Sometimes I find threads which connect various, apparently completely different, books. Here’s one such example.
I’m reading Alain Juppé’s “Dictionnaire amoureux de Bordeaux”, and one of his entries is about Jacques Ellul, who was a Professor of Law and wrote about sociology, philosophy and theology, amongst other topics. One of his major themes was what he termed “Technique”. I won’t go into that in any detail here. I’ll write something else about it some other time. But here’s the phrase of his which hit me between the eyes – “Suppression du sujet” – the suppression of the subject. This is what happens when we turn a blind eye to the uniqueness of each human being, or when we reduce a “subject” to an “object”. This is an issue close to my heart and I’m going to explore it more, but what immediately came to my mind when I read that phrase were a few lines in the opening paragraph of Marguerite Yourcenar’s “Memoirs of Hadrian“. Specifically, this –
It is difficult to remain an emperor in presence of a physician, and difficult even to keep one’s essential quality as a man.
When I read that two thoughts jumped into my mind. One was how I had never experienced intimidation when I consulted with a patient. No matter whether or not the person was a celebrity, a Lord, or a Professor. It wasn’t that I felt better than them, but I saw everyone as unique, wounded and suffering. But I only thought about that because this is an emperor speaking. The other thought, which I reckon is more important, was the second phrase in the sentence – “…..difficult even to keep one’s essential quality as a man” – there is something potentially de-humanising about health care. It happens when doctors and nurses refer to a patient by their diagnosis instead of by their name. Indeed, not only refer to them as “a case of X”, but treat them that way too, considering only the “data”, the “results”, as important and not the lived experience of this unique person.
When visiting my mum in hospital recently, I overheard one nurse in the corridor say to another “Have you taken the blood from Bed 14 yet?” I thought, good luck getting blood out of a bed!
Sadly it’s not uncommon to witness health care based on the “suppression of the subject”. Outcomes, targets, measurements, doses, and all the technical paraphernalia of machines, tubes and flashing lights can obscure the human being completely.
When I read the sentence in The Memoirs of Hadrian, I wrote in the margin, some lines from T S Eliot’s “The Cocktail Party” –
In consultation with the doctor and the surgeon
In going to bed in the nursing home
In talking to the matron, you are still the subject,
the centre of reality. But stretched on the table
you are a piece of furniture in a repair shop….
All there is of you is your body
and the “you” is withdrawn.
The subject as the centre of reality – is that basis of our health care? Is it the basis of our politics, our economics, our schools, our workplaces? Because if it isn’t….it should be!
This “subject” which Ellul says is suppressed, this “essential quality” of Hadrian’s, this “you” which Eliot says is withdrawn. What is it?
That’s my thought for the day – how do we get to know the subject, the “me”, the “you”, the “self”, the “person”? And how do we make that REALITY the core of our societies?
Because when we objectify human beings we lose touch with reality, and we open the door to all kinds of cruelties and suffering.