A conversation between Ma’ayan Harel, lecturer in the Department of Literature, Language and Arts at the Open University, and in the Program in Research of Child and Youth Culture at Tel Aviv University, and Ze’ev Hochberg, Professor Emeritus of Medicine, Technion, Haifa.
Transcribed into Hebrew by Shira Rappaport. Translated from Hebrew by Cassandra Gomes
Editor: Jan-Maarten Wit
Ze’ev Hochberg: The terms puberty and adolescence are often used interchangeably. Whereas puberty refers to the activation of the neuroendocrine circuits that culminates in gonadal matura-tion and the secondary sex characteristics, the package we call adolescence includes such puber-tal development plus the growth spurt, cognitive and brain maturation and social aspects in learn-ing, intimacy and mutual support, intensification of pre-existing friendships, development of new relationships, and the attainment of biosocial skills needed for successful reproduction. The col-lective endpoint of the adolescence package is the socially and reproductively mature adult. To promote reproductive and parenting success in the service of reproductive fitness, hormonal and mental maturation are intimately coupled through iterative transactions between cognition, social maturation, and endocrine systems, with the latter producing sex hormones. Are you aware of that kind of a holistic approach to adolescence in the bildungsroman or otherwise in the litera-ture?
Ma’ayan Harel: From reading the articles you’ve written, and from this introduction, I see that your emphasis is on evolution and biology, while my thoughts on adolescence and the bildungs-roman are from a structural and sociological point of view. It seems to me that our conversation will take place in this gap, in the tension between the two poles that, naturally, feed one another. It’s a good starting point for this conversation.
Hochberg: This is the essence of our forum ‘Edge,’ which we call ‘The Third World’—the inter-action between the worlds of science, sociology, and the humanities. I come from the field of evolutionary medicine, not from the common medical field. This is also my subject of research.
Harel: I tend to think of literature, primarily, as a social and historical construct. Therefore, I’m interested in the gap between evolutionary and biological theories on development and sociologi-cal and historical thoughts, but also in the connection between them.
Hochberg: When I think of literature, which is not my area of expertise, I admire the ability of those who do not professionally see adolescents to describe what happens to them. In the ex-treme case we have David Grossman’s Book of Intimate Grammar, where the protagonist Aaron has clearly what we call in the clinic constitutional delay of growth and puberty. At my clinic, I often meet children with that problem, sort of ‘Grossmans’—assuming that the book is about Grossman himself. I’m not sure of that.
Harel: In the interpretation of the bildungsroman as a genre, this discussion, for example in Grossman’s work, can be based on biological and developmental questions that you’re dealing with. It’s also possible, however, to examine it in a broader context—for example, what it means to write such a novel in the twentieth century, a significant turning point in the conception of bildungsroman. Therefore, we see that it’s not only the biological aspect that is present, but dif-ferent outlooks into the matter. In other words, we can approach Grossman’s novel, and the is-sues that are brought up in it, not only as a biographical story of a child who is not developing, but also as a change in the literary preoccupation with the bildungsroman throughout the twenti-eth century.
Hochberg: Why the twentieth century? What happened in the transition from the nineteenth cen-tury?
Harel: At the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century, bildungsroman de-veloped in the optimistic world of enlightenment and education, thoughts about progress and development, and men’s ability to integrate into society. In this thought there was tension be-tween romantic views on childhood and adolescence and on man as a useful member of society. Bildungsroman served to draw a path for the bourgeois class, for whom literature was a common denominator.
Once the bourgeois class flourished and the individual was given strength to find his own path, to change and develop, the bildungsroman became the perfect genre for this purpose. In the twentieth century, especially in the wake of World War I and, naturally, afterwards, the belief in the strength of men—the optimism attached to it—was undermined, a fact that had a tremen-dous impact on literature and the possibility of growth and development.
Hochberg: And post-modernism?
Harel: Post-modernism radicalized aspects of modernist literature. From many perspectives, the bildungsroman turned into a novel that instead of dealing with development, growth, and maturi-ty, dealt with what is called anti-Bildung’ —the protagonist’s refusal to grow, the refusal to grow and develop into a world that has lost its principles, into a world that is made of doubts. Several times it is reflected mainly on the characters. Maturation, if it takes place at all, is internal and mental, rather than physical and biological. This is manifested in many novels, not only in He-brew literature, and one of its climax is in The Tin Drum by Gunther Grass, where it’s not clear who exactly is the character, if he’s a child or an adult, sane or insane.
Hochberg: I wanted to approach with you the gap between mental and body maturity. We think that five thousand years ago, the age of menarche was twelve; ten thousand years ago, in the ag-ricultural revolution, it happened even earlier. Perhaps at age ten. The first menstrual period, from then on, happened gradually at a later age. A hundred and fifty years ago it reached its peak—sixteen and a half. In evolutionary medicine, we view delayed puberty as a human strategy. The strategy is based on being tall, on being as big as possible, on delaying growth and reproduction as much as possible. In the past it must have gone hand in hand—body and mental development.
Then what truly happened during the industrial revolution, together with the improve-ment in life conditions and food production, the age of puberty declined. If puberty was at six-teen and a half a hundred and fifty years ago, today is at twelve and a half. We returned to what it was five thousand years ago. But mentally, maturity comes later. Today children stay at home and turn into adults at the age of twenty, twenty-five even. As you said, also in literature we can see the tension between body and mental growth.
Harel: That’s right. Many times the protagonist does not succeed in containing this tension be-tween the mental complexity or the psychological depth and his physical appearance. This is prominent in Grossman’s novel. The creative and psychological depth that such young child reaches in spite of a body that refuses to mature.
Hochberg: A body that starts maturing?
Harel: In Grossman’s, the body does not start maturing, it refuses to mature.
Hochberg: We call in medicine it delayed puberty.
Harel: We can also see it from an additional allegorical way, not only as a psychological-body tension, but a tension between the individual and the society in which he lives. In other words, the body’s refusal to grow and the choice of sinking into an internal, mental maturity, and so on, often symbolize defiance or protest against social demands. The social demands to become a use-ful citizen in a society that does not correspond to the turbulent internal world. Bildungsroman, from the start, takes place in this tension. Here we find a deep contradiction between the indi-vidual, his needs, his wishes and desires and socialization and the social circumstances he must abide to. In the classic bildungsroman, this tension exists but it’s solved in a way that fits the sur-rounding social values. On the other hand, in the twentieth century bildungsroman onwards, these tensions are often left unresolved, and these novels end ambiguously. As in Grossman’s, it’s not clear what happens to the hero Aaron. Did he get into the refrigerator? Did he not get into the refrigerator? Did he die in the end? Did he remain alive? What happened to him? It brings up significant questions. From a literary point of view, every question posted at the end of a work as an analogy to an aspect of life is extremely significant. This is also reflected in novels which end in very tragic ways, even in death or suicide.
Hochberg: Which novels do you mean, for example?
Harel: For example, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895). It was written at the transition into the twentieth century; it actually bodes the transition to modernism. This is a novel about a young man who is constantly trying to find his way to maturity, especially intellectual growth. He wants to become an educated person; he wants to learn. There is a town that is similar to Ox-ford in England. He cannot, for various reasons, fulfill his passion, and is actually forced to live his entire life as a stonemason. He also passes through severe gender and marital crises, until he eventually dies.
Hochberg: And in terms of classic novels? What examples do you have form the classics?
Harel: The classic novel on maturity is, first of all, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. It is a novel about a man from the bourgeois class who has the soul of an artist. He wants to be an actor and so on. After he’s passed through a journey and deals with many characters along the way, he succeeds in entering high society, increasing his social status. He becomes a rich man, marries, and brings children to the world. He actually fulfills all the steps in development, and renounces his passion to art.
Hochberg: Do you call it a bildungsroman? I thought a bildungsroman needed to start in child-hood and adolescence.
Harel: It doesn’t start in childhood, but the entire first part is a story within a story in which Wilhelm describes his childhood, the tension he felt towards his father, which is also an im-portant topic in a bildungsroman; his passion about the theater and how it started; his decision to leave his home and so on. It closes, however, with a normative end, complete even. He brings a child to the world and the child becomes his successor. It is a great ending. Dickens’ novels, nat-urally, are almost all bildungsroman. Most of them ends in a positive hope. As I said, however, Jude the Obscure ends in a tremendous tragedy, when the children who are born to the hero commit suicide. It is shocking, and he himself dies later on, unable to realize any of his goals. It is a pattern that is repeated throughout the twentieth century in several bildungsroman. What’s in-teresting is that the most modern optimistic novels, those that remind the most the classic bild-ungsroman, are for youth. Bildungsroman changed its message from a novel intended for the adult audience to a novel for children and youth, and then you can really see the return to classi-cal topics, because this genre contains a simpler aspect in terms of plot. Nonetheless, there is a great drama that takes place beyond, perhaps running in parallel to aspects that you’re talking about—the difficulty in comprehending human biology with the mind; the difficulty in integrat-ing biology with the natural development of the world and its social and technological aspects. I think this is quite interesting.
Hochberg: Is it true that fewer bildungsroman deal with girls or women—perhaps because most writers were men?
Harel: In literature, there is a broad sub-genre called the female bildungsroman. Not necessarily about childhood, but about the growth of a woman.
Hochberg: In biology, there is a very big difference between girls and boys, male and female an-imals. Maturity for girls from a biological perspective starts earlier, around two years earlier in comparison to boys. Very suddenly a girl’s body becomes that of a woman; she’s seen by others as a young woman, even though she isn’t fertile yet. She will become fertile around the age of eighteen, even though she got her first period at the age of twelve. There is a very long period between puberty and reproductive maturity. The boy, on the other hand, starts to mature later, soon he becomes fertile, but he looks young and immature. His voice keeps on twittering, he’s face hair will grow later, and he still looks young, so the environment does not regard him as an adult. Here is a significant difference between boys and girls.
Harel: It’s a very interesting issue. Bildungsroman is a male novel at its basis. The basis of the genre is truly founded around the experience of the European, bourgeois male. Nonetheless, very quickly, especially in the British novel, there was the rise of the female bildungsroman, whose perspective was truly written by women. For example, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Wuthering Heights by her sister, Emily Bronte, novels by George Elliot, among others. There, the sub-genre of female bildungsroman was defined in a later period, especially in the wake of the feminist revolution, which is different from the male bildungsroman in many aspects. One of the most no-ticeable differences is the devotion to matters concerning family, relationships, marital issues, sexuality, which are much more pronounced than in novels by and about men.
Hochberg: And it’s always written by women?
Harel: It’s mostly written by women. There were attempts from men writing female bildungsro-man later. The female writers are mainly British, and later on also from the United States.
Hochberg: Because in England women belong more clearly to a status which differentiates them?
Harel: Over there started the tradition that women also write novels, some pretending to be men, others publishing their novels under pseudonyms, others under heading “a man” or something. But that is where the female writing revolution truly started. These novels are very interesting because women’s reality was not the reality of the professional narrative or class-like phenomena, as it was for men. The question is if they could actually undergo a “bildung” process. From the surface, there was great emphasis on finding a partner as a goal in development and the conver-gence into traditional female roles, and so on. This is from the surface. On the other hand, in these novels there are, often times, all sorts of subversive elements that contradict the roles des-ignated to women; they are related in order to undermine the linear model of female develop-ment. For example, in female bildungsroman it is very noticeable the connection between the fe-male hero and other female and male protagonist. In other words, there is a sense that women’s growth depends on environmental context, dialogues, and encounters that take place through her interactions with other characters.
Hochberg: With other girls?
Harel: Especially with female characters who embody the anti-thesis to the main character. For example, Jane Eyre is a classic novel in this aspect. We find the character Jane, who is an orphan girl, as most of the heroes in bildungsroman of her generation, who goes from institution to insti-tution looking for her path, until she arrives at Thornfield Hall, where she becomes a governess. The startling encounter of her life is also with Bertha, the landlord’s first wife, who is taken as mad and locked upstairs in the attic. She is a character who is described in harsh tones in the novel. She is described as violent, a beast, and very passionate, unlike the female main characters in bildungsroman, who are often times, despite their sexuality, lacking in sexual character, and comply to social norms of repressing sexual desires to adapt to social standards. The encounter between Jane and Berta, according to many interpretations of this novel, reveals the instinctive, unconscious, and repressed aspects of Jane’s personality. This is also evident in other novels where the female main character, ostensibly respectable, suddenly meets another character through whom her development takes place, out of confrontation, observation, dialogue, or direct confrontation of the female character’s struggle with sexuality.
Hochberg: This is, however, related to the experiences of adolescence for boys and girls, which are really different. The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote about her experience in Samoa. As a young woman, at the age of twenty, she travelled to Samoa where she stayed al-most a year. She describes that during puberty, there are groups of girls and boys. Boys and girls leave their houses. All the girls live together, and all the boys as well, but the boys play games and practice crafts, while the girls talk among themselves and also practice with older boys and young men the sexual experiences. As I said earlier, they are not fertile at this stage. Therefore, the experience of a boy and a girl at this age is completely different.
Harel: It’s fascinating what you’ve just said, because it reflects exactly the models of female and male bildungsroman. The female bildungsroman is most of the time devoted to interpreting and discussing issues concerning empathy, interaction, and dialogues between female and male char-acters, and between female characters and male characters, who are not their sexual partners. For example, characters of a brother and a sister who are sort of androgynous and pass through mu-tual experiences of maturation. This aspect stands out in several works by women. On the other hand, in the male bildungsroman, the maturity process they pass is through a struggle, through tension and confrontation with other male characters. In other words, the Oedipal model of “murdering the father” in order to obtain his place, his position in the world, is prominent in these novels.
Hochberg: Even in very young age boys enjoy quarreling with other boy.
Harel: In literature, the true example of male maturity requires real confrontation. It requires an Oedipal male character who needs to leave his birth home or his biological father. Most of the times there are no biological fathers in bildungsroman, most of the protagonists are orphans. It’s a starting point of almost every bildungsroman—orphans in different degrees. There are orphans from mother and father, there are orphans from only one parent, there are orphans who have par-ents but they don’t know them, and there are heroes, such as in Grossman’s case, who have fami-lies but the family suffocates them—it’s not an orphan character, but very unusual in the bild-ungsroman.
Hochberg: And novels about boarding school, do you call them bildungsroman?
Harel: Which ones, for example?
Hochberg: James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Harry Potter.
Harel: Yes, Harry Potter is a bildungsroman, a very interesting one because it has fantastic ele-ments. Therefore, it deviates from the regular bildungsroman, which is realistic and rooted in the real world. Harry is an orphan who is searching for his way. Also there you find several male characters who are placed on his way. His father died, but he has a mentor. Also, Dumbledore, the principal of the school and a dominant figure in his life. Also Lord Voldermort is, in fact, a male character, who must be dealt with in several ways in order to achieve his independence, to mature.
Hochberg: In my research, I talk about the topic of behavior programming in a very young age. The impact of the mental environment at a young age, at age one and then again at six, on behav-iors later on. The theory called socialization says that around the age of one, the child senses the world in which he lives in; if he lives in a threatening world, he will develop the view of the world as unsafe.
Harel: Yes, attachment theories.
Hochberg: Right. Bowlby’s. Therefore, if the world is unsafe, from a biological perspective, it means that it’s best to mature as early as possible, to run from one partner to another, take risks in sex, and establish a large family. In an unsafe world, you don’t know if otherwise your DNA will prevail for future generations.
Harel: So the world of the protagonist in a bildungsroman is an unsafe world.
Hochberg: From an early age?
Harel: From a very early age, because they are orphans; because many times they have no at-tachment. They move freely in a world without connections. Recalling once again Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, which I talked about earlier. Over there the hero raises himself. Or in Dickens’s Great Expectations, for example, which is a definite bildungsroman. In the opening scene of the novel, the hero says that he doesn’t know who his parents are, and doesn’t even know how they look like. So he used to go to the cemetery and imagine his parents in the shape of the letters on their tombstones. The only way he could bring up some sort of memory or imagination is entirely fictional; he even makes up his own name. This is extreme. So, the starting point of heroes in bildungsroman, both men and women, is often very shaky, usually something that forces maturi-ty, or the need to search and find himself an identity. Even when they have a home, in some con-stellation, then several times the bildungsroman is based on the need to leave home. In the act of leaving—leaving to a quest—the question is why there is the need for orphanhood in order for maturation to take place. Overall, because it widens the gap or the wound, which goes back to what you said. It’s a literary plot trigger for an intensive maturity process, sometimes a rushed one, sometimes not, that leads to building an identity. At the moment that you have no roots and you don’t have to hold on to them, you must, as fast as possible, build to yourself an alternate identity.
Hochberg: On the other hand, it comes to mind Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, where the hero doesn’t want to grow up; he remains childish.
Harel: Right, this is a modernist bildungsroman. Apropos, among what we discussed earlier, this is another example of a complete modernist bildungsroman about a hero who doesn’t want to mature, in a way that approaches another topic that I deal with—the issue of illness and the ten-sion between insanity and sanity. The main question here is if our hero is sane from a mental per-spective or not. This is not clear at any point. In the classic novel it goes in the direction of the search for identity and maturity; and in the modernist novel it deals with the pit of orphanhood and absence, but it often fails to fulfill it because of significant ruptures in these novels. So, there is no successful solution, only failed attempts.
Hochberg: Another bildungsroman which I love is The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and the issue around the tension and surge of sexuality.
Harel: Over there we find another interesting topic which is connected to another sub-genre in the bildungsroman. If we talked about female sub-genre, so Joyce’s bildungsroman can be de-scribed as an artist’s bildungsroman. This is something that was dealt with a lot in the literature of the twentieth century. Over there we find, several times, a gap, great tension, and confronta-tions between physical desires, from a biological perspective even, and the view of art as spiritual purification. Spirituality and physicality collide, as you mentioned. Also in Grossman’s roman we find it. Grossman builds his hero, Aaron, as an artist. His talent, shown through the book, is actu-ally concerning words—verbal, language, the capacity of reinventing words, to create art. It is the beginning of a talent that is not fulfilled in this novel, but portrayed in contrast to an unde-veloped biology. Art is, often times, the answer to the body and its needs, an emotional-mental response. This is also a prominent subject in modernism—the preoccupation with art, its roots, and the tension between art and other things such as the body, biology, and even society.
Hochberg: From a biological and medical points of view, we find children with disorder in pu-berty. Girls with early puberty, almost in every case girl, because in the case of boys, earlier pu-berty is very rare and almost always a sign of a serious illness. And boys with delayed puberty, because in the case of girls delayed puberty is almost always a sign of a serious illness. So girls come to us with early puberty and boys with delayed puberty. It’s not clear who suffers the most. Grossman gives a beautiful perspective into the issue. Aaron, with delayed puberty, goes to a gym class together with other boys who have passed puberty, and he can’t run together with them.
Harel: He deals with it a lot.
Hochberg: And with girls there is the issue of, for example, girls at the age of seven or six that start to mature physically. She goes out on the streets with a woman’s body and what happens as a result? A research from Sweden has shown that girls who develop earlier, even within the nor-mal range of puberty from 8-13, will have more problems with drugs, alcohol, and teenage preg-nancy, and have less chance of going to university. This is connected to a social issue because they connect to older children. Do we have these cases in literature?
Harel: Literature doesn’t deal much with the subject of early puberty. It’s more convenient to deal with the issue of delayed puberty, the delay of adolescence, and less with the issue of earlier maturation. If there are such cases, they are negative characters whose sexuality is very pro-nounced, “promiscuous” characters, a trait that can’t be controlled, as you mentioned earlier. It’s important to mention that women characters of this type, who have sexual intercourse from an early age, are always supporting characters in literature, and not the main ones. I thought a lot about this after I read what you’ve written.
Hochberg: Who are the characters that mature earlier?
Harel: For example, if we return to Jane Eyre, Berta is a character who is very sexual. I don’t know if she matured early, there is no indication of this aspect in the novel, because the biog-raphy of supporting characters is not given. There are also female figures who are described in an androgynous way, for example in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, one of the main characters that the hero meets on his journey, Mignon, is fascinated by the world of musicians and artists. She is a type of character, a girl around the age of twelve, whose gender is not clear; it’s not clear if she’s already an adult or younger. Also his relationship with her is a paternal one on the one hand; on the other hand, it borders incest. This matter is blurred there. However, Mignon dies in the end. This is what happens to characters that portray the undesirable, the less wanted option from a moral point of view.
Hochberg: This is perhaps a different topic we could discuss some other time. It is a hot topic in our field today, where we discuss people whose sexual identity is not clearly defined or are transgender. In the medical field, they call it these days “gender dysphoria.” It has turned into an entire branch in medicine, about people who later on in life change their sex, but before they change it, they find themselves in identity crises.
Harel: Usually in the bildungsroman this doesn’t happen to the hero, which most of the time has an established gender identity. Many times, however, he meets along the way all sorts of charac-ters whose identities are blurred, some sort of literary warning sign—think of what will happen to you if you don’t turn into a man as demanded, or don’t turn into a woman as needed. And these characters are very important because they offer alternative paths that are not paved by the main plot.
Hochberg: We could certainly carry this on forever, but we’ll stop it here, and on my side, with the feeling that this is the Third World, where medicine and science meet the humanities.
George Werther, Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne, Senior Endocrinologist, Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, Australia
This is a fascinating discussion which explores the relationship between the physiolo-gy/pathophysiology of puberty and impacts on the societal and emotional experience of the indi-vidual concerned. The instrument at the basis of this exploration is the concept of the Bildungs-roman, a term coined in 1819 by Karl Morgenstern. It refers to the growing up or “coming of age” of a sensitive person who goes in search of answers to life’s questions, an essential feature being an early emotional loss, often parental, with the child setting out on a difficult journey to achieve maturity, involving conflict with society, and ultimate acceptance into it.
Harel, a literary academic and Hochberg, a paediatric endocrinologist expert in evolution and ad-olescence, here discuss the relationship between adolescence in society and the biological chang-es of puberty, more particularly the effect of delay in these processes, either through biological mechanisms, or via psychosocial pressures where childhood is held onto by the individual in or-der to avoid an adult interaction with society.
Their discussion uses the concept of Bildungsroman exemplified in a number of novels, both classic and modern, to explore the interaction between biology and psychosocial and emotional development. The first example they discuss is Israeli writer David Grossman’s The Book of In-timate Grammar about a 12 year-old boy who remains prepubertal (with presumed Maturational Delay) as his friends mature at a time of tension before the Six Day War. He is both biologically and psychologically stuck in childhood as he struggles to deal with his visions of the adult world.
Several other examples are discussed, the earliest being regarded as the classic form of Bildungs-roman, namely Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, as well as Dickens’ Great Expecta-tions, and more modern examples such as Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.
Hochberg refers to the evolutionary changes in the timing of puberty, explained in part through environmental pressures over long periods, such that puberty occurs later under stressful condi-tions, as a survival mechanism by leading to taller adults, and reflected on an individual basis. In the last 150 years puberty onset has dramatically occurred much earlier. In parallel, we hear from Harel that the Bildungsroman changed from the 19th to the 20th century, reflecting the transition through the Age of Enlightenment, with optimism at the beginning of the 20th century. As the 20th century descends into the turmoil of two World Wars, and the optimism fades, the Bild-ungsroman changes from an individual who finds his way from childhood to adulthood despite its challenges, to a child resisting the transition, both psychologically and biologically, which may never be properly resolved. This is seen in The Book of Intimate Grammar, as well as in Gunther Grass’s The Tin Drum.
The final point of discussion is the difference between male and female Bildungsroman, noting that the earliest representations in novels were exclusive to males. However we are informed about a sub-category, known as female Bildungsroman, referring to the growth of women. The Bronte sisters’ Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are given as examples. It is noted, and this must relate to biology, that while in the male form Bildungsroman involves a struggle through tension with other male characters, in the female form, the emphasis is on discusssion, empathy between females and with males.
Comparison is made by Hochberg with the work of Margaret Mead in Samoa, where the experi-ence of boys and girls in puberty is very different, to an extent reflecting the difference in Bild-ungsroman.The common physiologic variant of delayed puberty in boys, as in Grossman’s The Book of Intimate Grammar is again noted, being less common in girls. In contrast, early puberty is a common variant in girls, but not so in boys. When such characters appear in literature, their early sexuality is seen as a negative trait.
This was a very interesting and discussion which is likely to provide readers with new infor-mation and insights into the relationship between puberty (and its variants) and psychoso-cial/behavioural paradigms – not just on an individual level, but also on a broader society scale, and over time. While not all of the parallels between the biology of puberty and the psychoso-cial variants of novels are compelling, the overall discussion and concepts are well worthy of dis-cussion and debate.
Ad Kaptein, Professor of Medical Psychology, Leiden University Medical Centre, The Netherlands
It is a pleasure studying the manuscript “Sexual maturation and the Bildungsroman”. The manu-script explores an issue which is hardly ever covered in medicine, and neither is it covered a lot in the Medical Humanities arena. This in itself makes the paper a valuable contribution to a burgeon-ing area.
Hochberg adopts a rather biomedical stance in emphasizing biomedical explanations for behav-iour. I’m not arguing with that view. However, in the context of the current manuscript a more balanced biopsychosocial view might be worth considering. Puberty/adolescence pertain not only to medical phenomena – on the contrary: the psychological and social changes and ramifications seem at least as important as the biomedical changes, as far as I’m concerned. The authors might consider touching upon this point a bit stronger (on page 1, for instance). The mistake in the Grossman book illustrates my point: the correct title is Book of Intimate (not Internal!) Grammar.
It might be useful to present the reader with a definition/description of ‘Bildungsroman’. The authors do suggest a number of ‘Bildungsroman’ ; it might be a suggestion to give a quite exten-sive list (if the authors are willing and able to do this) of those novels. They might touch upon the issue of ‘post modernism’ there as well.
I’m not an MD but I wonder about the point the authors make about young girls not being able to get pregnant immediately after starting menstruating. Girls of 12 years old are known to give birth, isn’t it? Young Black working class girls in the US, for instance? Young girls being raped give birth, don’t they? I’m not sure I get the point about shifting age of start of menstruating.
How do the authors view the contribution of theory and empirical research in the Medical Hu-manities to ‘sexual maturation and Bildungsroman’?
Michael Ranke, Professor of Pediatrics, Tübingen University, Germany
I think it is very interesting to have a discussion between a developmental biologist-pediatrician and an expert in literature in order to evaluate how adolescence and development in medical terms find their mirroring in the literature, specifically in what is called “bildungsroman”. This category of developmental novel has emerged specifically during the 19th century. During the 19th century this genre describes the development of the characters (mostly males) painted out of the perspective of the conflict with the “ideals of innocent youth” and the ” raw reality of the en-vironment” and ends – as in Goethe´s Wilhelm Meister- in some form of maturity and harmony.
This reflects the idealized view of a relatively stable world. We know today that the adolescent biology is not only different in its time course in males and females and over the centuries, but that sexuality of adolescents finds different expressions in different cultures. The modern bild-ungsroman of the 20th century reflects more the complexity of the conflicts between the individ-ual within an unstable social setting also more directly addressing the sexual issues given during the maturational processes, including gender ambiguities, which are often only discussed in dis-guise in 19th century novels. I think (even if I have not read all of the mentioned books) that these aspects have been nicely shown in the discussion by the two protagonists of the dialogue. I enjoyed reading very much.
Paul Saenger Professor of Pediatrics Emeritus, Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University
I was very pleased that you touched on the Blechtrommel by the late Guenter Grass. Oskar Matzerath the small protagonist of the novel did not want to grow up and he was quite a mischievous youngster . In the OSCAR winning movie made by Volker Schloendorff he used a rather small GH deficient actor from Munich who was at time under the care of Otfried Butenandt at the University of Munich.. I thought this small item add a personal note of the true endocrine problem of the actor playing Oskar. in this Nobel prize winning novel.
As far as Margaret Mead is concerned there were for many years doubt about the veracity of her field work in Samoa. Critics felt that she was duped by the islanders she interviewed and the ” free love ” they described was actually a hoax played on her. To my knowledge this question was never completely resolved. This does of course not diminish her contributions to anthropological science.
I thought the discussion was quite interesting to follow.