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Lecture Given by Prof. Caroline Welsh from Free University of Berlin, Germany Rounded Off

date:2019-12-11

At 13:30 on December 2, 2019, Prof. Caroline Welsh from Free University of Berlin, Germany, gave a lecture entitled “Literature and Medicine in Contemporary Literature” hosted by Associate Prof. Liu Yongqiang to the students and teachers of School of International Studies (SIS).

In the two-hour lecture, Prof. Welsh introduced her research findings. She led the audience to understand the integration of literature and medicine by analyzing cases from poems, novels and plays on brain neuroscience and hospice care. She first clarified the significance of literature texts in this kind of research, pointing out that literature was not only a database to help people have an insight into medical history, but also a reflector and builder of social contradictions and cultural development.

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Based on her findings, the first part of the lecture focused on brain science in literature. The materials Prof. Welsh handed out to audience were two versions of the poem Ode to the Diencephalon, which were written in the 1970s and 1990s respectively. To help audiences better understand the relationship between these two poems and medical research, and their cross-textual connections, Prof. Welsh briefly introduced the corresponding brain science findings before analyzing each poem. The first version was created based on A.T.W. Simeons’s theory of the structure of diencephalon, particularly the low-level function of the Fight-or-Flight response and diencephalon in the brain. In this poem, the poet Auden enumerated various human somatic responses under the control of diencephalon in the stimulation, and satirized the inflexibility and blindness of diencephalon function.

The second version of the poem was written by the German poet Grunbein (1991). Prof. Welsh also first outlined the research progress of the brain science in this period. It was found out that the operation of the cerebral cortex, the “dominant organ”, was inseparable from the diencephalon, which was the primary processing and control center of sensory signals. The Ode to the Diencephalon by Grunbein states that the diencephalon is as significant as the “black box” of the brain, and describes its specific position in human brain. The following part of the poem shows a subversive shift in the distribution of power in brain function: the diencephalon becomes the dominant part of the cerebral cortex. Prof. Welsh believed that the poem ended by suggesting the limitations of the diencephalon, and its future controlled by scientists.

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The second part of the lecture focused on the palliative care presented in literature, and further emphasized the significance of literature in cultural shaping and communication as a medium. Prof. Welsh stated that from the perspective of postmodern medicine in the 20th century, death meant dying in an alienated way with the suffering from illness and the care of modern medical equipment. However, death was dignified in traditional medicine environment, and patients could end their life as a person with social status accompanied by friends and relatives.

With the development of modern medicine, how to die has inevitably become the last difficult problem in human life. Palliative care or hospice care adopts the humanized treatment subject to patients’ will and dignity, and alleviates the suffering of patients and their families. Such way of death, which respects the meaning of life and regards death as inevitable, not only needs to be carried out in medical practice, but can be shaped and publicized by virtue of the influence of literature.

Prof. Welsh listed a number of genres applicable to the research of hospice care, including autobiographies, novels, medical guides. In the lecture, she first shared with the audience a documentary fiction, Tales of Dyingnamely, co-authored by Petra Anwar and John von Duffel. The numerous cases mentioned in the book reflect the diverse approaches of hospice care. It describes the situation that how patients and their families welcome the end of life with a positive attitude and proactive choices, showing the way to connect reality and death in different situations. The second example was the play The Reading or Visit to The Painter by German writer Ingo Schulze. Although hospice care isn’t directly described in the whole story, it is this medical treatment and the way of treating death that enable the leading character (the Painter) to chat with his friends in a calm and pleasant atmosphere. Prof. Welsh believed that such texts conveyed a new definition and understanding of death and respect for patients. She then said that although literature brought order to the chaos of death, such death experience indirectly expressed by means of media also lost its primary nature.

At last, the students and teachers had a heated discussion on the “good death” mentioned in the lecture and the roles of doctors in the palliative treatment. Prof. Welsh answered all the questions raised by the audience and proposed the differences between the modern and ancient views of death. Besides, she again expressed her concern about hospice care that hospice care was impossible to form a certain culture with the increased number of patients and limited medical resources, and it may be reduced to a way of death dominated by medical treatment and painkillers. This lecture encouraged a variety of interpretations of death and literature. 

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Photographed and written by Chen Jiaqian

Qingzhi Book Club

Institute of German Culture

December 4, 2019

Translated by Li Qian

Edited by Xu Xueying


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