The Symptomatic Doctor

As the nineteenth-century French literary tradition becomes increasingly focused on the project to know the body – to make it intelligible as a cultural sign and as a vehicle of consciousness and subjectivity – it progressively turns to medicine as an ally that can be enlisted to bolster its claims to a discourse of knowledge. This paper considers a late nineteenth-century narrative that regards the doctor’s knowledge as a symptom of psychic distress pertaining to literature’s difficult juncture with the body. Guy de Maupassant’s "Une ruse" (1882) presents the case of an elderly doctor who consults with a young bride suffering from fatigue associated with newlywed bliss. The doctor’s treatment takes the form of a framed narrative in which he tells the young woman that he once helped a patient dispose of her lover’s body when he died in her bed. The narrative situation dramatizes literature’s recruitment of the doctor to produce a narrative voice that will overcome the inert body’s resistance to its project to record the subject’s inner journey toward selfdom and consciousness. To the extent that Maupassant’s narrative endows the doctor’s inscribed story with meanings that exceeds its language, they make the gesture of storytelling a conspicuous sign of detachment between a mind, its language, and its desire. Here, the doctor becomes a cultural trope that embodies anxieties and nervousness pertaining to realism’s declining command over the body’s place in the representation of the real. (PGH)

Hadlock, Philip G.
Volume 2009 Spring-Summer; 37(3-4): 291-302.