Finding the tipping point

Utopian enthusiasm is almost always counterbalanced by the rise of healthy skepticism. Often, things tip over so far that they never spring back. Occasionally, the emergent dialogue acts to refine the utopian ideals into a more workable form.

I’d much rather read well thought out pieces on the web like Katherine Parrish’s not everybody’s autobiography rather than the current number two on blogdex, backwash to the effect of “Starbucks can kiss my ass” (a direct quote from one of the comments). But I digress.

What I really wanted to do was write a little research saga. Readers who have been following me for a while might remember that I’m working on a paper on Defoe’s A Journal of a Plague Year. The genesis of the thing was getting pissed off at an article. That’s where I often start. It really gets to me when supposedly brilliant people get things wrong. The article which got my goat was Anne Hunsaker Hawkins’ “Pathography and Enabling Myths.”

Hawkins defines pathography as “autobiographies and biographies about illness.” She claims:

Perhaps what is most striking about this genre is that it seems a contemporary phenomenon. In previous eras, autobiographical accounts of sickness are woven into a journal or diary; almost never does illness constitute the sole focus of the work.

She dutifully footnotes this statement with a reference to Donne’s Devotions on Emergent Occasions (about typhus), but fails to mention that this assertion is so full of holes as to be laughable. I’ll spare listing all of the contradictions I can think of off the top of my head, and go on to the exception to her rule which I think can answer a lot of questions: Defoe’s A Journal of a Plague Year, published in 1722. Just what constitutes a true pathography? Like the oversimplification of the changes wrought by the Internet, the oversimplification of this term is problematic.

Hawkins proposes, in what is ultimately a great article (even with the error), that pathography fills the gap between case study and the real human experience of disease. Currently, the term is a popular one. I did a search on WilsonWeb to see just where it started. The earliest reference there was 1988, where the author of an article in Newsweek, “The ‘Pathography’ Perplex,” asserted:

Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Joyce Carol Oates recently coined the word “pathography” to describe a subspecies of biography that she believes is overly concerned with “dysfunction and disaster.”

Ah ha! The smoking gun. Or is it?

Proquest turned up another article by Hawkins, “Culture and Medicine: Pathography: Patient Narratives of Illness.” It was from 99, and it seems to narrow the definition away from biography and into autobiography. That would rule out Defoe, but the article doesn’t really place that limit on the term, going on to identify “autopathography” as a subgenre. I’m still safe with my assertion that Defoe fits within that genre. On to Lexis-Nexis.

Joyce Carol Oates does not claim to invent the term, only that the term is useful. In a 1988 article in the New York Times, she describes it as a subset of biography, “a new subspecies of the genre which the name “pathography” might be usefully be given: hagiography’s diminished and often prurient twin.” In her usage, it’s a derogatory term, unlike Hawkin’s championing it as a useful genre which fills a real need.

Tons of popular articles with the term follow Oates’ usage in the five years that follow. But was this the real coinage of the term? Once again, I turned to the OED for answers.

The OED lists pathography as:

a. The, or a, description of a disease (Dunglinson Med. Lex. 1853). b. The, or a, study of the life and character of an individual or community as influenced by a disease.

Hence, pathographical a., pertaining to pathography (Mayne Expos. Lex. 1857); pathographer, one who writes a pathography.

Once again, the “new” is not so new. This stuff pisses me off these days. This whole excursion took less than an hour. Why don’t people qualify their assertions more carefully?

There was another article I read recently that asserted that “testimony” was uniquely important in the twentieth century (from an anthology of Holocaust narratives). Uh, what about the Greeks? They wrote volumes on the subject. Determining the veracity of testimony, and it’s assertion of evidence, has been a preoccupation of humanity since the dawn of recorded history. I hate shoddy scholarship. I wish more history was required of scholars before they opened up their mouths!

However, taking McKeon’s approach to the novel as a model, it seems important to figure out why pathography is a useful term for a genre. It fills a need, a need that is literally exploding off the bookshelves right now.