“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” – T.S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock
Regardless of what one thinks about the therapeutic potential or lack thereof of psychedelics, the long piece by Michael Pollan in the New Yorker of 9 February 2015 enters the disorienting, funhouse mirror world of contemporary science. Pollan does his usual fine job of reporting who’s saying what in the field. But the piece presumes indifference or hostility to those vast realms of human knowledge and wisdom that dwell outside the narrow, political world of government- and corporate-funded research that passes for “objective” science.
To read his 8,000-plus words on the topic, you’d think that psilocybin had been discovered by 1960s hippies or their immediate predecessors in the psychology labs of well-endowed northeastern universities. Not once does Pollan acknowledge that knowledge and use of the drug stretch back into prehistory, that the Native tribes of northern Mexico and the American Southwest have long incorporated it into their religious rituals, that they had a thorough understanding of and yes, science surrounding its usage, its potentials and its power, that the idea of consuming such a drug for recreation would have struck them as sacrilegious, that our government has for years actively persecuted them for taking it.
I’d like to think that Pollan’s book – presumably there will be one – will cover this territory, but Pollan writes with such gee-whiz naivete that I’m not so sure. In reporting the subjects’ drug experiences (“’I understand love is the most powerful force on the planet’”), he seems unaware that their testimonies rather hilariously echo the 1970s routines of Cheech and Chong, comics who made a profession out of scripts involving characters too high to find the deadbolt to open the door for their drugged-out friend fleeing the police — they were too lost in their great and all-encompassing love. Which is only to say that the experiences Pollan reports echo pretty much all drug trips (see, and only for starters, Walter Benjamin’s Hashish in Marseille, ca. 1932, not to mention Carlos Casteneda’s bestselling Teachings of Don Juan, 1968). And yet the scientists, some of whom are old enough to know better, gush over the outcomes with all the enthusiasm required to ensure funding for years to come. Good scientists that they are, they’re willing and eager to prevaricate and dissimulate when funding is at stake.
Recently I asked a psychiatrist and leading researcher in the field, “Why do we need MRIs and double-blind studies to tell us what our wisdom traditions have been telling us for centuries?” A question for which he could not summon an answer – but he will not soon be incorporating it into his grant proposals, where first, foremost, and above all one must admire the naked emperor’s clothes – the whole enterprise of presuming that with the application of sufficient funds, everything can and will be explained.
I’m not denigrating research into possibilities that psychedelics might be useful in treating various ailments, not at all, though I admit to blanching at Pollan’s report of a scientist who’s injecting active ingredients of hallucinogens directly into his subjects’ bloodstream. (I knew some of those high-flying guys who went the direct injection route. They’re all dead.) I only want to point out that in this area as in so many others, science is several millennia behind human wisdom, which is formed out of and responds to human experience, which understood and employed careful trial-and-error with psilocybin long before the invention of the double-blind study.
Reading Pollan is enough to make me doubt climate change, and that’s where the real tragedy lies. Science could offer us so much more, if it would only give up the notion that it has to reinvent the wheel, to tell us something that we *didn’t* already know. Do we need a double-blind study to “discover” that those who take psychedelics report a mystical encounter with God? In its insistence on its newness and nowness, science undercuts its own legitimacy with those of us who have some sense of the past, who trust their own experience of the world.
Pollan writes, “Meditation acquainted [Roland Griffiths, holder of a senior appointment in psychiatry at Johns Hopkins] with ‘something beyond a material world view that I can’t really talk to my colleagues about, because it involves metaphors or assumptions that I’m really uncomfortable with as a scientist.” Earlier in the piece Pollan quotes Griffiths as saying regarding psychedelics, “Can you think of another area of science regarded as so dangerous and taboo that all research gets shut down for decades?” I suggest that Griffiths has answered his own question, in speaking of “something beyond a material world view that [he] can’t really talk to his colleagues about.” What is shut down right now in science is any suggestion that knowledge has its limits; that there is a mystery at the heart of existence which can only be suggested through metaphor, through art.
But watch out. The scientists who are conducting such tests are, of course, at some point sooner than later (as in maybe yesterday, or well before they spoke to Pollan) going to yield to the temptation to experiment on themselves, and down that road lies the kind of madness about which Emily Dickinson, no stranger to the mystical experience, wrote.
Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –
“It didn’t take long for once respectable scientists such as Leary to grow impatient with the rigmarole of objective science,” Pollan writes. Maybe this time around, science will accommodate its mystics rather than casting us out. Maybe this time around it will come to see that for all its allure and beauty, empirical knowledge is only one of the ninety-nine ways of naming God.
Writer and writing maven Cynthia Newberry Martin maintains a blog in which writers chronicle our daily lives. She asked me to write the July entry, with a prompt from Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
But when I sat down to write, I was preoccupied with the transition of my namesake, writer and teacher and dear friend Pam Houston’s magnificent Irish wolfhound Fenton Johnson, “from hither to yon,” as I put in in the piece. And so how I spent that particular day was in writing his obituary, which provided a means to consider the great matter, the interconnectedness of “hither” and “yon,” how death is just another name for what in brighter modes and on brighter days we call life. Here’s a link to the piece, including some great photos of the noble beast:
Some years back Sarah Cahill, now an accomplished Bay Area pianist, was writing an article for a local paper on elegant and not-so-elegant public restrooms in the Bay Area. She wandered into the Chapel of Chimes, designed in 1926 by Julia Morgan, one of the first, maybe the first prominent woman architect, to serve as the grand, over-the-top columbarium / mausoleum / cemetery for wealthy East Bay residents. As she wandered through the labyrinth Cahill heard distant organ music from one of the chapels and thought what a great venue this would make for a music festival, with its maze of chapels, fountain gardens, stairways, alcoves.
So in the guise of New Music Bay Area she approached the management and they said yes, and so she started a summer solstice festival where each of the 40 or so chapels has a different music soloist or ensemble playing. You pay $15 and then wander around this maze — and it really is a maze, covering well over a city block — of chapels and alcoves and prettily landscaped courtyards and gardens, and at every corner, amid all the dead people in their urns and funerary niches and tombs, a soloist or an ensemble is making music, mostly new or avant-garde music.
My favorites were Cahill, the founder, playing selections from a two-CD set she’s bringing out in the fall – short pieces by a Japanese composer who’s recorded the voices of plants, i.e., their changing electromagnetic resonances and frequencies, and adapted these to piano compositions http://www.sarahcahill.com/ ; Kitka, a seven-voice a capella women’s chorus singing Russian poetry set to music and composed by their director Eric Banks http://www.kitka.org/music/ ; an avant-garde percussion duo led by Paul Dresher that uses xylophones and cymbals and made-up instruments to do a jumpin’ jive sound mix http://www.dresherensemble.org/ ; and Pamela Z., whose dreadlocks alone are, as the Michelin Guide says, vaut le voyage, but who makes the most extraordinary music by wiring and miking her body and mixing her beautiful mezzo-soprano with other sounds, in this case birdsong, with the mix blended and distorted in correspondence with her body movement http://www.pamelaz.com/video.html. Most memorable might have been the “Pavarotti of Pucker,” a 70 year old talent who’s revived the lost vaudeville art of whistling — you can see him via the miracle of YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdWpsp6EIQc.
The chapels and courtyards have names derived from that 1920s interest in Theosophy – there’s no mention of God but only an invocation of Virtue and Big Ideas — “Garden of Effulgence,” “Courtyard of Revelation,” “Integrity West,” “Adoration West,” “Chapel of Gentle Spirit,” “Courtyard of Tenderness,” “Hall of Valiant,” “Sanctuary of Dawn,” etc. The organizers call the program “Garden of Memory” — you can find it at www.gardenofmemory.com — but I was thinking “Wake the Dead” might be more appropriate.
Although! Who could ask for a better parting gift, than a great annual gathering of people celebrating music in an elegant environment that your funeral expenses helped build and maintain? Do the dead stir restless in their vaults, annoyed at this troubling of their timeless meditations? Or do they long to rise and listen and dance? Are they happy to see the musicians and the crowds depart, or do they long for our return?
I did leave thinking that Morgan may have thought she was designing a building to celebrate the dead — that’s what she was commissioned to build — but in fact that once a year the building finds its true purpose, which is a celebration of life. For sure the effect of the evening was heightened by listening to the musicians and encountering their very new music in the presence of hundreds, probably thousands of people who had spent a great deal of money to be memorialized in a grand “final resting place,” only to be remembered only infinitesimally more than the pauper who dies and is cremated with no ceremony. Who was Julia K. Black, 1899-1984, or Clarence Tracy Jones, 1911-1964?
I’m mystified as to why someone would prefer to suffer the indignity of embalming and interment in a metal coffin sealed into a wall vault over being placed naked in the sweet and welcoming earth and having a tree planted overhead, but values are changing and maybe we are moving from the former to the latter. In the meantime, though, once a year the formers can stir in their vaults or urns or tombs and listen to the call of us, their heirs, making sweet noises and having a good time as the turning tilting earth shudders to a halt and begins its slow reverse wobble, as the sun stays up later than any other day in this particular year — no doubt because the musicians are making it so hard to go to bed.
About Dallas Buyers’ Club:
Outside Matthew McConaughey’s performance as Ron Woodruff as alternative therapies peddler, the film was pretty thin – a response that’s not surprising from one who lived through those times. Screenwriters Melisa Wallick and Craig Borten take as their template the stock 1950s Western plot: Texas renegade confronts bad guys (big government, big bureaucracy), picking up a sidekick (Jared Leto) along the way. Though at first he’s hard-bitten, Woodruff is brought to realize his true heart of gold by the love of an innocent maiden (Jennifer Garner as beautiful woman doctor).
Acting honors should go to Leto, who has the unenviable task of reprising one of the oldest stock figures of Hollywood, the self-destructive drag queen who provides a plot point by dying. I thought we’d left behind that particular stereotype, but evidently not.
Various friends who had seen the film wouldn’t talk about the ending, saying that doing so would spoil it. I can’t imagine what they meant, except that I fear that they thought that the film offered narrative suspense in the form of the hope that Woodruff would beat the diagnosis and survive. If so, that only goes to show how ignorant almost everyone is today of the reality of those times: anyone, everyone who received a full-blown AIDS diagnosis as early as 1986 died.
Even now, even in 2014 Hollywood can only make a film about such a subject through the point of view of an aggressively straight man (why not write it from the point of view of the drag queen?). But the film had a moment where it could have complicated itself: When Woodruff invades the meeting where the bureaucrats’ ally Dr. Sevard is presiding, Sevard calls him a “common drug dealer” and orders him to leave. In fact that is exactly what Woodruff was at that point in the film – dealing drugs of highly suspect provenance and charging premium prices for them, with no exceptions for those unable to pay the price. Had the Dr. Sevard character been played (or more likely, directed) to be more sympathetic and Woodruff less heroic, that moment could have contained all the contradictions of health care under capitalism: Everyone in that room, most especially the pharmaceutical executives, is a common drug dealer, and they are all, including Woodruff, out to make a profit from human suffering.
One friend pointed out that Woodruff is an anti-hero – he’s not presented as having a sympathetic life – but I demur. Though in the film’s asides he’s naughty and brawling and rough-edged as the stock Western template requires, at every critical point he’s decisive, independent, risk-taking, entrepreneurial – all the Reagan-era Ayn Rand / John Wayne values. In case we miss the point, near the film’s end he receives a standing ovation.
I knew in advance that the film would impose an orderly plot on the chaos and agony of a desperate time – it’s a Hollywood film, after all. But – then and now – when thinking of the FDA bureaucrats, I cannot let go of the legacies of the likes of Upton Sinclair and Ida Tarbell, who fought for federal regulation of industries that were killing people in their blind pursuit of profits. (The contamination of West Virginia rivers with toxic chemicals offers a fine contemporary example of the consequences of relaxed and underfunded government regulation.) With all the benefits of hindsight, the film suggests that it was possible to have some clarity around these various drugs, and it strongly implies that Woodruff’s alternative mix (peptide-T, interferon, ddc) kept him alive.
There’s little evidence to support the view that the mix he was dealing helped anyone. That AZT was prescribed in what we now recognize as lethal dosages is not in doubt, but the film suggests that this was done purely to make a profit for the drug companies. In fact everyone was desperate and AZT offered the first glimmer of something that might work, and if a little worked, then a lot should work better, right?
The big pharma executives and their investors are as greedy now as then and I’m all in favor of any story that makes them out to be villains. But for everybody else involved, the story was a lot more complicated, in a way that the film oversimplifies. The real villain was not the bureaucrats who, however unimaginatively, were doing their assigned job of policing drug research and production. The true villain was President Ronald Reagan, who did not mention the disease until long after it was established and spreading, and whose slowness to pour serious research money into its causes and potential cures delayed our understanding of the virus, with consequences of the first magnitude for the infected.
A bass is by disposition and nature a heavy lifter. Think of a jazz trio – there’s always a moment when the pianist and the drummer stand back and let the bass have its solo, but the audience listens politely and waits for it to be over because finally we listen to music for the melody line and the basses by and large don’t carry the melody line and get squirrely and embarrassed when required to do so. You hire a tenor to design the house, a bass to build it. We’re more comfortable down in the basement pouring the foundation.
But this is Mozart’s Requiem, a song for the dead, who in metaphor and in fact reside in the basements of our imaginations. We don’t carry them front center but we never forget them, either, because they are at our destination, they reside in the place where we are all going; though maybe in writing as much I’m learning what Mozart was trying to teach, which is that there is no destination, no line, no progression from here to there, there is only what is, here and now, change, process, life becoming more life, and in such an ever-changing universe one looks for the foundation on which to rest one’s weary feet, and we basses are it. The Requiem showcases the bass line from the moment of its grand, stately opening (”Requiem aeternam . . .”). The piece features by my count thirteen solo bass entrances, which is about eleven more than any piece I’ve yet sung. Among these are some real terror-inducers, from the naked opening to the startling tempo change that introduces the Osanna in the Sanctus.
Twice the music features a magnificent stairstepping line in which the basses first descend (Dona, dona eis requiem, “Give them peace”), then ascend (Qua resurget ex favilla judi cando homo reus, “from the ashes we rise to be judged”), half-pitch by half-pitch, from the mud to the stars. The basses introduce solo all three fugues, the greatest of which — surely not coincidentally, coming from the pen of the randy Mozart and initiated by the butch basses – reminds God of His promise to Abraham that his seed will be scattered far and wide (Quam olim Abrahae promisiti et semini ejus).
We have become so accustomed to the devices Mozart uses to introduce and sustain musical excitement and suspense that they can sound corny or clichéd – the internal crescendo/decrescendo, the pauses between words (Qua / re / sur / get / ex / fa / vi / la / ju / di / can / do / ho / mo / re / us) swelling to a climax. But he did it first, or at least put all the tricks together first, and in no piece to greater effect than the Requiem. Listen closely to enough Mozart – learn enough Mozart and you’ll never hear cartoon music – or for that matter, any popular music – the same way again. It’s true – there are too many notes; but what notes, and how exhilarating to sing them!
Finally: A recording recommendation: I own two. The Vienna State Opera Chorus performing under Sir Georg Solti, and the Academy and Chorus of St. Martin’s in the Fields, under Sir Neville Mariner. The former is a live performance of the concert held in the Vienna cathedral to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death, and it demonstrates all the advantages of live performance: the audience is a palpable presence, and the chorus and orchestra respond accordingly. But it’s interspersed with the text of the funeral mass, intoned by old white guys in Prada gowns, and with all due respect, unless you’re more adept at cutting and pasting tracks than I, you might prefer the crisp and competent Mariner rendition.
And so farewell to Wolfgang Amadeus, beloved of God, at least for a while. Of course there are harder and more challenging roles; still. In my imagination the Requiem was the Everest / Chomolungma of choral roles. I never imagined I’d sing it. I’d sing it again in a heartbeat; I sing it in the shower; driving to and from my sister’s deathbed, I sang it in the car, for comfort for me, from love of her.
For now, it may be back to Happy Birthday for me. Stay tuned, so to speak.
OK, here’s a chance to get more people to read about Larry Rose, and fold in another great San Francisco tip. Recently psychologist Harriet Lerner, author of The Dance of Anger and, most recently, Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and the Coupled Up, praised Geography of the Heart: A Memoir on All Things Considered. The full text of her review may be found / listened to on this site on the page for Geography, but herewith, a particular sentence she quoted: “He brought flowers — not your garden-variety carnations and mums, but fabulous arrangements of tropical flora with unpronounceable names and big hair.”
That sentence took me back to those arrangements, which I can see, oh, how I can see them here and now, more real than the real.
But there’s also the real thing, still in business, and here is a link to their homepage:
This is the shop where Larry bought those “fabulous arrangements,” and they are the greatest, the apotheosis of flowers.
Remarks delivered at the Associated Writing Programs 2012 Conference, Chicago, Illinois, 3 March.
Life is research; thus, the memoir.
Research deepens and enriches memory. I search for prompts, which in turn direct the research, which in its turn sparks memory. I take issue w/ the panel description’s use of the word “objective” – as in, “the researcher’s objective findings.” Vladimir Nabokov, who would know, wrote that reality is the only word that ought always to be enclosed in quotation marks – “reality.” The great beauty of creative nonfiction is that, while the writer is morally and aesthetically bound in service to truth, she or he is liberated from service to the mythology of objective fact.
Now that is not at all to advocate making up facts or distorting them for the sake of aesthetic convenience. If we betray our memories, or if we refuse to put them to the test of fact, then we’ll have a distorted view of the truth.
Flannery O’Connor, who knew whereof she spoke, wrote that your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see, nor will they be a substitute for seeing. What she’s saying is that our belief systems – our moral values, whatever they may be – are quite literally the light by which we see; without the light they shed we can see nothing. But she’s also pointing up the distinction between “the light by which we see” and the world around us. The first is not the same as the second, and to assume as much is a kind of fundamentalism, i.e., working from the assumption that what I believe is the same as the world itself, and so everybody else had better get on board fast. She’s saying that while a system of beliefs, of moral values is essential for the writer or the artists, we can’t substitute it for an open and mindful encounter with the world that is.
O’Connor also says that anyone who has survived childhood has enough to write about for a lifetime, and that’s true, but one visits and revisits that interior life through the lens of research, which serves both to amplify and to particularize the experience. Life is like water – it takes the shape of the vessel into which it’s poured; remove the vessel and it’s lost. Research is a tool with which the writer shapes and carries memory, the vehicle for one’s personal mythology.
Oscar Wilde said the first duty in life is to adopt a pose; what the second duty is, no one has yet ascertained. Not only is a personal mythology essential, but it must grow and change over time. Our great contemporary challenge is the construction of a national mythology built on cooperation and sustainability rather than on conquest and exploitation.
I offer, for example, the observation that the two great strands of the human condition are the active life and the contemplative life. I came to this understanding courtesy of the research I’ve done into a wide variety of spiritual traditions, seeing how each tradition develops and cultivates paths for the contemplative even as it accommodates those more engaged with worldly life. Today I realize that my understanding of this dialectic between contemplation and action is rooted in having a mother who made the greatest imaginative leap the Kentucky hills afforded in the 1930s, converting from Bible-Belt Protestantism to marry my father, a bourbon-making Roman Catholic. I see how my ongoing ideological schizophrenia roots itself in her identify as a seeker – when I was a child and the Jehovah’s Witnesses rang the doorbell, she invited them in and argued with them; and of course in a story I’ve told many times, she was a lifelong host to the comings and goings of the Trappist monks at the nearby Abbey of Gethsemani.
But I’d have had no comprehension of the historical context of my mother’s leap – I’d have had no understanding of the origins and implications of the dueling Protestant and Catholic theologies in my character – without the research I’ve done into the spiritual traditions of the world. She participated in the Roman Catholic Church with all the fervor of the convert. At the same time, when I asked her if we were really going to go to hell because we’d spent the previous Sunday working on the family cabin in the woods, she looked conspiratorial and said, “You don’t have to believe everything they tell you,” as thoroughly a Protestant take on the matter as anyone might muster – as thoroughly Protestant as her sniffing, in response to some comment I made about the Pope, “I never had much use for authority.”
We live and write on a spectrum of fiction, with the New York Times at one end and maybe Finnegan’s Wake at the other, though there are days when I feel the front page of the Times and Finnegan’s Wake have more in common with each other than I can comfortably accommodate. (On those days I write fiction.) The delight of the memoirist’s trade is the understanding that one is shaping the vessel even as it is serving as the means into which to pour the stories of our lives. It’s that symbiotic relationship, between the past and the present, between what has happened and the here and now, between being shaped and shaping, between destiny and free will, that is the memoirist’s proper and richest territory.
As for practical tips,
— Reviewing graduate school applications: while a well-written straightforward memoir drew attention, my colleagues and I were all drawn to those braids of personal experience and memory, and memory with observation and research – a memoir in service to the heart and to the head, which after all are inseparable, two words for the same consciousness.
— Experience – Chekhov, who knew whereof he spoke, would have said “long and bitter experience” – has taught me not to allow my undergraduates to write straightforward memoir until the second half of the semester. For the first half of the semester I tell them that they must use the first person but they cannot write about themselves. I require that their first project be primarily or significantly research-based. I feel it of utmost importance to give them the tools to look outward – to situate themselves on a continuum of human history, in which it’s possible to balance respect for tradition with the need for growth and change. I know that the inquiring mind looking outward will or ought to be drawn inward, only now with the perspective and the tools with which to undertake that more dangerous interior journey.
Eudora Welty, who knew whereof she spoke, wrote, “All serious daring begins within.” By way of making the point, I teach examples – in the Lopate anthology that we all know and love, John McPhee’s Search for Marvin Gardens, Wendell Berry’s An Entrance to the Woods. Albert Goldbarth’s funny and astonishing essay collection Many Circles, anything by Guy Davenport, Annie Dillard can get a little breathless for my taste but she’s almost always founded in solid research – all these are good examples. The current issue of the Georgia Review features a fine essay by Catherine Reid that interweaves a memoir of helping her mother through dying with a birdwatcher’s investigation into avian mythologies. Keeping Faith turned into such a book, though I didn’t realize that until I began writing it.
— For the writer: Keep a good paper trail, and if you don’t know how to do that, talk to somebody who does.
— Read poetry, which can keep you honest and teach you a great deal about the shaping of the sentence and narrative line.
A successful memoir is a product not of the self-obsession of a selfish, me-first generation but evidence of literate people’s recognition that the written word has replaced the story sung by the winter fire as our means of establishing and preserving cultural memory.
Mozart’s Last Joke
Learning Mozart’s Requiem — the centerpiece of the University of Arizona Community Chorus spring concert, April 29, 3 pm, FYI – is an intense and wonderful experience. I know the piece well, and have said on previous occasion that its Kyrie is the cry of a desperate dying man for mercy for his sins, and for sure in its intensity it evokes that response. But learned from inside, it’s beginning to feel like a vast, lightning-fast joke – the flittery dancing up and down the scale, the octave jump where you least expect it (and often right where any reasonable vocalist would be out of breath), the melodrama of the sharps and flats inserted and held at just the – well, melodramatic moment – it’s a delight, a cornball thumbing of the nose at the Grim Reaper. When this is over I just might rank it above Fauré’s Requiem, which would be an inversion of my previous order. Fauré is sweet and tender; Mozart’s is blunt and no-nonsense: — Help me, I’m fucked! with the expletive appropriate to the man and the music; and comes the response — There is no help, God save you.
A chorister has no choice but to memorize the music – no way to get through the Kyrie without diving off the cliff and praying. One glance down at the page and you’re left behind and you’ll never catch up, no point in trying, everything is moving so fast, the roller coaster has disappeared over the next climb and plunge. Written by and for drama queens – I’m having to decide, and quickly, whether I have the theatrical flair required to sing it well. Fortunately, one of the salubrious experiences of singing in a chorus is that I always feel self-conscious – ohmygod, everybody heard me sing that flat note. But then I listen to recordings, and – short of an entrance ahead of schedule – any single voice is lost in the overall wall of sound (Mozart had this idea long before Phil Spector), which is both a relief (thank God nobody heard that flat note) and a humbling (I’m not as important as I think I am).
Locals and visitors, take note: University of Arizona Community Chorus and Orchestra, Dr. Elizabeth Schauer, conductor, Blair Buffinton, assistant conductor, performs Schubert’s “Intende voci” and Mozart’s “Requiem,” Sunday, April 29, 3 p.m., Crowder Hall, University of Arizona campus. Box office 520-621-1162.
Discussant remarks, First Friday presentations, Department of English, University of Arizona
Introduction: Dr. Tilly Warnock, professor emerita, University of Arizona
Speakers: Dr. Ron Grant, director, University of Arizona Medical Humanities Program
Dr. Rishi Goyal, Ph.D.
Professor Fenton Johnson, discussant
Recent years have witnessed the rise of scientists writing as Renaissance men – I choose the gender deliberately, since I know of no women entrants in this field. If this is true, I suspect it’s because women come intuitively to a more complex understanding of reality than one based solely in empiricism. These great scientists, having achieved prominence in their chosen disciplines – e.g., Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, or cognitive scientist Steven Pinker – write about issues rooted in the arts and humanities with little or no serious study of these disciplines. In Consilience, for example, Dr. Wilson claims that science will someday reveal the precise combination of chemicals and synapse firings that produced Milton’s Paradise Lost. “When we have unified enough certain knowledge,” he writes – that is to say, enough facts – “we will understand who we are and why we are here.” In his current bestseller The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker claims that civilization – which we are to understand means “Western civilization” – has reduced violence, even as he never mentions the bloody record of European colonizers against Native peoples or the unhappy fact that fascism and Nazism arose in what was arguably the most civilized European nation.
We who teach in the arts and humanities know the problem here. It’s rooted not in empiricism, a noble way of encountering reality, but in sloppy critical thinking. These brilliant men of reason have not cultivated the discipline required to negotiate what William Faulkner called “the problems of the human hawt in conflict with itself.” They bring a chronometer and a measuring rod to the timeless, infinite territories of the soul, when an evening spent in the company of Shakespeare or George Eliot or Toni Morrison or W.H. Auden or Sor Juana Inez or Matisse or Mozart or Scott Momaday would offer more appropriate and revelatory access.
How are artists and humanists to respond? One means of addressing that question lies, I think, in medicine, because the healing arts inevitably bring reason into an intimate encounter with the heart. Medicine brings science into direct engagement with the most profound issues of the human condition. Genentech may develop tests to predict my unborn child’s sexual identity or the likelihood of Down’s syndrome, but I am most likely to have these tests administered in my doctor’s office. Science can develop drugs to treat HIV, but I will have them prescribed by a doctor, with whom – at least in the ideal – I will discuss the behavior that led to their prescription.
In The Courage to Be, published in 1952, the great theologian Paul Tillich anticipated this development. In the passage that, significantly, incorporates the title of his book, he writes,
This is why, more and more, representatives of medicine generally and psychotherapy specifically ask to cooperate with philosophers and theologians. . . . The medical faculty needs a doctrine of man in order to fulfill its theoretical task; and it cannot have a doctrine of man without the permanent cooperation of all those faculties whose central object is man. . . . Both the help given to man and the doctrines about man are a matter of cooperation from many points of view. Only in this way is it possible to understand and to actualize man’s power of being, his essential self-affirmation, his courage to be.
It should be a source of pride for us that integrative medicine, a manifestation of the collaboration Tillich describes, has a primary base at the University of Arizona, where the medical school has seen fit to cultivate collaboration between the disciplines through its Medical Humanities Program. I’m honored to have had Dr. Grant among my first students at the U of A, to have been invited to participate in this discussion, to join the chorus welcoming Dr. Goyal to the Department, and to seed our discussion by posing the first question:
The humanities notably concern themselves with death as much as life – the Roman poet Cicero famously said that to study philosophy is to learn how to die. And yet contemporary medicine is preoccupied with life to the exclusion of dying. What is the proper place of the study of dying in a discipline whose goal is to preserve and enhance life?