Honors | Medicine, Magic & Mortality (HON)
H203 | 8199 | Jack Rollins


TuTh 9:30-10:45am

This course, team-taught by professors, physicians, patients, health-
care professionals, and clergy--will explore the profound and even
mystical relationships between literature and medicine. The course
will survey different ways people, both experienced and first-time
writers, have chosen to reconstruct their experiences in narrative
and cinematic form with chronic life-threatening illnesses.
Beginning with literary notions of mimesis and the reconstruction of
the self (or the illusion of the self), the course will examine
selected prose narratives. For the most part, we will read
traditional texts, but we will also sample some unconventional
unruly texts, such as electronic illness narratives, which invite
the reader to participate in the creation of the online text. These,
together with films in which the hero/patient/narrator has been
afflicted with a catastrophic illness--an experience which he then
tries to reconstruct for the reader--provide a broad view of this
newly emerging genre. Through critical reading and viewing, class
discussion, and guided research, I hope that students will gain both
an appreciation of the experience of chronic illness and of the
literary and cinematic variation of the strategies used to
reconstruct these experiences in what has been called Americaıs new
adventure story, ³the pathography,² as well as in film, music, and
dance.

Along the way, we will want to ask the questions: To what extent is
the image of the sufferer limited by the boundaries of the art form
itself? Are some genres and narrative points of view better at
reconstructing the illness experience than others? Why?

And there are several additional questions we want to address this
semester as well: Is there perhaps both a palliative and, in some
cases, a healing effect associated with this kind of writing, that
is, to what extent is the writing itself a kind of therapy?  Does
the image of the sufferer that emerges from these accounts really
amount to the image of the disease (perhaps a socially conditioned
one) that is anthropomorphized? Or does such writing represent a new
American ritual aimed at shaping our own ends?  And if so, is this
really the logical result of baby boomers who, at mid-life, as
Marilyn Webb has claimed in The Good Death (1997), have ³altered
everything else they have passed through in their life cycle--from
sex to childbirth to marriage...and who are now in the process of
changing how Americans handle the experience of dying²?  Are then
auto/pathographies merely icons of middle class social change? ³I
would like to learn to live finally,² Jacques Derrida declares in
his Apprendre à vivre enfin. ³No.  I have never learned-to-live.
But then , really not at all! To learn to live, that must mean to
learn to die, to take into consideration, in order to accept,
absolute mortality.² From those who have ³learned to live,² from
those who have accepted their absolute mortality, what can they
teach us about living?  We might very well ask ourselves, ³Can this
be taught?² ³Can it be learned?² What do those who are about to lose
their lives, have to tell us about how to live ours?
And then there is the problem of memory itself. What can the
chronically ill or anyone really remember? Is this really a place in
the brain?  Most neuroscientists think that what we call memory is
really a rich circuitry of pathways and connections that lead to
certain areas of the brain. They argue that every ³memory² is a
newly created image caused by certain connections and synapses in
these areas of the brain, some of which are in what are called
bunches of spindle cells.

So just what ³memories² can we believe in?
II. The major project in the class will be to ³adopt² a chronic
illness, research the disease, and then reconstruct the experience
of the illness, usually in a fictive narrative, although students
are encouraged to explore recreating the experience of illness in
other art forms as well.  The goal of this assignment is to learn
enough about the illness experience of a particular chronic
condition so that a student can fashion a persona in a narrative
framework that would approximate a patientıs experience writing
about his illness in chapter six of an illness narrative. The most
successful fictive autopathography, then, might not be the most
artistic, but rather the most mimetic, or representative of how a
particular patient would recreate his experience from within the
context of his illness.  These then will be presented to the class
in an interactive ³performance² at the end of the semester .  We
will begin by creating life maps to learn about the problems
inherent in writing about the self and then we will write notes
toward a living will; next, we will create our own pain and
suffering scales, both as practical exercises and as testaments to
our ³pre-class² attitudes toward illness, suffering and death.
Following this, we will discuss the form and current popularity of
pathographies in an attempt to see this phenomenon as a response to
the lack of a central cultural myth regarding death in the United
States.

Then we will try to get at which reconstruction of illness is the
most compelling read. Next, for the mid-term, we will research a
specific chronic illness and write a short paper describing the
etiology, symptoms, complications and treatment of our adopted
diseases. To help us with this aspect of the class, physicians and
other health-care professionals, as well as patients will visit the
class to help us better understand the medical and personal side of
the accounts we are reading.

Throughout the term, we will be analyzing narrative techniques used
by pathographers to reconstruct their experiences. We will try to
understand what it means to be ³inside the experience of chronic
illness,² all the time trying to learn how these
patient/writer/narrators have written about themselves as a second
self that has emerged from within this indelible experience.

Portions of the final fictive pathographies, which will be turned in
for ungraded evaluative readings by me and about which I will hold
individual conferences with each student during the later part of the
semester, will be presented to the class in the MAC. On the last day
of class, the completed Fictive Pathography (12-15 pages)--together
with the last critical essay (5 pages) evaluating both the literary
features and quality of your account and an updated notes toward a
Living Will (two pages), plus the pain and suffering scale--will be
turned in for a final grade. As noted, the fictive pathography, the
last critical essay written evaluating it, and the living wills will
constitute 50% of the final grade.

III Required Texts:
Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie
Course Reader
Domnick, Needles
Grealy, Autobiography of a Face
Hornbacher, Wasted

IV Evaluation:
There are no tests in this course. To measure your academic
achievement of the goals set out in the Course Description
(understanding the experience of chronic illness and the varieties
of ways this experience may be represented in print, film, music and
dance), I intend to evaluate your mastery of the class material in
roughly the following proportions:

Class Participation*                   30%
Critical Essay  #1  (IW) (5 pages)     15%
Mid-term Etiology Essay (3-5 pages)     5%
Fictive Pathography (15 pages)         30%
Critical Essay  #2 (5 pages)           10%
Notes toward a Living Will (3-4 pages)  5%
Life Maps and Pain and Suffering Scales 5%

*A Note about Class Participation
This course was designed to be a seminar; that is, a small class,
(twelve to fifteen honors students), who would sit around a long
table to discuss the profoundly moral, social and biotechnical
issues involved in the illness experience and its representation in
print, film, music and dance. In spite of the current enrollments in
the class, I still try to maintain this seminar-level intensity.
This means I expect that everyone in the class will contribute to
the class discussion on almost a daily basis. A good class is always
a joint effort. Participation in the class online discussion forum
is also a requirement for the class. If for some reason you are
unable to attend class one day, or that you are unhappy with your
performance in class any day, or that you simply wish to continue a
discussion that came to an arbitrary halt at the end of class, you
can post your comments on the class email forum, which will be read
and available to everyone, including me, everyday. I encourage
everyone to use this forum to ask each other questions, seek advice
from other class members and  use this forum to post your class
comments, and so on. (I check this site and answer all questions
posted to me seven days a week.) Or you are free to visit me any day
to talk about the class or email me about some class issue.
Complete silence will be interpreted as being unprepared to express
an opinion, or indifference to the class.