Saturday, January 10, 2009

`Just Walking Dully Along'

As I parked my car an ambulance with lights flashing stopped at the entrance to the supermarket. I walked in behind three burly EMTs carrying a stretcher, canvas bags and oxygen tank. They strode with purpose but didn’t run, and appeared well rehearsed in the routine of injury and death. They turned left and I walked past the checkout counters before doing the same. Between cash registers I could see them standing over a figure on the floor, in front of the lottery-ticket vending machine. I couldn’t see enough to determine if it was male or female, child or adult, and I thought of Auden, his Old Masters and how they understood the “human position” of suffering. Two elegant young women in heels, one with a cell phone to her ear, clattered past, unseeing – “just walking dully along,” as Auden puts it.

Finished with my rubber-necking, I went looking for dental floss, deodorant and a plastic spray bottle for shooting water at the cat when he claws the couch. A female voice over the public-address system asked Russian-speaking shoppers to please report to the customer-service desk. I chose the checkout line closest to the EMTs and their patient, a woman in her mid-30s with spiky black hair and smeared mascara, now sitting against the lottery-ticket machine. A teenage grocery clerk in a soiled white apron leaned over her, speaking Russian.

In a letter written Oct. 11, 1899, to Grigory Rossolimo, a fellow physician and professor of neuropathology at Moscow University, Chekhov writes:

“I have no doubt that my involvement in medical science has had a strong influence on my literary activities; it significantly enlarged the scope of my observations and enriched me with knowledge whose true worth to a writer can be evaluated only by somebody who is himself a doctor…”

Auden told Joseph Brodsky he thought Chekhov was the only Russian writer with common sense.


Joe(New York) said...

Three poems that explore suffering and/or man's indifference to suffering are:

Karl Shapiro's "Auto Wreck,"

Auden's "Musee de Beaux Ars," and

the companion poem to Auden's poem, William Carlos Williams' ," Landscape with the Fall of Icarus"

elberry said...

It's interesting that Wittgenstein considered packing in philosophy and training as a doctor or psychiatrist (his disciple Drury in fact did just this, becoming a notable psychiatrist). i kind of get the feeling he liked hospitals, the atmosphere of purpose, that your job is (however distantly - if you're, say, a typist or working in the pharmacy) connected to something undeniably useful. In this it was the antithesis to academia, as he and others have experienced it.

Mr Bleaney said...

With regard to physicians and literature, Walker Percy comes to mind. He was finishing his medical training when he contracted tuberculosis while examining a cadaver. He ended up in a sanitarium for a lengthy stay, and began reading Kierkegaard, which led him into writing. I cannot recall if he finished his training (although I know that he never practiced as a physician). There is a strong scientific cast (especially in terms of the activity of observing) to much of his writing. (And, of course, there is Dr. Thomas More of Love in the Ruins and The Thanatos Syndrome.)

To follow up on elberry's comment on Wittgenstein: early in World War II, Wittgenstein worked as a volunteer hospital orderly. (One of his duties was to deliver drugs to the patients on the wards. According to one source, he advised the patients not to take them. Sorry, I couldn't resist this detail.) Later in the War, he worked as a research assistant to a physician who was studying wound shock.