Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Candide by Voltaire

By the end of February 1759, the Grand Council of Geneva and the administrators of Paris had banned Candide.[2] Candide nevertheless succeeded in selling twenty thousand to thirty thousand copies by the end of the year in over twenty editions, making it a best seller. The Duke de La Vallière speculated near the end of January 1759 that Candide might have been the fastest-selling book ever.[82] In 1762, Candidewas listed in theIndex Librorum Prohibitorum, the Roman Catholic Church's list of prohibited books.[2].
Sometimes, when i read a book, I start craving another book. Case in point: Barbara Ehrenreich comes off as a curmudgeon in her most recent book Brightsided, in which she takes on the recent trend of irrational optimism as preached by megachurch leaders and self-help books like The Secret. She's not saying to be angry and disagreeable all the time (although let's face it: she comes off that way), she's just making the case for reason- something her book has in common with a classic French work by the philosophe Voltaire.

In his book, a woman gets her butt cheek cut off. Also, there are a lot of references to sex. (Pourquois pas? Voltaire was French).

Maybe it's because he had a sense of humor. Maybe it's because it is fiction. But when Voltaire decided to take on irrational optimism (represented by philosopher Gottfried Leibniz's in his day) he did it way better .

Candide is short, fast-paced. It relates one event after another and along the way, deals with the problem of evil, the church and the government, which might explain why they were so pissed off about the book.

Essentially, the protagonist goes through a series of truly awful events and at every turn, his master,Pangloss, a parody of Leibnizian philosophers, maintains that it's okay, because this is the best of all possible words. The name of this character has become synonymous with irrational optimism. Panglossianism is still with us today and after 250 years, this book is still funny, still has a sharp witty edge.

It is similar to Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift in that it is satirical, was controversial and came out of the Enlightenment. So Brightsided made me crave Candide and Candide made me want to read Gulliber's Travels. This is how my binges get started...

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Interesting Internet...

It turns out that, contrary to popular belief, the Internet is more than just porn and Facebook: there is some good reading out there.

Like this article on Freethought Today. It's old but I keep coming back to it. It is an excerpt from an acceptance speech by neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, for the Emperor Has No Clothes Award. In the speech, Sapolsky makes some fascinating suggestions about the origin of religion:

To get a real insight into this, we have to come to that question, "Why is there this similarity between religious ritualism and OCD rituals?"

You could say, "It's just by chance."

Or you could say, "There's a biological convergence going on there." It's not random that we're most concerned with rituals about keeping our bodies healthy, our food clean, that sort of stuff.

But another answer in there has got to be, "People with OCD invented a lot of these religious rituals."

Let me give you one example of this.

A 16th-century Augustinian monk named Luder for some reason left a very detailed diary. This is a man who grew up with an extremely brutal father, had a very anxious relationship with him, was very psychosomatic-illness-oriented. One day he was out walking in the field. There was a thunderstorm, and he got a panic attack, and vowed, "If I'm allowed to survive this, I will become a monk and devote the rest of my life to God."

He survives, becomes a monk, and throws himself into this ritualism with a frenzy. This was an order of monks that was silent 20-some hours a day. Nonetheless, he had four hours worth of confessions to make every day: "I didn't say this prayer as devoutly as I should have. My mind wandered when I was doing this, doing that."

The first time he ran a mass, he had to do it over and over because he got the details wrong. He would drive his Father Superior crazy with his hours and hours of confession every day: "God is going to be angry at me for doing this, because I said this, and I didn't think this much, and I didn't do this the right way, and I . . ." until the Father Superior got exasperated with him and came up with a statement that is shockingly modern in its insight. He said, "The problem isn't that God is angry with you. The problem is that you're angry with God."

The most telling detail about this monk was, he washed and washed and washed. As he put it in his diary: "The more you wash, the dirtier you get." Classic OCD.

The reason why we know about this man Luder is because we know him by the Anglicized version of his name: Martin Luther. [laughter]

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot: February 2 2010

Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cancer in the 1950s. She was a patient at Johns Hopkins hospital, which offered medical services to the poor. After returning to the hospital for a couple of outpatient procedures, Lacks lost her battle. She died at age 30 in 1951, leaving 5 children and a husband. She was black, uneducated and her death was slow and painful.

All of this happened at a time when researchers had been unsuccessfully trying to grow live human cells in laboratories. Because patients like Henrietta Lacks received services for free, it was understood that they would give any tissues and samples taken from their bodies to the hospital for research.

This was understood by the hospital, but not by the patients.

The doctor who examined Henrietta took a sample of her cancer cells marking the sample with the phrase "HeLa". These prolific cancer cells grew like crazy in the laboratory and before researchers could catch their breath, they had batches and batches of cells available for research. Today, you can buy HeLa cells for a few dollars. They have been used in AIDS research, cancer research, vaccination research. In short, these cells revolutionized modern medicine.

The first part of this book is delicious. It is informative and eye-opening. This is the kind of writing that can spark an obsession: the next thing I knew, I was hanging out in the Biology section at the library, grabbing books like I was picking berries. I googled until my fingers hurt.

Then came the second half. The author inserts herself into the story as she chronicles her relationship with the family of Henrietta Lacks, primarily Lacks' daughter, Deborah.

Rebecca Skloot tries to portray this family as poor, dignified black people that had been taken advantage of by indifferent (or outright malicious) doctors and scientists. This portrayal falls apart as she tells the family story. Lacks and her husband were first cousins and she got pregnant with her first child at the age of 14. Her developmentally disabled child was institutionalized before Lacks' death. After, no one visited the girl, not even her father. Her children at home were molested and physically abused, one of her sons spent his adult life in and out of jail. All of this is presented in the book as if the tragedies in this family have something to do with Johns Hopkins using the cells.

It was unintentionally funny at times, when Skloot and others tried to explain scientific concepts to Lacks' offspring and they would burst out with a bizarre (even disturbing) question that clearly showed they weren't understanding.

Comparisons to the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments are inaccurate and Henrietta Lacks, who did not choose to get a fast-growing, invasive cancer, is not another Rosa Parks just because she is black.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks raises questions about bioethics, and the future of medicine. Then it became another, somewhat bizarre story about her children whose story was definitely less remarkable. I turned the last page thinking that what came out of her death was perhaps the brightest part of her life.

It's like the Christmas story, where people who are at the bottom of society (a "virgin" girl and her tiny baby) suddenly become the most important people in the world.
This is the biography of a face in a crowd who becomes extremely important to the well-being of the human race. If this story was fiction, the plot would seem contrived: "lame" even.

But that's how truth works sometimes.