This is why doctors need a degree of cunning

The problem can be made clearer if one looks more closely at how diagnosis and treatment work in medicine. The fourfold formula [of the four noble truths of Buddhism] above is a pretty good approximation. You start with, “Oh, look, there’s a problem!” Then you look into the possible causes. Then you think about how, knowing the cause, you might treat the problem (sometimes, you don’t need to worry about underlying causes to treat symptoms, but often it can help). Then you prescribe whatever therapeutic course is the best response to the problem. So what is the difference when it comes to philosophy? The difference, I think, is that a good doctor will not assume that there is some kind of fundamental condition of corporeal existence, a fundamental condition for which there is a single cure. A doctor who prescribed antibiotics (or exorcism, or cupping, or a week’s holiday) for everything under the sun — broken legs, viruses or what have you — would be a poor doctor indeed. There is no single fundamental condition that is “illness”; and so there is no panacea for all ills. This is why doctors need a degree of cunning. They need their wits about them, they need to know that bodies are complex and that they behave in all manner of different ways, and they need to know that there are innumerable ways of responding to these complexities. Not only this, but there is not always a problem: a good doctor is also able to diagnose, sometimes, that nothing much is wrong, and that patient can be sent upon their way, reassured that nothing (at least at the moment) needs to be done.

In the light of this, sometimes it seems to me that philosophical diagnosticians lack the cunning of their medical counterparts (not for nothing were the precursors of today’s doctors called “cunning men”). Let us say, for the sake of argument, that if doctors treat bodies and what goes wrong with bodies, philosophical diagnosticians try (at least) to treat lives, and what goes wrong with lives. But it seems to me that good philosophical diagnosticians, just like good doctors, should be capable of recognising that lives too are complex things, and that just as there is no single “human condition” that needs treating, so there is no single treatment that is appropriate. Indeed, a good philosophical diagnostician, I think, should — just like a doctor — have the ability to recognise that sometimes there is nothing much wrong with the way that life is going, and to refrain from offering remedies that in truth remedy nothing (and that may have unwelcome side-effects).

The Myriad Things, Therapeutic Philosophy and the Pharmacopoeia of Humankind

ebooks, pbooks, Homer, and LeGuin

“And yet there is a romance and a power and a beauty and a permanence and a sense of reality that actual printed books have, which also does not translate to electronic format for me.”

Wil Wheaton, the quietest and most constant of friends

I wrote a blog post yesterday on my iPad, because I wanted to try using the WordPress app to both upload pictures I’d taken with the ‘Pad and input text with my dad’s Bluetooth keyboard while I waxed poetic on reading classic epic poems (in ebook format on said iPad). But somehow the draft didn’t get saved and the post got lost and it was a good thing. Good because when driving up to Ketchum with my dad I dove into an explanation of how I ended up reading the Iliad that was far more impassioned than the post I’d been writing, and it forced a sense of shame on me for not being as impassioned a writer as I was a soapbox conversationalist. Good because I read some other people’s posts on the internets today on topics that seemed unrelated to either the Iliad or ebooks at first glance, but in my mind pulled together of a sudden like the borders of a woven shawl snagged on a nail. Good because sometimes losing things so that you can reconsider them from scratch is exactly what you needed.

It started with a book on the clearance table at The Strand bookstore in New York City. No, wait; it didn’t. It started with an iPad, my iPad, the one I got because I was tired of hauling around a heavy 17″ laptop everywhere when often all I needed to be able to do was check email, and also because I was getting tired of hauling piles of books everywhere (and more and more of the kinds of books I read are being published as ebooks, too), and also because I had been utterly charmed by an iPad over the summer and had since pined for a gadget of my own, among other reasons. When I landed a largish paying translation job, I used some of that money for an iPad. So it began there, because part of my argument for an iPad was that I could read books and PDFs on it, something of increasing importance to me.

But I hadn’t bought any ebooks. I download PDFs of available scholarly papers and scanned copies of academic books not yet available as ebooks, and I also read the free versions of books that are in the public domain (Austen, Shakespeare, etc.). At The Strand, however, standing in front of a table full of bargain mass-market paperbacks, all of them flaunting the same notice that the paperback price was less than the Kindle version of the book (fiscal economy over physical economy), I noticed Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin.

LeGuin is one of my favorite authors. She tells tales of worlds far removed from ours and yet the stories in the tales are always about us, about home. I’m thinking especially of The Left Hand of Darkness, which was for me, when I read it in my early 20s, a haunting, nuanced, and far more compelling exploration of gender and society than the Judith Butler I’d hung my hat on in college. So Lavinia, at a mere 5 dollars and neither thick nor heavy, won me over. I had 12 hours of travel ahead of me to get to Boise, Idaho. This book was the thing to help me get through a late night waiting at the airport and the underslept crusty-eyed morning of flying following it.

In Lavinia, LeGuin writes the story of Lavinia, Aeneas’ wife in the Aeneid. Virgil never has her speak in the poem; LeGuin imagines the life and world of Lavinia, both before Aeneas arrived on the shores of Latium, and after. The novel explores silence and voice, story-telling and agency, all of which I find of great importance in what we conventionally call the non-fictive world.

It wasn’t the most compelling novel I’ve ever read and not my favorite LeGuin novel by a stretch. In addition to being about giving voice to the voiceless, however, it’s also about antiquity and mythologized history. It’s about the world of the classical epics. Reading the novel, I realized I knew nothing about the Aeneid. Nor could I really remember the Iliad or the Odyssey, both of which I’d been required to read in college. I had taken a course freshman year that dealt with epics, and we’d gone from Troy to Dublin, ending with Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel I actually gave up on and one of the few I proudly admit I never finished. I took a seminar on Virginia Woolf and read her response (rebuttal?) to Joyce, Mrs. Dalloway. Later I took a course on Milton, and of course the majority of the course centered on Paradise Lost. At some point I’d read portions of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and somehow I had escaped the Anglophilic Yale English Department with only a passing knowledge of Spenser’s Faerie Queene. All of these are classed as epics, and with the exception of the modern novels, all are poems. Lavinia, thin novel though it is, plunged me back into the poetry of the epics and the conversations that have been happening between them for thousands of years.

I downloaded the Iliad while waiting at the gate at LAX. My first ebook, bought and paid. I felt some trepidation. I love books, and when asked to put my money where my mouth is, I have always bought paper books. (Pbooks? If we have ebooks?) Now, though, I’d crossed some line in my mind, the one demarcating my position as a merely opportunistic user of the electronic format to a committed consumer of the electronic format. I felt a little strange, and a little giddy, the way we usually do when we deliberately cross some personal threshold. Not reckless, but not entirely certain what new territory I had entered into.

More books followed over the week. The Odyssey. RipRap. Red Pine’s Lankavatara. And more will follow. Not all the books I like to read are available yet as ebooks. Regarding that, however, I have learned that for the price of mere patience, I can scan things for free at the library. (The librarians content themselves with posting notices about copyright laws and not looking over the shoulders of students at the scanner.) Even if all the books I wanted to read were available in electronic format, I still wouldn’t exclusively buy and read ebooks. There is the romance, the power, and the beauty of pbooks that does not translate to ebooks; so I move forward and I move backward: I read the classic epics on an iPad, I buy paper poetry chapbooks.

I believe this is the shape of things to come: a heterogeneous reading life, at least until the power fails and our batteries die.

Quigley Canyon

I ran today up Quigley Canyon. The dirt road was completely paved in white snow, the hills and mountains dressed in naked veils of the stuff, the wide curving fields that lie between the opposing slopes turned to still rivers of crystal-studded alabaster. The aromatic sage I crushed in my hands at the end of summer now stands stiff and thin, the long-blown blooms poling up above the bush and all of it wearing capes of white. If I said, “Today the sky was blue,” I’d have to find a different word for blue, one that didn’t simply represent the color: that was how blue the sky was today. So blue, all other skies I’ve seen seem to have merely stood for the color like a word, whereas today the sky was the color itself, the signified free of representation. If only that could be said, somehow, without being a fallacy by nature.

I met my brother-in-law and the dog as they were coming down off a hill trail. Hanna, the dog, was wild with joy, snow caked between her pads and her russet fur shining. “I’m heading up the Canyon,” I said redundantly, since that was the only direction the road we were standing on led. Unless I wanted to wade up the frozen crest of the hill, which I did not. Off I ran, with the afternoon sun against my back.

Running on semi-packed snow is like running on sand. My ankles ached, I verged on losing my balance each moment. I hopped between the multiple tire-tracks on the road, trying to find a track that was packed enough to not give as I ran, with partial success. Most of the time, I left divots behind me instead of full prints, because I ran toes-first, finding purchase, leaping a little with each stride, since each stride was a bit like falling as the snow gave way under my weight.

I’ve been running at sea level for three months; I ran a mile or more above sea level today. Heart pounding, legs strong.

There were some prints along the silent fields beside the road. Animal or human, I couldn’t tell. My eyes wept in the cold, in the mild breeze, and I kept pressing the back of my mittened hand to them, to sop up the blurry tears. When I turned around on the road to head back, facing west and the lowering sun, I actually felt colder. The sweat that had risen through several layers of clothing and gathered like a fine, warm mist on the front of my fleece on the way out dissipated and cooled on the way back. I watched my feet more than the hills or sky on the return, wary of my footing.

Later this afternoon a seeming fog crept up the valley and obscured the sky. It’s not snowing, but it looks like it might.

little crumb


“Miette,” I’ve been told, means “little crumb” in French. It is also a diminutive for “Marguerite,” the French for my mother’s name. Miette is my sister and brother-in-law’s first baby, and the first grandchild in our immediate family. At seven weeks, she’s still small enough to seem like a crumb of a being, with all the angles and substance of a full-sized loaf but seemingly fragile and easy to lose. But I was also surprised by the vigor with which she rubs her face across my shoulders when she’s awake and strikes the air with tiny hands. My first night in Idaho, after two days of travel to get here, I went over to my sister’s place, and held the baby for the first time. I fed her, too, and I can’t remember ever feeding a baby. (My sister’s already promised to show me how to change her diapers, the other end of all that feeding business.) Miette pulled at the bottle with eagerness and strength. “She’s not as fragile as you’d think,” my sister says as she nibbles one of Miette’s ears, which are dainty and pretty beneath a surprising shock of dark hair.

Miette relaxes into the curves and contours of whatever you rest her on: the nook of your shoulder, the long valley of your parallel legs, the diamond of space between your joined foot-soles and your hips while sitting on the floor. She’s happy draped over your chest, muttering her regular squeaks and chirrups as she sleeps, and happy in the corner of a futon couch, tucked under an indian blanket. She is an incredibly happy baby, easy-going, adorable, unfretful.

Happy holidays, Miette. This year, and for many more.