Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Whitman by Paul Fussell

My pedagogic reaction to the assassinations (of the 60s) was to increase the emphasis in my classes on Americans criticizing America. I think I was trying to suggest to my students the responsibility of the educated, for actively seeking out America’s most loathsome faults and then – an imperative obligation – correcting them. Later, in 1979, I was impressed by this message to youth in The Official Boy Scout Handbook: “Take a two-hour walk where you live. Make a list of things that please you, another of things that should be improved.” Then the critical injunction: “Set out to improve them.” Thus, I rummaged my library for useful naysayers and exposers of the rottenness of America. In Whitman’s Democratic Vistas (1871) I found his usefully unoptimistic critique of These States, especially telling because so much at odds with his usual, better-known uncritical celebrations:

Society, in these States, is cankered, crude, superstitious, and rotten . . . The element of moral conscience . . . seems to me either entirely lacking or seriously enfeebled or ungrown.

I say we had best look our time and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was here, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present. . . . The spectacle is appalling . . . A lot of churches, sects, etc., the most dismal phantoms I know, usurp the name of religion. Conversation is a mass of badinage . . . The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America . . . are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, maladministration.

. . . The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism. In fashionable life, flippancy, tepid amours, weak infidelism, small aims, or no aims at all, only kill time . . . the best class we show is but a mob of fashionably dressed speculators and vulgarians . . . I say that our New World democracy, however great a success . . . in a certain highly deceptive superficial intellectuality, is, so far, an almost complete failure in its social aspects, and in really grand religious, moral, literary, and aesthetic results.

Looking about him, especially in Manhattan, what Whitman sees is a world of “petty grotesques, malformations, phantoms, playing meaningless antics.” Everywhere, “low cunning,” “an abnormal libidinousness, with a range of manners, or rather lack of manners. . ., probably the meaness to be seen in the world.” ( And all this well before the age of television, porno VCRs, blockbusting adolescent films, and the capture of a passive upper middle class by the cynicisms of the rag trade. “Are you still using last year’s work-out wear?)

The solution Whitman proposes is one bound to recommend itself to every university teacher of literature. What is desperately need, Whitman insists, is a new rich, subtle, difficult poetry, which seldomer tells a thing than suggests or necessitates it. In fact,” he says, as he warms to his work, “a new theory of literary composition. . . is the sole course open to these States”:

Books are to be called for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half-sleep but, in the highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, the argument, history, metaphysical essay – the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or framework.

And then the climax. Such a new understanding of books and reading would help supply what Americans need most, self-respect earned by individual effort:

That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-trained, intuitive, used to depend on themselves and not on a few coteries of writers.

While summering on the Greek Island of Euboea a few years later, that is, reduced to the simplicities of stone, light and water, I started to write a short book about Whitman’s Song of Myself. For all my enthusiasm over Whitman’s brave plain speaking in Democratic Vistas and my excitement over his joy at notating the precise features of actuality, I didn’t seem to be able to elaborate plausibly his urge toward metaphysical unity and his abdication of the human task of qualitative discrimination. I found that I loved

. . . limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap’d stones, elder,
mullein and poke-weed,

But I knew that I wasn’t the type to do unaffected justice to “Showing the best and dividing it from the worst age vexes age,” and act that seemed exactly my proper business. After weeks of trying I gave up and threw the manuscript out and devoted the rest of the summer to swimming and retsina, keftedes and melons.

In Doing Battle; The Making of a Skeptic

Monday, September 24, 2012

Gauguin by David Sweetman

Gauguin’s ‘use’ of women has been the subject of much recent criticism, which suggest that his Tahiti paintings were merely a continuation of the erotic themes of nineteenth-century Salon art in an exotic setting. But such a view is only plausible if we drag Gauguin out of the context of his age in order to isolate his work under the spotlight of twentieth-century sensibilities. It is essential to remember that he was working at a time of rising gynaephobia, when the Symbolist aversion to the feminine was transformed into outright disgust. Thus the femme fatale of Gustave Moreau’s Salome was seen by Huysmans, in A Rebours, as a phantasmagoria of evil:

She had become, as it were, the symbolic incarnation of undying Lust, the Goddess of immortal Hysteria, the accursed Beauty exalted above all the other beauties by the catalepsy that hardens her flesh and steels her muscles, the monstrous Beat, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning, like the Helen of ancient myth, everything approaches her, everything that sees her, everything that she touches.

No one should think that this was mere fictional fancy with no effect on the real world. Some of the practical manifestations of this fear of women were merely misogynistic and silly – even as Gaugin was painting his Rupe Rupe series, the Sar Peladan, the mystic magus, was holding his annual salons of his Order of the Rose+Croix, for which he had ordained a set of rigid rules, amongst which no. 17, headed ‘Women’, state categorically that “in accordance with magic law no work of any woman could ever be exhibited’. Others were even more deadly, as seen in the growing literary mode in which women were killed, mutilated or dissected; most notably the English novels Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which became, and remain, widely read classics of world literature despite the lightly hidden subtext of male violence against women which they present.

It hardly needs saying that Gauguin is part of that world and that his life reflects aspects of it. His desire for young women – girls in effect- demonstrates this, especially those brought up in the obedient ethos of non-European cultures, showing none of the independence of mind encouraged by even a limited Western education. But this was not the message of his paintings, which time and again create a uniquely feminine universe in which women dominate, both as subject and in meaning, the scene which he presents. Of course it would be ridiculous to carry this too far. In terms of actual feminism he would never approach his own grandmother whose thinking was in advance of his, a decade before he was born. One could even argue that he got no further than accepting the reverse of the femme fatale view of women, seeing them instead as mother-figures, essentially positive and nourishing, a concept which had spread in the wake of Darwinian evolutionism which seemed to reinforce the role-images of man the hunter and woman the home-maker. Certainly the ‘maternity’ pictures can be slotted into such a category with ease, for while Gaugin’s treatment of the family was cavalier to say the least, his representations of motherhood are tender to the point of sentimentality.

While a reverence for maternity is clearly preferable to the desire to commit vivisection on the female body, or any of the other obscenities available in late nineteenth-century literature, it hardly constitutes a liberated view of women. Yet given his own limitations and the context of his time, Gaugin goes further than that. It has to be significant that in his series for the Universal Exhibition, works which he believed would herald the transition into the new millennium, Gauguin once again created a set of canvases in which male figures are barely discernible. Yet these are not tableaux of women offered like odalisques in a bain turc , but independent beings in a universe which is entirely theirs – light years away from the reality of Gauguin’s life among his male friends with a young vahine somewhere in the background, to cook, clean and come to his bed in exchange for her food and a few gifts.

It is the classic division between the artist and art, the life surpassed in the creation, yet it is all too often the Gauguin, dying of syphilis and tortured with religious and philosophical brooding, who fills the frame for those who study his paintings and his writings –while it it is the average gallery-goer, the ordinary member of the public, standing in enchanted innocence before Two Tahitian Women, who may well have a broader appreciation of Gaugin’s legacy. . . .

Here is a man whose life spanned the latter half of the great century of change, ranging from the antique world of the crumbling Spanish Empire to the thrusting Europe of railways and factories and colonial power. Who had enjoyed the great circus of progress and technology and wealth only to turn away from it in disgust. Gauguin never truly abandoned his origins, never really entered the non-European world which was all around him, never truly lived the myth of his own escape from civilization. Rather, he existed in the fissures that were opening between the certainties of his age. As the nineteenth-century belief in progress, in the scientific and the rational fractured, and people looked to the irrational and the spiritual and thence to nihilism and utter disbelief, Gauguin yet hoped there might be another way, some path we had missed, somewhere back along the road, and that there might still be time to return and find it and thus move forward in an entirely different direction from the commercial squalor and the spiritual emptiness which progress left in its wake. Sixteen years before the First World War would prove him right, Gauguin offered us his vision of the other. Not a paradise –there is too much decay and death in this arcadia, but nor is this the expression of despair that some have chosen to see. ‘Where are we going?’ is the final question, and the answer, albeit tentative, which Gaugin seems of offer, lies in the concept of eternal renewal, of rebirth and continuity and, ultimately, of hope.

Eugene Henri Paul Gauguin was a man both of and beyond his time. He inherited all the confused uncertainties of the nineteenth century, often reveled in them, occasionally surpassed them. Although only fifty-four when he died, Gauguin had known a range of experiences spanning the late eighteenth century world of his great uncle Don Pio Tristan to the birth of the twentieth century, whose cultural ethos his life and work helped shape. He knew this in a vague, uncertain way and in his last letter to Charles Morice, written in April 1903, He attempted to situate himself in time and history, with a statement of faith which can stand as his epitaph:

In art, we have just undergone a very long period of aberration due to physics, mechanical chemistry, and nature study. Artists have lost all their savagery, all their instincts, one might say their imagination, and so they have wandered down every kind of path in order to find productive elements they hadn’t the strength to create; as a result, they act only as undisciplined crowds and feel frightened, lost s it were, when they are alone. That is why solitude is not to be recommended to everyone, for you have to be strong in order to bear it and act alone. Everything I learned from other people merely stood in my way. Thus I can say: no one taught me anything. On the other hand, it is true that I know so little! But I prefer that little, which is of my own creation. And who knows whether that little, when put to use by others, will not become something big?

Paul Gauguin; A Life by David Sweetman; Simon and Schuster, N.Y. 1995

Friday, September 21, 2012

An Illustration of Modernism by Paul Fussell

It was while retreating this night up the silent, snowy slow that I saw a wonderfully absurd, bizarre, and unforgettable sight quite surpassing that in the farmhouse near St. Die. There was some moonlight that night, perhaps one of the reasons our raid failed so conspicuously. Climbing slowly up the hill, draped with a long belt of machine-gun ammunition like a German soldier in a cheap patriotic illustration, I came upon a perfectly preserved dead waxwork German squad.

By this time the whole front was silent. There was no rifle or machine-gun firing, no artillery, no mortars, not even clanking tank treads or truck motors to be heard in the distance. The spectacle that caused my mouth to open in wonder, and almost in admiration, consisted of five German soldiers spread out prone in a semicircular skirmish line. They were still staring forward, alert for signs of the Amis. Behind them, in the center of the semicircle, was an equally rigid German medic with his Red Cross armband who had been crawling forward to do his work. In his left hand, a roll of two-inch bandage, in his right, a pair of surgical scissors. I could infer a plausible narrative.

One of more of the men in the group had been wounded, and as the medic crawled forward to do his duty, his intention was rudely frustrated by an unspeakably loud crack overhead, and instantly the lights went out for all of them. The episode was doubtless a tribute to our proximity artillery fuse, an invaluable invention which arrived on the line that winter, enabling a shell to explode not when it struck something but when it came near to striking something. Here, it must have gone off five or ten yards above its victims. Or perhaps the damage had been done by the kind of artillery stunt called time-on-target – a showy mathematical technique of firing many guns from various places so that regardless of the varying distances from the target, the shells arrive all at the same time. The surprise is devastating, and the destruction immediate and unimaginable. Whichever, the little waxwork squad, its soldiers unbloody and unmarked, had all left life at the same instant.

For a moment I contemplated this weird tableau. It was a sight that somehow brought art and life into strange relation. If an artist had arranged these figures this way, with the compelling narrative element, an audience could hardly refrain from praise. It was so cold the bodies didn’t smell, and they’d not begun visibly to decompose, but their open eyes were clouded, and snow had lodged in their ears and the openings inn their cloths and the slits in their caps. Their flesh was whitish green. Although they were prone, their knees and elbows were bent, as if they were athletes terribly surprised while sprinting. They looked like plaster simulacra excavated from some chill white Herculaneum.

No one but me, apparently, saw the sight in the moonlight. Had I hallucinated the whole thing? Or was it some kind of show put on for my benefit. Was I intended somehow to interpret it as an image of the whole war and its meaning, less a struggle between good and evil than a worldwide disaster implicating everyone alike, scarcely distinguishing its victims in the general shambles and ruin? Whatever it meant, this experience remained with me as a prime illustration of modernism, not that it occurred but that it seemed so normal, and that no one seemed to care. . .

From the mortal-farcical events of the war I was learning about the eternal presence in human affairs of accident and contingency. All planning was not just likely to recoil ironically: it was almost certain to do so. Human beings were clearly not like machines. They were curious congeries of twisted will and error, misapprehension and misrepresentation, and the expected could not be expected of them.

Others in the war were learning this new in-American view of the instability of human hopes and the unpredictability of human actions. In the Normandy invasion, dropping paratroops from the 82nd and the 101st Airborne Divisions at night practically guaranteed a fiasco, to the general astonishment of the planners. A D-Day observer of the surprising sinking of the clever dual-drive tanks off the Normandy beaches, which went down like stones with the helpless, puzzled crews inside, said later that for him this catastrophe “diminished forever the credibility of the concepts of strategic planning and of tactical order; it provided me instead with a sense of chaos, random disaster, and vulnerability.”

A couple of months of war taught us a lot about courage too. We came to understand what more have known than spoken of, that normally each man begins with a certain reservoir, or bank account, of bravery, but that each time it is called upon, some is expanded, never to be regained. After several months it has all been expanded, and it’s time for your breakdown. . .

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Grub Street Snob by Terry Eagleton

. . .In a perceptive chapter on literary form in Cleland’s work, Gladfelder recognises that pornography finds it hard to tell a story. Sex is too repetitive a business for that. The sexual repertoire of human beings is severely constrained by the nature of their bodies. Like debates in parliament, it gives rise to endless variations on the same old positions: biology is at odds with narrativity. Anxious for the reproduction of the species, however, Nature has wisely ordained that its repetitiveness should do little to abate our enthusiasm for it. As with the legendary amnesia of the goldfish, we come to it perpetually fresh.. . .

London Review of Books, 13 September 2012

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Battle of Towton by George Goodwin

Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur is thought to encapsulate the very essence of medieval chivalry. But the story, conceived and written in the 1450s and 1460s is far more complex than that. It is a celebration of the ideal of chivalry, but, with strong asides from the author, it is also a lament to its absence at the time of the writing. Malory had many months to contemplate his task as he spent long periods in prison during those years. His alleged crimes were the complete antithesis of chivalric behavior. Beginning with an eighteen-month spree in the early 1450s. he was accused of: leading twenty-four others in an attempt to ambush and murder the Duke of Buckingham; committing rape and extortion; cattle and deer rusting from Buckingham’s estates and violent robbery against two sets of monks, from the priory at Monks Kirby and from Combe Abbey. He was captured and charged at Nuneaton in a court presided over by the vengeful Duke himself and was sent for trial at Westminster, a trial that never took place.

Instead, for Malory, the rest of the decade consisted of imprisonment, punctuated by periods of freedom, either through being bailed by powerful supporters or through his own daring escapes. He was released early in the 1460s, only to fall foul of a different set of authorities later in the decade and it was in prison again, probably this time in some comfort in the Tower of London, that he finished his masterpiece.

However one looks at it, the case of Sir Thomas Malory is far from the ideal world of the early days of Camelot. If he was guilty, it shows a knight who possessed not a shred of knightly virtue. If he was not –and his modern biographer Christina Hardyment makes a good case for him, though she accepts ‘the deer poaching’ – then this was yet another example of the law being abused and used in the hands of a powerful magnate, with the assistance of a new breed of unscrupulous lawyer. Either way, it showed how distant this age was from the chivalric ideal.

As the actual practice of chivalry began to disappear, its stylized trappings and forms became grander. This process would continue in Tudor England and would be repeated in all the other great kingdoms of Europe. Its outer expressions, in hunting, in jousting, in heraldic badges, in household ceremonies and in the vast conspicuous consumption of everyday living were increasingly just part of social competition and display.

By the time of the battle of Towton, a core element of chivalry – its operation as a code of conduct between knights – was defunct. The increasingly vengeful behavior of both sides in the coming battles is testament to that.. Thus chivalry, in terms of what has been elegantly expressed as the insurance policy of the knightly class on the battlefield, had gone. In the earlier Middle Ages, battles were generally encounters between knights on horseback. By the fourteenth and into the fifteenth, the nature of battles changed: one only had to think of the renown English victories in France – Crecy, Poitiers, and above all Agincourt – to realize that. If you, or your horse, were likely to be felled by a plebian arrow then it made better sense to fight en masse and on foot. The nature of warfare changed. It had become more impersonal and ‘democratic.’

By Towton, there was no longer ‘a code in which the key element was the attempt to limit the brutality of the conflict by treating prisoners, at any rate when they were men of “gentle” birth, in a relatively humane fashion. Defeat and capture no longer mean release on the payment of ransom. By Towton, the ideal was to profit by the death of one’s aristocratic competitor. By then the aristocracy was no longer a collaborative class. The united, unified elite of Henry V, itself a reconsolidation of what Edward III had created, was gone.

During and after the battle of Towton no fewer than forty-two captured Lancastrian knights were summarily executed on Edward’s orders. This, in comparison to previous battles, was a staggering number of lords and knights. But they formed a mere fraction of the overall death toll. Perhaps the appalling weather that continued all day, the treacherous conditions underfoot, the lie of the land, combined with geographical factionalism of the combatants to engender disaster. The forty-five degree turn of the armies, combined with the necessity of the Lancastrian advance, transformed their insuperable battle position on high ground with numerical superiority into a death trap.

At last, in the late afternoon, one of the lines broke. We do not know how and under what circumstances; perhaps a lord was killed, and his men, having lost their paymaster, lost the reason for fighting. Perhaps Norfolk’s outflanking manoeuvre succeeded and allowed the end of the line to be attacked from three sides. In such circumstances, ones and twos making a fateful decision can, in a matter of minutes even seconds, turn dozens, then hundreds, until the coherence of the Lancastrian army began to dissolve. This was the moment when young grooms caring for the horses of the great magnates and their most important men-at-arms held the power of life and earth. Their horses delivered to them from safe positions in the rear, the higher peerage took flight.

The rest of the troops had two main escape routes. If they wereb on the left of the line, they could try to climb back up the slippery slope and make their way on to the northern part of the plateau. But this brought them into open country where the Yorkish calvary, standing by for just an eventuality, could easily cut them down. And their immediate exit route away from the cavalry was to the right, down a vertiginous slop to the sodden ground leading to the icy waters of the overflowing Cock Beck below. The other alternative for the soldiers was to join, in individual panic, their thousands of slipping and sliding brothers-in-arms who were being funneled down from the flat ground of the battlefield, down into the area of Towton Dale, down into what opened out to become a wider open space that would become known as Bloody Meadow and then further down towards Cock Beck and ‘The Bridge of Bodies.”

In later years and quieter times, Edward IV told Philippe de Commynes that : “In all the battles he had won, as soon as he sensed victory, he mounted his horse and shouted to his men that they must spare the common soldiers and kill the lords, of whom few or none escaped.” This statement befitted a man of imperious charm that could turn to sudden violence within the flicker of an eye: a man who, with every justification, felt blessed by providence and whose reality could, to a great extent, be what he wanted it to be. The later part of his statement to Commynes was only partially true. The first part was a blatant lie. It is doubtful that Edward could have reined in his exhausted but vengeful army, even if he had wanted to. He did not. Edward had been in the Yorkish camp at 1st St. Albans, six years before; though too young to fight, he had seen the complete lack of mercy of those who did. The chronicler Edward Hall was in no doubt of Edward’s planned intention, that ‘he made proclamation that no prisoner should be taken, nor one enemy saved. The pursuit was relentless. It did not even stop at Tadcaster but continued into the night and another ten miles to York. Meanwhile the stripping of corpses and the gathering of severed heads on the battlefield itself began. Recent excavations (1996) unearthed mass graves of indicate the wanton and brutal massacres of unarmed men.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Rabbits from the Hat by David Healy

The power that prompting concern in us about some measure of our apparent health can have in the development of new drug markets is demonstrated dramatically in the cholesterol story.

For fifty years it has been known that very high cholesterol levels and especially familial hypercholesterolemia, an uncommon genetic disorder that leads to high cholesterol levels, can be risk factors for heart attacks. These are the people whose cholesterol levels really do count but these could often be picked up without a blood test by the old style clinical glaze alone – in people with this illness there are cholesterol deposits around the eyes.

In the early 1950s, the Framingham study, which followed 5,209 men and women from Framingham, Massachusetts, in an attempt to pinpoint the risk factors for heart attacks and strokes, identified the risks as obesity, a history of heart attacks or other cardiovascular events, smoking, and a sedentary lifestyle. Raised cholesterol was also a risk factor, but of much less importance; moreover, it was only a risk factor when one or more of these serious risks were also present. The most important things, then, for people who have not already had a heart attack, are to reduce weight, get fit, and stop smoking rather than to measure cholesterol levels.

In fact most Western countries saw a 30 percent drop in cardiovascular mortality between 1970, when increased attention to smoking, diet and fitness began, and the 1990s when the statin group of drugs became widely used to lower cholesterol levels. And aside from the selected use of statins after cardiovascular events, raw study data ( as distinguished from ‘study reports’ given out by the pharmaceutical companies) suggest that, if anything, there is an increase risk in mortality in people using statins who are not otherwise at risk of a cardiovascular event.

While, therefore, there are some people, primarily in hospital care, who have already had a heart attack or stroke, who may be helped by cholesterol screening, widespread and indiscriminate cholesterol testing in society in general with consequent treatment with statins that slightly elevated cholesterol readings almost inevitably lead to, may in fact lead to as much harm as good.

While cholesterol-lower statins grew to become a $30 billion a year market in the late 1990as, it was also becoming clear that simply lowering cholesterol did not provide a person much benefit. Indeed, the drugs could be risky in their own right, and cholesterol itself, scientists were finding, was not without benefits. This however did not put a brake on statin sales – the numbers were ‘refined’. Popular articles and medical reports began to distinguish between high and low density cholesterol and their ratio to each other, as well as triglycerides and fatty acids (which are further lipids found in the blood) Where we all might have had and average overall cholesterol level before, it was becoming increasingly unlikely that any of us would be absolutely “normal” on all these measures and could walk out of a doctor’s office without being proffered a drug to match our numbers, even though the attention that cholesterol and other lipids now receive in medical encounters is out of all proportion to their clinical usefulness.

Extrapolation from studies that demonstrated a benefit in men already ill to the rest of us has led to claims that ‘balancing” out lipids will reduce our future risk. This is a completely mythical balancing, rather like remedying a supposed imbalance of neurotransmitters with antidepressants. Several studies have suggested there may be as much if not more benefit to be gained from adopting a Mediterranean diet, which is more likely to increase than reduce cholesterol levels. For women in particular, the data suggests that attempting to reduce cholesterol levels may increase mortality. Alarmingly, women without coronary artery disease now constitute almost a quarter of those taking statins with almost 10 percent of women over the age of seventy being on statins [which may cause muscle pain and weakness!). More generally 40 percent of people taking statins have no history of coronary artery disease.

These developments have been driven by a series of studies designed to map out norms for cholesterol and lipid levels, the achievement of which would supposedly lead to minimal or no risk of cardiovascular events. There is a set of cholesterol levels that is linked to almost no cardiovascular events – levels found in teenagers or people in their twenties. But these levels are linked to no cardiovascular events because cardiovascular events almost never happen at this age. There is thus no particular reason to believe that cholesterol levels at this range protect against strokes. Nevertheless, it is just these values that have been set as the normal range for adults of every age. According to norms like these, 94 percent of New Zealand’s population has elevations of their lipid levels that carry some risk.

It is a clear contradiction to set up as a normative standard a level to which 94 percent of a population are abnormal. These may be optimal cholesterol levels but they are not normal levels. This is akin to what happened with the advent of drugs like Viagra, when impotence was reconfigured as erectile dysfunction. Impotence had been a disorder of men who were completely or close to completely unable to function. But marketers have progressively redefined the target so that now even twenty-year-olds, who from time to time have an erection that falls any way short of full rigidity, are invited to think of themselves as having a condition that could benefit from treatment and are encouraged to see a pill as a way out of anxiety.

In the case of cholesterol, the context in which any discussion of cholesterol levels made sense – where patients had a history of heart attacks in their family, smoked, were obese, and were also hypertensive – was progressively stripped away, so that the clinical gaze now focuses on the numbers themselves and their deviations from the norms, partly because here is an area where a drug can be prescribed and a doctor can document that something has been done.

Just being constantly reminded of our own numbers on a scale of cholesterol norms can seduce. Even someone like me who knows better, who knows that cholesterol levels are for the most part meaningless in terms of overall health, when faced with his own lipid numbers, if these are thought to be even marginally too high, is likely to be unnerved or perhaps challenged. “I know there’s no real need to get this marginally elevated level down, but hey, let’s see what I can do.” Faced with an apparent deviation of our numbers from the norm, some of us can ‘feel’ our arteries clog up on the spot and would find it almost impossible to do nothing.

Just as Sanjeebit Jachuk found his patients began suffering after a diagnosis of hypertension where they had been fine before, so also many readers of this book would likely start start to suffer from effects they imagine excessive cholesterol brings if faced with their lipid levels [ e.g. chest pains, nausea, incidents of short breath, tiredness which simply arise in the normal courses of life]. Once we only visited a doctor when we were suffering and we hoped to leave in a happier frame of mind about relief in the offering, often later grateful for an encouragement that we did not know at the time defied the numbers. Now we are much more likely to start suffering [in terms of anxiety and fear as well] when some nonessential blood test, health program, or ad prompts us to visit a doctor, who is unlikely to counsel us to leave well enough alone.

At the epicenter of this are companies who have cholesterol- lowering drugs to market. This market is worth $35 billion per year, with the best seller, Pfizer’s Lipitor, making over $12 billion worth of sales in 2008. At the heart of the marketing of Lipitor has been a series of ads that have pulled no punches. One shows the soles of the feet of a corpse in the morgue, with a name tag on its left big toe, and a strap line on the side – Which would you rather have, a cholesterol test or a final exam? Another shows an open heart with its traceries of blood levels and a strap line – Lipitor reduces risks of heart attacks by 36 percent. Behind claims like this, there is typically a study in which 3 percent of older men with a history of heart problems and other risk factors have a heart attack on placebo compared to 2% taking Lipitor or whichever drug – this is a 50 percent reduction in what is called relative risk in contrast to absolute risk. But even for consumers alert to this piece of trickery, there is nothing in the ad to let women or men with no history of heart problems know that these figures of risk reduction do not apply to them.

Pressure like this makes the idea of taking something or going on some diet that might lower lipids very seductive. So much so that even though using pills to lower cholesterol appears to increase mortality, the pill becomes a solution to the problem that attention to cholesterol levels has created. This follows the standard recipe for pulling a rabbit out of a hat –first put rabbit in hat. . .

The new focus on blood lipids, blood sugars, bone density, peak flow and the like has transformed encounters between doctors and patients. But the change has not come simply from blood tests and other obvious measurements. It has also come from the use made of scales developed to measure aspects of behavior. These rating scales were needed in trials of antidepressants, tranquilizers, analgesics, hypnotics, drugs for sexual dysfunction, and other drugs used to modify behavior , for the same reasons as cholesterol levels are needed in statin trials and DXA scans in bisphosphonate trials. In lieu of evidence that patients get up from their beds and walk, feel better again, and return to work, these rating scales produce numbers that go in the right direction on treatment and can be held up as evidence that the treatments are working. The rating scale scores thus developed all too often translate into treatment, without further thought. As a result, for example, anti-depressants have moved in less then ten years from rarely being used prenatally to being among the commonest drugs given in pregnancy –despite convincing evidence that they double the rate of birth defects and miscarriages.

David Healy is a professor of Psychiatry at Cardiff University and former Secretary of the British Association for Psychopharmacology

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Biography of the I Ching by Richard J. Smith

The I Ching seems so different from other “classics” that instantly come to mind, whether literary works such as the Odyssey, the Republic, the Divine Comedy, and the Pilgrim’s Progress or sacred scriptures like the Jewish and Christian Bibles, the Qur’an, the Hindu Vedas and the Buddhist sutras. Structurally it lacks any sort of systematic or sustained narrative, and from the standpoint of spirituality, it offers no vision of religious salvation, much less the promise of an afterlife or even the idea of rebirth.

According to Chinese tradition, the Yijing was based on the natural observations of the ancient sages; the cosmic order or Dao that it expressed had no Creator or Supreme Ordainer, much less a host of good and malevolent deities to exert influence in various ways. There is no jealous and angry God in it; no evil presence like Satan; no prophet, sinner, or savior; no story of floods or plagues; no tale of people swallowed up by whales or turned into pillars of salt. The Changes posits neither a purposeful beginning nor an apocalyptic end; and whereas classics such as the Bible and Qur’an insist that humans are answerable not to their own culture but to a being that transcends all culture, the Yijing takes essentially the opposite position. One might add that in the Western tradition, God reveals only what God chooses to reveal, while in traditional China, the “mind of Heaven” was considered ultimately knowable and accessible through the Changes. The “absolute gulf between God and his creatures” in the West had no counterpart in the Chinese tradition.

Yet despite its brevity, cryptic text, paucity of colorful stories, virtual absence of deities, and lack of sustain narrative, the Yijing exerted enormous influence in all realms of Chinese culture for well over two thousand years – an influence comparable to the Bible in Judeo-Christian culture, the Qur’an in Islamic culture, the Vedas in Hindu culture, and the sutras in Buddhist culture. What was so appealing about the document, and why was it so influential?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Journey Into The Cat Jungle by Gay Talese

The year was 1957. It was a bad time for New York’s 400,000 stray cats. They were victims of their own overpopulation and the dearth of garbage cans in the city’s newly constructed apartment buildings; and I was researching my first full-length article for the New York Times Sunday Magazine about the cats’ struggle for survival. Other people were worried about the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn, or the lingering presence of the “Mad Bomber,” or the fact that the Soviets had just launched a dog into space. But I was concentrating on cats, and when my 4,000-word article was published on May 12, 1957 – under the headline “Journey into the Cat Jungle”- I confiscated about thirty copies from the Times’s printing plant and mailed them to my relatives and friends around the nation. It was my first fling with what Andy Warhol would later identify as a fifteen-minute fame buzz, and yet, like the initiation to love in early youth, its sweet memory can be sustained privately forever. That is how I recall the publication of that article about hungry cats by a hungry young writer. . .

When street traffic dwindles and most people are sleeping, some New York neighborhoods begin to crawl with cats. They move quickly through the shadows of buildings; night watchmen, policemen, garbage collectors, and other nocturnal wanderers see them – but never for very long. A majority of them hang around the fish markets, in Greenwich Village, and in the East and West Side neighborhoods where garbage cans abound. No part of the city is without its strays, however, and all-night garage attendants in such busy neighborhoods as Fifty-fourth Street have counted as many as twenty of them around the Ziegfeld Theatre early in the morning. Troops of cats patrol the waterfront piers at night searching for rats. Subway trackwalkers have discovered cats living in the darkness. They seem never to get hit by trains, though some are occasionally liquidated by the third rail. About twenty-five cats live seventy-five feet below the west end of Grand Central Terminal, are fed by the underground workers, and never wander up into the daylight.

The roving, independent, self-laundering cats of the streets live a life strangely different from New York’s kept, apartment-house cats. Most are flea-bitten. Many die of food poisoning, exposure, and malnutrition; their average life span is two years, whereas the stay-at-home cats can live ten to twelve years or more. Each year the ASPCA kills about 100,000 New York street cats for whom no homes can be found.

Social climbing among the stray cats of Gotham is not common. They rarely acquire a better mailing address out of choice. They usually die within blocks of their birth, although one flea-bitten specimen picked up by the ASPCA was adopted by a wealthy woman; it now lives in a luxurious East Side apartment and spends the summer at the lady’s estate on Long Island. The American Feline Society once moved two strays into the headquarters of the United Nations after having heard that some rodents had infested UN filing cabinets. “The cats took care of ‘em,” says Robert Lothar Kendell, society president. “And they seem happy at the UN. One of the cats used to sleep on a Chinese dictionary.”

In every New York neighborhood the strays are dominated by a “boss” – the largest, strongest tomcat. But, except for the boss, there is not much organization in the street cat’s society. Within the society, however, there are three ‘types of cats – wild cats, Bohemian, and part-time grocery store (or restaurant) cats.

The wild cats rely on an occasional loose garbage lid or on rats for food and will have little or nothing to do with people – even those who would feed them. These most unkempt of strays have a recognizable haunted look, a wide-eyed, wild expression, and they are usually found around the waterfront.

The Bohemian, however, is more tractable. It does not run from people. Often, it is fed in the streets daily by sensitive cat lovers (mostly women) who call the strays “little people”, “angels””, or “darlings” and are indignant when the objects of their charity are referred to as “alley cats.” So punctual are most Bohemians at feeding time that one cat lover has advanced the theory that cats can tell time. He cited a gray tabby that appears five days a week, precisely at 5:30 P.M., in an office building at Broadway and Seventeenth Street, where the elevator men feed it. But the cat never shows up on Saturdays or Sundays; it seems to know people don’t work on those days.

The part-time grocery store (or restaurant) cat, often a reformed Bohemian, eats well and keeps rodents away, but usually uses the store as as a hotel and prefers to spend the nights prowling the streets. Despite its liberal working schedule, it still assumes most of the privileges of a related breed – the full-time, or wholly nonstray, grocery store cat – including the right to sleep in the window. A reformed Bohemian at a Bleecker Street delicatessen hides behind the door and chases away all other Bohemians looking for handouts.

The number of full-time cats, incidentally, has diminished greatly since the decline of the small food store and the rise of supermarkets in New York. With better rat-proofing methods, improved packaging of foods, and more sanitary conditions, such chain stores as the A&P rarely keep a cat full-time.

On the waterfront, however, the great need for cats remains unchanged. Once a longshoreman who was allergic to cats poisoned them. Within days rats were all over the place. Every time the men turned around they would find rats on crates. And on Pier 95 the rats began stealing the longshoremen’s lunch and even attacking the men. So the street cats were recruited from nearby neighbors, and now most of the rats are controlled.

“But cats don’t get much sleep around here,” said one of the longshoreman. “They can’t. Rats would overrun them. We’ve had cases here where the rat has torn up the cat. But it doesn’t happen often. Most waterfront cats are mean bastards.”. . .

There were Times editors, to be sure, who did not like what I was writing; they called them “ragpicker” stories and we would have polite but stubborn confrontations. To dissuade me they assigned me to the political beat in Albany to cover the New York State legislature, there to listen to the lies and pointless pronouncements of the politicians and to report this as “news”. I could not do it.

I wanted to avoid writing about political figures, for so much about them is of temporary interest; they are dated people, victims of the recycling process of politics, doomed if they openly say what they truly think. My curiosity lures me towards private figures, unknown individuals to whom I usually represent their first experience in being interviewed. I could write about them today, or tomorrow, or next year, and it will make no difference in the sense of their topicality. These people are dateless. They can live as long as the language used to describe them lives, if the language is blessed with lasting qualities.

There was a rule on the Times in those days that reporters’ bylines usually accompanied articles that were at least eight paragraphs in lengthy. During my time in Albany, I never wrote a political story longer than seven paragraphs. I did not want my byline on an article that was limited to the rulings and railings of the Albany legislators, and as a consequence, the Times editors discharged me and thought they were punishing me by bringing me back to the home office and assigning me to write obituaries. I was never happier. Obituary writing was in the realm of personal history, biography, a summation of an individual’s worth and consequence, and anyone who commanded an obituary in the Times was doubtless an individual of distinction and singular achievement – which was considerably more than I had seen during my brief career as a twenty-five-year-old political correspondent.

It was during my obituary-writing period that I also began to concentrate on writing for the Times Sunday Magazine, for I was in the ‘doghouse’ with the daily edition. After my cat story I did about thirty more Times magaziners in the months that followed. I wrote about silent-screen actresses in an age of sound, about old men who rang bells during boxing matches at Madison Square Garden, about the river captains of the Staten Island ferries, about the window designers of Fifth Avenue boutiques and the sculptures of the plastic but nonetheless alluringly realistic female mannequins. . .

Advice to young writers? The one essential quality is my curiosity, in my opinion, and the energy to get out and learn about the world and about people who lead unique lives, who dwell in obscure places. I’ve subsequently expanded this thinking into writing books about Mafia wives (Honor Thy Father), love advocates (Thy Neighbor’s Wife), immigrant tailors (Unto the Sons), and high-altitude steelworkers (The Bridge).

There are stories everywhere within view, within range; and the other advice I might offer (following my father’s advice to me): "Never write anything for money.” It is perhaps strange advice in this age of bottom-line rationalizing, greed, and gluttony; but it is the advice that has guided me through these forty years since back in 1957 (in the company of cats) I turned twenty-five.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Loons by Edward Howe Forbush

There are five species of Loons (Gaviidae Family) in North America, two being common in New England: the Big or Great Northern Diver and the Pacific Loon which has a black-throat but is distinct from the Black-Throated Loon found off the coasts of Europe.

Loons have stout, strong, straight, narrow, tapering sharp-pointed and sharp-edged bills with which they strike and hold their prey which consists primarily of fish but may also include frogs, crayfish, crabs, mollusks, leeches and aquatic insects. They can also subsist on aquatic vegetation; both Audubon and Dr. B.H. Warren noted that they found such food in Loon’s stomachs.

Loons are especially noted for their diving powers, the long distances they travel underwater and their great speed beneath the water where they use both their feet and wings for propulsion. They can alter their specific gravity quickly and swim with the body wholly or partly under the water, with only the head and neck exposed.

Loons are only summer residents of the inland lakes of Northern New England. They spent the winter along the New England Coasts, primarily off-shore. The Loon is a wonderful, powerful living mechanism fashioned for riding the stormy seas. See him as he mounts high above the waves, neck and legs fully extended “fore and aft”, and a bill trifle raised which gives to his whole form a slight upwards bend, his wings beating powerfully and moving as steadily as the walking-beam of a side-wheel steamship. He is driving straight ahead into the teeth of the gale and making greater headway than the laboring steamer that steers a parallel course. Now he slants downward, and striking just beyond the top of a towering wave shoots down its inclined surface and rises again on the coming crest. Here, midway of the wide bay where the seas are running high and wildly tossing their white tops, with a wintry gale whipping the spray from them in smoky gusts, the Loon rests at ease, head to the wind and sea like a ship at anchor. The tossing and the tumult disturb him not, as he rides, light as a birch canoe, turning up his white breast now and then on one side as he reaches unconcernedly backwards to preen his feathers. His neck narrows at the water-line into a beautifully modeled cutwater. His broad paddles push his breast to the tops of the great waves, where it parts the foam as he surmounts the crests and glides easily down the gulfs beyond. The freezing spray that loads the fishing fleet with tons of ice seems never to cling to his tough, glossy plumage; or if it does, he washes it off among the fleeing fishes away down in the warmer currents near the bottom of the bay, as deep as 90 feet.

Often Loons swallow little fish under water but they will bring larger and stronger fish to the surface and mauls them there. If such a fish escapes, the bird dives in pursuit and soon overtakes its prey. It is difficult to see how a Loon manages to swallow a flounder ‘as wide as a man’s hand’, but they do catch and eat such fish. On March 11, 1922, in Nantucket Harbor, I saw a Loon swallow two within half an hour. Both fish seemed dead when brought to the surface as they did not struggle. It would be interesting to know how the bird killed them underwater. The loon worked a long time with the flounder in its bill, apparently crushing it, and finally swallowed it with apparent ease. Crabs are bitten and broken in preparation for eating and their legs are often discarded. There is no very convincing argument that Loons kill and eat other birds though one writer has observed that Loons seem to be very hostile to ducks.

When the ice begins to break up in April and May the migration of Loons from the coasts begins. In breeding season Loons love the solitude of northern lakes where shores are shaded by fir and spruce and pure water seldom mirrors a human face. Islands in quiet lakes are their favorite nesting sites and there in June or July the young are hatched.

Nevertheless, Dr. Coues had an excellent opportunity to watch some Pacific Loons at the Bay of San Pedro on the coast of southern California in 1865 where, as they had been little hunted, he had no difficulty in securing all the specimens that he desired. He says they were tamer than any other waterfowl he had ever seen. They came up to the wharves and played about as unconcernedly as domestic ducks. They swam constantly all about the vessels in the harbor and were evidently not frightened or hurried in the least by any human agency. In New England, however, they were “shot out” at great expenditure of powder and lead and other forms of persecution. They almost died out but there numbers and amiability to human presence have increased in recent years due to protective measures.

{Loon populations are affected by air and water pollution, and face many threats related to the impacts of human activities, including recreational use of their aquatic habitat, fishing with toxic lead sinkers, and shoreline development.

Mercury, a byproduct of coal-burning power plants and trash incineration, is one of the airborne pollutants threatening loons. It is transported to the Adirondacks and other loon habitats through prevailing winds, and falls to the ground in the form of rain or snow. Along with acid rain, the mercury can then enter lakes, where it is converted into a more toxic form called methylmercury, which accumulates in the aquatic food chain. People, loons, and other top predators are most impacted by this concentration of toxins in the food supply. The neurotoxins concentrated in loon prey can affect the birds’ behavior, reproduction, and eventually, their population numbers.

Invasive plants such as Eurasian watermilfoil and curly-leaf pondweed can negatively impact the fish population, lake ecology, recreational use, and ultimately the loon use on a lake.

Removal of woody debris from the water has been documented to cause population crashes in perch populations on a lake. Perch are the primary food for loons so a crash in the perch population may result in less food for chicks and loons abandoning their use of a lake. Fish populations rely on good aquatic plant and woody debris structure for protection and nursery areas. Leaving a buffer zone of native plants along the lakeshore will provide nesting cover for loons and other birds.

Four-stroke motors contribute less pollution to the water and air. They are more efficient and use less oil-based products compared to older two-stroke motors. Hundreds of loons (for some states this is equal to their entire population) can die in one oil spill. Oceanic oil spills can have major ecological impacts as well as catastrophic effects on wintering loons.} *

Although the Loon is graceful and swift on or in the water, it is at a disadvantage on land. For one, it can hardly rise into the air from land nor from the water unless aided by a head wind, and it must have more room than can be furnished by a small pool, and even then it is obliged to flutter and run spatteringly along the surface for some distance to get impetus enough to rise in the air. When the young are well grown, the family, often joined by neighboring adults, frolic for a brief time on the water and then fall into line side by side, and, lifting their wings simultaneously, run an apparent foot race over the surface with ‘incredible speed’ for a quarter of a mile, and turning race back to the starting point. Thy repeat this over and over again. During these races the wings are held out and about half opened. At the end of the performance the male, female and neighbors leave for other fishing grounds and the young scatter to find food. This pay evidently tends to train the muscles of the young birds and to fit them for flight.

Once airborne the ordinary, steady, level flight is familiar to all who know the bird but under favorable conditions it can also soar or circle with set wings.

On our coasts Loons are rarely seen on land unless wounded, but Audubon satisfied himself that on their breeding grounds they spend the night on shore. I once saw at nightfall a pair resting on the beach of an isolated island in British Columbia. Mr. Bent says that “when it is safe to do so they often come ashore to sleep” and that he has several times surprised a single bird well up on a beach. The attempts of such a bird to regain the water were more rapid than graceful, as it often fell on its breast as it scrambled down the beach, humping its back, darting its head and neck about and straining every muscle to make speed, with rather surprising success.

It is quite generally asserted that Loons cannot walk well on land. In fact the name Loon is understood to be derived from the old English word “lumme”, a lummox, an awkward person. Though ungraceful on land by reason of its hidebound legs and the peculiar position of its feet, the Loon can make remarkable speed for short distances when racing towards the water. It uses its wings in place of forelegs, like a pair of crutches, Sometimes the bill is also used ‘like a pick’ to keep the balance. and so flaps and scrambles along.

Loons have amazing voices; very loud and resonant calls. At nightfall or before a storm a A-ooo’-oo or as often written O’-O- ooh; a laughing call hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo, hoo uttered in a peculiar vibrating tremolo or something like o-ha-ha-ha-ho!. W.L. Underwood identifies four calls 1) a short cooing note, 2) a long drawn-out known to guides as the night call, 3) the laughing call, 4) the storm call, a peculiar and weird performance. Robert J. Sim described what he called ‘the silly song’, Oh-a-le cleo-pee-a, cleo- per-wer-wer!, a soft mellow pleasing O lair in a rather disconsolate tone.


Often along the coast towards nightfall I have heard the wild storm-call of the Loon far out to windward against the black pall of an approaching tempest like the howl of a lone wolf coming down the wind; and I have seen his white breast rise on a wave against a black sky to vanish again like the arm of a swimmer lost in the stormy sea. Sailors, hearing the call, say that the Loons are trying to blow up an “easterly.” At times his cries seem wailing and sad as if he were bemoaning his exile from his forest lake. Such is the Loon in his winter home off our coast; for there he lives and braves the inclemency of the season. Of all the wild creatures that persist in New England, the Loon seems best to typify the stark wildness of primeval nature.

Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States by Edward Howe Forbush; The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Norwood Press, 1925