29 August 2011

Where is the Sweet Revolution?

From Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry story, 'Gedali', translated by Peter Constantine:
“So let’s say we say ‘yes’ to the Revolution. But does that mean that we’re supposed to say ‘no’ to the Sabbath?’” Gedali begins, enmeshing me in the silken cords of his smoky eyes. “Yes to the Revolution! Yes! But the Revolution keeps hiding from Gedali and sending gunfire ahead of itself.”

“The sun cannot enter eyes that are squeezed shut,” I say to the old man, “but we shall rip open those closed eyes!”

“The Pole has closed my eyes,” the old man whispers almost inaudibly. “The Pole, that evil dog! He grabs the Jew and rips out his beard, oy, the hound! But now they are beating him, the evil dog! This is marvelous, this is the Revolution! But then the same man who beat the Pole says to me, ‘Gedali, we are requisitioning your gramophone!’ ‘But gentlemen,’ I tell the Revolution, ‘I love music!’ And what does the Revolution answer me? ‘You don’t know what you love, Gedali! I am going to shoot you, and then you’ll know, and I cannot not shoot, because I am the Revolution!’”

“The Revolution cannot not shoot, Gedali,” I tell the old man, “because it is the Revolution.”

“But my dear Pan! The Pole did shoot, because he is the counterrevolution. And you shoot because you are the Revolution. But Revolution is happiness. And happiness does not like orphans in its house. A good man does good deeds. The Revolution is the good deed done by good men. But good men do not kill. Hence the Revolution is done by bad men. But the Poles are also bad men. Who is going to tell Gedali which is the Revolution and which the counterrevolution? I have studied the Talmud. I love the commentaries of Rashi and the books of Maimonides. And there are also other people in Zhitomir who understand. And so all of us learned men fall to the floor and shout with a single voice, ‘Woe unto us, where is the sweet Revolution?’”

The old man fell silent. And we saw the first star breaking through and meandering along the Milky Way.

19 August 2011

An Uncomfortably Familiar Assessment

I have had plenty of time here to discover two of my capital faults, which have pursued and tormented me all my life. One is that I could never be bothered to learn the mechanical part of anything I wanted to work on or should have worked on. That is why, though I have plenty of natural ability, I have accomplished so little. Either I tried to master it by sheer force of intellect, in which case my success or failure was a matter of chance, or, if I wanted to do something really well and with proper deliberation, I had misgivings and could not finish it. My other fault, which is closely related to the first, is that I have never been prepared to devote as much time to any piece of work as it required. I possess the fortunate gift of being able to think of many things and see their connexions in a short time, but, in consequence, the detailed execution of a work, step by step, irritates and bores me. Now it is high time for me to mend my ways. I am in the land of the Arts; let me study them really thoroughly, so that I may find peace and joy for the rest of my life and be able to go on to something else.

That would be Goethe, from his Italian Journey.

18 August 2011

A New Word

I have been trying to coin a word. Starting from satyagraha, or commitment to truth, which was coined by Gandhi to describe his 'philosophical school', I am proposing the word avidyagraha. Like satyagraha this is a portmanteau, combining the Sanskrit avidya ('ignorance') and agraha ('insistence'). It would be defined as either the act of closing your eyes, putting your fingers in your ears, and going 'lalalalalala!', or the mental equivalent thereof. I've long wanted a word for that.

New words are problematic. Knut Hamson has much to say about this in his novel Hunger:
All at once I snapped my fingers a couple of times and laughed. Hellfire and damnation! I suddenly imagined I had discovered a new word! I sat up in bed, and said: It is not in the language, I have discovered it – Kuboaa. It has letters just like a real word, by sweet Jesus, man, you have discovered a word!... Kuboaa… of tremendous linguistic significance.

The word stood out clearly in front of me in the dark.

I sat with wide eyes astonished at my discovery, laughing with joy. Then I fell to whispering: they could very well be spying on me, and I must act so as to keep my invention secret. I had arrived at the joyful insanity hunger was: I was empty and free of pain, and my thoughts no longer had any check. I debated everything silently with myself. My thoughts took amazing leaps as I tried to establish the meaning of my new word. It needn’t mean either God or the Tivoli Gardens, and who had said it had to mean cattle show? I clenched my fists hard and repeated again: Who said it had to mean cattle show? When I thought it over, it was in fact not even necessary that it mean padlock or sunrise. In a word like that it was very easy to find meaning. I would just wait and see. In the meantime, I would sleep on it.

I lay back on the cot and chuckled, but said nothing, did not commit myself either for or against. Some time went by and I remained excited, the new word plagued me incessantly, kept on returning, finally took control of my thoughts entirely and made me sober down. I had formulated my opinion on what the word did not mean, but I had not yet come to a decision on what it did mean. ‘That is a secondary matter!’ I said aloud to myself, and grabbed myself by the arm and repeated that it was a secondary matter. The word, thanks to God, has been discovered and that was the main thing. But thoughts pestered me constantly and kept me from falling asleep: nothing seemed to me good enough for this remarkable word. Finally I sat up a second time in bed, took my head between both hands, and said, ‘No, no, that is exactly what is impossible – letting it mean emigration or tobacco factory! If it could have meant something like that, I would have made the decision a long time ago and taken the consequences.’ No, the word was actually intended to mean something spiritual, a feeling, a state of mind – if I could only understand it? And I thought and thought to find something spiritual. It occurred to me that someone was talking, butting into my chat, and I answered angrily: ‘I beg your pardon? For an idiot, you are all alone in the field! Yarn? Go to hell!’ Why should I be obligated to let it mean yarn when I had a special aversion to its meaning yarn? I had discovered the word myself, and I was perfectly within my rights to let it mean whatever I wanted it to, for that matter. So far as I knew, I had not yet committed myself….

04 August 2011

The Pharmacists' Bastard Literature

Sir William Osler, Canadian physician and professor at McGill University, came to America in the 1880s, and became one of the founders of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. His biography on Wikipedia is quite thorough, so I won’t repeat it here.

In 1902, he gave an address on ‘Chauvinism in Medicine’ to the Canadian Medical Association. It is included in the 1932 collection of his lectures and addresses, Aequanimitas. In it, he makes an observation on the relationship between doctors and pharmaceutical companies that could have been printed as an op-ed piece today.

[The skeptical attitude] may keep the practitioner out of the clutches of the arch enemy of his professional independence – the pernicious literature of our camp-followers, a literature increasing in bulk, in meretricious attractiveness, and in impudent audacity. To modern pharmacy we owe much, and to pharmaceutical methods we shall owe much more in the future, but the profession has no more insidious foe than the large borderland pharmaceutical houses. No longer an honoured messmate, pharmacy in this form threatens to become a huge parasite, eating the vitals of the body medical. We all know only too well the bastard literature which floods the mail, every page of which illustrates the truth of the axiom, the greater the ignorance the greater the dogmatism.

The emphasis added here is not original, but reproduced from the library copy that I read. This struck me particularly, as the book was apparently donated to the University of New Mexico Library by Harvey A. K. Whitney (1894-1957), who received his Ph.C. degree from the University of Michigan College of Pharmacy in 1923 and went on to found the American Society of Hospital Pharmacists in 1942. Furthermore, glued inside the front cover is a letter dated May 1932, presumably sent generically to newly minted doctors, as the salutation is a simple “Dear Doctor”, reading as follows:

Dear Doctor:

Together with congratulations on your attainment of a medical degree, this volume of addresses by Sir William Osler, who adorned your profession in the United States for so many years, is cordially presented.

As the addresses by this master mind of modern medicine are read, may you catch his vision of the almost boundless possibilities of your chosen profession.

May you share with him his ‘relish of knowledge’ and his absorbing love and passionate, persistent search for truth.

Above all, may there come to you an inspiration which will enable you to live a rich, a happy, and an abundant life.

Sincerely yours,


The letter is signed by Eli Lilly, President. It seems clear to me that this was a promotional gift. Apparently, Osler’s own book became part of the bastard literature flowing from pharmacists to physicians.

Cruel fate.