The Oldest Art

Andrew Solomon writes a fine essay on the recent history of medical literature.  Atul Gawande, whose book Being Mortal I reviewed last year, figures prominently in Solomon’s attempt to take stock of medicine’s efforts to record our daily encounters with the fragile human body, and Gawande’s words about the inexactitude of medical practice ought to be contemplated with reference to the entire scientific endeavor:

“We look for medicine to be an orderly field of knowledge and procedure. But it is not. It is an imperfect science, an enterprise of constantly changing knowledge, uncertain information, fallible individuals and, at the same time, lives on the line. There is science in what we do, yes, but also habit, intuition and sometimes plain old guessing. The gap between what we know and what we aim for persists. And this gap complicates everything we do.” [From Complications:  A Surgeon’s Notes On An Imperfect Science]

It matters not what field of science one happens to be in.  Intelligence and skill alone are not enough for success.  The study of biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, history, or literature  requires the trait of humility, as well.  To be sure, the finest doctors have this humility in varying degrees.  One cannot observe the glorious chaos of our bodies or our universe without such humility being impressed upon one’s character, but there is also, I believe, an even more lasting impression the best scientists take from such studies:  the understanding that everything we do in life, from working at our jobs to loving the people we love, is merely an approximation of what we truly wish to express.  This understanding is at the root of humility itself.  Those who come to that understanding are among the happiest, most generous people around.  Those who don’t are among the most miserable people we might encounter, constantly struggling to achieve a perfection that doesn’t exist, or pursuing a kind of success that, in the end, is only an illusion.

[PS–In addition to the books Solomon mentions, I would add two more that are splendid general studies, suitable for anyone interested in medicine:  The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World, by Guido Majno, M.D.; and The Greatest Benefit To Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity, by Roy Porter.  And if there be any among you who doubts that the study of literature can be a science, I remind you of the field of Textual Bibliography which, in its examination of ancient and modern manuscripts, can be delightfully technical.]

Advertisements
Standard

2 thoughts on “The Oldest Art

  1. Not a subject I know much about, sadly. Though this –“We look for medicine to be an orderly field of knowledge and procedure. But it is not. It is an imperfect science, an enterprise of constantly changing knowledge, uncertain information, fallible individuals and, at the same time, lives on the line. There is science in what we do, yes, but also habit, intuition and sometimes plain old guessing.”-does ring true. I think we tend to forget the simple reality, which is this: we live, we learn. And no matter how much we know, we still depart from this world knowing so very little.

  2. Well, we live and we learn if we choose to. Millions remain happily ignorant. Millions more are unhappily ignorant because they lack the opportunity or the resources to learn what they would like to know. The West really doesn’t have any excuse for carrying as many frightened, angry, ignorant people as it does; we have the resources for educating most of them. (Whether we can find jobs for all of them–see Italy and Greece, for example–is another question.) For those of us such as you and I, who were blessed to be born with good brains and brave, thoughtful parents, we’ve had the opportunity to see and and explore and learn so many wonderful things that the experience goes beyond one’s capacity to describe. Although you are correct that we will leave this life knowing far less than we would like to, we can–and should–temper our sadness just a little. We will pass on what we know to the next generation, and they will go a little farther than we did with that knowledge. That’s the way it works. That’s the way it’s always worked, even when one factors in all of the ignorance, the governmental despotism, and the fear that constantly threatens to send us all back to tilling the soil.

    And I like to think that the sharp woman, if she keeps her wits about her long enough, will be given a glimpse of the future of part of the world she likes before she leaves it. For me, that glimpse is of the self-driving car. They work. It’ll be a while before they’re in general use, but they work. By the time I’m a really old man and you’re a really old lady, such cars will be ferrying all sorts of people anywhere they want to go, with a greatly reduced chance of an accident. Such a development will be a tremendous boon to everyone, but especially to the elderly, the disabled, and the young–three groups who would like to participate more in society but can’t because they don’t drive well. Remember this, too: companies create such gadgetry not just to make a zillion bucks but also to contribute to human happiness. Where did they get that sense of happiness? They got it from their parents–people like you and me, who left behind not just a little of what we knew, but also a sense of how to live with that knowledge and make something of it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s