"The Mortal Body: Russian and American Ways of (Not) Knowing"

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Dr. Jehanne M. Gheith of Duke University, delivered one of the keynote lectures in "'Why All the Fuss about the Body?': An Interdisciplinary Conference on Local and Gloabal/ized Bodies", which was organized by the Mellon Globalization Forum.  His lecture, "The Mortal Body: Russian and American Ways of (Not) Knowing" took place on April 14th at 4:30pm at Gailor Auditorium.

Lecture abstract:

Pain, as Elaine Scarry has famously said, isolates. Pain is something we do alone. Yet practices around pain are cultural. This paper explores medical, social, and personal practices around terminal pain in the US and Russia. I will argue that practices around hospice care in the two cultures reveal particular ways of not wanting to know what the body knows.

While pain can isolate, it can also teach. Fiction helps us understand this. Sue Monk Kidd states “The body knows things a long time before the mind catches up to them. I was wondering what my body knew that I didn’t” (The Secret Lives of Bees). Such fictional statements are borne out by scholarship (Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Knows the Score, 2014). My paper lightly, but I hope also deeply, touches on ways that fiction helps us to know something about the mortal body.

As a hospice social worker, I know what the process of dying looks like. As a professor of Russian culture who studied the Gulag for ten years, and is currently studying the Russian hospice movement, I know something about both mass dying in Russia and current problems with pain management for the terminally ill there. The paper brings together my knowledge in both realms to begin an exploration of how theorizing the body changes in the face of mortality. In the paper, I examine different cultural ways of not knowing the mortality of the body and the consequences of that desire not to know. The paper concludes with some thoughts about how to reframe mortality so that it can include hope: I argue that this can only be through the body.

Speaker Bio:

Jehanne Gheith is an Associate Professor of Russian Culture and the Program in Education at Duke University, and former Director of International Comparative Studies, an undergraduate major. She is also a Licensed Clinical Social Worker for Duke Hospice and has a private psychotherapy practice in Aging, Illness, and Wellness transitions with a specialization in pet loss. She combines her clinical and academic work in teaching courses on Medical Ethics and End of Life Care, research on trauma and the Gulag, and her current research project on hospice care in Russia. Her published work includes a monograph Finding the Middle Ground: Krestovskii, Tur, and the Power of Ambivalence in Nineteenth-century Russian Women’s Prose (2003) and the co-edited collections, An Improper Profession: Women, Gender, and Journalism in Late Imperial Russia (2001), A History of Russian Women Writers (2002), Russian Women: Experience and Expression (2002), and Gulag Voices: Oral Histories of Soviet Detention and Exile (2011), the first interviews with Gulag survivors to be published in English.

She thinks about dying bodies all the time: through her research on the Gulag and on Russian Hospice, through her work as a hospice social worker and grief counselor, and in living with her twenty-year-old cat.