Studies in English: Literature and Medicine Honors

English 2000H
Literature and Medicine
Section 1
William Kerwin
Tate 110

Imagining the Boundaries of Medicine:  Disease and Illness, Body and Culture

This course uses imaginative literature to complicate the question “What is medicine?” by exploring ways in which medical life is narrative life.  Clearly medicine involves the body, with all of its biological and chemical processes.  But we will consider the many ways that medical matters are also stories, and stories from a wide number of frames: illness, health, and medical practices always occur within history, and attempts to make meaning of them look differently from different perspectives. We will be approaching this project in two major ways. 

First, we will look at representations of disease, or things that are often labeled as a disease, with an eye towards how health or disease is always placed—how it always has cultural meanings.  As Arthur Kleinmann explores, disease is a biological condition and illness is the fully lived experience of that condition.  Addictions, epilepsy, AIDS, birth, depression, abortion, autism/neurodiversity, blindness, disability, dying—we will read short stories, novels, and other narrative accounts that help us understand the experience of these and other often-medicalized conditions within personal and social history.  How do categories such as race, class, gender, sexuality, and varying ideas of the “normal” shape our experience of these issues?  Is it right to consider things like birth, disability, or dying as medical categories?  Literature makes vivid how much medicine is a part of society, and how much both disease and healing have cultural as well as scientific aspects.  This is not an attempt to “un-medicalize” all of these matters, so much as to stretch our sense of what medicine includes, and how medical stories come into contact with non-medical stories. 

Second, we will consider how patients and doctors can better understand disease if they consider its narratives consciously as narratives—that is, through literary categories like frame, time, plot, and desire. We will have several units that consider the usefulness of narrative theory in imagining medical practice—in reading case histories, in engaging in diagnostic interchanges, in doing medical research.  Ultimately, patients and their healers only exist in narrative frameworks. 

Most but not all of the reading will be American literature: the authors we will read include Abraham Verghese, Kay Jamison, Anne Fadiman, Mark Haddon, James Joyce, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Ernest Hemingway, Gwendolyn Brooks, Tillie Olsen, William Carlos Williams, David Feldshuh, H.G. Wells, and John Hockenberry.  You will write two papers, and give a presentation.