Suspicion vs. Love: Choosing an Effective Hermeneutic for Narrative Interventions into Medical Training
Dominic Robin, PhD Candidate in English (specialization in medical humanities), St. Louis University
In A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love, Alan Jacobs advocates an explicitly Christian vision of literary scholarship, one that views texts not through the lens of market economy (i.e. how does this text serve me and my purposes?) but instead through the eyes of Christian giving. To accomplish this goal, Jacobs encourages readers to approach analysis with humility, intent first on fulfilling the second part of the Great Commandment — that is, to love one’s neighbor by listening thoroughly, interacting charitably, and offering thoughtful critique. While Jacobs’ invocation has received positive reception within Christian literary studies, scholars have not yet explored the implications of such a practice in the adjacent field of narrative medicine. In this paper, I place Jacobs’ hermeneutic of love in conversation with Paul Ricœur’s hermeneutic of suspicion, the latter of which, while useful within literary studies, may actually undermine the goals of narrative medicine, especially as scholars attempt to foster narrative competence among future medical professionals by integrating literary analysis into the classroom. Jacobs’ approach, I argue, holds particular merit within the narrative medical training model because it centralizes participants on two aspects that are distinctly important to the mission of narrative medicine: 1. The decentralization of actant as the dominant arbiter of meaning and 2. an emphasis on empathetic listening before diagnosis. This approach stands in direct contradiction to a hermeneutic of suspicion, which, as scholar Rita Felski notes, paints an image of scholar as detective, able to uncover unseen elements of the text and diagnose its subtle failings. As narrative medicine programs seek to emphasize a balanced, humanistic approach to medicine, literary intervention filtered through Jacobs’ hermeneutic could prove a fruitful conduit for facilitating this process, training medical professionals to humbly engage with and patiently untangle the complex, non-linear narrative lives of the patients they serve.