Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1141
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 personalities. Sassall probes the hidden inner lives of his patients so that they might see themselves in him. In this manner he assuages their feelings of alienation, eases their suffering, while at the same time he indulges his passion for knowledge, acquiring human experience through professional contact.
Berger notes that Sassall has been fortunate in his choice of practice in other ways as well. The doctor’s mind is an inquiring one. Since the villagers can think only about mundane matters, Berger says, since they have no sense of history and cannot comprehend their place in it, they insist that Sassall think for them, that he give voice to their inner lives, that he pursue abstract and theoretical ideas. Thus, the doctor is liberated in his thinking from social inhibitions and practical thought. He is encouraged to seek knowledge through treating the villagers, to formulate abstract notions and reference them against history and the world beyond the village. Berger notes that Sassall is free to search for abstract truth, can experiment intellectually, and can fail without incurring the anger or scorn of the villagers, who cannot put into thought what they know or feel, but who admire Sassall because he can do both for them. In this way, Berger avers, the country doctor has become the “clerk of records” for the village: an entire community, its history, hopes, and needs, contained within one mind. Thus, Sassall approaches a second ideal: the universal man. According to Berger, the universal man possesses vast knowledge of the world and therefore of himself. Sassall is encouraged in his search for knowledge of the world and self for the sake of those who can articulate neither.
Berger cautions, however, that Sassall’s good fortune has a price. While he has been forced by the brutal inexpressiveness of his community and his desire to relieve suffering to realize his Conradian ideal of autonomy, responsibility, and mastery, and while he is permitted to indulge his passion for knowledge and think abstractly, thus approaching the ideal of the universal man, Sassall has found his burdens great and occasionally oppressive. Frequently, he encounters anxiety and depression in his patients, who lead such impoverished lives. His method of treating the whole personality calls for him to let the patient see himself in his doctor, to experience fraternal recognition. Thus, Sassall’s own anxieties are brought to the surface of his consciousness. He tries, Berger notes, to convince his distraught patients of the value of every moment of life, to give them a present and future as well as a past. Yet Berger wonders whether he is not sometimes compelled to question the value of his own existence. The paradox of Sassall’s success is that it depends so much upon the dismal spiritual and intellectual condition of the villagers. To relieve fundamentally their poverty of intellect and spirit would be to deprive him of the very conditions that make him a fortunate man.
Berger concludes that Sassall should be more politically active on behalf of his constituents, yet he owns that the doctor has done his work—to ease and comfort the distressed—well. His good fortune has been that he is devoted to his work and that to his mind his work gives his life meaning. Yet Berger cannot excuse “the present society,” which “wastes and, by the slow draining process of enforced hypocrisy, empties most of the lives which it does not destroy.” While acknowledging and even celebrating Sassall’s existential triumph, Berger laments the emptiness of the masses and ends his essay in a tone of despair. To achieve for all the self-actualization of Sassall, his fortunate man, Berger concludes, requires a thorough reordering of society. A reappraisal of the worth of each life becomes necessary. This Berger can scarcely imagine happening, however, since such a democratization of opportunity and awareness would be ruinous to those holding power and intimidating to those afraid of moral choice. Given a society where the worth of life is kept deliberately unknown, Berger asks, who can assess the worth of those who purport to save it?
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