Review by Emily Wojcik
October 23, 2012
It is a privilege to be healthy, one that we egregiously take for granted when we are well and become all too aware of once we have lost it. Literature about illness is a mainstay of the contemporary memoir—there are books detailing battles with cancer, anorexia, bipolar disorder, the loss of limbs, strokes, childhood diseases—as well as popular tomes about the quirky or tragic histories of such maladies and their cures.
While the illness memoir may be a relatively new phenomenon, the worlds of literature and medicine have long been interconnected, particularly for practitioners in the field. Western literature is full of doctors who were also writers or artists, from Copernicus to Anton Chekov to William Carlos Williams and, today, Oliver Sacks, Atul Gawande, and others. This should perhaps be unsurprising. As Andrzej Szczeklik makes clear in Kore: On Sickness, the Sick and the Search for the Soul of Medicine, medicine has long been as much about interpretation and narrative, metaphysics and superstition, as it is about diagnosis and treatment.
Szczeklik, who passed away in January of this year, was chairman of the department of medicine at Poland’s Jagiellonian University, and author of Catharsis: On the Art of Medicine, an earlier work of similarly thoughtful essays. In this philosophical exploration of the “soul of medicine,” Szczeklik takes the reader through a brief history of the profession, interspersed with his own autobiography and digressions into specific maladies and breakthroughs that changed the way we think about the body.
The result is a meditation on the art of caring for the sick, and an examination of the drive to understand the bodies in which all of us are trapped, for better or for worse. Kore tackles a variety of subjects at once universal and esoteric—chapters include “Genetics and Cancer,” “About the Brain,” “On Dying and Death”—yet these essays feel deeply personal, as much about the author as they are about the diseases and cures he describes.
It helps that Szczeklik writes beautifully, or has a very talented translator (or both). I have not read the original Polish publication, for the simple reason that I cannot read Polish, but the English translation, by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, is simultaneously lyrical and crystalline, imaginative but never silly. Szczeklik treads lightly over complex subjects, as when describing one neurologist’s early attempts to discern the communication pathways between neurons, a Nobel Prize-winning discovery that Szczeklik likens to ancient metaphysics:
And finally he got it right: in scraps of brain steeped for some time in bichromate of potassium, then in silver nitrate, the individual neurons showed. Their contours were bordered in a dark precipitate of silver. This reaction, in which the noble metal broke free, had something in common with alchemy. Even its name … reazione nera … had an echo of nigredo (“blackening”), the first stage in which the alchemists used to carry out the “transmutation of forms that had been used up by Time.”
For readers more comfortable in the world of words than hard science, Kore is a welcome guide to the laboratory, the surgeon’s table, the diagnostician’s office. Szczeklik translates hard edges and technicalities into poetry. The chapter on genetics begins with nods to Joseph Brodsky, Franz Kafka, and Thomas Hardy. Szczeklik quotes lines from the latter’s poem “Heredity” before veering off onto a new digression about his daughter’s sudden resemblance to a portrait of Szczeklik’s mother that hangs in his dining room: “Over the next few days the similarity became striking. The young woman in the portrait and the girl in the room facing her looked like mirror images of each other. So it was for a fortnight, but then they began to draw apart and diverge, like clouds passing over the mountains. And just as it had appeared, the similarity vanished, never to return again.” In a few short sentences, Szczeklik enacts the magic of genetics on the page, describing the vagaries of biological heredity through allusions that demonstrate his own literary genealogy.
And so Szczeklik goes throughout this charming and thoughtful book. In many ways, Kore is old-fashioned, moving fluidly and unabashedly from biology to spirituality, from the development of cancer treatments to concerns about love and the afterlife. There is no sideshow revelation here, no amazing stories of freakish disorders or fantastical recoveries. The only mystery is what lies within the dizzying chasm of what we understand about our bodies and what remains shrouded in uncertainty and doubt. Szczeklik is an author pursuing questions, not answers, in the hopes that these questions will lead to more and deeper investigations into sickness and health, and how these states reveal something of our very souls.
In some respects, this fluidity frustrates those of us accustomed to the 21st century’s promise of instant “answers” and threatens the trust we place in science as infallible and “true.” Szczeklik adamantly avoids case studies or the emergency-room suspense of popular television shows like House or Grey’s Anatomy. He addresses this directly towards the end, noting that we are a culture that has “displaced the immortal soul from our language and our minds, and now in our thoughts, conversations and daily life we are silencing death. We immerse ourselves in the present. We thrive on it, in the ‘reality show,’ the ‘talk show’….” As a result of this drive to exist only “now,” we push harder towards an understanding of the “soul of medicine,” the “essence of the essence” of a kind of knowledge that will save us from whatever it is that lies beyond the immediate.
The pursuit of that “soul of medicine” is a kind of salvation for Szczeklik. The intellectual and emotional cooperation between doctor and patient, between those in pain and those who seek to help them, is itself the thread that keeps us grounded. Szczeklik sees medicine as a higher calling, and by the end of his thoughtful and strange little book, it’s hard to resist the picture he paints: “Along comes the patient with his pain and suffering, his cry for help. And disregarding the patient’s fear (and his own), knowing how little he knows (always too little), the doctor says, ‘I will stand by you. Let us look danger in the face together.’ And all the doubts our minds have wrapped around the soul for centuries fall away….”
The title figure – Kore – is a metaphor for this symbiotic relationship between doctor and patient. Like the classical Greek statuary of the same name, medicine in its ideal form stands with us at the door between this world and the next, accompanying those who seek its benefits and offering a promise of comfort in times of great distress. For those grappling with similar circumstances, for those embarking on a medical career, and for those of us who simply seek a glimpse into a world not quite our own, Szczeklik’s Kore suggests that understanding sickness, and continuing the pursuit of health, is perhaps the only thing that will save us in the end.
Emily Wojcik teaches English at the University of Connecticut and Holyoke Community College, and is assistant editor at Paris Press in Massachusetts.
Kore: On Sickness, the Sick and the Search for the Soul of Medicine
Publisher: Counterpoint Press, 2012
Price: $26 (cloth)