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Literature to heal the divide
  1. G Bolton1
  1. 1Medicine and the Arts, Department of English, Kings College, London, Strand, London WC2R 2LS;

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    Poetry and fiction clarify and illuminate the continuity of mind, body, and spirit, sometimes dissociated in medicine. They offer a rounded view of humanity, entering into hope, terror, passion, ideas, knowledge, skills, beliefs, situations, and events. TS Eliot commented that “in the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered”.1

    Fiction and poetry can help heal the Cartesian divide.

    The freedom offered by literature to wander in and out of science, through the aesthetic, the esoteric, and into ethics, can widen a clinician reader or writer’s understanding, knowledge, and skills. The art and the social science of medicine, as well as the spiritual can be examined and reflected upon. For example, as Clare Connolly, a general practitioner, puts it:

    “Sometimes, in the midst of all the impressions which reading fiction allows, I begin to sense that what I read expresses a dilemma or difficulty I have wrestled with in my working life as a doctor. That it expresses the nuance and complexity more accurately than can ever be detailed in a list of skills or how those skills can be learned and tested. In Regeneration by Pat Barker, perhaps it is the layers of doubt, the exploration of unfounded psychological techniques with very distressed individuals and the essential loneliness within the intimacy of the consultation which speaks most clearly to me as a modern physician.”

    Fiction and poetry can also enable a grasp of experiences far from our own. Martin McShane, a general practitioner:

    “I spent my student elective in India, Srinagar 1981. Simon and I shared a cold concrete room in the house surgeon’s hostel while a Himalayan winter cut the city off from Western life. Isolated from all I was familiar with, I learnt the most essential things in life were …

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    • Opening the word hoard is edited by Gillie Bolton. Ideas and items should be sent to her at the address detailed.