At the recent Pegasus Physician Writers’ forum, “Becoming Frankenstein: Our Risky Aspirations,” Stanford student Harika Kottakota stepped up to the microphone to read the poem, “smoke & mirrors:”
smoke and broken bones
your hot breath tumbles down my spine
as I seal my last wish with tonic
my nerves and their usual mischief
like electric waves broken free
from their master,
It was a fitting piece for an eclectic and thought-provoking night, which was part of Medicine and the Muse’s year-long series of events, films, classes and arts and technology festivals marking the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The forum was an exercise in questioning – in probing our roles as physicians or patients, our view of health and illness, and our very personhood.
That inquiry – which included poetry, an essay published in the New York Times and excerpts from novels – centered on a theme illuminated by Frankenstein: How does one consider the creation and alteration of life? Several psychiatrists, a radiologist, a medical student, and an undergraduate student approached this idea with their works.
Their answers to that question, understandably, were not clear-cut. In an obituary to Victor Frankenstein read by John Van Natta, MD, listeners were confronted with the problem of life – particularly, of defining a life which is full of messy ambiguities: “Unfeeling, heartless creator! You had endowed me with perceptions and passions, and then cast me abroad as an object for the scorn and horror of mankind.”
Another piece, a short story by Hans Steiner, MD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, emeritus, took an autobiographical approach. In it, life was not merely a human question. Rather, the human identity was contextualized by Koko, a gorilla with bright eyes and childlike intuition.
Listeners were led to wonder about humans, apes, and their complex connections. A Ludwig Wittgenstein quote prefaced the piece, forcing the audience to question what science has to offer, and what humans should indeed be taking: “Man (and woman) has to awaken to wonder… Science is a way of sending him (or her) to sleep again.”
Pouring out of all these works was not only a common theme of life, science, and limits, but a common spirit of inquiry. When Nathaniel Morris, MD, a resident in psychiatry read from his New York Times commentary, this spirit was manifested in the Hippocratic ideal that one’s love of science should not outweigh one’s love of humanity. “We sometimes forget to manage our enthusiasm for the science of disease,” Morris writes, “and, in doing so, ignore the human suffering that comes with the experience of disease.”
The common spirit was embodied by medical student Petr Vitkovskiy, as he shared excerpts from his upcoming novel; and by curator James Lock, MD, PhD, as he introduced the forum with a set of his own questions: Should we, as physicians, try to create life? To alter it? What happens when we try?
In truth, none of these questions were directly answered by the forum’s end. But the cast of people and pieces presented, through deep and unique writings, gave the audience clear tools to probe deeper. In this night, there was no smoke nor mirrors.
Aldis Petriceks in an anatomy scholar and research assistant at Stanford’s Division of Clinical Anatomy. He writes an online column for the Palo Alto Weekly, and graduated from Kenyon College in 2017.
Photo with, from left, Hans Steiner, Daniel Mason and Petr Vitkovskiy by Audrey Shafer