Posted in Book Reviews on 11th Aug 2013
Literary Medicine: Brain Disease and Doctors in Novels, Theater, and Film (Frontiers of Neurology and Neuroscience volume 31)
Editors: Bogousslavsky J, Dieguez S
Published by: Karger, 2013
Reviewed by: AJ Larner, Cognitive Function Clinic, WCNN, Liverpool, UK.
If it is the case that “Medicine is fundamentally narrative”, as suggested by Kathleen Montgomery Hunter in Doctors’ Stories. The narrative structure of medical knowledge (Princeton University Press, 1991:5), then the kinship of medical practice with the verbal and visual narratives encountered respectively in literature and art is obvious. In focusing on brain disease as portrayed in novels, theatre, and film, the editors of this volume have at their disposal a potentially limitless resource for discussion (on occasion addressed in the pages of ACNR).
Many of the usual suspects are summoned to this banquet of literature/art and medicine: van Gogh (specifically his letters, replete with references to literature), Dostoevsky (accounts of epilepsy), Chekhov (doctors), Charcot (his interest in the theatre), Proust (diseases and doctors), and Balzac (doctors, and a possible early account of schizophrenia in the character of Louis Lambert), as well as less familiar names such as Blaise Cendrars and Joseph Gerard.
The two most substantial chapters, both authored by Sebastian Dieguez, undertake in-depth surveys of doubles and of amnesia. With respect to doubles, an extended review of literary contributions leads to the argument that cognitive mechanisms may underpin both clinical and scientific research and literary creations. With respect to amnesia, criticisms of literary amnesiacs as too often of retrograde autobiographical type, rare in clinical practice, are rejected through citation of “stranger-than-fiction” type cases in the medical literature, and Dieguez contends that intuitive conceptions of memory may feed in to scientific understanding and vice versa, a notion which may be at odds with principles of neuropsychological research.
David Perkin gives examples of movement disorders he has encountered in his reading for pleasure, including some pretty convincing accounts of hemifacial spasm, tremor, and dystonia, but he reports (191) only one example which might fulfil the criteria of Tourette’s syndrome. One hesitates to contradict so eminent a neurologist and so avid a reader, but I would recommend him to ponder some possible examples cited in ACNR 2003;3:5:26-27, and would be interested to hear his thoughts on the character of Pozdnyshev in Leo Tolstoy’s 1889 novella The Kreutzer Sonata.
As with previous volumes in this series, the book’s expense is made acceptable by the high production values, with only occasional errors (e.g p. 161, Primo Levi’s If this is a man is given as published in 1942,when the writer had yet to be incarcerated, rather than 1947, the date of the first Italian edition). We may anticipate further volumes devoted to these kindred, narrative-based, subjects.