Mais où sont les neiges d’antan? But where are the snows of yesteryear?
Not many people are experts in medieval French poetry. It’s a tiny corner of academia, filled with people whose passions and imaginations lie a millennium in the past. And so many of those academics, and I do use that term in the most tweed-wearing, bookish, kindly way possible, have their classes relegated to the far corners of campus, to buildings who are themselves of a different century. Or at the very least, of an era before air conditioning.
And in those small classrooms, with stuffy air moved only by the incredibly ineffective ceiling fans, I fell in love. I fell in love with the beauty of a sonnet, with the leaps of artistry and brilliance that drew me from stanza to stanza, with the raw anguish in a poet’s voice, audible even a thousand years later. Titans of the literary pantheon like Tristan and Iseult, Charlemagne and Roland and so many more, leaped out of the pages of my books, their lives playing out not just in those pages but also in the soaring heights of my imagination.
I can so vividly remember tracing my hand over words that hadn’t been used in regular conversation for hundreds of years. I felt like I was privy to a secret, ancient world. I still experience this as a first year medical student. Though, these days, I’m reading anatomy textbooks.
But where are the snows of yesteryear?
It’s been almost half a millennium since François Villon penned that line, lamenting the loss of character in modern — well, comparatively modern — culture. It has been over two centuries since Edward Jenner, that simple but perceptive country doctor, realized that milkmaids never seemed to get small pox. It’s been decades since Andrew Fleming found, in the midst of a contaminated Petri dish, arguably the most effective medicine to ever exist.
The possibilities of modern medicine quite literally take my breath away. I can feel my pulse racing at the thought of it. Exquisitely beautiful experimentation melds with flights of fancy and logic to become the pinnacle of human achievement, even if that achievement is simply a map of cholera victims. What we can do and what we are so tantalizingly close to being able to do, blows away centuries and millennia of dogma. Medicine, too, is a thing of beauty.
The thing is, medical school isn’t. I’m not talking about anatomy labs, because there is a certain artistry in the liminality of the interaction between student and cadaver. No, I mean school itself. More specifically, the preclinical years.
Medical students struggle through interminable studies, fight through a barrage of depressing lectures, and try to stand firm against the deluge of anatomical and physiological facts. From time to time, in those endless lectures, there is a glimpse of the wonders that first drew me to medicine. Yet, those moments are fleetingly rare. The tedious daily memorizations, the monotone professors, the banal uniformity; there is so little that is beautiful here.
But where are the snows of yesteryear?
The thing about medieval poetry is that, for better or worse, the corpus will never change. It exists in permanent stasis. Roland will always die on a battlefield; Tristan and Iseult will always have intertwining roses grow above their graves. Yes, those wonderful academics will interpret and argue about it for centuries to come, but in its pure essence it will not change. But medicine will. Medical school will.
Everyday brings news of wondrous medical discoveries, revelations that once again set my heart racing. With the inherent hope of new treatments, with the simplistic experimental ingenuity that emerges from lines of dense text in a medical journal, I know that the future of medicine will hold as much beauty as our past.
And even though the preclinical years seem a blur of bland consonance, I know that this too shall pass. Moving towards my clinical years, I feel my spirits buoyed once again by optimism. Although I am quite sure those years will push me to the brink physically, emotionally and intellectually, I know during that time I will once again see the enticing beauty that first drew me to medicine.
But, for the moment, I yearn to leave the library to lie on the grass and stare up into the summer sky, dreaming of knights and deadly pathogens, melodies and maladies.