The field of literature and medicine is inherently comparative. In this volume a classicist, a medievalist, a neoclassicist, and a postmodernist keep company with specialists in Latin American, Russian, French, and American literatures, as well as with several practicing physicians with comparative literary interests. Moreover, the connection between literature and medicine asks textual scholars to confront the intransigence of the extraliterary, asks humanistic as well as medical professionals to examine the values at stake in their institutional and narrative structures.
As Anne Hudson Jones will remind us at the beginning of her lead essay, the connection of literature and medicine in Western culture is at least as old as the Greek god Apollo, whose figure combined the art and science of poetry and healing. Clearly medicine is a venerable and global literary theme. Nevertheless, pragmatically considered in a modern professional light, how can literature really be useful to medicine, if its substance is not “real”? How can textual fictions rival in importance, let alone illuminate, the hard facts of medical experience? The current discussions between literature and medicine raise important theoretical issues about the possibilities and limitations of realism, of the accurate and predictable representation of reality in the texts of both fields.
In recent decades, the mimetic reliability of any text, the very possibility of stable verbal reference, has come under scrutiny by critical theorists. Despite that skepticism and its corollary emphasis on the indeterminacy of textual meanings, a majority of the essays in this volume show a significant measure of textual realism, mimetic demand, and thematic rather than formalist orientation. The reasons for this are not hard to find. For one, the manifest contents of the field—pain, disease, and death, pitted against the desire to live and the will to preserve the living—are charged with ultimate human issues. For another, the medical focus places an emphasis on the application of professional knowledge to specific material tasks—for instance, efficient and successful care of trauma and disease. Thus, the connection of literature and medicine remains imbued with a thematic and practical orientation.
In addition, the mimetic demand at large in the field of literature and medicine is bound up with institutional politics. At the moment, many humanist scholars desire to recover and legitimate the cultural authority of literature and textual studies relative to the current power and prestige of technology and the hard sciences, just as the discourses of science once had to establish their own authority relative to the hegemony of the . . .