Politics of Passion:
Norman Bethune's Writing & Art

398 pages,
ISBN: 0802009077

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The Good Doctor Bethune's Hardly Hobbled Word Hoard
by Ted Whittaker

Larry Hannant has performed a useful service in collecting the written remains of Norman Bethune. As a thoracic surgeon during the twenties and thirties Bethune invented or helped make popular instruments and techniques used in the treatment of tuberculosis-and these, according to expert testimony, have had a significant shelf life. Moreover, he championed the cause of socialized medicine in Quebec in the early 1930s. Had he stayed in Canada instead of going to Spain and to China (where his work was even more spectacularly revolutionary), his contributions to medical and social progress might well have continued. Hannant's good deeds begin with his having examined and selected for publication several of Bethune's crucial statements concerning the social and medical aspects of pleural therapy.

The Politics of Passion complements and draws upon the available Bethune literature: biographies and studies by Ted Allan and Sydney Gordon, Roderick Stewart, Zhou Erfu, Wendell MacLeod, Libbie Park, and Stanley Ryerson, and the symposium edited by David Shephard and Andrée Lévesque (a partial list).

Hannant's chosen form is the following: Bethune's life is divided into chapters, each with a biographical introduction followed by a set of documents, letters, poems, stories, articles, reports, overt propaganda. Some documents get their own short leads to supplement the longer summaries. The Politics of Passion does not publish everything Bethune is known to have written or even everything to which Hannant has had access. Of the medical articles Bethune published before leaving for Spain in 1936, Hannant, constrained by lack of space, has printed just three of eleven (one of which he reveals was a learned spoof). The others, judging by their titles, are narrowly specialized works and will not be missed by the general reader.

In a paper delivered in 1979 to a symposium marking the fortieth anniversary of Bethune's death, the eminent Canadian surgeon and academic, H. Rocke Robertson, evaluated Bethune's contribution to medical theory and practice during his eight Montreal years (1928-36):

"One can confidently say that Bethune contributed a great deal to the [McGill University Medico-Surgical Pulmonary] Clinic. This is an inescapable conclusion. Enthusiasm is a word that occurs often in all writings about him, just as do brilliance, impatience, action; and such qualities that, combined in an individual as they were in Bethune, could hardly fail to render him enormously useful to the group with which he was working.

An old saw about revolutionaries, ascribed to Bernard Shaw, goes this way: `Though revolutionaries seldom do much good, they sometimes do a lot of very refreshing harm!' To apply this to Bethune would obviously do him less than justice, but it does evoke the thought that repeatedly comes to mind as one reads of Bethune, and even more so when one reads what he wrote, the thought of refreshment-of the breath of fresh air that moved with him."

That observation burnishes lightly the facet of Bethune's character that was to shine with the greatest power during the next and last four years of his life. Less than one fifth of Hannant's text is taken up with Bethune's pre-Communist years. In addition to his two marriages to Frances Penney, there were his medical service in the First World War, the successful battle against his own tuberculosis, his advocacy of socialized medicine, his few (and competent) paintings, his unrequited love for the artist, Marian Scott (F. R. Scott's wife). All these are adequately if slenderly documented.

Bethune's boisterous entry onto the world stage was prompted by a humanitarian streak, a social side to his surgical vocation. Before and during the Depression, he often referred in his letters and papers to the social considerations behind the cure for tuberculosis.

A trip to Moscow in 1935 had a different effect on him than on several other physicians who attended, including Hans Selye. Upon their return, they presented, says Hannant, "relatively objective assessments of medical practice in the USSR and on the course of the congress." Bethune's typically charged report dwelt nowhere on the congress but instead compared the state of the Soviet Union (favourably) with scenes in Alice in Wonderland and cast Stalin as the Walrus. Showing a touch of the poet, he also compared Russia to a woman in labour: "Creation is not and never has been a genteel gesture. It is rude, violent and revolutionary. But to those courageous hearts who believe in the unlimited future of man, his divine destiny which lies in his own hands to make of it what he will, Russia presents today the most exciting spectacle of the evolutionary, emergent and heroic spirit of man which has appeared on this earth since the Reformation. To deny this is to deny our faith in man-and that is the unforgivable sin, the final apostasy." Imagine the reception this got from a hall full of Canadian doctors.

Roderick Stewart estimates in his biography that, by the spring of 1936, Bethune had clandestinely joined the Communist Party. (He came out in Timmins in 1937.) By October, having disposed of his few possessions and sublet his apartment to friends, he was in Spain.

Now Hannant's documentation becomes more voluminous. During the years in Spain and China, Bethune's energy and the accomplishments it occasioned are the stuff of myth. Letters, reports, and propaganda articles and broadcasts poured from him, especially to the Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, which backed his venture, the Spanish-Canadian Blood Transfusion Institute. Larry Hannant makes a significant contribution to knowledge about this segment of Bethune's life. He has excerpted old issues of the Daily Clarion, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Canada, reprinted Bethune's articles and texts of short-wave broadcasts made on behalf of the Republican government, and, most importantly, reproduced the pamphlet, The Crime on the Road: Malaga-Almeria.

Years before he left Canada, Bethune began to consider the practice of surgery an art and himself an artist, as indeed did others. Art and the social function of the artist were just two of his avocational interests. (Hannant reproduces his paintings, including slides of the long-lost mural, "A TB's Progress".) Bethune loved to teach, at times even to preach-an anarchist by temperament if not by creed. In the early, fluid months of the Civil War, when those holding differing ideological positions on the Left could still work in coalition, Bethune usually did not leave himself the time to write anything longer than a few thousand words, and there is a fierce and sustained pity to his propaganda. The message is very affecting, especially if one has a prior minimal sympathy for his vehement anti-fascism.

Here are two citations. The first, about internal refugees in Spain, is from The Crime on the Road.

"The incessant stream of people became so dense we could barely force the car through them..`Take this one.' `See this child.' `This one is wounded.' Imagine four days and four nights, hiding by day in the hills as the fascist barbarians pursued them by plane, walking by night packed in a solid stream, men, women, children, mules, donkeys, goats, crying out the names of their separated relatives, lost in the mob. How could we choose between taking a child dying of dysentery or a mother silently watching us with great sunken eyes carrying against her open breast her child born on the road two days ago. She had stopped walking for ten hours only. Here was a woman of sixty unable to stagger another step, her gigantic swollen legs with their open varicose ulcers bleeding into her cut linen sandals. Many old people simply gave up the struggle, lay down by the side of the road and waited for death."

The second-a vivid if unoriginal credo from a letter of collective apology to friends for not having written to them-is Bethune on the role of the artist:

"To share with you what I have seen, what I have experienced in the past six months, is impossible without art... [M]y words are poor, anaemic and hobbling things.. The function of the artist is to disturb.. He makes uneasy the static, the set and still. In a world terrified of change, he preaches revolution-the principle of life. He is an agitator, a disturber of the peace-quick, impatient, positive, restless and disquieting. He is the creative spirit of life working in the soul of man.

But enough. Perhaps the true reason I cannot write is that I'm too tired-another 150 miles on the road today, and what roads!

Our first job is to defeat fascism-the enemy of the creative artist. After that we can write about it."

Back in Canada after only seven months of organizing and heading up the world's first mobile blood transfusion service at the Spanish Republicans' front, Bethune immediately began a cross-country lecture tour. Hannant reckons Bethune took on this job as a kind of atonement. He had been given the bum's rush by the Spanish war bureaucracy and lost his job for reasons of personal incompatibility and lack of political wisdom. This included having slept with an attractive but politically questionable woman, a Swedish anarchist. Perhaps because of his mortification, Hannant says, Bethune didn't write anything significant during his few months here before his final departure for China. This temporary lack of primary material has given Hannant the excuse to reproduce articles about Bethune's speaking tour that were published originally in several Canadian daily newspapers-interestingly, not the Clarion (Bethune may have been too hot a potato for that orthodox journal). These articles are of secondary interest and could have been summarized in an appendix.

In China, Bethune was even more effective and isolated than he had been in Spain. He learned only rudimentary Chinese and, for much of the last nineteen months of his life, he was the only foreign anglophone doctor serving a huge area in the northeast of the country. There were compensations: a servant, a house, a horse, a cook, a translator (the first of these Bethune trained as his anaesthetist). Here is Hannant's assessment of the last act of Bethune's drama:

"Operating almost daily in constantly shifting battlefield conditions, and working feverishly to improve medical practices throughout the region north of Yan'an, Bethune wrote endlessly. Reports, letters, speeches, news articles, short stories.appeals for communication and assistance from North America-all this and more rolled out of Bethune's indestructible portable typewriter.. Because of the Japanese blockade, Bethune improvised by writing his own medical textbooks, some twenty in total."

What Hannant has managed to collect and chosen to publish of this word hoard takes up fully the last half of The Politics of Passion. Almost the only missing texts-some of which have been lost, Hannant says (probably Bethune's original manuscript English versions are what he means)-that I regret not seeing here are the medical texts. A sample page with illustrations from at least one would have been interesting to look at, even in Chinese translation. A comparison with and a brief, informed test for influences upon more recent Chinese texts such as The Barefoot Doctor's Manual might have been instructive.

One reads the letters and articles of these last months with awe. "The time is past and gone," he wrote in one of his monthly reports to his superior, General Nieh, "in which doctors will wait for patients to come to them. Doctors must go to the wounded and the earlier the better." Developing his similar methods in Spain, Bethune realized the importance in China of being near the moving front to operate. This entailed much travel by horse and sometimes on foot. (He also set up training courses to turn out nurses in six months, doctors in one year.) Of course, after some months of this sort of rough living, he was exhausted. Roderick Stewart says in his biography that Bethune "was forty-nine but looked sixty-five".

Bethune's pleas for supplies and monetary assistance were not answered. The reasons for this remain unclear. Hannant says simply that he was let down by the comrades at home. Bethune's solitude was at times acute in China, though it usually did not overpower his prevalent sense of communion and accomplishment.

The last writings are much less self-conscious than some of his earlier communications. They are politically biased, to be sure, but give no sense of how overbearing he could be, even at this late date (a check of the biographical record is appropriate here; Stewart is particularly useful). What becomes immediately obvious from reading the last two chapters of The Politics of Passion is how well Bethune had succeeded in not being considered unbearable by those with whom he chosen to live so closely and whom he respected so deeply. In August of 1938, he wrote a letter to a Canadian friend that was lyrical in its delight at the fulfilment-albeit temporary-of his plan for a model hospital. (Temporary, I said. Bethune wasn't perfect, and he was simply humoured, at times. That hospital was built over the objections of General Nieh. The Japanese destroyed it soon after it opened and after Bethune had delivered a stirring address to inaugurate it officially, with much humorous schoolmasterish advice to his audience on the right way to do things in a hospital and on the rewards of selfless socialist diligence.) He writes:

"The court is filled with flowers in bloom. Huge pink water lilies, like fat slightly breathless dowagers after a good lunch, hang their heavy heads, as big as footballs, over the edges of black earthenware tubs.. I am content.. See what my riches consist of. First I have important work that occupies every minute of my time from 5:30 in the morning to 9 at night. I am needed. More than that-to satisfy my bourgeois vanity-the need for me is expressed.. I am treated like a kingly comrade, with every kindness, every courtesy imaginable. I have the inestimable fortune to be among, and to work among, comrades to whom communism is a way of life, not merely a way of talking or a way of conscious thinking. Their communism is simple and profound, reflex [sic] as a knee jerk, unconscious as the movements of their lungs, automatic as the beating of their hearts."

There is much more optimism in the last letters than just a few outbursts of nostalgic sense-memory: "Lord! I wish we had a radio and a hamburger sandwich." Or again, Bethune looking forward to a fundraising visit home (he had had no news of the European war): "I dream of coffee, of rare roast beef, of apple pie and ice cream. Mirages of heavenly food! Books, are books still being written? Is music still being played? Do you dance, drink beer, look at pictures? What do clean white sheets in a soft bed feel like? Do women still love to be loved?"

Toward the end of his life, likely because of his hard-won serenity, Bethune didn't write conventional propaganda. The socialist political analysis that found its way into his letters shows an assurance of the truth of his convictions that came from having lived more or less the same life as those he served. He did not express bitterness at not receiving the aid he never stopped requesting from home, only frustration and puzzlement on behalf of his Chinese comrades.

The blood poisoning that killed Bethune in his weakened condition on November 12, 1939, was mentioned in a letter from him to his interpreter on the day before his death. This document is as poignant as the semi-plausible testament cited by Ted Allan and Sydney Gordon in The Scalpel & the Sword. (To his credit, Hannant does not reproduce it, not having seen it.) It is very comforting to read there, "my only regret is that I shall now be unable to do more." The sentiment is true to life, at least. This last letter has a more authentic, less Hollywoodishly noble sound to it, though again Hannant relies on a secondary source for it (Roderick Stewart). It is invaluable for its final glance at Bethune's courage and optimism. He worked, almost to the end.

"High fever, over 40C. I think I have either septicaemia from the gangrenous fever or typhus fever. Can't get to sleep, mentally very bright. Phenacitin and aspirin, woven's powder, antypyrine, caffeine, all useless.

Dr. Ch'en arrived here today. If my stomach settles down will return to Hua Pai Hospital tomorrow. Very rough road over mountain pass.

I feel freely today. Pain over heart...Will see you tomorrow, I expect." 

Ted Whittaker is a frequent contributor to Books in Canada. He lives and works in Toronto.


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