The Naïve Narrative

In his recent column In Defense of Naïve Reading, Professor Robert Pippin speaks to the state of literary criticism as it is taught on university campuses. His contention is that, although the current trend is to scrutinize the literary arts through the lens of the natural scientific research model — with the ultimate end of developing a “science of meaning” — creative works themselves were never crafted to serve research. Rather, their authors penned them as works of art, works meant to speak to us at the deepest level of our being.

In Pippin’s words: “Literature and the arts have a dimension unique in the academy, not shared by the objects studied, or ‘researched’ by our scientific brethren. They invite or invoke, at a kind of ‘first level,’ an aesthetic experience that is by its nature resistant to restatement in more formalized, theoretical or generalizing language.”

Pippin goes on to say: “Likewise ─ and this is a much more controversial thesis ─ such works also can directly deliver a kind of practical knowledge and self-understanding not available from a third person or more general formulation of such knowledge.”

I was reminded of these words during small group discussion at our recent Cell2Soul gathering on Nantucket. One of the presenters, a young physician, published author and director of a narrative medicine course, put forth his observations on illness. Illness, he maintained, separates us from our bodies. Illness diminishes us physically and morally. Illness alters the way we perceive the world and our place in it. Illness threatens us at the core of our being.

This young physician examined illness in various spheres of influence: illness and the self, illness in the doctor-patient relationship, illness and the family unit, illness and the community. He is working to formulate a theory of illness and its impact on the individual, the family, the community and society, in part to provide a framework for and justification of the study of narrative medicine in the medical school curriculum.

I applaud his efforts. In academic settings it is always necessary to justify what students need to learn to become competent in their chosen careers. A well-developed theory lends credence to academic study — and ultimately, acceptance of the particular discipline. In Pippin’s words: “We certainly need a theory about how artistic works mean anything at all, why or in what sense, reading a novel, say, is different than reading a detailed case history.”

When I engaged him in further discussion, the young physician maintained that the illness narrative could not stand alone by itself. It is too soft a subject to garner academic recognition.

Personally, I believe that narrative, like art, whether in written, cinematic, poetic or visual format, is sufficient to speak by itself. Although narrative understandably deals with the particular, it encompasses the universal, and so becomes relevant on a profound level.

Simple vignettes, simple narratives, in the hands of a skilled teacher, can be used to impart universal truths — scientific or moral — which every clinician needs to learn.

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4 comments on “The Naïve Narrative

  1. Touch2Touch says:

    This is a really vexed subject.
    Even in studying literature itself, at least at graduate level, the actual experience of the narrative is not considered sufficient. Academia demands the theory. When Pippin says that the thesis: “such works [narratives, stories, novels] also can directly deliver a kind of practical knowledge and self-understanding not available from a third person or more general formulation of such knowledge” is controversial, he isn’t kidding. Exactly as the young physician said: personal experience is considered “soft.”
    And yet —
    (Where the important stuff lies, in the And yet—)
    You are vitally and profoundly right in your conclusion:
    “Simple vignettes, simple narratives, in the hands of a skilled teacher, can be used to impart universal truths — scientific or moral — which every clinician needs to learn.”
    Teachers in every discipline, over the centuries, know that this is absolutely true. In fact, not only “can be used”, but for true learning, the kind that leads to wisdom, not simply knowledge, MUST be used.
    “Until the heart and the head connect, the learning is not complete.” Someone said that, it might even have been me, and despite all the academic jargon and theory, creativity remains mysterious, and generative, and necessary to everything, to science as well as to the humanities.
    Alas, I think this idea is at present ill served in both disciplines.

  2. DJE says:

    Brilliant post. I’ll share with “the young physician.” Or have you done so already. I’ve found that pathographies teach a great deal about being a doctor. Much more than any med school prof. Much more to say — but it’s late and I still have miles to go before I sleep. D

  3. Brian says:

    Studs Terkel: Hard Times. NPR: Story Corps. Hippocrates, Galen, Osler: Medical Case Studies.

    We start with an individual’s story; we pay attention to the particulars.

    Later, we compile and collate these stories, sift and ponder them in an effort to find common threads.

    In the case of medicine, we formulate lists of signs and symptoms that point to definitive diagnoses. This knowledge in turn allows us to diagnose and prognosticate, once again based upon facts gleaned from patients’ stories.

    In the case of literary criticism, academicians formulate theories and examine trends.

    In Hard Times, Terkel used the individual narrative to assemble a representative history of the Great Depression; NPR’s Story Corps is our modern equivalent. Other more academic types have assimilated such tales into historical trends and movements. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Santayana)

    “In a real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read. It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish.” (Hayakawa)

    No matter the discipline, we start and end with story; for at core, as Professor Michael Klaber has said, words are all we have.

  4. Joy Ackerman says:

    Speaking from the ‘soft and squishy’ side of the research spectrum, a phenomenological approach to exploring human experience can and does incorporate narrative, including poetry and fiction, to uncover and communicate the existentials of lived experience. Although my uses of phenomenological interviewing focus on human/sacred geography, the phenomenological approach is alive and well in the medical field, especially psychology and nursing (in which, dare I say it? the researchers seem to care about the patient experience!) Not the most recent work, but I recommend Max van Manen ‘Researching Lived Experience’for a discussion of narrative and knowing.

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