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Government of the people, by the people, for the people

Bioethics, literature, and method

By Michael A. Ashby and Leigh E. Rich

Why do we listen to songs and watch soap operas, and some of us even try to read poetry? Why do we love stories, joke about serious issues, and listen in on other people’s conversations? Why are we sad when a good book ends and comforted when the travails of a fictional character speak to us? It may be that the reality of life is colder and harsher than we can bear, and when the going gets tough we need to avert our gaze—from our own lives and the despairs of others—and find ways to soften the blows. Illness and suffering pose particular challenges, whether within the intimate dyad of provider and patient or from the perspective of population health and human rights. And when we are faced with the end of life in the practice of palliative care and the study of death (areas surely difficult for the shrinking and flourishing violet alike), it is hard not to be bemused by the modern usage of the terms “passing” or “passing away.” These idioms have increasingly replaced the more direct Anglo-Saxon word “death,” which by contrast perhaps seems to many to be unfeeling, abrasive, and just too “real,” too direct. As La Rochefoucauld emphasized in the 17th century, “[o]ne cannot look directly at either the sun or death” (cited in Slemrod 2003, 371, emphasis removed). American poet T.S. Eliot concurred three centuries later that “human kind/Cannot bear very much reality” (1971, 14). And according to Freudian psychoanalyst Adam Phillips (2012), we are always doing more than one thing at a time, both consciously and often unconsciously, and that other thing is frequently something we are suppressing, something we do not like, or something we think we should not like. Literature is a powerful vehicle for unlocking these hidden rooms.

For the really serious issues of life, and especially death, we tend to go “around the houses,” as an English expression goes, or, as E.M. Forster observed, we learn at a tangent to reality (Forster 1924).

The tangent of literature, and the arts in general, is essential for leading an examined life. We are meaning-making creatures, ever turning the chaos of being into cohesive narratives, straightened, as Aristotle would say, with a beginning, middle, and end (see, e.g., Mattingly 1998). In this way, there is a fine line between fact and fiction, and often it might not matter whether the emplotted lives we engage in and learn from are more factual or fanciful. Stories—our own or others’—allow us to reflect, compare, assess, regret, improve, repair. [continued …]

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Ashby, Michael A., and Leigh E. Rich. 2014. Government of the people, by the people, for the people: Bioethics, literature, and method. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 11(2): 109–112.

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