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Fella Benabed

Annaba, Algeria
Medical Humanities: Bridging the Two Cultures through the Study of Literature
Monday, 11th September | 14:00 – 15:30

The reflection on holism appears in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, in which he states, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Across the ages, scholars have been polymaths, like Aristotle, Ibn El-Nafis, Ibn Sina, Nicolas Copernicus, and Leonardo da Vinci, among others. In the last centuries, however, scholars have opted for specialization. Today, there is a tendency to return to the original reflection on holism (often using the terms “interdisciplinarity”, “multisciplinarity”, “cross-disciplinarity”, or “transdisciplinarity”). Some burgeoning fields like environmental humanities, digital humanities, and medical humanities illustrate this trend. The proposed paper will attempt to highlight the potential of medical humanities in bridging what C. P. Snow calls “the two cultures” or healing what H. Markl calls “dementia dichotoma”. Both the British chemist and German biologist believe that the polarization of the sciences and the humanities is a pure loss for both, and that their cross-fertilization is greatly beneficial for humanity.

The field of medical humanities is based on a holistic approach to health; it relies on different disciplines like medicine, psychology, anthropology, literature, and the other arts. Indeed, the humanities provide knowledge about human suffering, nurture observation skills and empathic feelings that are necessary for healthcare professionals. Dr Kenneth Heaton believes that reading William Shakespeare, for instance, can allow them perceive the relationship between emotion and illness. His research shows that symptoms like dizziness, fatigue, and fainting, are sometimes confusing for physicians when they find no physical causes. One of the examples is the physical fatigue of Hamlet after the murder of his father and the headache of Othello after the presumed betrayal of his wife.

Traumatic events have continually produced a wealth of literary works, in the forms of testimonial diaries, memoirs, or novels, because literature has the ability to transmit, often through metaphors, messages that are difficult to communicate straightforwardly. In Moses, Citizen and Me (2005), Delia Jarrett-Macauley uses an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, to rehabilitate African child soldiers and help them articulate their suffering. By playing the roles of Shakespearian characters, child soldiers could identify the causes of their trauma (political rivalry, civil war, parricide and fratricide) for which they are not responsible, and thus feel less guilty. They could also distinguish between what they are and what they can become. This approach to the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is now called “art therapy.”

Another example to show the healing potential of literature lies in the words of Native-American writer Leslie Marmon Silko who reveals in that writing her novel, Ceremony, has been a cure for not only Tayo’s mental disorders but also her own. She intimates in an interview, “As Tayo got better, I got better.” Tayo is the protagonist of the “ceremonial” novel that served as a scriptotherapy for her historical and collective trauma.

In addition to the trauma of war and colonization, the field of medical humanities studies the trauma of illness, and the importance of narrative in piecing together a fragmented identity, mainly through metaphors.