The Problem with the “Medical Humanities”

The eighth image in the engraved version of William Hogarth's 'A Rake's Progress,' showing Tom Rakewell at Bethlehem Hospital, aka Bedlam (1735) (via Wikimedia Commons)

The eighth likeness in the engraved version of William Hogarth’s ‘A Rake’s Progress,’ showing Tom Rakewell at Bethlehem Hospital, aka Bedlam (1735) (via Wikimedia Commons) (click to enlarge)

The likewise-called “medical humanities” are in successi~ the rise of late. As literary productions and the arts find themselves at greater and greater task to justify their work to the with greater advantage-funded half of the academy, they appeal with increasing frequency to the healing utility of reading or making exercise of skill: drawing on the vocabulary of psychology, therapeutical humanists insist that literary fiction promotes empathy and that large knowledge languages prevents Alzheimer’s. One of the latest in a diffuse line of utilitarian defenses of the elegant literature is Belinda Jack’s excellent work in the Times Higher Education, that argues that the medicinal effects of metrical composition have been understated. Poetry, Jack maintains, is one underappreciated remedy for depression.

At a time whereas the gap between the sciences and the polite literature looms large, Jack’s call in quest of interdisciplinary approaches to literature and drug is admirable: “Psychology can certainly take a part a part in both biography and biographical readings of literary texts, for example. Pharmacology can inform us in relation to drug-induced creative states of re~,” she writes. But the crux of her essay represents one more unwelcome attempt to subject the arts to standards derived from the sciences.

A physic is “successful” when it produces a worthy of notice change in some sick party. By design, its force is observable and, to some quality, measurable. In contrast, a work of belles-lettres or art can be effective in variant ways — most of which are by nature invisible. A book that subtly alters our worldview, a painting that discomfits us, or a dally that brings its audience to tears: these everything fall under the “successful artwork” umbrella. Sometimes, every artwork’s success is a difficulty of pure aesthetics, which don’t give themselves to quantification. Poetry isn’t serviceable because it’s comforting, as Jack suggests; much of the best poetry is disturbing. (“Every supernatural being is terrible,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in The Duino Elegies.)

What’s greater degree, because the medical humanist’s military science relies fundamentally on the notion that learning can be put to practical appliance, it leaves literature’s defenders liable to injury to criticism when dealing with in a ~ degree obviously therapeutic art. I’m not firm Kafka ever cured anyone’s concavity, but his writing has certainly raised serious questions — and indeed, the questions are influential in part because they’re thus difficult, upsetting, and, yes, even depressing.

“Americans be favored with always felt uncomfortable about any cultural alertness that does not lead to harden results,” Lee Siegel once wrote in The New Yorker. Anyone who wants to ascend a more durable defense of the arts should seek reference of the case to their intrinsic, intangible value. If they sometimes help alleviate mental illnesses, that’s a bonus.

Tagged as: Art, Belinda Jack, belles-lettres, medical humanities, value

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