January 15, 2009

1. Slumdog Millionaire

I went to the movie Slumdog Millionaire with high hopes, having heard many good things about it. I was very disappointed. I don’t recommend it. The opening scene depicts torture, and from then on, your senses are assaulted by grisly violence, abrupt changes of scene, deafening noise, etc. Slumdog not only depicts torture, it tortures the viewer. And this is what passes for art today! What a commentary on our civilization!

A great novelist, like D. H. Lawrence, depicts the inner life, but in Slumdog, everything comes from outside, everything is a matter of circumstances, there’s no inner life.

The only virtue of Slumdog is that it depicts man’s inhumanity to man, it shows how hard life is for the underclass in Third World countries, how fortunate we are to live in a country where law prevails, instead of brute force. But the same point could be made without assaulting our senses. Didn’t Dickens make this point, didn’t he depict brutality without brutalizing the reader?

A New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, has written about some of the same subjects that Slumdog deals with — violence against children in developing nations, etc. These are grim but important subjects, and Kristof’s columns serve a useful purpose; Kristof publicizes violence in order to ameliorate it. But Slumdog doesn’t ameliorate violence, it commits violence against the viewer, it adds to the sum total of violence in the world.

2. Chimney Sweeps

I was reminded of Dickens when I read part of Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter. Nuland describes how chimney sweeps in 18th-century England contracted cancer.1 [Warning: skip this section if you aren’t in the mood for a grim tale.] Boys just five or ten years old climbed up chimneys, with no clothes on, in order to sweep out tar and dirt. (The chimneys couldn’t be cleaned with a brush because they turned and twisted.) The tar became embedded in their skin, especially around their genitals, and since they didn’t bathe regularly, it stayed there for weeks. Tar causes cancer, as proven by smoking.

Nuland is a student of medical history, and he quotes an 18th-century English doctor, who realized that the young chimney sweeps would die if their cancer spread into their abdomen. Their only hope was to surgically remove the cancer, (which the sweeps called “soot wart”) before it spread. Since anesthesia wasn’t invented yet, surgery was a brutal process, albeit well-intentioned. Furthermore, surgery usually didn’t succeed; the cancer spread, and the sweeps suffered an early and agonizing death.

So the sweeps suffered three times: from the work itself, from the cancer, and from the surgery. Should we blame their parents for pushing them into that trade, or the contractors who hired them, or both?2 Dickens depicted this kind of cruelty: the cruelty that accompanied urban, industrial society. And Dickens showed how cruelty was cloaked in hypocrisy — perpetrated by people who read the Bible to their children, and quoted, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Man’s inhumanity to man is a theme that never grows old, that never ceases to astonish. Some people think the cruelty in Slumdog is exaggerated, but when we read Kristof’s columns, and Nuland’s book, we realize that it isn’t.

3. Not 51

Nuland is interested in etymology, and he tells us that “cancer” is Latin for “crab” (one thinks of the zodiac symbol). Perhaps Roman doctors spoke of “cancer” because the Greeks had called cancer “karkinos,” which is Greek for “crab.” The Greek “karkinos” gives us words like carcinogen, carcinoma, etc. Perhaps cancers reminded the ancients of crabs because, when they appear on the skin, cancers have a kind of hard shell.

Nuland says that cancer cells are immature cells that haven’t become specialized cells; their development, their maturation, has been arrested at an early stage. Stem cells produce lots of these immature, unspecialized cells. Most of them grow up to be specialized adults — nerve cells, for example, or muscle cells, or red blood cells. But some fail to mature — remain immature and unspecialized. These immature cells reproduce rapidly — more rapidly than mature, specialized cells. They multiply and become a tumor, a growth, a “neoplasm.”

A benign tumor is made up of cells that are partly mature, and don’t reproduce very rapidly. A malignant tumor, on the other hand, is made up of cells whose development was arrested at an early stage, so they’re completely immature, and reproduce very rapidly. Nuland portrays cancer cells as teenagers run amok, incapable of playing a role in society, but eager to reproduce; teenagers who never grow up, “reproductive but not productive.”3

Another characteristic of cancer cells is longevity; they don’t run their course and then die, like other cells. They tend to live, and live, and live. “Dr. Leonard Hayflick showed that human cells cultured in the laboratory begin to slowly stop dividing after a while. In time, they quit altogether, and die.... The seemingly endless capacity of the cancer cell to reproduce... escapes the orderly finiteness of normal existence.”4

Most cancers originate in a specific region or organ — the lung, for example, or the brain. Some, however, are more generalized, such as leukemia, which affects white blood cells, and lymphoma, which affects the lymph system. Nuland says that much progress has been made in treating leukemia and lymphoma. And indeed, progress has been made in treating cancer in general; Nuland says that, since the 1930s, progress has been steady, and further progress seems likely.

If you want to learn more about cancer, consider a book called The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, an Indian-American oncologist. It won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

4. Miscellanies

A. St. Paul began his career as a persecutor of Christians, then became a Christian himself. I began as a champion of the Western classics, and a critic of Eastern philosophy, and then became a proponent of Eastern philosophy myself. Perhaps the best way to understand an opposing position is subscribing to it yourself at one time.

B. Successful people complain that unsuccessful people are envious. Can they be sure, however, that they themselves wouldn’t be envious, if they were unsuccessful?

C. I recently met a roofer who knelt as he worked, and eventually injured his knees. I met a chain-saw operator who was missing several fingers. I met a plasterer who injured his shoulder lifting sheets of dry-wall over his head. A high percentage of working-people have work-related injuries, perhaps because they do the same job, and stress the same part of their body, day after day.

D. One of the most bitter and dramatic political fights of my time was the 1991 fight over Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Thomas was accused of sexual harassment by a former colleague, Anita Hill. I felt that the testimony of John Doggett was significant. Doggett had known Hill earlier, and Hill had accused Doggett of “leading him on,” an accusation that astonished Doggett. If Doggett’s testimony was true (as I believe it is), then Hill was probably imagining things, and Thomas is the victim of a smear. If Thomas was falsely accused, the Thomas-Hill affair might be compared to Melville’s Billy Budd.

E. Since I turned 40, I’ve noticed that my memory has slipped; I have trouble recalling words on the spur-of-the-moment, and often fail to come up with the mot juste. This only affects me in everyday speaking, not in writing. New research indicates that elevated blood sugar affects blood flow to the brain, and causes memory decline.5 The body’s ability to regulate blood sugar begins to decline around age 40. To prevent this decline, experts recommend exercise.

Update: a 2010 article in the New York Times paints a rosier picture: “The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can.”

F. A recent article in the New York Times discusses “passive houses” — that is, houses that are airtight, and don’t use a furnace, even in cold weather. Germany is a leader in this technology. “Using ultra-thick insulation and complex doors and windows, the architect engineers a home encased in an airtight shell, so that barely any heat escapes and barely any cold seeps in. That means a passive house can be warmed not only by the sun, but also by the heat from appliances and even from occupants’ bodies. And in Germany, passive houses cost only about 5 to 7 percent more to build than conventional houses.”6 Is this a wave of the future?

G. Another article discussed the rise of moderate, non-violent preachers on Arab TV, “a new generation of ‘satellite sheiks’ whose religion-themed television shows have helped fuel a religious revival across the Arab world.... appealing to a young audience that is hungry for religious identity but deeply alienated from both politics and the traditional religious establishment, especially in the fundamentalist forms now common in Saudi Arabia and Egypt.... a way to reconcile a world painfully divided between East and West, pleasure and duty, the rigor of the mosque and the baffling freedoms of the Internet.”7

H. Is Obama a product of Chicago? Or of the Ivy League? Perhaps he’s a product of Hawaii — the laid-back, multi-racial, post-racial society of Hawaii — where he lived during his middle-school and high-school years. Obama himself said, “The opportunity that Hawaii offered — to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect — became an integral part of my world view, and a basis for the values that I hold most dear.”8

I. George Dillon, of the Vital Theatre Company in the UK, is currently touring with a one-man production entitled The Man Who Was Hamlet, paralleling the life of De Vere to the events in Hamlet. For more info, click here. In an earlier issue, we discussed Shakespeare’s Treason, a one-man show by Hank Whittemore, which deals with not only The Oxford Theory but also the Prince Tudor Theory and The Monument Theory. Hank recently performed at London’s Globe Theater and at Cambridge University.

5. The Wisdom of the Body

I finished Nuland’s Wisdom of the Body. Nuland offers a different view of the evolution of the human brain than Tudge offered. In an earlier issue, I discussed Tudge’s view that the brain evolved in tandem with the hand; the brain and the hand formed a team, and this team gave man a survival advantage, an advantage that neither the brain alone, nor the hand alone, would have given.

Nuland has a different view. He argues that the brain evolved to utilize the voice box (larynx); in other words, the brain evolved so that man could use language better. Language, in turn, provided the tools for “conceptual thought.” So in Nuland’s view, the brain and the voice box formed a team, and this team gave man a survival advantage. While the grasping hand may have evolved 50 million years ago, an enlarged brain is a far more recent development — perhaps as recent as the development of language. “Between 200,000 and 20,000 years ago, the modern vertical forehead appeared, indicating [enlarged] cerebral capacity.... By about 20,000 to 30,000 years ago, we had the brain required for all of today’s activities.”9

Perhaps both Tudge and Nuland are partly right. Perhaps both the hand and the voice box contributed to the growth of the brain. Perhaps the hand spurred brain growth at an early stage (say, 2 million years ago), and the voice box at a later stage (say, 50,000 years ago). At any rate, it seems safe to say that these three things together — the large brain, the grasping hand, and the language ability — constitute much of what is distinctively human.

Nuland is fond of quoting the classics. He quotes Aristotle on the nature of God: “It is of itself that the divine thought thinks (since it is the most excellent of things), and its thinking is a thinking on thinking.”10 Rational philosophers often describe God as a rational philosopher. Isn’t this like an architect describing God as an architect, a chef describing God as a chef, a doctor describing God as a doctor? One might say that Aristotle’s God is an analytic philosopher, since He doesn’t think about things, but rather about the process of thinking.

Non-rational philosophers tend to define God as a non-rational entity — as the unconscious, as energy, etc. Aristotle’s view of God is close to the view of the Catholic Church, close to the view of established religion in general. Aristotle’s view makes God something “other,” whereas the non-rational view makes God something immanent — or perhaps I should say, the non-rational view makes everything God, makes the whole universe divine.

© L. James Hammond 2009
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1. Ch. 10 back
2. Perhaps we’re still pushing children into cancer. It has been argued that American tobacco companies aimed their marketing at young girls, with brands like “Virginia Slims.” back
3. Ch. 10 back
4. Ch. 4 back
5. “Blood Sugar Control Linked to Memory Decline, Study Says,” New York Times, 12/31/08 back
6. “No Furnaces but Heat Aplenty in ‘Passive Houses’,” 12/26/08 back
7. “Preaching Moderate Islam and Becoming a TV Star for Youths,” New York Times, 1/3/09 back
8. Wikipedia article on Obama. back
9. Ch. 12, p. 351 back
10. Ch. 12, p. 354 back