Imagine Chekhov as Your Doctor

Lapham’s Quarterly is a rather unique and to my mind a much needed periodical in that each issue is devoted to a single theme. It is usually explored by means of excerpts from a variety of contemporary and historical articles, books, essays, etc. The issue begins with an introductory essay and analysis by the editor Lewis Lapham. The Fall Quarterly issue was devoted to Medicine.

It includes selections from Virginia Woof’s essay On Being Ill, Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, Freud’s Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Atul Gawande’s recent essay in The New Yorker, The Cost Conundrum that President Obama apparently discussed at some length with his aides. Others include works by Ken Kesey, John Barth, Sinclair Lewis, Oliver Sacks and many more. It is a very rich collection.

In his Introduction (“Preamble,”) Lapham cites the following figures that are representative of comparable data we’ve heard so much about lately:

Medical error ranks as the country’s eighth leading cause of death, more deadly than breast cancer or highway accidents.

Americans in 2007 paid $7,421 per capita for healthcare as opposed to $2,840 paid by the Finns and $3,328 by the Swedes, but life expectancy in the United States is not as long as it is in thirty other countries…

The money allocated to healthcare in most other developed countries (in Canada and France as well as in Germany and Japan) provides medical insurance for entire citizenry…in America 46 million citizens (15% of the population) are uninsured.

To continue my posts on the relationship between Medicine and Literature, here are some of the most noteworthy passages I recorded in this of issue of Lapham’s Quarterly.

It is the duty of a doctor to prolong life. It is not his duty to prolong the act of dying.
Lord Thomas Horder

The doctor occupies a seat in the front row of the stalls of the human drama, and is constantly watching and even intervening in the tragedies, comedies, and tragicomedies which form the raw material of the literary art. W. Russell Brain

You can’t find the soul with a scalpel. Gustave Flaubert

Because the newer methods of treatment are good, it does not follow that the old ones were bad: for if our honorable and worshipful ancestors had not recovered from their ailments, you and I would not be here today. Confucius

It strikes me as absurd and rather obscene, this whole cosmetic and medical industry based on lust for youth, age fear, death terror. Who the hell wants to live forever? Most of us, apparently; but it’s idiotic. After all, there is such a thing as life saturation: the point when everything is pure effort and total repetition. Truman Capote.

There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them. Sylvia Plath

If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster. Isaac Asimov

Imagine having Chekhov, who was a doctor, for your doctor. Imagine having William Carlos Williams, who was a poet, or Walker Percy, who’s a novelist, for your doctor. Anatole Broyard

We have to ask ourselves whether medicine is to remain a humanitarian and respected profession or a new but depersonalized science in the service of prolonging life rather than diminishing human suffering. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

I find an irresistible desire to make jokes. When you’re lying in the hospital with a catheter and IV in your arm, you have two choices, self-pity or irony. Anatole Broyard