An analysis of A Fortunate Man might begin with the question of why Berger calls John Sassall fortunate. That he has chosen to work in a dreary locale among a poor and often-sullen people is clear. Equally certain is his forfeiture by this choice of the material wealth one associates with the medical profession. To Berger, money is relatively unimportant as an end in itself. What Sassall has gained from his rural practice, however, is the chance to be something more than a medical clinician. Thus, Berger suggests that the opportunity to develop the self to its fullest potential is crucial to happiness. Berger records Sassall’s childhood dream of living as a Conrad hero—“a master of a schooner.” This dream wed the ideal of serving humanity with the desire for autonomy and mastery. Disease was to be John Sassall’s mysterious, dangerous sea. He would master it and thereby fulfill his responsibility to his passengers (patients). Yet he found such mastery impossible: Without knowing the cause of disease in and the consequences of disease upon his patients, Sassall found his scientific knowledge useless. He could battle disease, even defeat it, but often his patients remained diseased, unhappy. He could cure disease; he could not cure his patients. Sassall remained dissatisfied with himself. He discovered that he must make the patient, not the doctor, the hero of the medical drama if he were ever to effect real cures, if he were ever to achieve genuine mastery.
Berger explains that the ill need more than prescriptions or surgery to get well. The patient requires from his doctor a sense of fraternity, a belief that the doctor recognizes him as a person, an entity separate from the disease afflicting him. Sassall’s realization of this psychological truth forced him to change his approach to medicine. He would attempt to become his patient, Berger writes, and allow the patient to see himself in his doctor. Through this act of “recognition” the patient— alienated from society by disease—would be provided with a fraternal mooring. Sassall’s method is to treat the whole personality, once he has deciphered it, and thereby learn more about disease than microscopes can tell. Sassall in this way is fortunate, notes Berger, because it is only by his method of becoming hundreds of different personalities that he has approached his dream of Conradian mastery. Thus, the ideal of service to mankind has been reached and through it the quest for knowledge (mastery in his profession) sustained. Increased knowledge, in turn, furthers the service Sassall can provide to his patients. Berger insists that this fortunate symbiosis is possible only because Sassall’s alienated and inarticulate patients require recognition, demanding his fraternal adoption of their individual...
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Famed as an art critic, screenwriter, and novelist, John Berger departs from traditional literary forms with A Fortunate Man. The coupling of a free-floating essay with uncaptioned photographs, which provide their own silent commentary on the essay’s subject, emphasizes Berger’s view, presented in Ways of Seeing (1972), that images precede words and that words, in turn, are necessary for thought. The essay style employed by Berger in both books permits him to delve into cultural criticism and use anthropological, psychological, sociological, economic, political, and aesthetic approaches to a single subject. This freedom allows Berger himself to act as the universal man and, in fact, he seems equally comfortable discussing the tribal antecedents of doctors, the nature of time, and the social retardation of an English village.
Such eclecticism has troubled several reviewers of A Fortunate Man. Some are disappointed not to know more about Sassall; some find Berger’s method abstruse, his argument hard to follow. These readers were expecting, one supposes, only the story of a country doctor—a genre that has produced a number of entries, most idealized and sentimental. This is not the kind of book Berger has written, however, and A Fortunate Man can be difficult if one mistakes the subject of the essay. While Berger uses medicine and John Sassall in particular as the background for his book, he is writing in reality...
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