Stories Matter: The Role of Narrative in Medical Ethics

By Rita Charon; Martha Montello | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 6

TIME AND ETHICS

RITA CHARON

The earthly predicament predicates time. Animate beings and inanimate things age. Be they made of metal or of wood or of stone or of flesh, objects wear. Chemical, biological, planetary, cosmological, and emotional reactions occur in steps. Causality connotes sequence. Communication requires tense. Simultaneity is nearly unattainable. Timelessness is unbearable.

Although one is oneself over the course of a lifespan, one adapts, matures, does one thing in the face of having done another. In an essay about his own liver transplantation, American poet Richard McCann mourns the loss of his earlier bodies. “I could still recall the body I’d had when I was ten, the body in which I carried what I called ‘myself.’… I could recall the body I’d had, nervous and tentative, when I first made love at seventeen. But these bodies were gone, as was the body into which I’d been born, these bodies I’d called ‘mine’ without hesitation, intact and separate and entire.” 1 He realizes, of course, and helps his reader to likewise realize, that his own “self” is permanent despite the profound and innumerable transformations of age. Literary critic Percy Lubbock writes that Tolstoy “is the master of the changes of age in a human being. Under his hand young men and women grow older, cease to be young…with the noiseless regularity of life; their mutability never hides their sameness, their consistency shows and endures through their disintegration.” 2 Human beings are held aloft in a time that “flows,” unaware except at the bidding of illness or of art how beholden we are to the buoyancy of our medium; without its invisible hand, we sink like stones into death.

Unlike the prepositional thinking of moral philosophy, the epiphanic awareness of some forms of poetry, or the synchronic (that is to say, simultaneous or all-at-once) perception of the visual arts, the kind of human knowledge expressible through and experienced in narrative gives voice and shape to time. E.M. Forster states boldly that “what the story does is to narrate the life in time” and that, in the novel at least, “the allegiance to time is imperative.” 3 Chapter 7 of The Magic Mountain opens with the observation that “time is the medium of narration, as it is the medium of life.” 4 “Time,” thinks protagonist Hans Castorp, “brings things to pass.” 5 Because word follows word in temporally meaningful patterns in narrative

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