October 18, 2008

1. Reagan

In the last issue, I discussed an alternative-medicine writer, Gabor Maté, who traced Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s to his childhood stresses (alcoholic father, etc.). I recently saw a documentary on Reagan, part of the AmericanExperience series. It mentioned the same traits that Gabor Maté mentioned: a certain aloofness despite a warm-and-fuzzy exterior, a certain distance from other people, an emotional reticence, a weak inter-personal memory. (One of the best-known examples of Reagan’s weak inter-personal memory is when he forgot the name of his Housing Secretary, and called him “Mr. Mayor.”)

But the documentary didn’t link Reagan’s traits to his childhood stresses, as Maté did. It did, however, discuss his family’s problems, and it pointed out that he was somewhat aloof even as a boy — a loner, a dreamer, often at the edge in group photos. He had one sibling — an older brother, Neil. Whatever reserves of love and attention his parents possessed may have been largely spent on Neil, leaving Ronald to his own devices.

The most interesting anecdote that I’ve picked up from the documentary so far (I’ve only watched part of it) is that Reagan was inspired by a novel he read as a boy, a novel about a boy with an alcoholic father who becomes a leader through his eloquence and good looks. The novel was called That Printer of Udell’s: A Story of the Middle West. Did this novel inspire Reagan’s political career? Or did it give him a glimpse of his destiny — a destiny that wasn’t actually changed by the book?

When it came to remembering books, facts, etc., Reagan had a retentive memory. As one of his aides said, Reagan had “pretty much” a photographic memory “for things he read, but not faces.”1

The standard conservative view of Reagan is that he won the Cold War by out-spending the Soviets. I never saw the logic of this view. Didn’t the Soviets pose a grave threat with the weapons they already possessed, even if they didn’t build any new ones? How could Reagan’s defense buildup dislodge the Soviets from Eastern Europe? Being a conservative myself, I had a positive view of Reagan, but I wasn’t convinced that he “won the Cold War.” The documentary, however, changed my view. It persuaded me that Reagan did indeed take a different approach with the Soviets, a harder line; he proved a tough adversary for them, he rattled them. While earlier Presidents had tried not to lose the Cold War, Reagan tried to win it. And if you’re familiar with PBS, you know that they don’t have a conservative bias, a pro-Reagan bias.

Reagan’s second wife, Nancy, had a troubled childhood — like Reagan himself. Her father abandoned the family, her mother left to pursue an acting career, and Nancy lived with an aunt.

Patti, the Reagans’ daughter, said that her parents completed each other, like two halves of a circle. Did their childhood stresses prevent them from being independently whole? At any rate, Patti’s comment fits the Jungian theory that marriage aims at wholeness, at completing each other, at filling each others’ gaps. Since the Jungians say that the circle symbolizes wholeness, Patti’s comment is very Jungian.

One of the experts interviewed on the documentary is Edmund Morris, who spent 14 years working on an authorized biography of Reagan (Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan). Morris was born in Kenya, speaks with a British accent, and made his name with a book about the young Teddy Roosevelt. Though his view of Reagan seems to be generally positive, Morris is well aware of Reagan’s psychological quirks — indeed, one might say he’s the ultimate expert on those quirks. Gabor Maté refers to Morris frequently in his chapter on Reagan, a chapter that ends thus:

Morris once asked the president what he had most longed for as a young man. “There was a long silence as he tried to escape the question,” the author writes. Reagan finally replied that what he most regretted was not the lack of someone to love him. Rather, he said, “I missed not having someone to love.” Morris notes, “I wrote the words down and followed them with a spiral curlicue useful to biographers, meaning, He feels the opposite of what he says [italics his].”

Dutch isn’t a standard biography, it has a fictional narrator. Morris says he used this device because he could never fully understand Reagan, whom he called “one of the strangest men who’s ever lived. Nobody around him understood him. I, every person I interviewed, almost without exception, eventually would say, ‘You know, I could never really figure him out.’”2

2. Trails and Travels:
Boston, The Newburys, and The Cumberland Gap

There’s a new hiking trail on the border of Virginia and Kentucky; it’s called the Pine Mountain Trail. When it’s complete, it will be 110 miles long; it’s now 48 miles long. It ends at the Cumberland Gap, through which Daniel Boone travelled to reach Kentucky.

I recently visited The Newburys — Newburyport, West Newbury, and Newbury. Located in northeastern Massachusetts, not far from New Hampshire, this is one of the most charming areas that I’ve seen in New England, a blend of history and nature. Click here for guided tours, self-guided tours, bus tours, eco tours, cemetery tours, river tours, and harbor tours. Newbury’s Old Town Hill (map here), has trails and good views. More trails can be found on the website of the Coastal Trails Coalition.

The Mill Pond trail in West Newbury

The Merrimack River flows through The Newburys to the Atlantic. Around 1840, Thoreau and his brother paddled their canoe north from Concord along the Concord River (with the current), met the Merrimack at Lowell, then paddled north on the Merrimack (against the current) into New Hampshire. This trip was the basis for Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

Near The Newburys is Plum Island, a favorite with bird-watchers and beach-goers. From the viewing towers on Plum Island, you may be able to glimpse the dome-shaped Isle of Shoals, about 30 miles to the north. At the southern tip of Plum Island is a beach with a good view of Ipswich, Cape Ann, etc. Fans of aviation will enjoy the grass airport near Plum Island, with its small planes and gliders.

A Plum Island dune

A good time to visit The Newburys is September, when Essex County has its Trails & Sails events.

Here’s a 2-mile walk through downtown Ipswich. If you like old houses, Ipswich is the place to go. This walk begins at a mural depicting the history of Ipswich, then crosses the Ipswich River and goes to the Whipple House, which is open for tours; from the Whipple House, you can see South Green. Then the walk crosses the river again, giving you another view of the stone-arch bridges for which Ipswich is known. Then it follows the RiverWalk and High Street before ending at the North Green (Meetinghouse Green). You can lengthen the walk by circling the South Green, or shorten it by skipping High Street.

Ipswich is the home of the Crane Estate (Castle Hill); you can tour the mansion, or walk the grounds, or visit adjacent Crane Beach. Here’s a view of the mansion from the “Grande Allée”:

South of Ipswich is the town of Hamilton, which has a neighborhood called Asbury Grove, where Methodist camp meetings were held. Asbury Grove, like Asbury Park in New Jersey, is named after Methodist minister Francis Asbury, who traveled around the U.S. preaching the gospel. Camp meetings usually began with large communal tents, then developed smaller tents for individual families, then small houses. The houses were usually brightly-colored, and built in the Carpenter Gothic style; they were sometimes called gingerbread houses.

Asbury Grove, Hamilton, Massachusetts

Another location of Methodist revivals was Oak Bluffs, on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. The Oak Bluffs campground is called Wesleyan Grove, after the Wesley family, founders of Methodism. Wesleyan Grove has a Cottage Museum.

Wesleyan Grove, Oak Bluffs

Many people from the Boston area like to drive to the White Mountains to hike. The White Mountains have lots of peaks — “52 With A View.”

I recently took a day trip to Boston, and walked The Freedom Trail from Chinatown (where we parked) to The Paul Revere House, in the North End. It’s a nice walk (not too long), but I don’t recommend the House: it’s not a guided tour, it was crowded, and you were jostled as you tried to read the snippets of information that were posted around. You might find it more rewarding to visit the nearby Pierce-Hichborn House, which has guided tours.

As we walked The Freedom Trail, I wasn’t sure we’d make it to the Revere House because we lingered at Faneuil Hall, enjoying the street performers. First we saw Peruvian musicians, then a juggler/comedian, then drummers who played on pots, pans, etc., and finally urban dancers from New York. I’ve always been fond of street performers; when I went to a Broadway show, for example, I enjoyed the urban dancers in the parking garage more than the show itself.

There were Falun Gong protesters in Boston Common; they’ve become a common sight in American cities.

For more bucolic trails in the Boston environs, visit the websites of the Bay Circuit Trail and the Warner Trail.

3. Panofsky on Durer

I finally finished Panofsky’s Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, which I began almost three years ago. The last chapter reminded me how difficult this book is, but also how impressive it is. Here’s an example of how difficult it is:

[Panofsky is discussing the development of perspective in the 1400s.] In the ’fifties it was discovered that all orthogonals, and not only those located in one plane, had to converge in one “vanishing point” which thus established the “general horizon” of the picture; and the problem of determining the gradual diminution of equidistant transversals was solved by the simple device of running an oblique line across the converging orthogonals.

One might say, “Of course it’s difficult, you’re quoting a sentence out of context.” I can assure you, however, that even in context, sentences like these are far from easy, especially for someone who isn’t an expert in advanced geometry. Sentences like these make it clear that Panofsky isn’t writing for the general reader, he’s writing for the specialist.

In the midst of these difficulties, Panofsky gives us gems that reward our labor — bright rays of enlightenment. In the last paragraph of the book, Panofsky tells us a charming anecdote, corrects a scholarly error, and offers a profound insight. In short, the last paragraph is vintage Panofsky. Panofsky tells us that Raphael once sent a drawing to Durer. When Raphael died, Durer apparently went back to this drawing, and wrote, “Raphael of Urbino, who was so highly esteemed by the Pope, has made these nudes and has sent them to Nuremberg, to Albrecht Durer, in order to show him his hand.”

Modern scholars have decided that the drawing wasn’t actually made by Raphael, it was made by a member of his workshop. This has led some scholars to argue that Durer’s inscription isn’t really Durer’s, it’s a forgery. Panofsky, however, says “The inscription is unquestionably written by Durer.” Panofsky says that Raphael, like Italian artists in general, was interested in a style, and sent Durer a sample of a style that he felt was his. Durer, however, had a typically German respect for “the fact that the hand of an individual person has rested on this very piece of paper, imparting to it a sentimental value not unlike that of a personal souvenir or even a relic.” In short, Durer assumed that Raphael was sending him a drawing “to show him his hand.”

Panofsky speaks of “the specifically Germanic preference for the particular as against the universal, for the curious as against the exemplary, and for the personal as against the objective; and this explains the fact that the signing and dating of drawings did not become the fashion in Italy even after hero-worship had been extended to artists.”3

Earlier in the chapter, Panofsky says that Renaissance artists tried to depict things as they are. This was a change from the medieval custom of depicting things ‘from the image in your soul,’ or from the works of earlier artists. Renaissance artists faced reality directly, and became “the first natural scientists.” Of course, I was aware of Leonardo’s scientific bent, but I didn’t realize that Pollaiuolo and others also had scientific interests. As for Leonardo himself, Panofsky says that he insisted painting was a science, that he “laid the foundations of modern anatomy, mechanics, geology and meteorology,” and that Galileo was indebted to him.

After doing their scientific research, Renaissance artists next attempted to transfer their knowledge to the canvas, and here they called upon their knowledge of perspective. Panofsky says that, during the Renaissance, perspective aroused “universal enthusiasm,” partly because it agreed with the Renaissance mind-set “which had inserted an historical distance — quite comparable to the perspective one — between itself and the classical past.” Bold idea! Possibly false, impossible to prove, but bold, impressive, interesting. If it’s an original idea, I applaud Panofsky for it. If it’s not original, I still applaud him — for his erudition in finding it, and for his taste in mentioning it.

4. The Wisdom of the Body

In the last issue, I mentioned that I was planning to start Lytton Strachey’s Landmarks in French Literature, but I decided not to. Instead, I started Sherwin Nuland’s Wisdom of the Body, which I’m enjoying a lot. It’s readable, and teaches me much about the human body and medical science. It does, however, have one flaw, perhaps the most common flaw of modern books: it isn’t concise. Nuland doesn’t understand what Strachey understood so well — that brevity is the soul of wit, that a writer must select details carefully, and only include details that are valuable. Nuland tells us too much; for example, he tells us that the wall of the operating room was blue-green, which doesn’t enlighten us in any way. Nuland’s explanations of how the body works are excellent, it’s the case histories that are overly detailed.

Nuland was probably influenced by his agent and his editor, who probably told him, “Tell us everything, give us lots of details, you can’t have too many details.” The underlying assumption seems to be, “Words are cheap.” This maxim is the ruin of literature. You can’t have good literature unless you respect words, unless you want every word to matter. As Nietzsche put it, we should write as if the reader were going to memorize our words.

Nuland has a broad education, and literary aspirations; he frequently quotes Montaigne, etc. Perhaps the older generation of scientists (of which Nuland is one) has a broader education than the younger generation, which is more specialized. Sometimes one wishes that Nuland stuck to science, because his literary allusions seem forced. I’m reminded of the biologist Edward O. Wilson, whose book On Human Nature is (as I wrote in an earlier issue) “stuffed with hastily-assembled quotations, that feel like they were gathered by graduate students who were being paid $12.25/hour.”

Like other establishment intellectuals, Nuland refuses to have any truck with the occult. But his alert mind notices many phenomena that I would call occult, and he refuses to reduce the body to just chemistry. He insists that the human spirit plays an important role — the spirit of the doctor, struggling to save the patient, as well as the spirit of the patient, struggling to save himself. But Nuland shrinks from the thought of life after death, and says that the spirit dies when we die.4 He also shrinks from the thought that the spirit can project itself outside the body, and influence external things; he insists that the spirit is inseparable from the body.5

In the first chapter, Nuland describes an exciting operation in which he saves a young woman’s life. He was evidently excited, inspired, as he was operating. When he came home that night, his wife woke up. She later wrote, “When you’re charged up about something, you’ve always sent off some kind of almost electrical impulse — and you were elated that night.... Something transmitted the charge to me, and that must have been what awakened me.” I would call this an occult phenomenon. Occult phenomena often occur when people are excited, inspired, “charged up,” and occult phenomena often remind people of electrical phenomena.

Nuland says that the young woman had the very ailment that he had spent years studying, and he says it was “an extraordinary coincidence” that he was walking into the hospital at the very moment when she was in mortal danger. Such a coincidence might be described as occult, synchronistic. Where rational thinkers see chance or coincidence, occult thinkers see synchronicity or fate.

A few years ago, I stayed clear of science as a matter of principle. A few months ago, I was completely ignorant of the human body, though I happen to have a body of my own. Why is it that every American middle-school student can tell you who George Washington was, but most college graduates don’t know that the aorta is the main channel carrying blood from your heart to the rest of your body? Why does American education teach the basics of American history, but not the basics of the human body?

I recently learned that the aorta is like the trunk of a tree, supplying branches with blood, and those branches carry blood throughout the body. Rising upwards from the heart, the aorta makes a U-turn, and heads downward toward the pelvis, eventually splitting (like an inverted Y) to supply the legs with blood.6 Though the trunk of a tree often extends a long way from the ground before sending out its first branch, the aorta immediately sends out branches to the head, then goes down along the spine. One might compare the aorta to a major highway — a highway that immediately sends out subsidiary roads, and continues to do so throughout its length.

The aorta is the main artery, the leading figure in the artery network. The word “artery” comes from the word “air” because the ancients thought that arteries carried air, while veins carried blood. Actually, this error contains a grain of truth: arteries carry oxygenated blood from the heart, while veins carry de-oxygenated blood back to the heart. So there are two networks of blood vessels, the artery network and the vein network (or one might say, two highway networks for transporting blood, two trees with trunk and branches).

There’s also a third network, the lymph network. The word “lymph” is related to the word “limpid” meaning clear, because the lymph fluid is clear. If, however, the lymph fluid originates in the abdominal area, it’s milky white. Although the ancients noticed this milky fluid, it wasn’t until the 1600s that people realized the lymph network collected fluids throughout the body, and dumped them into a vein near the shoulder, where they became part of the blood supply.7

Cancer cells often enter the lymph system, and collect in “lymph nodes” — little peanuts that try to filter and cleanse the lymph fluid, before sending it along on its journey to the blood supply (its journey to the left subclavian vein). For the cancer patient, the lymph system has Good News and Bad News. The Good News is that it can filter, trap, and kill harmful cells, including cancer cells (the lymph system is part of the immune system, the defensive system). The Bad News is that, if the lymph system fails to kill the cancer cells, it can carry them far and wide — into the blood stream, and throughout the body — and thus it can promote cancer spread (“metastasis”).

Chemotherapy is like reinforcements sent to aid the immune system, and help it to kill cancer cells in the lymph system, in the bloodstream, and in any organs where they may have settled. Chemo often takes aim at rapidly-dividing, rapidly-reproducing cells, since cancer cells are of this type. Unfortunately, some non-cancer cells (such as those in the roots of hair, and in the marrow of bones) are also of this type, and are sometimes killed by chemo, leading to side effects such as hair loss and marrow loss. (If chemo can be compared to reinforcements, its side effects can be compared to “friendly fire” — killing your own soldiers instead of enemy soldiers.)

Bone marrow is particularly important because of its role in producing new blood cells — both red and white blood cells. Damage to bone marrow results in lowered blood counts (white and red counts), hence chemo treatment is accompanied by frequent blood checks, and suspended if blood counts are dangerously low.

The circulatory system (the blood network) is like a two-way street, with oxygenated blood flowing from the heart (through the arteries), and de-oxygenated blood flowing to the heart (through the veins). The lymph system, on the other hand, is like a one-way street; the lymph fluid flows to the shoulder and into the bloodstream, like a river that gathers water from a wide area, and carries it to a single point.

5. Not 51

In the last issue, I mentioned a new cancer treatment, Hot Chemo. We asked Dana Farber what they thought about Hot Chemo, and they turned thumbs down — they think it’s untested, unproven. In short, they view Hot Chemo much as they view ChemoTesting. Their maxim is Do No Harm (an ancient medical maxim). But isn’t this like a businessman saying Take No Risk? And isn’t risk part of business, part of medicine, part of life? Dana Farber is cautious, risk-averse, wary of new approaches. But if the standard approach doesn’t give you good odds, aren’t you going to look at new approaches, even if they entail risk?

A German scientist, zur Hausen, recently received the Nobel Prize for medicine. He discovered that cervical cancer was caused by a virus called papilloma, and can be prevented with an anti-papilloma vaccine. The Nobel committee said that zur Hausen “went against current dogma” to make his discovery — in other words, he took a new approach.

© L. James Hammond 2008
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1. This quote is from an online essay/lecture. back
2. From Wikipedia’s Morris article. back
3. Some of these quotes aren’t from the last paragraph of the book, but rather the next-to-last paragraph. back
4. Introduction, p. xxii back
5. Introduction, p. xxiii back
6. The Greeks were familiar with the aorta, and the word “aorta” is of Greek origin. Around 1750, Samuel Johnson defined “aorta” as “The great artery which rises immediately out of the left ventricle of the heart.” back
7. Johnson was familiar with the lymph system, but seems to have had an inaccurate conception of it. He defines Lympheduct as “A vessel which conveys the lymph.” As for Lymphaticks, he says they’re “slender pellucid tubes whose cavities are contracted at small and unequal distances: they are carried into the glands of the mesentery.” back