The Rivalry between the Poet and the Doctor: The Trope of Sickness in Late Ottoman Literature

By Ceylan Ceyhun Arslan
Submitted to Session P3677 (The Modern Life Sciences in the Middle East, 2014 Annual Meeting
Ottoman Empire;
19th-21st Centuries;
Although recent works such as War, Epidemics, and Medicine in the Late Ottoman Empire (1912-1918) by Oya Dağlar and Healing The Nation: Prisoners of War, Medicine, and Nationalism in Turkey, 1914-1939 by Yücel Yanıkdağ attest the growing interest in the history of medicine in late Ottoman Empire, scholars paid little attention to how late Ottoman literature reflects the changing perspectives in medicine. I argue that while earlier 19th century literary texts glorified physical sickness as a manifestation of one’s devotion to homeland, later writings considered illness a crisis that needed immediate cure. This transformation occurred as Ottoman authors became well versed with the Western medicine, and ceased relying on a long tradition of mystical poetry that associated sickness with intense love. To trace this change, I explore the rivalry between two character types, the poet and the doctor, that appear in many late Ottoman works, such as Homeland or Silistre by Namık Kemal, The Remnant of Love by Kaytazzade Nazım, and Truth and Imagination co-authored by Ahmet Mithat and Fatma Aliye. In earlier texts, the poet’s eloquent words on sickness caused by his love for homeland give him mastery in medical knowledge that the doctor can never attain. However, later writings eulogize the physician who, unlike the poet, can cure sicknesses. Furthermore, many early 20th century literary authors identified themselves with the doctor and claimed to cure the society. They thus distanced themselves from the past literary traditions embodied by the poet. This analysis reveals that changing opinions about medicine in late Ottoman Empire played a central role in shaping literary representations of homeland and an author’s role in the society. Furthermore, it implicates that social attitudes towards medicine strongly impact perceptions about literary history, genres, and traditions—an impact that has not been examined in Middle Eastern studies, let alone in medical humanities.