or Why the Best Training for a Novelist in These Last Years of the 20th Century is an Internship at Bellevue or Cook County Hospital, and How This Training Best Prepares Him for Diagnosing T.S. Eliot’s ‘Waste Land’

But let us speak of vocations. What one ends up doing with one’s life is surely one of God’s mysteries. And a good deal of luck, good luck and bad luck, is involved as well as, I firmly believe, God’s providence.

Who among us is doing what he, she, dreamed of doing when he, she, was 8, 12, 16? Perhaps it is just as well we are not. At 12 I wanted to fly the Pacific because Lindbergh had flown the Atlantic.

I’d like to share with you some of the misfortunes, peculiar turns of fate, and finally the piece of luck or Divine Providence, as the case may be, by which I turned out doing what I am doing, something that had never occurred to me to do, not once in my wildest dreams, but that I like doing, not because I do it all that well but because I am incompetent doing anything else.

Growing up, I was a reluctant attendant at Sunday school and a secret devotee of science, or what I took to be science. My favorite writer in my teens was H.G. Wells, who believed that all events in the cosmos, even human history, can be explained by natural science, and a rather crude science at that.

Actually it is not a bad way to grow up in the 20th century, an age that will certainly be known—if we survive—not only for its tragedies, millions dead from its great wars and the Holocaust, but for its spectacular scientific advances, from the study of subatomic particles to the exploration into the far reaches of the cosmos. The best of our time is marked by the truth and beauty of science as surely as the cathedral at Chartres is the high-water mark of the 13th century.

But what I wish to propose to you is this: that for a certain type of educated denizen of this age it is only through, first, the love of the scientific method and, second, through its elevation and exhaustion as the ultimate method of knowing that he becomes open to other forms of knowing—sciencing in the root sense of the word—and accordingly, at least I think so, to a new kind of revival of Western humanism and the Judeo-Christian tradition—again, if we survive.

A large order. And of course I am not suggesting that one cannot be raised a believing Presbyterian, Jew, or Catholic, or as an unbelieving humanist or simply as a passive consumer, and live happily ever after in one’s faith or nonfaith without a second thought about the prevailing scientism of the age.

No, I am speaking of a rather more typical denizen of the age who believes, as part of the very air he breathes, that natural science has the truth, all the truth, and that the rest—religion, humanism, art—are icing on the cognitive cake; attractive icing, yes, but icing nonetheless, which is to say, noncognitive icing, emotional icing.

Notice that I distinguish here between scientism as an all-pervading ideology and the scientific method as a valid means of investigating the mechanisms of phenomena.

But please allow me, after the fashion of physicians, to relate a short history.

Here is a young man, a disciple and devotee of science, whose education has been thoroughly scientific, who settles on medicine as his vocation and chooses a medical school famous for its scientific approach to medicine as the study of the mechanism of disease.

Then, early on, his career is cut short by a serious, disabling, but nonfatal illness. What to do? In the end he returns to the South and changes professions, decides to become a writer—in the South at least, still an honorable profession.

But how to go about it? The long and short of it: he writes two novels, one a bad imitation of Thomas Mann, the other a worse imitation of Thomas Wolfe—which is very bad indeed. But no luck. Some kind words from publishers, but no deal.

What to do now? To cut it even shorter: after much casting about and considerable depression if not despair, the thought finally occurred to this fellow—by luck or by providence—why not forget about other writers, however distinguished, and go your own way? What was there to lose? Wasn’t this what Newton, Darwin, and Freud had done in science?

And so it came to pass that he wrote a short novel in which he created a character, an amiable but slightly bemused young man of a certain upper-class Southern background, and set him down in Gentilly, a middle-class district of New Orleans, in order to see what would happen to him. For he has given up on the usual verities—home, family, church, country—and instead elects a solitary existence of selling stocks and bonds to the local burghers, hiring a succession of lovely secretaries, and—going to the movies. He enjoys bad movies.

What happens to him is that in the very anxiety of his despair, cool as it is—indeed as the very consequence of his despair—it occurs to him that a search is possible, a search altogether different from the scientific explorations mounted by scientists or by the most perceptive of psychoanalysts. So the novel, almost by accident, became a narrative of the search, the quest. And so the novel, again almost by accident—or was it accident?—landed squarely in the oldest tradition of Western letters: the pilgrim’s search outside himself rather than the guru’s search within. All this happened to the novelist and his character without the slightest consciousness of a debt to St. Augustine or Dante. Indeed, the character creates within himself and within the confines of a single weekend in New Orleans a microcosm of the spiritual history of the West, from the Roman patrician reading his Greek philosophers to the 13th century pilgrim who leaves home and takes to the road.

But as a physician, perhaps I can give a more respectable analysis of this case history, after the fashion of professors in the amphitheater discussing a case after the patient has been wheeled out.

My point is that the stance of the physician is appropriate here. For his stance is that of the diagnostician. A diagnostician is a person who stands toward another person in the relation of one who knows that something has gone wrong with the other. He, the physician-novelist, has a nose for pathology.

In his case, that of the physician-novelist, the pathology he discovers in his characters has afflicted the very society that surrounds him. It might be called scientism or, perhaps more accurately, what Whitehead called the Misplaced Concrete. What he. Whitehead, had in mind was not the truth and beauty of the scientific method, but a certain abstractedness and disorientation that follows upon the elevation of science to an all-enveloping ideology. One looks at an amoeba and sees it as an example of, a specimen of, a biological class. Very good. One looks at a fellow human being and sees him, her, as a typical example of a certain sort of outgoing Midwesterner, or perhaps a recognizable specimen of a sardonic, backward-looking Southerner. Not so good. For what one is missing is precisely that which makes this specimen human, his uniqueness.

So what I have in mind here is the imperial decree of scientism (not of science) to discredit other ways of knowing.

In a word, a respectable epistemological word, what he, the novelist’s character, discovers in his search is that there are other ways of knowing not only quite as valid as scientific propositions, but of far more critical significance in one’s personal life.

Thus, while he had admitted all along the universal validity of such sentences as “The square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the square of the other two sides,” or, “Water boils at 100 degrees centigrade at sea level,” now all at once he, the novelist’s character, the pilgrim-searcher, is able to take note of other kinds of sentences that he had ignored before. Perhaps in his wanderings he encounters another person. The stranger has an unusual air about him. He is onto something. But he is not a guru who conveys to him some universal truths about the self and the cosmos. No; he, the stranger, is a newsbearer, and of all things news of an event in history. News? History? Hardly the stuff of empirically verifiable scientific sentences.

The stranger is not importunate. He is serious but almost offhand in his manner, smiling. “I have something to tell you,” he says to the pilgrim. “A piece of news. It is of great importance to you. Whether or not you choose to believe me is your affair.”

Perhaps the pilgrim does not believe the stranger, as well he might not. Let me note here what is extremely important and the source of much confusion. The physician-novelist is not himself a newsbearer, and he is not in the business of writing edifying tales. He has other fish to fry. It is enough for him to have discovered and put his finger on the peculiar lesion of the age. Perhaps by this very act the abscess is lanced, the ear drained so that the patient, whatever else he might do, can at least hear. Nevertheless the physician, insofar as he is a novelist, is in the business of diagnosis, not therapy.

Like all artists, he is interested not in edifying, but in discovering and pointing out and naming certain sectors of reality, both within oneself and outside oneself, which had gone unnoticed. Whereupon he, the novelist’s character, is free, as only a man can be free, to act accordingly.

But—and I can hear the question despite my disavowals—what are you suggesting? Are you suggesting that one must be a believing Jew or Christian to write good novels? Certainly not—though one is tempted to make the case and indeed present the evidence that the Jewish novelist, secular or religious, has a certain advantage, what with his unique placement in a strictly linear time and history. By a “certain view of reality” I am speaking of the linearity of history, the density of things and events, the mystery and uniqueness of persons, a view that seems natural to us but is in fact the cultural heritage of Judeo-Christianity. Which is to say that I haven’t read any good Buddhist novels lately. It is to say also that B.F. Skinner, who believed that all life is a matter of stimuli and responses, could not possibly write a good novel—though I believe in fact that he did try. It is to say that the novels of H.G. Wells could not possibly be otherwise than as bad as they are. And I have never read a Marxist novel without being overwhelmed by the thesis.

Finally, it also helps the novelist to have interned at Bellevue or at Cook County Hospital. For one develops a nose for pathology. And it is only when one sees that something is wrong that one can diagnose it, point it out and name it, toward the end that the patient might at least have hope, and even in the end get well.