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Writers, doctors, goalkeepers

By Blog Admin, on 18 March 2013

Der Kicker (1924). Via Wikimedia Commons

Der Kicker (1924). Via Wikimedia Commons

Tim Beasley-Murray writes about the UCL German Department’s research project in the ‘medical inhumanities’, doctors who were also writers, and writers who were also goalkeepers.

The UCL German Department is in the process of launching its fourth Departmental Research project (the previous three having resulted in volumes on Laughter and ridicule in German culture, legacies of Norbert Elias, and questions of national identity). This new project, in which Central Europeanists in SSEES will also be taking part, is provisionally entitled ‘medical inhumanities’.

While one might object, on philosophical and ethical grounds, to the whole notion of ‘inhumanity’ as a way to describe human behaviour, there is no doubt that this is a fertile topic, provocatively framed – particularly for the study of German culture where, in the Nazi period, above all, inhumanity and medicine became so horribly enmeshed. Perhaps more prosaically, however, this project will be, one guesses, a contribution, not only to the study of inhumanity, but also to the field of the medical humanities. This is a field in which UCL has, in its time, played a leading role, and one to which, one hopes, it may yet return with initiatives under the auspices of the Grand Challenges of Human Wellbeing and Global Health.

The starting point of the concept of the medical humanities is the idea that medicine and the humanities both offer specific ways of viewing the world and the human being that, while they differ fundamentally, may also illuminate each other in productive ways.

The physian writer

One by now rather clichéd figure that has drawn a lot of attention in this context is that of the physician writer (that is to say, writers are also medical doctors or who have received medical training), a figure whose tradition reaches right back into antiquity where Apollo was the Greek god of both medicine and poetry. While one needs to be suspicious of some of the things that are said about physician writers and of the emphasis on the biographical that such statements entail, there is no doubt that the practice of medicine and the practice of literature have a lot in common: both medicine and literature may be thought of as therapeutic practices; both have mortality and the importance of the somatic as central concerns; both seek to look under the surface of phenomena, often diagnosing sickness and prescribing cures.

In celebrated cases, such as that of Arthur Schnitzler (Austrian, 1862-1931), for example, it is clear that Schnitzler’s hypodermic view of Viennese fin-de-siècle society and his emphasis on the erotic owe a great deal to his day job as a doctor. As far as SSEES’s regional focus goes, the literary history of Central and Eastern Europe is rich with physician writers. These include less well-known figures like Géza Csáth (1887-1919), the Hungarian self-prescribing morphine addict and suicide, and Gejza Vámoš (1901-1956), the Slovak author of the ‘medical novel’, The Atoms of God, set in a 1920s Prague clinic for venereal diseases, as well as better known writers like Mikhail Bulgakov (Russian, 1891-1940), Anton Chekhov (Russian, 1860-1904), Stanisław Lem (Polish, 1921-2006), and Vladislav Vančura (Czech, 1891-1942).

Lawyers and goal-keepers

Medicine is not the only profession that seems suited to literary creativity. Lawyers often make good writers too, with their forensic approach to human behaviour, their concern with judgment and with justice, and their use of language as a tool of argument and persuasion. Nevertheless, this blog post would not be complete without reference to the curious phenomenon of goalkeepers who are also writers (or perhaps better: writers who sometimes played in goal). Here, too, it is easy to see the grounds for this: while the rest of his team rushes about outfield, it is the goalkeeper who has the time between his sticks to think and to dream. As the Slovene-Austrian writer, Peter Handke (1942- ) suggests in his wonderfully entitled Novelle of 1970, The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (well, it sounds better in German), the solitariness of the goalkeeper has a forcefully existential dimension that can easily result in a turn to literature.

Famous figures in the tradition of writer goalkeepers include Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle (Scottish, 1859-1930) who kept goal for Portsmouth Association Football Club and is the member of a very exclusive club of writers who were both physicians and goalkeepers, and, of course, Albert Camus (French, 1913-1960). Camus was goalie for the Racing Universitaire d’Alger, winning the North African Champions Cup and the North African Cup twice each in the 1930s. When asked later about his time as a goalkeeper, Camus declared proudly: ‘After many years during which I saw many things, what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport and learned it in the RUA.’

On a different surface, J.D. Salinger (American, 1919-2010) has a complicated part to play here: it appears that Salinger would lie to women he was chatting up, telling them that he had played in goal for the Montreal Ice Hockey Team. In any event, the image of the saving, redemptive function of the goalkeeper is, by way of a mangled intertextual reference to Robert Burns (Scottish, 1759-1796), an important, if somewhat subterranean motif in The Catcher in the Rye. Burns himself, while neither physician nor goalkeeper, was not above references to football, as, for example, in his ‘First Epistle to Davie’: ‘The honest heart that’s free frae a’ / intended fraud or guile, / However fortune kick the ba’, / Has ay some cause to smile.’

In this story there is again a role for our region. The Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) was an excellent all-round sportsman, at times earning his living as a tennis and boxing coach and, while at Trinity, Cambridge, playing in goal for the College. (He was, of course, also a zoologist and a lepidopterist and much has been said about his particular alliance of the sciences and the humanities.) The last word, then, goes to Nabokov in his autobiographical Speak, Memory:

As with folded arms I leant against the left goalpost, I enjoyed the luxury of closing my eyes, and thus I would listen to my heart knocking and feel the blind drizzle on my face, and hear in the distance the broken sounds of the game, and think of myself as of a fabulous exotic being in an English footballer’s disguise composing my verse in a tongue nobody understood about a remote country nobody knew. Small wonder I was not very popular with my teammates.

Tim Beasley-Murray is Senior Lecturer in European Thought and Culture at UCL-SSEES.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.