General Literature

Moby Dick and Medicine

Last weekend, my classmates and I went on a ski trip to a most excellent resort in Vermont. This trip was partly a literature retreat for me, as I chose to reread a large portion of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick on the drive there and back. Upon arriving at the resort, I was inspired to write this post for two reasons. Firstly, the main room had a scenery that I felt to be most conducive to writing (see photo). Secondly, I had been thinking during the drive up to Vermont about how rereading Moby Dick, or any other piece of imaginative literature, is related to rereading texts in medicine, including our current lung unit’s clinical cases (as some of my classmates had been doing in the van), or even re-“reading” a real-life scenario during a pulmonary ward rotation. I realized that there are many similarities, some of which I will share in this post. Again, my central question is: what is the usefulness of reading imaginative literature for the progress of science and medicine?

Photo courtesy of Tony Sun
Photo courtesy of Tony Sun

First, I’d like to introduce, or for some readers, re-introduce Melville’s Moby Dick, a supreme example of American Romanticism. The Romantics were involved in a movement that affected Western art, music, and literature, primarily in the 19th century. In America, the chief Romantic writers were R.W. Emerson, N. Hawthorne, H. Melville, W. Whitman, and H.D. Thoreau. These writers wrote about the art of rereading texts, created characters that had to re-experience situations, and presented the meaning of redoing what has already been done or experienced. The last is of crucial importance and is what unifies the first two themes: rereading and re-experiencing. For any belated reader or writer, there is naturally an anxiety of comparison with precursor writers and readers. Belated individuals may ask themselves: how can I read in an original way, or, how can I write original ideas? For Melville, his question might have been: how can I create and write an original character that embodies vengeance, when Shakespeare had already done so with Iago, or John Milton with his Satan. But Melville overcame this anxiety. He created Ahab, a fusion and reworking of the characteristics found in Iago and Milton’s Satan.

You may ask: how does Ahab and Melville relate to science and medicine, and how is Romanticism related to the art of medicine? I see two main links, one being that reading the Romantics enables one to be more knowledgeable about the issue of originality, and two being that observing how the Romantics handle the art of redoing enables one to redo something and still retain originality. These two links are not mutually exclusive, and the second naturally follows the first—learning what originality is enables one to redo things in original ways. Take this for example: a pulmonary intern (keeping the lung theme) sees a case of fibrotic lung disease that had been presented recently at grand rounds. Now, repeat this situation maybe ten times, that is to say, the intern sees ten more patients with fibrotic lung disease and goes to ten more grand rounds on fibrotic lung disease. Could such repetitiveness lead to boredom for the intern? I can’t answer this from experience, as I’m only a first year student, but I’ve heard the answer to be: “Yes.” A bit of originality could help the intern out here, so here I invoke the experience of reading and rereading Melville: when I reread Moby Dick, or reread any other book, I remind myself to be more aware of where I reread, how long I reread, and how I feel when I’m rereading. And then I compare these to my previous experiences of reading Moby Dick, that is to say, where I first read it, or, where I previously read it. I would argue that the intern can try something similar with clinical cases and grand rounds: where did I last see this case of fibrotic lung disease? And how did I feel when I last saw this case? These questions can make each case of fibrotic lung disease original and interesting.

To finish this post, I’d like reflect on my previous post. In my first post titled “Imaginative Literature and Medicine,” I laid out my objectives and motivations for writing in this blog, and I identified three focal points that I can discern in the medical humanities: 1. a literary focus, in which writers identify characters in literature that are scientists and doctors and write about these characters; 2. a medical focus, in which doctors and scientists reflect on personal anecdotes and write about them creatively in the form of poems or short stories; and 3. a practical focus, in which writers identify links between literature and medicine and argue for the usefulness of reading imaginative literature in practicing medicine and science. My interest is in the third category, and admittedly, I think this is the most underdeveloped of the three categories. This second post on Melville, Moby Dick, and medicine (a convenient alliteration, I might add) is meant to not only continue where I left off in the first post, but also to start a trend for future posts, in which I will be drawing more links between medicine, science, and the American Romantic writers: R.W. Emerson, N. Hawthorne, H. Melville, W. Whitman, and H.D. Thoreau.

Featured image:
Ahab reloaded by José María Pérez Nuñez