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October 18, 1987|ALEX RAKSIN

A Man's Stature, Henry Viscardi Jr. (Paul S. Eriksson, Battell Building, Middlebury, Vt. 05753: $10.95). If the modern lexicon is any measure, we have yet to come to terms with physical impairment. The now-favored word disabled isn't much better than its predecessor, handicapped ; on the contrary, the former connotes incapacity, while the latter suggests a disadvantage that can be overcome. Both, of course, are preferable to cripple , the term that sometimes (though not as frequently as one might expect) taunted the author after he was born with vestigial stumps where legs should have been. But the words sound odd coming in these pages from Henry Viscardi, for his life has testified that physical disability need not mean inability. "A Man's Stature" quickly became a best seller after first appearing in 1952, not only because Viscardi is a genuine hero, but because his portraits of mostly kind and giving people underscored the era's faith in human potential, especially that which can be bolstered by science. "A Man's Stature" doesn't tower as analysis or journalism: In celebrating the human community, Viscardi also adopts some of its stereotypes (particularly the discriminating notion that height determines social stature), and, in portraying his family (especially his father), he leaves only wispy character sketches. Viscardi's from-the-heart story of unassuming courage and unabashed joy is nevertheless powerful enough to moisten even world-weary eyes.

Stranger on the Earth: A Psychological Biography of Vincent Van Gogh, Albert J. Lubin (Henry Holt: $9.95). So he cut off part of his ear and painted dizzy night scenes of glowing concentric circles, spirals and arabesques--the question "What was wrong with him?" misses the point, writes psychiatrist Albert Lubin. "Countless humans with similar frailties have long since been forgotten, and such frailties can be better studied among the living. It is more pertinent to question what made it possible for Van Gogh to accomplish such outstanding things." Van Gogh relied in good part on religious faith, as Lubin writes, "to glorify grief, loneliness and death as prerequisites for joy, acceptance, and immortality." But Van Gogh's method wasn't this obvious; he also fought sorrow, for instance, by denying it, deluding himself into thinking that he was one with his brother, Theo, or that he had no need for approval from others.

This deception--anathema to our era's cognitive psychologists--is celebrated by Lubin as a complex way of keeping alive desires (primarily the need for complete union) that are usually extinguished at childhood's end. "Stranger on the Earth" continues in this spirit of original, searching analysis, not over-glorifying Van Gogh (for he did not attain happiness in "substituting nature, art and books for friends, marriage, and children") or buying far-fetched theories about him. One academic who is quoted with skepticism in these pages theorizes that Vincent's self-mutilation was part of an "unconscious wish to possess his mother following the fantasied assault upon a father-substitute." The motivation for Van Gogh's stunt, Lubin argues more plausibly, grew after he watched the bullfights in Arles and read about the latest exploits of Jack the Ripper.

Getting Doctored: Critical Reflections on Becoming a Physician, Martin Shapiro (New Society Publishers, P.O. Box 582, Santa Cruz, Calif. 95061: $9.95). To be a doctor of internal medicine is to buck the '80s trend toward specialization in the sciences. While many other fields are narrowing their focus to cope with a rapidly growing body of knowledge, internal medicine continues to survey holistic systems in that most complex of organisms, the human body. In "Getting Doctored," Martin Shapiro applies his internist's sensitivity to the body social, looking at sociology, politics, economics and education in an attempt to figure out why his fellow medical students at Montreal's McGill University in the early 1970s became increasingly insensitive to the "needs of the poor, the problems of war and peace, and the obligation to contribute to the creation of a better society."

While it might be argued that Shapiro goes too far in attributing his peers' self-absorption to forces inside the medical school rather than to those at large in the "Me Decade," he spotlights a broader range of maladies than have better-known medical writers, such as Perri Klass ("A Not Entirely Benign Procedure") and Melvin Konner ("Becoming a Doctor"). As Shapiro sees it, the problems range from America's "deplorable" health insurance system to medical school admissions based solely on "marks" (grades that encourage obedience and detract from creative, unusual pursuits) and "pull" (which favors the rich and well-connected). More fundamentally, they are rooted in the authoritarian air that pervades medical settings.

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