Archive for January, 2008

On Location

January 30, 2008

The staff writers here at The Necromancer (yeah, um…, that would be me and, well, me) have decided they’ve had enough of winter in Montreal and will soon be relocating. Having said this, they’ve yet to decide where they will be relocating to.

The creative department (i.e. me, sometimes when inebriated) have consulted with the staff writers and suggested that I ask my loyal audience (and random passers-by) for input on this exciting new project. The creative department is not that creative.

The staff writers thus implore you to ignore the hard sell of the creative department and just share your thoughts on a past recent vacation to a lovely locale. By “lovely locale” I mean:

– Below the 45th parallel, since it’s winter in the Northern Hemisphere.
— Not totally Spanish.
— Cheap.
— Culturally and naturally appealing (I understand this is relative).
— Something that evokes the word “paradise” in your mind’s eye (not as relative).

Clearly I have some outstanding biases here, but I’m truly open to suggestions. Travelers of the world, enlighten me.

N.B. The staff writers and creative department will be relocated to the yet to be determined location, and The Necromancer will, we’re happy to say, continue to broadcast. So stay tuned!

On the Intractability of the Mind-Body Problem

January 28, 2008

Another interesting review in the Sunday New York Times of a book by medical historian Anne Harrington on the mind-body problem. The reviewer, Jerome Groopman, is a physician and trained as a skeptic — as such his reaction is suitably non-plussed. He concludes by writing that “whatever science reveals about the cause and course of disease, we will continue to tell ourselves stories, and try to use our own metaphors to find meaning in randomness.”

Maybe. But once we’ve found meaning in it all, it’s no longer random, is it? That, of course, is the dilemma here. The title of Harrington’s book — The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008) — suggests how important it is to realize how medicine has historically been concerned with life’s meaning and the spirited internal struggle to survive and triumph in the face of the ever-looming entropic forces of disease and decay.

In essence, Harrington addresses the history of the mind-body problem, and the way it has deeply shaped the history of Western medicine. Many see this as beginning with Aristotle, who proposes the idea that humans have an anima rationalis — a “rational soul”. The idea of animas and the breath (pneuma) were central to Galenic medical models developed in the classical era, and continued to have relevance all the way into the early modern world.

But medicine took a sharp turn in the 17th century, becoming enamored of more mechanistic models. As a philosophical background, Descartes was important in this development, and his classic Discourse on Method (1637) takes a page from the famed physician William Harvey, who in Du Motu Cordis (1628) first described the function of the heart as a pump, using mechanical metaphors liberally.

Still, there were those who resisted mechanism, and emphasized the healing power of mind and a gentler approach to therapeutics. As many historians have argued, in an age still unequipped with anesthetics and antibiotics this aggressive reductionism rooted in heroic and often unwise surgical interventions probably did more harm than good. And yet progress in understanding the basic mechanics of the body continued.

Harrington, who has also edited a cross-disciplinary text on the placebo effect, focuses in contrast on the medical interest in the effect of mind, what she calls the “power of suggestion”, within a historical context. She thus discusses the sometime radical approaches of men like Franz Anton Mesmer, Jean-Martin Charcot and Sigmund Freud. And the real emergence of a more psychologically inclusive vision of health and healing.

This leads her arguments naturally into the 20th century, where thinkers like the physiologist Walter B. Cannon figure prominently. His book The Wisdom of the Body (1932) is a classic in this realm, and explores the intriguing concept of homeostasis. Perhaps even more interesting is the thought of Czech physician Hans Selye, who worked here in Montreal, and introduced the idea of “stress” into the medical lexicon. Selye’s vision is deeply critical of the traditional reductionism so prominent in modern biomedicine.

Which brings us, lurching, into the present day. As Groopman is justified in pointing out, there is a lot of personal experience involved in sickness and being a patient these days. For him, the ever-present quest for alternative remedies is, in general, a waste of time. But perhaps more important than this is the way the whole engagement with medicine is becoming a very particular, even existential, experience. The technology of the internet has facilitated this process in virtually unchartable ways. There is no map for this new territory. It is a whole new world. Whether a critical view of all these processes — and of the pat assumptions of mechanistic medicine — will emerge, is unclear. But things are changing, and this review and books like Harrington’s are evidence of this fact.

Modern biomedicine has made great leaps. The use of drugs and a more complex understanding of the bacteriological sources of disease has led to major increases in lifespan and quality of life. Yet, sadly, there are as many untold stories about the alienation, fear and even death generated by the modern process of healing. It is structured around norms that never exist in the particular, and this tension continues unabated…

And, in the background, hidden away behind the tongue depressors and morphine, is the healing power of mind. It can no longer be ignored as a central issue in health and general welfare, and yet its immaterial quality makes it ever elusive.

In any case, there are deep schisms forming in our understanding of mind-body, psyche-soma relationships, and placebo effects seem to multiply like so many drug company ads. As a concept, it continues to persist. There is so much at stake here, and so much to discuss. Perhaps the intractability of this issue means there’s still space to speak about alternatives, even at the philosophical level. Alternatives like vitalism.

So, this is all I will say on the issue here — with any luck, somebody will be reviewing my take on the subject in a couple of years. Harrington, and others, like Harvard colleague Ted J. Kaptchuk, are using the history of medicine to shape radical critiques of the modern medical enterprise.

I should like to join their cause. It’s a worthy one.

Dark Castle

January 27, 2008

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Quotable

January 25, 2008

“On the deepest level, men seem largely unchanged by history — they are the same soldiers, shamans, and duffers now as five, ten, or fifty thousand years ago. Women are the ones who are changing, struggling against millennia of male domination and negative programming. The transformation of the instinctual and intuitive feminine current is yet another process that is quickening in our time. According to the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, ‘Sexually awakened women, affirmed and recognized as such, would mean the complete collapse of the patriarchy.’ In order to accomplish this, to bite deeper into the apple, ‘she’, the archetypal feminine, embodying Shakti energy, requires recognition, permission, and affirmation from the masculine Shiva principle of ordering consciousness. She needs to know herself for what she is, and could be. She — the feminine daimonic — will continue to wreak havoc until she gets what she wants in the way that she wants it, which may have little to do with current societal values, moral codes, and sexual stereotypes. When this is achieved, Kali will, with the faintest trace of a Mona Lisa smile, retract her fangs, pull in her tongue, and liberate her victims. The goddess will return, and this time around, the apple will be eaten down to the core.”

From Daniel Pinchbeck, 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (New York: Penguin, 2006), pp. 325-6.

Near Miss

January 24, 2008

Sources have pointed me to this little nugget, by way of the CBC. I’ve written about this kind of thing before, but it never ceases to amaze — the flotsam and jetsam of the universe. Helps recall that there is no “cause” and “effect” — only endless forming and breaking up, transmutation, an ever unfolding process without recognizable beginning or end. It’s not billiard balls, and there’s no table, game or rules. As Aristotle suggested — the key — ever elusive and opening no doors — is entelechy. An answer to a question that can never be asked…

Iceberg!

January 23, 2008

Following seems to describe, in the manner of a caricature, the state of things these days (both in life and in the world at large):

“Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”

That is all.

Closing Time

January 22, 2008

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Mercury

January 18, 2008

As reported in the New York Times the NASA probe Messenger just performed a close fly-by of the elusive little planet closest to the sun, Mercury. There hasn’t been a mission that way since the mid-70s Mariner 10 program.

As an amateur astronomer, I always remember Mercury as characteristically elusive, whipping closely around the sun in only 88 days (that’s at 48 km per second, folks — zippy), and always spotted at those liminal points — at dusk or dawn. Thought that was completely fitting. The few times I caught the little fellow, it was by pure luck.

Mercury is also mentioned all the time in sci-fi, but a silly tale that always sticks in my mind is “Runaround” (1942), a short story in the robot series by the ever prolific Issac Asimov that eventually became I, Robot (1950). Very quirky story involving “if-then” kinds of concepts. As a setting, Mercury was appropriately hot, barren and uninhabitable. For some reason I also recall that H.P. Lovecraft placed an incarnation of the Great Race of Yith there, too. But I digress…

Interesting to see new images (these ones courtesy of Scientific American) of the planet, parts never before photographed. Eventually, in 2011, Messenger is going to settle into orbit around the mythological messenger. Perhaps Hermes will give up all his secrets? Doubtful — there’s something sly and ever-changing about that quicksilver orb, constantly battered by the solar winds. Occluded. And yet our unquenchable curiosity has to be satisfied. Mercury must be demystified.

A little sad, actually.


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