How Literature Changes the Way We Think

February 9, 2012

The "medical humanities", the area in which the author, Michael Mack, now works, is a fairly new cross-disciplinary field: in the UK, King's College London and the universities of Durham and Nottingham have significant research centres in this subject.

To offer a quick history, it began by using literature and film as a way of helping to educate health professionals about wider and more involved issues: the mysteries of the human heart are more complex, perhaps, than simply knowledge of the left and right ventricles. But it turned quickly into what unsympathetic observers saw as "symptom spotting" (King Lear is depressed; Lady Macbeth is psychotic - as if these were patients and not fictive constructs in a drama) or, perhaps more interestingly, to thinking about how literary texts might be therapeutic in themselves. Some fascinating new work in the field has applied literary or literary-theoretical forms of understanding to the categories and modes of medical knowledge in ways that do not simply reject this knowledge (as might have happened in the "science wars" of the 1980s) but engage with it. However, the medical humanities has so far lacked a book that has "broken" it into the literary critical mainstream or shown its more significant appeal.

How Literature Changes the Way We Think will not be this book, despite its own insistent and occasionally grandiose self-promotion. Mack writes that the "traditional approach from Žižek" (and this sort of grand sweep should already make one nervous) "has conceptualised literature and arts as compendiums of knowledge" but that his approach "departs from this tradition" and shows us how "literature and arts...enable us to discover new forms of politics, medicine, religion and ethics". Here - and throughout - the way in which whole traditions and the most demanding of thinkers are turned into simplistic straw figures (Plato, at second hand from Paul Ricoeur, dismissed) is especially irritating and not at all convincing.

This is not to say that ambitious claims should not be made - they should - but when a book says that it is offering a "new literary theory that combines ethics with aesthetics" one wants to see how this - perhaps the "grand unifying theory" goal of literary theory - actually works. And the book repeatedly fails to do this. Instead, Mack argues that literature offers an "ethics of resilience" to the world which helps us to explore alternatives: literature "makes us aware of the fictitious nature of our services and mission in the 'real world'". This is neither very new (really, most critics of most stripes offer recognisable versions of this), nor very "theoretical". It simply ignores decades of thought and work. Moreover, the readings (of Kazuo Ishiguro or of Philip Roth, for example) that try to show this are rather pedestrian.

Although the book is detailed on Baruch Spinoza, Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt, it demonstrates flaws in accuracy at a number of levels, from the macro (as I have suggested, major thinkers are presented in such a way as to make one wonder how they could have thought such nonsense) to the micro: for example, Mack writes that John Banville "has put in his novel ... some De-Manean themes" and then cites a passage inaccurately. The issue here is not simply the slip in quotation (for, in the end, not many of us would 'scape whipping for this, surely) but that the novel in question is a complex act of characterisation and ventriloquism, and cannot simply be "mined" for the "knowledge" that was "put in". Indeed, this is the sort of thing that Mack seems to be criticising in the first place. Similarly, and in an oddly undergraduate vein, Mad Men, the subject of two of the seven chapters, is superb television but is not literature, the ostensible subject of the book, except in a sense so vague ("it's good") as to be meaningless.

Moreover, the book is full of passages of exegesis (often on Arendt) that don't go anywhere, don't offer new insights into the texts, don't explain how literature changes the way we think, and instead resolve disappointingly into cliches: "What is literature but infinite versions of new beginnings?" Arendt, literature and the reader deserve better. Some of these passages did, however, send me back to their sources, and to some other commentators, which I did appreciate.

Something interesting and important is gestating in the "medical humanities" (although, like Bob Dylan's Mr Jones, I don't know what it is) and I had hoped this book - by a significant scholar of the German Jewish philosophical tradition - would be part of this wider public birth. However, put bluntly, it isn't: a discipline's Braxton Hicks contraction, perhaps.

How Literature Changes the Way We Think

By Michael Mack. Continuum, 208pp. £55.00 and £17.99. ISBN 9781441103208 and 19148. Published 2 February 2012

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