Austin Ratner is the author of four books of fiction and non-fiction. His novel The Jump Artist won the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. His most recent book, a study of psychoanalysis that Mark Solms says "could help determine the future direction of American psychiatry and mental science, "came out in 2019. Visit his website at www.austinratner.com follow on Twitter@austinratner
When I tell people I got my M.D. and then left medicine to become a fiction writer, they often say, “That was brave.” This is, I think, another way of saying, “You are obviously insane.” It’s perhaps particularly hard to walk away from medicine as a Jew. In Jewish families going back to Maimonides and before, doctors have been revered on a par with holy men. My own reverence for doctors has been if anything stronger than that; my dead father and dead grandfather were both doctors and I enshrined them in my mind as saints.
There is, of course, a long tradition of doctors who wrote both belles lettres and
non-fiction. My own father wrote and published poetry. I have hastened to point out the established doctor-writer tradition whenever I’ve had second thoughts about the career change. John Keats was an apothecary, Anton Chekhov was a doctor, and James Joyce began medical school three times before he wisely gave up. Gertrude Stein attended Johns Hopkins Medical School, my alma mater, before she, too, quit. And yet, even were I to succeed on the level of those famous writers, a Jewish-mother caricature hovers over me in disapproval. I am reminded of the joke about the first Jewish president; during the inauguration, his mother whispers to the man sitting next to her, “See that man with his hand up getting sworn in as the next president? His brother’s a doctor!”
Until I began working on a book of short stories chronicling the history of medicine, the association between writing and medicine meant little more to me than a rationalization of my own career choices. I never fully appreciated the central impact that medicine and its practitioners have had on modern literature. But several of the key figures in the history of literature and philosophy were medical men who remade the world of letters and politics according to medicine’s scientific and materialist view of human nature.
It was during the Renaissance, when the scientific worldview became once again ascendant, that people began to turn to doctors as authorities on how to live. Moreover, many writers who wanted to understand human nature felt compelled to engage directly with the material reality of the human body. The first of these humanist doctor-writers was 16th-century Frenchman Francois Rabelais who, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, “ranks with Boccaccio as a founding father of Western realism.” Now, that’s a blurb. Rabelais received his degree at Montpellier, the oldest continuously operating medical school in the world, and his taboo-busting candor on human body function in his comic masterpiece Gargantua and Pantagruel changed the way writers wrote forever after. Likewise, the most influential philosopher of the Enlightenment was a physician. That was John Locke, the man from whom Thomas Jefferson cribbed the line “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” See that man whose unremunerated scribbling inspired the Founding Fathers of the United States of America more than any other writer? Well, his mother Agnes needn’t be disappointed with him, because he was a doctor!
Walt Whitman was not a doctor, but he volunteered as a nurse in Washington D.C.’s military hospitals during the Civil War, and wrote poetry that was revolutionary in its attunement to sensory, bodily experience and to human vulnerability and suffering. Whitman wrote in 1864: "It is Sunday afternoon, middle of summer, hot and oppressive, and very silent through the ward. I am taking care of a critical case, now lying in a half lethargy. Near where I sit is a suffering rebel, from the 8th Louisiana; his name is Irving.
He has been here a long time, badly wounded, and lately had his leg amputated; it is not doing very well. Right opposite me is a sick soldier-boy, laid down with his clothes on, sleeping, looking much wasted, his pallid face on his arm. I see by the yellow trimming on his jacket that he is a cavalry boy. I step softly over and find by his card that he is named William Cone, of the 1st Maine cavalry, and his folks live in Skowhegan."
When a soldier died or was determined a lost cause, Whitman observed, the busy surgeons admirably hurried on to someone else who could benefit from their aid. But Whitman lingered as a witness. In so doing, he comforted, understood, and uplifted not only the sufferers he sat with in the hospital but sufferers born long after him, who would hear their own pain and joy expressed in his poetry. A writer is in some respects a doctor to generations yet unborn.
My book is not a paean to the medical professional, by any means. It attempts to do for doctors what good doctors do for us: to understand their troubles, for it’s no easy career. Neither is being a writer, for that matter!