July 12, 2005

by Reb Yudel
Who is Dr. Julian Ungar-Sargon?

Julian Ungar-Sargon writes:

How do we "read" illness and our patients... 'reading' them as we would a text or perhaps as ourselves? What models of interpretation can we use? Can interpretive strategies used for elucidation of texts help us in deciphering the biography and inscription of disease?

Disease itself is experienced and inasmuch it is a human experience, it is described and experienced in linguistical terms that can be analyzed as to rhetorical strategies, motives, tropes, and allegory, just as any text. Reading of texts as well as patients can then be analogized and the better the reader the better the listener the deeper the patient of text will reveal its desire. There are those who talk in terms of the tyranny of the text inasmuch as it forces us into its mode of thinking, its rhetoric and strategy and we must pass through its self understanding before making judgments as to meaning.

Others in a post modern vein see their own biases and what they bring to the text as critical and see notions of authorial intent as doomed. In the extreme, the literary scholar Derrida claims that texts betray a pathology, a violence, a "death" of the receiver inscribed in the structure of the mark. I would like to suggest that illness too is "inscribed" in the very imagined body of the patient and that a neglected part of healing has been attention to just such inscription of illness as metaphor.

There is a notion of mourning inscribed in language itself which reflects a primal catastrophe and there is a need for a similar mourning to occur in illness where we need to face the death of part of ourselves and make space for the loss as part of the healing process. All writing, and I would add, biographing, is then a working out, a "labor of mourning" to use Santner's expression, of the various narcissism's and nostalgia's previously used as a source of empowerment.

That's the theory, anyway.

In practice... it turns out that Dr. Ungar has sent, as part of the neurological cure, some of his Orthodox Jewish patients to New York, to study with a friend of mine who teaches at Yeshiva University. And the patients recovered... or at least improved.

Were I in the mood to pitch free-lance pieces to the New York Times Magazine, this would be one. An neurologist in the tradition of Oliver Sacks, with a special interest in the diseases that afflict religious souls.