A Doctor's Dictionary: Writings on Culture & Medicine by Iain Bamforth

By Iain Bamforth

During this wide-reaching abecedarium, health practitioner and poet Iain Bamforth dissects the clash of values embodied in what we name medicine—never completely a technology and not particularly the paintings it was. Bamforth brings to endure his event of drugs from worldwide, from the hightech American sanatorium of Paris to neighborhood health and wellbeing centres of Papua, together with his enticing curiosity within the stranger manifestations of clinical concerns in terms of artwork, literature and tradition. Drawing at the lives and concepts of a few of Europe’s most
celebrated writers, from Auden to Zola with stop-offs on the likes of Darwin, Kafka, Orwell, Proustand Weil alongside the way in which, Bamforth deals insightful and witty diagnoses of the tradition of medication within the sleek age.

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He plays up to his patients’ amour propre, while drastically curtailing their freedom. Sacrifices there will have to be. Soon his patients are running after something they already have. Mark Twain noted, with his usual pawky humour, how little of substance is actually offered by health messiahs: ‘There are people who strictly deprive themselves of each and every eatable, drinkable and smokeable which has in any way acquired a shady reputation. They pay this price for health. And health is all they get out of it.

Munthe’s thumbnail sketch of Charcot speaks volumes for the magical function of the medicine-man in an age that proclaims itself thoroughly rational: the following passage was actually omitted from the French translation of San Michele, presumably because its hint of diabolism failed to flatter the reputation of the Maître who had dominated French medicine for more than a generation. ’ This is a description of a magician, not a scientist. Once Knock has made it explicit, danger is like the house dust mite: everywhere.

It was hard to appreciate then, raking someone’s gizzard, that being a good doctor would entail getting beyond the old Indo-European conceptual metaphor ‘knowing-is-seeing’: knowing in medicine is just as much listening and touching. ) But what can a ‘laterally expanded’ whole-body preparation convey to an observer whose only previous sense-impressions of lateral expansion have been in gore movies? The difference between Hagens’ hard plastic bodies and a simple skeleton, bereft of the conceptually rich flesh it supports, is clear enough: imagination is at work, as Hagens knows it is bound to be; which is why it is disingenuous of him to pretend that the aesthetic aspects of his preparations are only institutional and second-order, ‘in the beholder’s eye’.

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