study of literature . . . because it’s so important that we not lose the human element in medicine. . . . [O]ne wants to have much more open systems of knowledge that interact with each other, that admit their limitations.—Arthur Kleinman, “A Conversation with Arthur Kleinman”

Conisder this post partly a plug for the fabulous Hedgehog Review, partly an attempt to answer some of Emile B.'s more niggling, pricking, and even caustic questions on this blog regarding the "use" of the "humanities" to the supposedly more "human" social and other sciences. I cannot promise I will touch upon "the medieval," per se, although a concern with "the past" is certainly implicit.

The Hedgehog Review is, as they describe themselves, “an interdisciplinary, academic journal of critical reflection on contemporary culture,” which is published by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, whose mission is to offer “critical research and resources to those concerned with responding creatively and constructively to the challenges posed by our time.” I love the journal because each issue typically addresses a really important contemporary social and political subject—such as “Religion and Violence,” “The Body and Being Human,” “Evil,” “The Fate of the Arts,” “Discourse and Democracy,” “What Is the University For?”, “After Secularization,” “Technology and the Human Person,” etc.—and while the essays are always written by well-known, leading experts and scholars in various fields, they are written with minimal footnotes and no jargon. Each issue also includes books reviews, interviews, artwork, and a bibliographic review related to that’s issue’s theme. The ultimate aim, as they state it, is to work “against the current fragmentation and isolation of academic inquiry,” pose “hard questions,” pursue “knotty questions,” and push intellectual discussions “beyond their current impasses.” In terms of style, breadth, and meaningfulness, the journal is similar to Manas: The Journal of Intellectual Idealism, a now defunct journal that Emile B. recommended to us this past summer. The Hedgehog Review is the only academic journal I have ever been willing to continuously spend my own money on [I let my subscription to Speculum lapse after I realized the Medieval Academy was never going to let go of its ultra-conservatism and boring-ness and embrace the twentieth century, no matter how many times people like Joan Ferrante and Rick Emmerson promised they would evolve].

The current issue of The Hedgehog Review is devoted to “Illness and Suffering”—more specifically, to an important area of scholarly research that has been exploring “how experiences of suffering find commonalities in narrative” and how “telling suffering through stories assists the work of social reconstruction and psychic healing.” The contributors include scholars whose work, in very real and meaningful ways, combines science, social science, and the humanities. So, for example, Arthur W. Frank is a sociologist who is also a memoirist of critical illness and author of books on illness and ethics. Cheryl Mattingly is a cultural and medical anthropologist, who writes on narrative and healing. Paul Komesaroff is a physician, medical researcher, and medical ethical philosopher. Jonathan Shay is a staff psychiatrist at a veterans outpatient clinic in Boston who has written books on classical Greek literature and combat trauma, such as Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. Joseph Kleinman is a psychiatrist and medical anthropologist, who founded the journal Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry. The poetry of Donald Hall and the paintings of Deborah Haynes—both dealing with the terminal illnesses of close family members and friends—is also included.

Each essay in this volume, as well as the interviews, are deeply moving and also beautifully illustrate the ways in which science, the social sciences, and more humanistic disciplines, such as philosophy and literature, are mutually productive when put in the service of asking, as Kleinman puts it, “what is life for?” or “how to lead a life?” So, Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist who specializes in combat trauma and who treats and advocates for war veterans who have been deemed hopeless cases of PTSD, finds much of use to his work in ancient Athenian political philosophy and literature. Kleinman drew upon Montaigne’s Essays as a model for his book What Really Matters: Living a Moral Life Amidst Uncertainty and Danger. And so on and so forth. Suffering, in many of the essays, is seen as a situation in which “one’s carefully and socially structured collection of feelings, meanings, roles, moods, and stories called ‘the self’ prove irrelevant to the inescapable facts of weakness, pain, and mortality.” Narrative, or what the moral philosopher Charles Taylor has called the “sense of the good” that “has to be woven into my understanding of my life as an unfolding story,” and which Heidegger discussed as the temporal structure of being, is turned to again and again by the authors of these various essays as central to the process of what Shay terms the “communalization of trauma” and what others would call the work of healing and of living a meaningful life, even in the face of great deprivations.

While it is true that none of the authors in this volume of essays is a literature scholar or theorist, and that each of them very squarely belongs within what might be called the “helping” professions [medicine, psychiatry, and the like], all of their footnotes and references indicate their debt to the humanities in their work: to Rilke, Levinas, Elaine Pagels, Charles Taylor, Iris Murdoch, Alasdair McIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, Homer, Euripides, Aristotle, Sartre, Blanchot, Alphonso Lingis, Joseph Conrad, Adorno, Giorgio Agamben, Derrida, Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Rousseau, Hegel, Sander Gilman, and so on. It is a model of scholarship we should well emulate: learned and human, wide-ranging and generous, moral, and pluralistic, yet attentive to the well-being of specific individuals in specific times and places.

[Note: it might be of interest to readers of this blog that a forthcoming issue of The Hedgehog Review will be devoted to “The Past,” another to “Intellectuals."]

1 comment:

scott3362 said...

I must check out HEDGEHOG sometime; I did M.A. work at U.Va. in modern European and English history in 1988-1990.

MANAS was a real revelation to me when I first found it cropping up in several Google searches back in summer 2005. I hope to publish an article on it someday - it's truly amazing. See my review at Amazon.com of THE MANAS READER.