October 5, 2008

1. Killer Stress

In the last issue, I mentioned an alternative-medicine writer, Gabor Maté, whom I heard about from a Canadian subscriber, Chris Batty. I borrowed Maté’s When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection from my local library, but I decided not to read it — I wanted to read other things first. But I didn’t want to return it without skimming a page or two, so I opened it up at random.

I happened to land in Chapter 12, which discusses Alzheimer’s, and links Alzheimer’s to childhood stress, such as a parent’s death. Maté discusses Ronald Reagan, whose father was an alcoholic, and he says that Reagan’s childhood stresses may have contributed to his later Alzheimer’s.

I thought of people I knew who had Alzheimer’s (or dementia), and I realized that they, too, had experienced unusual childhood stresses. When a stressful childhood is followed by a diseased maturity, one might say, “How unfair! He had a difficult childhood, he doesn’t deserve it!” Fair or unfair, this seems to be the pattern: those who are stressed as children, through no fault of their own, often end up paying for it (one might say “paying double”) with a diseased adulthood.

I saw a documentary last night called “Killer Stress.” It discussed the work of Robert Sapolsky, who studied stress among baboons, and wrote a book called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping. The documentary discusses how lower-ranking individuals — in a baboon group or in a human group — have more stress and more disease. It says that stress shows up as fat-around-the-midsection, as worn-out brain cells (leading to Alzheimer’s?), as frayed chromosome-ends, etc. It looks at mothers of special-needs children, mothers who endure prolonged stress and who age rapidly.

The documentary says that, fifty years ago, one of the few diseases linked to stress was ulcers. Then, in the early 1980s, it was discovered that a bacterium called H. pylori caused ulcers, and stress was dismissed as a mythical cause. Later still, though, it was discovered that many people have this bacterium but don’t get ulcers. Why do some people with the bacterium get ulcers, and not others? Stress, according to some researchers. These researchers say that many people have the potential for Alzheimer’s, cancer, ulcers, etc. but don’t get these diseases if their stress-level is moderate. We all carry within us “disease seeds” and if we’re stressed, these seeds are more likely to germinate and grow.

“Wait a minute, wait just a minute. In the last issue, you said that cancer was caused by diet, and that there was no colon cancer in India because of the Indian diet. Now you’re saying stress causes cancer. Don’t you see the contradiction? Are you going to point to a different cause in every issue?” Truth is contradictory, as I’ve argued before, and causation is multiple, if not infinite. Perhaps diet and stress are both cancer causes.

2. Not 51

I found a new cancer treatment: Hot Chemo. Cancer cells are sensitive to high temperatures, so the patient’s body (the affected area of the body) is flushed with hot chemo. This is done in conjunction with surgery. Hot Chemo seems to be used on “hard cases” — people who have tried regular chemo, with poor results. Hot Chemo is sometimes called HIPEC (Hyperthermic Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy), or IPHC (Intra-Peritoneal Hyperthermic Chemotherapy). (Click here for an article on Hot Chemo, and here for a video about it, and here for the personal web page of a pioneer in the field.)

I also found a new cancer theory: The Stem Cell Theory, which says that cancer is caused by “stem cells gone bad.” It’s discussed in a recent front-page article in The Economist. Stem cells are cells that specialize in producing new cells. A cancer tumor has a few stem cells, and lots of “regular cells”. If chemo kills only the regular cells, the stem cells will permit the tumor to regenerate (because stem cells are good at producing new cells). Conversely, if you can kill the stem cells, then you can halt cancer spread, even if the regular cells aren’t killed. This theory isn’t universally accepted, but it is getting much attention. According to Wikipedia, “Development of specific therapies targeted at cancer stem cells holds hope for improvement of survival and quality of life of cancer patients, especially for sufferers of metastatic disease.”

3. Miscellaneous

A. I finally finished Tudge’s Variety of Life. I’m thinking of starting Lytton Strachey’s Landmarks in French Literature. Strachey’s book might be compared to Murray’s History of Ancient Greek Literature, and Mackail’s Latin Literature.

B. The Palin Bubble burst as suddenly as it appeared. Instead of helping McCain, and putting him “over the top,” it seemed that she was dragging him down. She seemed naive, inexperienced, etc. Then the debate took place, and everything changed. As soon as she came on stage, I was reminded of why I liked her in the beginning. True, she may not know much about the history of Syria, but foreign policy isn’t a college exam, and I think she’d make better decisions than Obama or Biden. Her candor is exceptional; she not only appeals to Joe SixPack, she’s aware of that appeal, and speaks openly about it. Her candor is such that it deserves a loftier term: courage.

4. Boulder Prose

In the last issue, I complained that no one had read my new book in its entirety. A Phlit subscriber in Brazil, Richard Costa, wrote to me and said that he was in the process of reading my book.

Richard said he found my book interesting, but it didn’t speak to him personally. It struck him as a universal book, addressed to a universal reader. “A conversation with a thinker should be intimate,” Richard wrote. “When I read authors like Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Dostoevsky, there’s always a feeling of complicity. I’m sorry to say that you don’t give me that same feeling.”

Here’s how I would respond: Nietzsche lived in a highly cultured society. I live in a much less cultured society. Nietzsche’s society was connected to Western tradition, to the tradition that began on the Acropolis. My society has lost that connection. I’m trying to restore that connection, to make higher culture accessible and enjoyable.

It may seem that I’m diluting the Western tradition. I believe that, far from diluting it, I’m enriching it with Eastern elements, and with other elements that Nietzsche wasn’t aware of (Jungian psychology, quantum physics, Proust’s fiction, etc.). I’m trying to connect our society, not to a dead tradition, but to a living, changing, vibrant tradition. We continue the Acropolis tradition not by learning Greek (though there may be some value in that) but rather by exploring new topics, and by trying to integrate life and culture.

When my writings were translated into Chinese, my name was translated as “Han2 Zhe2” meaning “chilly philosophy”. Perhaps my work is somewhat cold, somewhat impersonal, somewhat “un-intimate”. One person who read “My Youth in China” (which I co-wrote with my wife, Yafei) said that it gave the facts of Yafei’s life, but not her feelings. Perhaps I find Greek objectivity more congenial than Romantic subjectivity.

In an e-mail to Richard, I wrote

I think I understand your point when you say that I don’t speak to you personally. Let’s look at a specific paragraph:

The Greeks regarded simplicity as both a cultural virtue and a moral virtue. “Beauty of style,” wrote Plato, “and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity — I mean the true simplicity of a rightly and nobly ordered mind and character.” If there is one quality that is lacking in modern culture, it is simplicity.

Does that paragraph speak to you personally? Probably not. I wrote it about 23 years ago, and I’ve tinkered with it countless times. I can’t bring myself to delete it, I think it has some value. Perhaps it would speak to you if you were passionately opposed to modern art — the obscurity and disorder of modern art. Perhaps it would speak to you if you were passionately fond of an older art — a simpler art. On an intellectual level, I think the Plato quote might speak to you insofar as it ties the arts together, and insofar as it ties art to ethics; the Plato quote tells us something about Plato, something about art, something about ethics. Also, on an intellectual level, this paragraph says something about Greek culture and modern culture, and the contrast between them. So I think it could speak to readers in various ways, emotional and intellectual, and I think it achieves all that in a brief and easy-to-read paragraph.

Perhaps you still feel that paragraph doesn’t speak to you. But as writers, we can’t hope to speak to everyone in every paragraph.

As I mentioned before, I’m reading a big book on biology. It doesn’t speak to me personally, but it’s often interesting. Likewise, I hope that a reader of my book would say “it’s often interesting” even if he can’t say “it speaks to me personally.” So I don’t entirely agree with you that “A conversation with a thinker should be intimate.” A philosopher may hope to be both interesting and intimate, but he may be satisfied with just one of those qualities.

I tried to suggest that, if my work isn’t like that of Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, perhaps that’s a good thing. Richard had said that my work didn’t give him the “feeling of complicity” that he got from Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky. I responded:

Does Tolstoy also give you that “feeling of complicity”? On page 185, I wrote

One of the greatest critics praised Tolstoy for the “rock-like” simplicity of his literary criticism. Modern critics have forgotten that simplicity is a characteristic of good prose; their prose is an obscure, technical jargon.

What I admire in literature is rock-like simplicity. Tolstoy possessed this, Dostoyevsky didn’t. On page 155, I wrote

Dostoyevsky’s greatest fault is that he carries his psychological analysis to an excessive and morbid point. This fault is particularly evident when Dostoyevsky is compared with Tolstoy. Tolstoy has Dostoyevsky’s profundity and keen insight and, in addition, Tolstoy has a simplicity and serenity that Dostoyevsky lacks.

This is what I admire: the simple, the serene, the sublime. And this is what I dislike: the obscure, the morbid, the strained. Tolstoy criticized Dostoyevsky much as I do: “It is all much simpler,” Tolstoy said, “more understandable.”

Your phrase “feeling of complicity” is an interesting one. It isn’t entirely and immediately clear, it makes the reader stretch. That’s characteristic of your style; you make the reader stretch, you paint with a fine brush. I paint with a broad brush. My ideal is the simplicity that Henry Adams found in medieval French poetry and medieval French architecture:

[In the Song of Roland ], the naiveté of the thought is repeated by the simplicity of the verse. Word and thought are equally monosyllabic.... The qualities of the architecture reproduce themselves in the song: the same directness, simplicity, absence of self-consciousness; the same intensity of purpose.

This rock-like simplicity is also found in medieval German poetry. Heine said that the Nibelungen-Lied was an epic written with granite boulders.

This directness and simplicity isn’t only for medieval poets and architects; philosophers can write this way, too. Adams says

[In Pascal’s work] the French language rose, perhaps for the last time, to the grand style of the twelfth century.

This is what I admire: the grand style. Nietzsche achieves it occasionally, but often he moves in a different direction. In my Realms of Gold, I wrote

[Nietzsche’s] sentences are slightly precious and his thoughts are often strained. Thus, Nietzsche’s work, especially his early work, is difficult to read.

Eventually this discussion will conclude de gustibus non disputandum — there’s no arguing about taste. I like simplicity, you like something else. If I can achieve simplicity, I think I’ve achieved something that Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky fall short of. On the other hand, you think that Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky achieved something that I fall short of.

But my tastes aren’t narrow; though I find fault with Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, on the whole I’m a huge fan of both of them.

Perhaps my love of simplicity, of “boulder prose”, is a personal thing. Perhaps simplicity/naivete is an American thing, or a Protestant thing. Perhaps our modern era has drifted so far from cultural tradition that we’re back at the stage of medieval culture.

I’m now interested in the connection between stress and disease. I want to shout it from the rooftops, I want to put a megaphone to the reader’s ear, and say “Stress and disease are connected! Isn’t that fascinating? Isn’t that a revolutionary idea? Doesn’t it throw light on the people around you? Doesn’t it help you to live better yourself?” I don’t want a fine brush, I want a broad brush. I don’t want to whisper, I want to shout. I don’t want to be subtle, let alone obscure, I want to be as simple as I can be. I want the reader to see what I see, to share my wonder.

One might say, “The connection between stress and disease isn’t a revolutionary idea, one hears that constantly from New Age folks.” But it’s revolutionary when juxtaposed with Establishment thinking; it would be a heresy at Harvard Medical School. I try to occupy a position midway between West and East, between Tradition and New Age, between the Acropolis and Stonehenge. I try to introduce Eastern ideas to those steeped in the Western tradition, and I try to discuss the Western tradition with the New Age folks. I hope to build a bridge, to create a synthesis.

Richard’s command of English is astonishing in one who isn’t a native English speaker. I’ve seen this before in literate young foreigners. They study English in school, they’re exposed to it through the media, they get good at it, they enjoy it, they study it more, they get even better at it, etc. English may soon become a universal literary language, and perhaps a universal business language, too. Several prominent foreign writers were able to write English for publication: Jung, Kundera, Huizinga, and (most well-known of all) Conrad.

In an earlier issue, Richard wrote an essay on Cioran. “To be is to be cornered,” wrote Cioran. A clever aphorism. Perhaps we’ve all felt this way at one time or another. Cioran speaks to our experience, doesn’t he? He writes in an intimate way, doesn’t he? I would say that Cioran emphasizes the Negative. We’re free to choose, we’re free to emphasize the Positive or the Negative, to call the glass half-empty or half-full. I choose to emphasize the Positive, to call the glass half-full. We should see the darkness, but not embrace it, not wallow in it. Avoid the via negativa, beware les počtes maudits. Let’s follow Kafka’s example: “In the authors of the ‘night side’, of the decadence, [Kafka] felt not the slightest interest. It was to the simple positive forms of life that he was powerfully attracted.”1

5. Disciples of Freud and Jung

Here’s a piece from the new version of Realms of Gold: A Sketch of Western Literature:

The fertility of the line of inquiry that Freud initiated is shown by the number and quality of Freud’s disciples. One of Freud’s most talented disciples was Ernest Jones, an Englishman. I recommend Jones’s work, Hamlet and Oedipus. I also recommend several essays by Jones: “The Significance of Christmas,” “Psycho-Analysis and the Christian Religion,” “Psycho-Analysis and Folklore,” “A Psycho-Analytic Study of the Holy Ghost Concept,” “Anal-Erotic Character Traits,” and “The Influence of Andrea del Sarto’s Wife on His Art.”

Karl Abraham was another of Freud’s disciples. Abraham wrote a fascinating essay on Giovanni Segantini, an Italian painter. He also wrote an excellent essay on Amenhotep IV, an Egyptian pharaoh, and an interesting essay on “Character-Formation on the Genital Level of Libido-Development.”

Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud, followed in her father’s footsteps and pursued a career as a psychoanalyst. While her father had concentrated on the psychology of the unconscious, Anna Freud concentrated on ego psychology. She specialized in the study of children and adolescents. I recommend her lucid and interesting book, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense.

Erik Erikson continued along the same path that Anna Freud had trodden. Erikson specialized in ego psychology, and is best known for his work on adolescence and for his theory of “identity crisis.” I recommend his book Youth: Identity and Crisis. Erikson illustrates his theories about youth by discussing the identity crises of George Bernard Shaw and William James. Erikson insists that adolescence must be viewed in its social context: “We cannot separate personal growth and communal change, nor can we separate [the] identity crisis in individual life and contemporary crises in historical development.”2

Though one can learn much from Freud’s disciples, one can learn even more from Jung’s disciples, such as Marie-Louise von Franz. Von Franz lived a long life, and was a prolific writer. The depth of her thought is astonishing, and she often speaks to one’s most personal experience. Unfortunately, her books are somewhat unpolished, consisting of lecture notes, seminar transcripts, etc. Von Franz’s specialty was fairy tales; she wrote several books about fairy tales, discussing tales from many different countries, and enriching her discussion with comments on her patients. She also wrote books about other Jungian topics — dreams, divination, alchemy, etc. She collaborated with Jung’s wife, Emma, on a major study of the Grail Legend. Emma Jung also wrote a small book called Animus and Anima which is highly regarded.

Jung is more popular today than Freud, and Jungian books like Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul often become bestsellers.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, an American psychiatrist who worked with terminally-ill patients, is the author of numerous books, including the well-known book, On Death and Dying. She argues that in modern society, the subject of death is taboo; “the more we are making advancements in science, the more we seem to fear and deny the reality of death.”3 She argues that the process of dying usually occurs in five stages: denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance; her theory has become known as “The Five Stages of Grief.” I can’t wholeheartedly recommend On Death and Dying because it isn’t well-written; the classic work on this important subject remains to be written. Kübler-Ross also wrote a short book called Life After Death.

M. Scott Peck, an American psychiatrist, is the author of a book called The Road Less Traveled. Peck’s book is popular rather than scholarly, inspirational rather than scientific, sincere rather than original. Though the style is second rate, it’s clear and readable. Peck’s book isn’t a classic, but it does contain considerable psychological wisdom; the first half is especially interesting.

Peck uses case histories to illustrate the importance of early childhood and of parental love. He says that parental love indicates to the child that he’s valuable. A child who feels itself to be valuable will take care of itself and discipline itself. Thus, parental love, according to Peck, is the source of self-discipline.

Peck’s book shows how important psychotherapy is in the modern world. Many other interesting books will doubtless be written by psychotherapists in the future.

I recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking; it’s highly readable and highly interesting. Since I’m a champion of the classics, I hate to admit how enjoyable a contemporary bestseller can be. Blink was difficult for me to put down, it made me late for appointments. Gladwell tries to present psychology research in a manner that laymen can understand. Gladwell discusses non-rational thinking — intuitive, unconscious thinking. Gladwell’s thesis is interesting, and the stories with which he supports his thesis are also interesting. Popular as Blink is, Gladwell’s other book, The Tipping Point, is even more popular. Tipping Point is described as “social psychology”; it discusses fads, “social epidemics.”

Those interested in the occult should consider Dean Radin’s book, The Conscious Universe: The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena. Radin describes the careful, controlled, verifiable experiments that have been made over the last hundred years, and how these experiments have built a strong case in favor of psychic phenomena. Radin takes a scholarly, statistical approach to the occult; his book isn’t anecdotal or literary. Though he knows how stubborn skeptics are, Radin looks to the future with confidence: “The eventual scientific acceptance of psychic phenomena is inevitable. The origins of acceptance are already brewing through the persuasive weight of the laboratory evidence.”4

Colin Wilson is a popular and prolific English writer who often writes about the occult, crime, and sex. Compared to Dean Radin, Wilson discusses the occult in a manner that’s more literary, less laboratory. The Occult: A History is Wilson’s chief work in this field. Now in his seventies, Wilson burst into prominence at age 24 with a book called The Outsider, which discussed outsiders and outcasts in the works of Kafka, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and others. Wilson has written studies of Rasputin, Gurdjieff, Jung, Aleister Crowley, Henry Miller, Rudolf Steiner, and others. Wilson says that his best book is a mystical work called Beyond the Occult.

6. Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits: Sonnet 102

In this sonnet, the poet explains to the beloved why he isn’t showering the beloved with love poems, as he once did; the poet explains why he has ‘stopped his pipe’ and ‘held his tongue’.

My love is strengthened, though more weak in seeming;
I love not less, though less the show appear.
That love is merchandized, whose rich esteeming,
The owner’s tongue doth publish everywhere.
Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays,
As Philomel in summer’s front doth sing,
And stops his pipe in growth of riper days.
Not that the summer is less pleasant now
Than when her mournful hymns did hush the night,
But that wild music burdens every bough,
And sweets grown common lose their dear delight.
    Therefore, like her, I sometime hold my tongue,
    Because I would not dull you with my song.

In line 3, “rich esteeming” means high value, great worth. In line 10, “hush the night” suggests that all living things are silent, entranced by the “mournful hymns” of Philomel (the nightingale). In line 11, “wild music burdens every bough” means that love poems have become common, like bird-song in summer, and the poet doesn’t want to add to this over-abundance. Perhaps it’s the poet’s own love poetry that has become over-abundant, so he has stopped his pipe to avoid satiating the beloved.

This poem doesn’t strengthen the Prince Tudor Theory. (As you may recall, the Prince Tudor Theory says that the poet is the Earl of Oxford, and the beloved is his son, the Third Earl of Southampton.) On the contrary, certain lines seem to contradict it:

Our love was new, and then but in the spring,
When I was wont to greet it with my lays

But according to the Prince Tudor Theory, Southampton was around 20 when the poet began addressing sonnets to him (urging him to marry and procreate). So the poet’s love wasn’t new, it was 20 years old (if the poet loved his son from the time of his birth). It would seem that these lines are more applicable to a man-woman love than to a father-son love.

How can advocates of the Prince Tudor Theory, like myself, answer this objection? Perhaps the poet didn’t see his son frequently during his son’s early years; perhaps the poet only saw his son frequently when his son was around 20 (and therefore the poet’s love was “new” when the poet’s son was about 20). Perhaps the poet is purposely trying to throw people off the scent, trying to position his sonnets in the love-poetry tradition, trying to give his sonnets a man-woman flavor instead of a father-son flavor. Perhaps we should interpret these lines in a loose, literary, metaphorical sense, not in a strict sense. Or perhaps we shouldn’t argue at all, perhaps we shouldn’t try to fit these lines into the Prince Tudor Theory, perhaps we should say, “Fine, this is a strike against us, but if most of the evidence supports us, why should a little contrary evidence shake our faith?”

© L. James Hammond 2008
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1. Franz Kafka, by Max Brod, ch. 2. It may seem obvious that we should prefer the Positive to the Negative. But pessimism has a long history (Schopenhauer, etc.), and the darkness has a strong attraction. Richard tells me that “in Brazil, the expression Poeta Maldito is rather popular. There is a community named after it in a social network overrun by Brazilians, which counts more than a thousand members.” back
2. Youth: Identity and Crisis, Prologue, 3 back
3. On Death and Dying, ch. 1 back
4. Introduction back