Med school advice … from The Devil

24 07 2012

Mephistopheles and Faust, 1925 illustration by Harry Clarke

While on my trip to Frankfurt, my friend took me to visit the Goethe House and I was inspired to read Faust to complement that. Goethe, who lived in the mid 1700s is considered one of the greatest German writers. His play Faust is about a bet that the Devil makes with God to prove that he can lead the best of men astray. Faust the protagonist, is a polymath dissatisfied with his academic  knowledge and makes a wager with the Devil

This is an excerpt from Section IV – The Study which I copied from Project Gutenberg’s edition of Faust (You can skip my sappy commentary and read the original uninterrupted). While Faust is away and getting ready to travel, a student approaches his study. The devil disguises himself as Faust and imparts his pearls of wisdom to the student. The devil in this scene  comes across as part wise senior and part troll. I am including some interpretations, which may not have been intended by Goethe, but it’s a fun exercise.


I’m tired enough of this dry tone,–
Must play the Devil again, and fully.


To grasp the spirit of Medicine is easy
Learn of the great and little world your fill,

Doctors are human too, hence the essence in Medicine is simple. Applying it requires understanding of both the large scale (populations, clinical signs) and tiny (bacteria, genes)

To let it go at last, so please ye,

You will forget most of the stuff you learnt in the first few years

Just as God will!
In vain that through the realms of science you may drift;
Each one learns only–just what learn he can:

You can study alot but there is only a limited amount of information you can fit into your head

Yet he who grasps the Moment’s gift,
He is the proper man.

Paying attention to what is in front of you now, i.e the patients in all their intricate glory, is ultimately what will help you

Well-made you are, ’tis not to be denied,

Yes, you are the creme-de-la-creme

The rest a bold address will win you;

I’m not sure what this means but perhaps it’s something like, people will give you a fancy title.

If you but in yourself confide,
At once confide all others in you.

I think there are two interpretations here. Firstly, if people feel that you can keep your mouth shut (i.e What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas) people will trust you. The other could mean, if you’re in tune with your own emotions, it’ll be easy to empathise and understand people.

To lead the women, learn the special feeling!
Their everlasting aches and groans,
In thousand tones,
Have all one source, one mode of healing;
And if your acts are half discreet,
You’ll always have them at your feet.

Don’t know what on earth he’s saying here. Really.

A title first must draw and interest them,
And show that yours all other arts exceeds;

Half of it is in the title. Heard of the Placebo Effect?

Then, as a greeting, you are free to touch and test them,
While, thus to do, for years another pleads.
You press and count the pulse’s dances,

Yes. Patients trust you. And they will let you examine them in ways no one ever has. Of course, you are interested in things about them which no one else ever would be, like the number of times their heart beats in a minute.

And then, with burning sidelong glances,
You clasp the swelling hips, to see
If tightly laced her corsets be.

So apparently, someone with a loose corset is innuendo for being a loose woman. Alright, here’s where you listen carefully. Whatever your patient’s background, you treat them with respect. Don’t be a douche bag and take advantage of them. Or somebody gonna get hurt real bad.


That’s better, now! The How and Where, one sees.


My worthy friend, gray are all theories,
And green alone Life’s golden tree.

Medicine is about life and death and it’s not meant to be entirely studied from a book. Go out there to the real world and see it for yourself, it’s pretty exciting. Also medical textbooks are damn boring.


I swear to you, ’tis like a dream to me.
Might I again presume, with trust unbounded,
To hear your wisdom thoroughly expounded?


Most willingly, to what extent I may.


I cannot really go away:
Allow me that my album first I reach you,–
Grant me this favor, I beseech you!

The student is so overwhelmed by the prep talk that he demands an autograph.



(_He writes, and returns the book_.)

STUDENT (_reads_)

_Eritis sicut Deus, scientes bonum et malum_.
(_Closes the book with reverence, and withdraws_)

This is a quote from the Bible. Genesis 3:5 says, “Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil”. I’m warning you here. Once you start studying, you will never look at the world in the same way again. Your side of the world will be full of death, disease and suffering. Though, I won’t say that is necessarily a bad thing, you did sign up because you want to help people right? Nonetheless, your worldview will take some adjusting and once it does, you will come to … well, that’s a topic for another time.


Follow the ancient text, and the snake thou wast ordered to trample!
With all thy likeness to God, thou’lt yet be a sorry example!

This reminds me of my high school days when we did a little bit of literature. I actually read through a study guide for this chapter and two posts by a Professor of the Arts. I didn’t like the study guide too much, it had a different interpretation than which I intended but the Professor’s ideas on the Biblical quote and Gray is all Theory are interesting.




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