August 23, 2008

1. Not 51

My wife is battling colon cancer. A few months ago, she had some odd twinges in her stomach region, and soon she could feel a lump near her right hip. She went to her doctor, who sent her for an ultra-sound, which revealed the problem. A cat-scan confirmed the ultra-sound (and perhaps told a more detailed story), and a colonoscopy confirmed the cat-scan. Then she had surgery to remove the tumor in the colon. Now we’re turning to chemo-therapy (and perhaps herbal remedies) to fight the cancer that surgery wasn’t able to remove. We anticipate a long struggle.

People suggested that we go to a big-city hospital, so we went to Brigham & Women’s in Boston. We can’t start chemo until my wife recovers from surgery — about six weeks. Meanwhile, we’re going to talk to a leading herbalist, Donald Yance, who’s based in Ashland, Oregon. Yance specializes in cancer. When my sister’s son was battling cancer, my sister went to the herbs-and-supplements section of a local health-food store, became interested in herbs-and-supplements, talked to people, read some books, and eventually was referred to The Master, Donald Yance.

Yance wasn’t able to cure my sister’s son, but my sister thinks that he helped. Yance is so busy now that we can’t reach him, we’re talking to one of his partners. Yance’s herbal approach is expensive — perhaps $1,000 per month — and isn’t covered by insurance, but we think it improves our odds, and we think that the best approach to cancer may come from outside the establishment, outside Western science, outside “chemical-rationalism”.

Before you talk to Yance’s team, you fill out a long questionnaire, which asks about your life in general, your level of stress, your pets, etc. Clearly, Yance is looking at the whole person, while the medical establishment looks at part of the person.

To lower your risk of colon cancer, avoid processed meat (sausage, ham, bacon, etc.), and get regular exercise. Americans are eating more processed meat than we once did because the Atkins Diet has taught us to reduce carbohydrates by quenching our appetite with meat, eggs, cheese, vegetables, etc. The Atkins Diet has had a profound effect on American eating habits — even among people like me who aren’t actually dieting. The Atkins approach seems to increase the risk of colon cancer, so if you’re following Atkins, the need for a colonoscopy is even greater.

As I mentioned in an earlier issue, cancer seems to be more common than it once was. And it’s more common in Western nations than developing nations. Western man felt he was the “master and proprietor of nature” (to use Descartes’ phrase), but we pay a price for tinkering with nature.

If only my wife’s doctor had sent her for a colonoscopy when she turned 50! That would have allowed us to catch the problem at an earlier stage. The best medical students are becoming specialists, and tackling problems that could have been prevented by good primary-care doctors.

When you turn 50, get a colonoscopy. Not 51. Better 48 or 49 than 51 or 52. Get a colonoscopy even if you feel fine; don’t wait until you have symptoms.

2. The Inca Trail

The Incas built an extensive trail system in western South America, stretching from Quito, Ecuador, through Peru, and then all the way down to Santiago, Chile; their system extends into Bolivia and Argentina. In southern Peru, at the center of this enormous trail system, is Machu Picchu and the Inca capital, Cuzco. In ancient times, it was said that “all roads lead to Rome,” and in Inca times, one could say that “all roads lead to Cuzco.” So it wasn’t difficult for the Spanish invaders, in the 1500s, to find Cuzco. The trails, however, were built for foot travel (the Incas didn’t have horses until they were imported by the Spanish), so the Spanish riders had a difficult time of it. The trails allowed messages to be carried from one end of the empire to the other; it is said that relays of runners could cover 150 miles in a day. Messages were committed to memory, or expressed in knotted cords. Runners were energized by chewing coca leaves.

Inca civilization (like Aztec civilization) flourished shortly before the Spanish conquest. Machu Picchu was built about 1450. If you want to learn more about the Incas, and native Americans in general, try Charles Mann’s book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

Today, Machu Picchu is a major tourist attraction, and is listed as one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World.” A train from Cuzco can bring you to Aguas Calientes (also called “Machu Picchu pueblo”), the closest town to Machu Picchu, or you can hike from Cuzco along the ancient Inca Trail to Machu Picchu; there’s a one-day hike, a four-day hike, etc. To avoid damage to the ancient sites, the government of Peru limits the number of tourists/hikers, so you need to reserve a spot in advance. Besides Machu Picchu, there are various other Inca sites in the area, such as Sacsayhuaman.

A Phlit subscriber named Robert Barry recently visited Machu Picchu (he arranged his trip through Andes Adventures), and wrote me as follows:

The Inca Trail was tough, even for a marathoner like myself. All 14 in my group, all athletic, made it to Machu Picchu, but some in the other groups did not. The second day of the 4-day trek was very difficult for me: it was 4 miles straight up into thin air, climbing 4,000 feet to an elevation of 13,800 feet. For me, at age 69, it was arduous, having to gasp for air. In contrast, I did quite well in the declines, scampering about like a mountain goat!

One could take the train up to Machu Picchu, and avoid the rigor. But then one would have missed the diverse flora/fauna, varied microclimates/ecosystems, fresh morning scents, and the nurture of motherly mountains all around. Regardless of how you get there, Machu Picchu is stunning, an ingenious congruence of man-made structures with the natural landscape and magical mountains. Magical, because they seem to be saying something while remaining tacit. Still, with the largish crowds, it was more of a spectacle than the profound spiritual experience I had hoped for.

If you go, and opt to trek, be sure you’re in good physical condition! Our group had, each of us, a backpack for basic things, including emergency supplies, toiletries, poncho, fleece jacket, extra socks, flashlight, gloves, hat, etc. Porters carried the tents, nightclothes, extra pair of sneakers, food. On the 21st of June, I was fortunate enough to be situated where I could see the sun rise over the rim of the mountain, cast a beam of light across the aperture of the Torreon (tower building) and precisely hit a marker, signifying the winter solstice and the beginning of longer days/shorter nights.

Peruvian food is wonderful, with lots of fresh veggies. I had the plumpest trout I ever had in my life.

The following pictures were taken by Daniel Kosla, one of Robert’s fellow-hikers (except where otherwise indicated):

3. American Historians

In the early 1900s, Charles Beard was a leading American historian. Beard wrote An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, which argued that the Founding Fathers were motivated by economic interests, not philosophical principles. Beard wrote many other books, including a three-volume work on American history (The Rise of American Civilization, America in Midpassage, and The American Spirit). Beard’s wife, Mary, was a supporter of women’s rights and labor unions; she collaborated with her husband on several books.

Among the younger historians who were influenced by Beard was Richard Hofstadter. In his early work, Hofstadter stressed conflicts between economic interests; his book Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915 was critical of American capitalists. Later in his career, however, Hofstadter broke with Beard, and moderated his Leftist views; he emphasized consensus in the American polity, rather than conflict. One of his best-known books is The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It, which consists of 12 biographical sketches of American statesmen. Hofstadter was a widely-read historian, a public intellectual; he won Pulitzer Prizes for Anti-intellectualism in American Life and The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R. Hofstadter respected literary values, and was a friend of the literary critic Alfred Kazin. (Richard Hofstadter should not be confused with Douglas Hofstadter, best known as the author of Gödel, Escher, Bach.)

Hofstadter taught at Columbia, where one of his students was Mike Wallace, co-author (with Edwin Burrows) of a two-volume, Pulitzer Prize-winning history of New York City (as of 2011, volume two hasn’t been finished; Wallace is writing volume two by himself). Another student of Hofstadter’s was Eric Foner, now a Columbia professor and a specialist in Reconstruction and race; among Foner’s books is The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, which won the Pulitzer Prize, the Lincoln Prize, and the Bancroft Prize. Foner is the son of historian Jack Foner, who specialized in the labor movement and the civil rights movement, and the nephew of historian Philip Foner, who wrote about blacks, women, labor organizers, etc.

Another prominent historian in the mid-20th century was Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. He wrote books on the Presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Jackson. His father (Arthur M. Schlesinger) was also a well-known historian.

Sean Wilentz wrote a concise biography of Andrew Jackson, and he won a Bancroft Prize in 2006 for The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. Born in 1951, Wilentz has taught at Princeton for more than thirty years.

Allen Barra, writing in The Daily Beast, said “The fullest and most balanced biography of Old Hickory is probably American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham.” This book won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. Meacham also wrote biographies of Jefferson and George H. W. Bush. Born in 1969, Meacham has been an editor at Newsweek, Time, and Random House. One might say that Meacham is one of the “journalist-historians.”

One of the most popular books on American history is Eric Goldman’s Rendezvous With Destiny: A History of Modern American Reform. “For decades it was a staple of the undergraduate curriculum in history, highly regarded for its style and its exposition of modern American liberalism.”1B Rendezvous With Destiny won the Bancroft Prize in 1953. One scholar described it thus: “lively, well-written, and highly readable, it provided an overview of eight decades of reformers, complete with arresting vignettes of numerous individuals.” Goldman was a professor at Princeton for many years.

Richard Brookhiser, an editor at the conservative magazine National Review, has written several well-regarded historical works. According to Allen Barra,

To know Washington as general and commander in chief, look to Richard Brookhiser’s George Washington on Leadership (2008).... [One critic described it thus:] “brisk, compact and highly readable, plus it doesn’t consume two months of your life reading it.”

Brookhiser also wrote concise biographies of Hamilton, Madison, and Lincoln. Born in 1955, Brookhiser attended Yale, where one of his teachers was the historian Garry Wills. He wrote his first NationalReview article at 15, and became a senior editor at NationalReview when he was 23.

Garry Wills is a highly-regarded contemporary historian. In 1993, Wills won a Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America. According to Barra, “the definitive book on Reagan is not a straight biography but Reagan’s America: Innocents at Home (1987) by Garry Wills, a hybrid melding of cultural history and political theory.” Wills also wrote biographies of Madison and Nixon. Wills earned a Ph.D. in Classics and has written several books about St. Augustine, and several books about the Catholic Church, including Why I Am A Catholic.

In an earlier issue, I discussed the historian H. W. Brands, who has written about many different periods of American history, usually through the lens of one person’s life. Barra says that Brands’ biography of Reagan may be “the definitive account,” and that Brands has written “a good short narrative” of Woodrow Wilson’s life. Barra also recommends Gene Smith’s When The Cheering Stopped: The Last Years of Woodrow Wilson, calling it “only a footnote to Wilson’s story, but a vivid and unforgettable one.”

Barra mentions the English writer Godfrey Benson, also known as Lord Charnwood. Barra says that, around 1920, Charnwood wrote “excellent short biographies” of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.1C

I mentioned above that Charles Mann wrote a book about Native Americans. If you want to read an author who lived among Native Americans, consider

4. Solzhenitsyn and Strauss

Solzhenitsyn died. The obituary in the New York Times said:

While the authorities kept him from publishing, he kept writing and speaking out, eliciting threats by mail and phone. He slept with a pitchfork beside his bed. Finally, government agents who had tried to isolate and intimidate him arrested him, took him to the airport and deported him. Mr. Solzhenitsyn believed his stay in the United States would be temporary. “In a strange way, I not only hope, I am inwardly convinced that I shall go back,” he told the BBC. “I live with that conviction. I mean my physical return, not just my books. And that contradicts all rationality.”

Our hunches often come true, though they ‘contradict all rationality.’

Harvey Mansfield wrote a Solzhenitsyn obituary in The Weekly Standard.1 He begins thus: “Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a hero with the hero’s virtue of courage.” He doesn’t mention Solzhenitsyn’s alleged anti-Semitism, nor does he mention Solzhenitsyn’s nationalism, nor does he mention Solzhenitsyn’s support for Putin’s heavy-handed rule. He simply says that Solzhenitsyn was a hero who deserves hero-worship, and he calls himself a hero worshipper. He says that his late wife, Delba Winthrop, was also a hero worshipper, wrote essays about Solzhenitsyn, sent one of her essays to Solzhenitsyn himself, and received a “short, personal letter” in response.

After writing the first draft of my book of aphorisms in the summer of ’84, I visited Mansfield, and showed him my book. Being a hero-worshipper myself, I asked him about two of my contemporary heroes, Solzhenitsyn and Kissinger. He said that Solzhenitsyn’s famous Harvard speech was delivered in Russian, but Solzhenitsyn managed to communicate with gestures, tone, etc. As for Kissinger, Mansfield said that when Kissinger was his colleague at Harvard, he was more than a professor, he was a “super professor.” One of the people to whom I sent that first draft of my book was Solzhenitsyn, who lived in Vermont then. But unlike Delba Winthrop, I got no response.

In his obituary, Mansfield says that the theme of Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard speech is courage — more specifically, the decline of courage in the West. True, Solzhenitsyn has much to say about courage. But this is part of a larger theme: the decline of the West, the decline of Western civilization in general. It is this larger theme that particularly impressed me when I first read Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard speech. Solzhenitsyn discusses decadence, the “decline of the arts” in the West. Mansfield doesn’t mention this aspect of Solzhenitsyn’s speech, perhaps because Straussians prefer to talk about reason, morality, courage. Art is spontaneous, and Straussians are uncomfortable with spontaneity. Art isn’t rational or moral, so Straussians aren’t sure what to do with it.

In his Harvard speech, Solzhenitsyn says that the West took a wrong turn at the time of the Renaissance. It began to believe in the “autonomy of man from any higher force above him.” In other words, the West lost its belief in God, and this has led to a preoccupation with material well-being. This argument is similar to the Straussian argument that Western philosophy took a wrong turn at the time of the Renaissance. According to Straussians, philosophers like Machiavelli and Hobbes emphasized self-interest and self-preservation, and lost sight of the moral pole stars that had guided Plato, Aristotle, etc. According to Straussians, we’ve become preoccupied with the “pursuit of happiness,” and lost sight of the moral absolutes that inspired the ancients.

So Solzhenitsyn and Strauss both believe that Western civilization took a wrong turn at the time of the Renaissance. Strauss recommends that we go back to Plato and Aristotle, while Solzhenitsyn seems to recommend a return to monotheistic religion. Neither Strauss nor Mansfield has the religious faith that Solzhenitsyn admires, but Strauss and Mansfield have a certain fondness for faith, even if they don’t possess it themselves.

In addition to Solzhenitsyn, another member of the Straussian pantheon is Churchill. When Churchill died in 1965, Strauss said,

We have no higher duty, and no more pressing duty, than to remind ourselves and our students, of political greatness, human greatness, of the peaks of human excellence.... Not a whit less important than [Churchill’s] deeds and speeches are his writings, above all his Marlborough — the greatest historical work written in our century, an inexhaustible mine of political wisdom and understanding, which should be required reading for every student of political science. (quoted in The Crisis of Liberal Democracy: A Straussian Perspective, edited by Kenneth L. Deutsch, Walter Soffer)

Strauss’s disciples, like Harvey Mansfield and Bill Kristol, are also admirers of Churchill.

5. Miscellaneous

A. Two of the most prominent contemporary writers on world affairs are Robert Kagan and Fareed Zakaria. Kagan is conservative. He recently published The Return of History and the End of Dreams, which argues that the end of the Cold War hasn’t brought about international harmony, and discusses causes of friction in the contemporary world.

Zakaria is centrist, pragmatic. He was born in India, attended Yale, and earned a Ph.D. at Harvard. Zakaria has his own show on CNN, Fareed Zakaria GPS, which airs Sundays at 1 p.m. He recently published The Post-American World, which Wikipedia describes as “an examination of America’s role in a world where it is still the political-military superpower but where economic, industrial, financial, and cultural power is being dispersed around the world.” Zakaria initially supported regime change in Iraq, but early in the war, he made some prescient criticisms of American policy; for example, he criticized the disbanding of the Iraqi army.

B. I learned that Goethe had a philosophy of history, and it may have influenced Spengler. Joseph Campbell discusses Goethe’s philosophy of history in the last volume of his 4-volume Masks of God. Goethe spoke of four epochs of the spirit: poetry, theology, philosophy, and prose. We’re now in the prose epoch. Goethe’s philosophy of history seems to be as pessimistic as Spengler’s.

C. I found a website that offers free AudioBooks: LibriVox.

D. I found a website that contains a Tree of Life — that is, a diagram of all living things, showing their relationships, their genealogy (phylogeny). The site has excellent photos.

I’m still reading Colin Tudge’s The Variety of Life: A Survey and a Celebration of All the Creatures That Have Ever Lived. Tudge’s book has no photos, only black-and-white drawings. Tudge is preoccupied with phylogeny and relationships, he pays little attention to how organisms live. For example, he tells us nothing about the lives of ants and bees; he puts them in their group, then moves on. In short, his book is a “survey” but not a “celebration.” Nonetheless, his book is clear, readable, and often interesting. I don’t recommend it highly, but I do intend to finish it.

E. The contest between McCain and Obama can be seen as a contest between the old, inner-directed personality, and the new, other-directed personality. McCain describes himself as a voracious reader — an inner-directed trait. Furthermore, he says his favorite author is Hemingway. Hemingway depicts the solitary man’s struggle with himself and with the elements — The Old Man and the Sea, for example. McCain’s fondness for Hemingway is an indication of inner-direction.

Obama represents, in my view, a different approach — not character but personality, not the struggle with the elements, but relating to other people. I doubt Hemingway is a favorite of Obama’s. Obama defines patriotism as “not just a love of America in the abstract, but a very particular love for, and faith in, one another as Americans.” When Obama spoke at Wesleyan, he said, “our individual salvation depends on collective salvation.” Perhaps Obama’s other-direction is one factor in his popularity.

F. The idea of inner-direction vs. other-direction is usually ascribed to the American sociologist, David Riesman, author of The Lonely Crowd. I now learn that the American sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote a book that discusses some of the same ideas discussed in The Lonely Crowd; the title of the Mills book is White Collar: The American Middle Classes. Though Mills published a year after Riesman, it seems that Mills influenced Riesman as much as Riesman influenced Mills. It is said that Mills and Riesman were friends and colleagues; they probably discussed their ideas together, or read the same scholarly journals. Mills is at least as prominent in the field as Riesman, and Wikipedia’s article on Mills is much longer than its article on Riesman.

G. Saw an Iranian movie, Children of Heaven. Good movie — not great, but good. Short, sincere. Reminds me of the famous Italian movie, Bicycle Thief, since it focuses on a poor family’s struggle to survive.

H. Saw a movie called I Am Sam, starring Sean Penn as a retarded man fighting for custody of his little girl. Not a bad movie; suitable for a family audience. But I have two criticisms:

  1. It uses pop music (Beatles music) to entertain the viewer.
  2. The plot is unusual, eccentric. Doesn’t “plain ol’ life” contain enough interest, enough drama? Doesn’t great art deal with the basics, the eternal verities — birth, death, love, hate, youth, age, etc.? One wonders if this movie created an eccentric situation (a retarded man in a custody battle) in order to serve as a platform for Sean Penn’s acting talents. Some people are much impressed by Penn’s performance. Personally, I have no interest in, or appreciation of, acting talent; I would never go to a theater to see acting talent.

I. I recommend Niall Ferguson’s documentary War of the World. It moves too quickly, though; the subject deserves more hours. Furthermore, I wonder if graphic violence is necessary in a historical documentary, or in a historical book. To what extent are grisly details needed to convey the truth? Should the author avoid grisly details so the reader/viewer can sleep at night? This is a subject that historians should consider carefully.

J. I found a website that reproduces Will Durant’s list of the 100 best books, and tries to link as many books as possible to free e-texts. The list itself isn’t of much interest to me, except for the following books:

Logan ClendeningThe Human Bodythe book is surely dated, but the subject will never be dated. What is the best book on this important subject?
William JamesPrinciples of Psychologypreoccupied with Freud, Jung, etc., I never paid any attention to this book; I should take a look
Gilbert MurrayAncient Greek LiteratureMurray is a good writer, a leader in the field; I would enjoy this book, especially if it doesn’t have untranslated Greek
George MooreHeloise and AbelardMoore was a man of letters who dabbled in all genres, and did some painting, too; this book isn’t well-known, so it’s surprising to find it on Durant’s list; Moore’s realist fiction had some influence on Joyce
Preserved SmithThe Age of the Reformationprobably rendered obsolete by later works, such as Owen Chadwick’s study of the Reformation
Charles Augustin Sainte-BeuvePortraits of the 18th Centuryperhaps this is the book Lytton Strachey had in mind when he praised French writers for “compressing into a few shining pages the manifold existences of men”

© L. James Hammond 2008
visit Phlit home page
make a donation via PayPal

1B. Wikipedia back
1C. Godfrey Benson is apparently not related to E. F. Benson, whom I discussed elsewhere. back
1. “Man of Courage: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008”, 08/25/2008, Volume 013, Issue 46 back