A Doctor's Dictionary: Writings on Culture & Medicine by Iain Bamforth

By Iain Bamforth

During this wide-reaching abecedarium, medical professional and poet Iain Bamforth dissects the clash of values embodied in what we name medicine—never completely a technology and now not rather the artwork it was once. Bamforth brings to endure his event of drugs from worldwide, from the hightech American clinic of Paris to group well-being centres of Papua, together with his attractive curiosity within the stranger manifestations of scientific issues in terms of artwork, literature and tradition. Drawing at the lives and concepts of a few of Europe’s most
celebrated writers, from Auden to Zola with stop-offs on the likes of Darwin, Kafka, Orwell, Proustand Weil alongside the way in which, Bamforth deals insightful and witty diagnoses of the tradition of drugs within the smooth age.

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The body-blow dealt by the Vietnam War to the onward march of the American dream surely deserves consideration: the rise of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) offers an intriguing parallel with that of depression. This label gave war veterans a kind of moral legitimacy, and guaranteed them a disability pension. The Victorian imperial personality—disciplined, rule-observant, respectful of authority and fairly sure of its entitlements—survived until the 1950s, and perhaps a few years longer in Britain (which had its 1968 revolt twenty years after everyone else); the new individual of the age of bounty is caught on the rack between what is permitted and what is possible.

The more daringly absolute Knock’s demands on the Saint-Mauriciens—he even gets the Lady in Black, who exudes ‘peasant avarice and constipation’, to renounce what is clearly her only real passion in life, la bouffe—the more certain they are of his authority to impose such strictures upon them. Their microcosm, even though it is rural, has no socially cohesive institution to counteract medicine’s explaining power (hence Knock’s interest in Act I in discovering whether the townspeople regularly attend Mass—white or black).

In the event, his brilliant performance proved to be the ultimate record on film of a remarkable acting career: he died on stage at the Athénée (which is now named after him) rehearsing Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, just months after the film’s release. The farce and the farceur The film opens in the early years of the twentieth century with Knock, the aspirant to a medical practice, sitting in the back of an old jalopy—the kind of automobile the French used to call a torpédo—with Dr Parpalaid and his wife.

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