Modernism, Medicine, & William Carlos Williams
- Coulehan, Jack
- Date of entry: Feb-18-1997
This is a fascinating book on the relationship of science, medicine, and medical education to the rise of modernism in literature. Crawford uses Williams' work to connect the worlds of literature and medicine. He discovers in Williams' early poems and stories the dominant themes of clarity, cleanliness, objectivity, and authority; these themes also characterize early 20th century science. In Williams' later work, Crawford shows how the poet moved toward a more subjective and relativistic aesthetic, a change that reflects subsequent developments in science, especially physics, and signifies the emergence of "post-modernism" in literature.
Williams' first principle was clarity. As a physician, it was important that he observe human reality with a clear eye so that he could intervene to transform it. Direct apprehension of reality was also for him the source of poetry. He found beauty in the concrete experience of everyday life, but was skeptical of theories and abstractions. Along with clarity, cleanliness and objectivity also characterize Williams' worlds.
But clarity is not, in reality, so clear. To see clearly in a medical way, the physician must first learn to observe the world in a specialized manner in the "theater of proof," a metaphorical extension of the stage on which professors demonstrate anatomical structures or surgeons demonstrate operations. Like medical educators, the poet also creates a theater of proof. While the reader may experience clarity and simplicity in the poem, these effects are actually staged by the poet, who chooses "clean" words and manipulates reality to achieve the desired simplicity. In both medicine and poetry, the practitioner unveils the truth by using manipulative and authoritarian techniques.
In the last chapter, Crawford shows that Williams' later work presages a post-modern, relativistic world. While the earlier Williams speaks of clarity, simplicity, science, and authority, Patterson and the post-World War II poems reveal complexity, fragmentation, and subversion.
Univ. of Oklahoma Press