Ben Jonson on Doctors

A few weeks ago, I had made note here of a brief excerpt from Molière’s Love’s the Best Doctor, which rather pungently satirized doctors. Today, here is another master of comedy–Ben Jonson–on doctors. (A personal reminiscence follows.) As an added bonus there is some skepticism directed at the cost of medicine, the products of the pharmaceutical industry, and the legal system. (Sort of.)

From Volpone, Act One:

CORBACCIO: How does your patron?

MOSCA: Troth, as he did sir; no amends

CORBACCIO [deaf]: What? Mends he?

MOSCA: [shouting]: No, sir. He is rather worse.

CORBACCIO: That’s well. Where is he?

MOSCA: Upon his couch, sir, newly fall’n asleep.

CORBACCIO: Does he sleep well?

MOSCA: No wink, sir, all this night.  Nor yesterday, but slumbers.

CORBACCIO: Good! He should take

Some counsel of physicians. I have brought him

An opiate here, from mine own doctor –

MOSCA: He will not hear of drugs.

CORBACCIO: Why? I myself

Stood by while ‘t was made, saw all th’ ingredients,

And know it cannot but most gently work.

My life for his, ’tis but to make him sleep.

VOLPONE: [aside]: Ay, his last sleep, if he would take it.

MOSCA: He has no faith in physic.

CORBACCIO: Say you, say you?

MOSCA: He has no faith in physic: he does think

Most of your doctors are the greatest danger,

And worse disease t’ escape. I often have

Heard him protest that your physician

Should never be his heir.

CORBACCIO: Not I his heir?

MOSCA: Not your physician, sir.

CORBACCIO: O, no, no, no,

I do not mean it.

MOSCA: No, sir, nor their fees.

He cannot brook; he says they flay a man

Before they kill him.

CORBACCIO: Right, I do conceive you.

MOSCA: And then, they do it by experiment,

For which the law not only doth absolve ’em

But gives them great reward; as he is loath

To hire his death so.

CORBACCIO: It is true, they kill

With as much license as a judge.

MOSCA: Nay, more;

For he but kills, sir, where the law condemns,

And these can kill him too.

Possibly irrelevant aside: In my time here in the US, I have been misdiagnosed precisely twice. These occasions still remain the only two such instances in my life thus far. In the first case, I was living in Harlem and sought treatment at a doctor’s office that promised walk-in consultations. A brusque, cursory check-up later, I was presented with a diagnosis that seemed wildly off-base. Despite my protestations, I was quickly shown the door. Shaken at this treatment, I made an appointment with an Upper West Side physician who was on the money. In the second case, I was living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and desperate to secure a doctor’s appointment quickly, wandered over to Myrtle Avenue and sauntered into a rather dingy looking clinic. I was only a few blocks away from the considerably more well-heeled DeKalb Avenue. The doctor conducted a rushed examination, pronounced his diagnosis, and once again, I was ushered out the door quickly. I was diagnosed correctly a week or so later after I had sought a second opinion.  The common element to these encounters was that in each case I was seeking medical help in what might be termed a ‘not-so-fortunate’ neighborhood.

Excerpt from: Ben Jonson, Three Comedies, Penguin Classics, London, 1985. (ed. Michael Jamieson) pp. 60-61

The Artist: An Eloquent Homage to the Silent

Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, a five-time Oscar winner for Best Picture (only the second ever silent movie to do so), Best Director, Best Score, Best Costume and Best Actor is a tasty little homage to silent movies, 1920s Hollywood, Douglas Fairbank-style swashbuckle, faithful chauffeurs and dogs, romantic comedies and plenty else. Its success at the Academy Awards seemed improbable–a silent movie circa 2011-2012?–till one realizes that Hollywood loves being loved.  Whatever the reason, these awards do not seem to have been miscarriages of justice.

The Artist‘s storyline is relatively uncomplicated. George Valentin (the French actor Jean Dujardin), a dashing Hollywood star with a mustache and a smile to kill for, reigns supreme on the silver screen, the darling of moviegoers even if not that of his leading ladies, who might find his showboating excessive. Silent movies are his domain; he loves nothing more than the chance to show off his wares in them.  Then, a chance encounter with a  hopeful starlet Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) leads the two to flirtation; Valentin might have an outsized ego but he has plenty of affection and little arrogance. But the romance that might have lain in store for the two is interrupted by the march of events: the talkies are coming to Hollywood, eagerly awaited by producers, studio executives, and distributors. As an auteur of the silent, Valentin disdains them and makes his feelings plain; as an aspirant hopeful of riding the next wave to stardom, Miller embraces them. Their paths and fortunes diverge: Valentin heads for Skid Row, Miller for Beverly Hills. But redemption is still possible, and after a few twists and turns, we have a happy ending. Roughly.

The Artist works because it is, how you say?, fun.  Among other things, it has comedy, heartbreak, tap-dancing, the aforementioned clever dog, and of course, a pair of wonderful actors in Dujardin and Bejo. (I knew little about the movie before I sat down for a viewing and almost immediately on seeing Dujardin act, realized I was in the presence of a master of the jocular.) It lets us revisit, briefly, the charm of the silent, as we recognize, once again with amazement, the storytelling possible with such a seemingly limited palette. It reminds us of masterpieces were made before sound made it to cinema; it shows how laughter could be evoked by visible action with nary a single spoken word. It shows us how a great deal can be said by visible expression and action, by bodily gesture and movement. It takes us back to a time when the technical limitations and constraints of the cinematic medium were mastered by the moviemakers of the time, thus letting us once again acknowledge their craft and skill.  It does not moralize about progress; indeed, its ending suggests a reconciliation with the onward march of time and technique.

Movies about movies can be bores. The best ones remind us why we fell in love with them in the first place. The Artist manages to do that in style.

Babies and Personal Archaeology

Before my baby daughter was born, one of the most common statements made to me by extant parents was, ‘The birth of your child will change your relationship with your parents.’ Well, my parents aren’t around anymore for my relationship with them to be changed. In one sense. In yet another, I have come to realize the simple, crystalline, truth behind this claim.

Most prominently, my daughter’s birth and her first eighteen weeks have sparked a rampant curiosity in me. What were my parents like with me in my first few months? What was I like? Was I a difficult baby? Did I sleep well? Did they ‘sleep-train’ me? Did I require it? How long did my mother breast feed me? Did I sleep in the same room as them? In their bed? Did my father leave all child-rearing duties to my mother or did he help out? What was my father’s reaction to the news of my birth? (He was away at an air force base when I was born.) The answers to these questions–and many, many others like them–are not forthcoming, ever.  I had never thought to ask them of my parents before. They didn’t strike me as particularly interesting; indeed, I’m not sure they ever occurred to me.  Beyond the odd comment on how I had suffered from colic (I think), or how I was sometimes put to sleep by my parents by taking me on long drives, and the obligatory set of baby photographs (far fewer in number than those of my brother, who as first-born, naturally received far greater photographic attention than I did) there is little that informs my sense on what these early days of  my life were like.

I do not know how genuinely informative the answers to my questions would be and whether they would play any role whatsoever in a reconceptualization of myself. But the inquiry that sparks them is informative in its own way about myself: they strike me, this new ‘me’, as questions I am compelled to ask, as I work through the challenges that my child presents to me. Perhaps they would comfort me, perhaps they would reassure me in a way the testimonials of the other parents I meet these days partially do. And there’s seems no end to them being raised in these early days till my daughter reaches the age where my conscious memories began for me.

And I do feel–even when my parents are no longer here to know this–that my perceptions of them have changed. Now, more than ever, I can imagine them as not-parents, in the times before my brother and I were born, sometimes as eagerly expectant mother and father, sometimes as anxious, tired, sleep-deprived, caretakers of an extremely helpless dependent being. As I come to inhabit the skin of a parent, to take on a role they played for as long as they did and join them in an enterprise they undertook in their own way, their own fashion, so many years before, I find a connection, a link, a bond, with them, and their memories, I didn’t have before.

I thank my baby girl for many things; this is yet another of them.

Writing Under the Influence: Greene on Benzedrine

Stories of Adderall-inspired writing binges by over-achieving students keen to upstage their cohorts and get the best grades possible are now old hat. And perhaps so are stories of writers fueling (or attempting to fuel) their writing sessions with a variety of intoxicating, calming, inspirational and brain-cobweb clearing substances. These have ranged from the ubiquitous nicotine (cigarettes, the most common of all, said to steady the nerves and enable concentration) to caffeine (to keep awake, to stimulate; most famously employed by Balzac, whose coffee consumption was truly awe-inspiring), alcohol (perhaps to reduce the anxiety associated with the blank page), marijuana (to provoke, hopefully, the odd creative thought or two); the list goes on. (I am not optimistic about the prospects of hearing any success stories associated with alcohol and marijuana when it comes to writing; certainly, in the case of alcohol, it seems to have led to too many careers being derailed.)

At first glance, Graham Greene‘s writing career does not seem to suggest ever having needed chemical stimulation to get the writing engine fired up. He wrote twenty-seven novels, two volumes of verse, four volumes of autobiography, three travel books, eight plays, ten screenplays, four collections of short stories, and four children’s books. But even he sometimes felt the need to dip into the substance reservoir in order to get an ambitious task undertaken.

By 1938, Greene had mastered the art of finishing a novel in less than a year. Still, his earnings from his writing were not enough to take care of a writer with a family that included two children. A commercially successful work was called for, one that would serve as ‘entertainment’ (to use Greene’s own term for the works in his oeuvre he deemed less serious).  Greene had returned from his travels in Mexico, joined the Officers’ Emergency Reserve and was hard at work on The Power and the Glory.

An ambitious plan presented itself: he would write an ‘entertainment’ in the mornings while continuing to work on The Power and the Glory in the afternoons. A studio was rented and work began on The Confidential Agent with Greene suitably fortified:

I fell back for the first and last time in my life on Benzedrine. For six weeks I started each day with a tablet, and renewed the dose at midday. Each day I sat down to work with no idea of what turn the plot might take and each morning I wrote, with the automatism of a planchette, two thousand words instead of my usual stint of five hundred words. In the afternoons, The Power and the Glory proceeded toward its ends at its own leaden pace, unaffected by the sprightly young thing that was overtaking it.

Six weeks to finish a novel at two thousand words a day, while simultaneously working on another novel. The mind boggles. This regime was not without its costs:

I was forcing the pace and I suffered for it. Six weeks of a Benzedrine breakfast diet left my nerves in shreds and my wife suffered the result. At five o’clock I would return home with a shaking hand, a depression which fell with the regularity of a tropical rain, ready to find offense in anything, and to give offense for no cause. For long after the six weeks were over, I had to continue with smaller and smaller doses to break the habit. The career of writing has its own curious forms of hell. Sometimes looking back I think that those Benzedrine weeks were more responsible than the separation of war and my own infidelities for breaking our marriage.

I own a battered paperback copy of The Confidential Agent, which I have not read thus far. When I do, I’ll be especially attentive for any traces of a jittery, wired Greene.

Note: Excerpts from: Graham Greene, Ways of Escape, Pocket Books, New York, 1980, pp. 72-74.

Shrapnel is Still Deadly, No Matter Where It Strikes

Many years ago, while talking to my father and some of his air force mates, I stumbled into a conversation about munitions.  There was talk of rockets, shells, casings, high-explosive rounds, tracer bullets, napalm, and all of the rest. Realizing I was in the right company, I asked if someone could tell me what ‘shrapnel’ was. I had seen it mentioned in many books and had a dim idea of what it might have been: it went ‘flying’ and it seemed to hurt people. Now I had experts that would inform me. A pilot, a veteran of the 1971 war with Pakistan, someone who flown had many ground-attack missions, spoke up. He began with ‘Shrapnel is the worst thing you can imagine’ and then launched into a quick description of its anti-personnel raison d’être. He finished with a grim, ‘You don’t have to get hit directly by a shell to be killed by it.’

I was a child, still naive about war despite my steady consumption of military history books, boy’s battle comics and my childhood in a war veteran’s home. So it wasn’t so surprising that my reaction to how shrapnel worked, what made it effective was one of bemused surprise. So those beautiful explosions, the end-result of sleek canisters tumbling from low-flying, screaming jets describing aggressive trajectories through the sky, those lovely flames capped off by plumes of smoke with debris flying gracefully to all corners, were also sending out red-hot pieces of jagged metal, which, when they made contact with human flesh, lacerated, tore, and  shredded? I had no idea. Boom-boom, ow?

As the aftermath of the Boston bombings makes clear, shrapnel is still deadly:

Thirty-one victims remained hospitalized at the city’s trauma centers on Thursday, including some who lost legs or feet. Sixteen people had limbs blown off in the blasts or amputated afterward, ranging in age from 7 to 71….For some whose limbs were preserved…the wounds were so littered with debris that five or six operations have been needed to decontaminate them.

This nation has now been at war for some twelve years. In that period of time, we have grown used to, and blase about, impressive visuals of shock-and-awe bombing, cruise missile strikes, drone attacks, and of course, most pertinently to Americans, the improvised explosive device, planted on a roadside and set off remotely. What is common to all of these acts of warfare is that at the business end of all the prettiness–the flash, the bang, the diversely shaped smoke cloud–lies a great deal of ugliness. Intestines spilling out, crudely amputated limbs, gouged out eyes; the stuff of medieval torture tales. Because shrapnel is indiscriminate, it goes places and does things that even horror movie writers might hesitate to put into their scripts: slicing one side off a baby’s head, or driving shards deep into an old man’s brains.

Weapons work the same way everywhere; the laws of physics dictate that they do. Human bodies are impacted by them quite uniformly too; the laws of human physiology dictate that.

Flesh and flying hot metal; there’s only one winner, every single time.

Might Same-Sex Relations Be Evolutionarily Advantageous?

A prominent fallacious argument used against same-sex marriage is the good ‘ol ‘we’re only protecting our species’ one. I referred to it in a post a while ago:

[R]oughly, same-sex marriage is problematic because a) marriage is all about procreation and the raising of children and because b) evolution tell us that reproductive success is important, therefore: Gay marriage should be frowned upon.

I then went on to note the naturalistic fallacy committed by the proponents of this argument.

But there is a flip-side to this argument against same-sex relations from a supposedly evolutionary perspective. Might same-sex relations be evolutionarily advantageous? A affirmative answer to this question would not, of course, imply that same-sex relations were thereby to be understood as morally praiseworthy; that would be committing a naturalistic fallacy of its own. Rather, quite simply, it might show that contributions to evolutionary ‘success’–a poorly understood notion at best–can take many more forms than just the mere reproduction of offspring and thus defuse, in yet another fashion, the so-called ‘arguments from evolution against gay marriage.’

In reviewing Lisa Cohen‘s All We Know: Three Lives (a biography of Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland), Terry Castle writes:

For same-sex desire [Cohen] implies, has as much to do with introspection as it does with carnality, and in the ‘inopportune ardour’ of her subjects she recognises the potential for a certain radical mental freedom. It makes sense: to embrace one’s sapphic feelings – to come out to oneself – is necessarily to rethink the world. For not only is one made at once to confront one’s apparently permanent alienation from the ‘normal’ or mainstream, one finds one has to adjudicate, in the most piercing and personal way, on a raft of ethical, religious and scientific questions. Are one’s desires felonious or unnatural, as most traditional belief systems (distressingly) continue to insist? Or are they something rather more benign – simply a ‘variant’ expression of human sexuality? If the latter is the case, couldn’t one view same-sex passion, in turn, as a perhaps useful evolutionary adaptation? As an age-old demographic reality, possibly hardwired into the souls of some, that actually enriches and diversifies human civilisation? [From ‘You Better Not Tell Me You Forgot‘, London Review of Books, 27 September 2012]

Castle reminds us that reproductive success in producing offspring might not be the only way to understand successful ‘evolutionary adaptations’. Perhaps members of the species can, through their ‘variant expressions of human sexuality’ contribute to the ‘success’ of their species in other ways? The ‘radical mental freedom’ of the same-sex members of our species might spark an efflorescence of activities–perhaps artistic, scientific, literary, cultural–that make possible its  adaptive success in a variety of environments. (Think Tchaikovsky, Wilde, Woolf, Turing – the list goes on and on.) Indeed, these activities by: enriching our lives, making them worth living, enabling us to find meaning in this world, might even(!) facilitate the reproductive success of the species.  (Some might think, of course,  that the excessive devotion paid to Turing’s children–the modern electronic computer–does no such thing.) Viewed in this light,  the presence of species members who do not partake in opposite-sex relations–with or without producing offspring–might come to appear as a positive characteristic of the species.

Samuel Chase and Judicial Supremacy

In the history of the US Supreme Court, Samuel Chase holds a singular, if dubious honor: he is, to date, the only Supreme Justice to be impeached (he was, however, ultimately acquitted by the US Senate).

The background to his impeachment is indicative of the political ferment so common  in the early days of the new republic. From Wikipedia:

President Thomas Jefferson, alarmed at the seizure of power by the judiciary through the claim of exclusive judicial review, led his party’s efforts to remove the Federalists from the bench. His allies in Congress had, shortly after his inauguration, repealed the Judiciary Act of 1801, abolishing the lower courts created by the legislation and terminating their Federalist judges despite lifetime appointments; Chase, two years after the repeal in May 1803, had denounced it in his charge to a Baltimore grand jury, saying that it would “take away all security for property and personal liberty, and our Republican constitution will sink into a mobocracy[.]” Jefferson saw the attack as…an opportunity to reduce the Federalist influence on the judiciary by impeaching Chase….The House of Representatives served Chase with eight articles of impeachment in late 1804….The Jeffersonian Republicans-controlled United States Senate began the impeachment trial of Chase in early 1805, with Vice President Aaron Burr presiding and Randolph leading the prosecution.

What is perhaps even more interesting about the Chase impeachment is that, according to Robert H. Jackson‘s The Struggle for Judicial Supremacy: A Study of a Crisis in American Power Politics (Vintage, 1941), ‘the proceedings to impeach him took so wide a sweep that the whole Federalist judiciary felt itself likely to be removed if Chase was convicted. They may have been right.’

One of the members of the judiciary ‘frightened’ by the turn of events was none other than John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States, who had, in 1803, presided over the famous ruling in Marbury v. Madison that had established judicial review over the legislative branch of the US Government. But, now, confronted by a tide turning against the judiciary, one underwritten by fury at they seemingly excessive power it had granted itself, he became ready to trade it away in exchange for security in the judicial office. So he ‘wrote to Chase an amazing letter proposing to scrap the whole pretension to judicial supremacy’:

I think the modern doctrine of impeachment should yield to an appellate jurisdiction in the legislature. A reversal of those legal opinions deemed unsound by the legislature would certainly better comport with the mildness of our character than a removal of the judge who has rendered them unknowing of his fault.  [From: Albert J. Beveridge, Life of Marshall, Houghton-Mifflin, Vol III, p. 177]

As Jackson notes, ‘this certainly indicates no strong confidence that judicial judgment was to be final.’ (Chase’s impeachment was not on legal or ethical grounds but on the basis of ‘judicial performance.’) Fortunately for Marshall (and future versions of the Supreme Court) the impeachment failed–in part because some senators refused to indict Chase on the grounds that the quality of his jurisprudence was adequate grounds for removal–and the Marshall doctrine of judicial supremacy and the judicial independence became enshrined in US law.