Letter from South America #4

Dear Bob,
Happy Easter. This week my brother and his family are visiting from Washington. It is so wonderful to be together.
But just yesterday my aunt Alicia died. She had COPD  (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). I feel so fortunate that I was able to share a week with her in her place by the ocean last January. I think it was the last week she was OK before she started having the crisis that ended yesterday. My first letter to you was about my feelings during that trip. I feel angry because smoking caused her to die so early (she was only 72). Damn addiction, damn cigarettes.
I had started writing to you about food last weekend and today I thought I needed to change my letter and talk about … I really don’t know. I’m sad. She was such a lively person. She loved a good life. She was social and loved art and good things. And food is a good thing. A good smell is a good thing. I want to keep breathing in the smell of our orange trees’ flowers at night. Aaaah! it’s magical. Why is a damn cigarette a thing that someone wants to inhale and savor? I don’t know. Being with my brother and his family now is helping with the pain. We have a good time together, especially when we sit at the table to enjoy a good meal. Food is such a magnet, the soul of the party, or simply… life. But I imagine that when my aunt would smoke a cigarette she enjoyed the moment too. Enjoying what we drink or eat is good but evidently we need to think about it. And as this is a time for families to get together around here in Latin America and therefore a time for eating and also for fasting for some people, I had been thinking about food as a way to live more fully, not the opposite.
I read the other day: I eat, therefore I am. It should obviously be I am, therefore I eat: it is about survival. But it is so much more, of course. And yet, not eating is a very important practice for some. This is a time of fasting for Christians. Fasting for penitence or for spiritual growth. What I understand is that refraining from basic desires like food and sex is supposed to show us the spiritual realm of our existence. We are body and spirit, but spirit is what truly matters. Fasting can be dangerous, though. I remember one day we went looking for my Turkish friend Tolga. We went to his room and knocked on the door. He took a while to answer; looked pale. He said hello and then fainted. He had been fasting for Ramadan and had been working in the hot Florida sun during the day. But fasting is prescribed by Islam, so he had to do it despite the hard work he had to do in the field. What can fasting do for a non-believer? I imagine that it can make a person stronger by gaining endurance, more joyful by showing the fragility of life, more disciplined and more modest. I think that Epicurus would be against it. He claimed that we should pursue positive pleasures, like fine food and friendship. I agree. But now that I am missing my aunt and I feel so sad because something that made her feel good made her die so young, I think that by not eating we could, first, learn about the damage we can cause our body with what we ingest, and second, make us see the urgency of living better lives.
However, I suggest that if eating is such a basic necessity, eating should bring us closer to our spirit, and I mean self-knowledge. We can pay attention to what we eat, how we eat it and how it makes us feel, think about where the food comes from, read about it, so many ways to learn and enjoy. We could learn to empathize with the struggle of the land, the animals and the people who are involved in the production of food served at the table. Here at our little farm we produce coffee, citrus fruits, vegetables, tropical fruits like mangoes, passion fruit, bananas, soursop (guanábana). We have chickens but no space for cows or pigs. It is truly great to be able to grow and care for what we eat. When I cook and serve the food we grow I feel so happy. It could be the simplest of dishes and I enjoy it to my heart. Seeing the process of growth and harvest makes me appreciate food very much.  Do you cook sometimes? I cook lunch everyday. Sometimes it gets boring because the same recipes are prepared over and over. So I try to be creative.
Seeing “Noma: My Perfect Storm” was inspiring. It is food for thought. It is not that it inspires people to become professional chefs like René Redzepi, but that it shows how amazing the human spirit of innovation is. And this is a spirit we all share, so it is possible for everyone. The thing is that we can have fun and honor life by doing art with food. Start with the cutting of vegetables. I am sure we can play and find fun ways to cut a carrot or green beans. I recently discovered how to French-cut green beans. The difference at the table was amazing! The green beans even seemed to taste better! Everyone was smiling. Kids should also be an inspiration. Most kids don’t like vegetables. It could be evolution and the need to feed on meat to get protein or simply that kids are taught to eat junk food and feel good about it.  It is a challenge. To make them like vegetables is a fun project and we have to get creative about flavor and presentation. A little bit of gastronomic education can help them (and all of us) to gain appreciation for food. My aunt loved good food and drink, but one thing is taste and the immediate pleasure you feel as you ingest, and another how you feel in the long term. We need to be careful and mindful. We’ve better love our lungs, our esophagus, our intestines, our colon, our stomach, our teeth, our mouth and listen for what they have to say.  


Review – Hitler: Ascent 1889–1939

Hitler: Ascent 1889–1939

. . .

Fourth, the best line of defense of a democracy must be at the first point of attack. Weimar parliamentary government had been supplanted by presidentially appointed chancellors ruling through the emergency decree powers of an antidemocratic president since 1930. In 1933 Hitler simply used this post-democratic stopgap system to install a totalitarian dictatorship with incredible speed and without serious opposition. If we can still effectively protect American democracy from dictatorship, then certainly one lesson from the study of the demise of Weimar and the ascent of Hitler is how important it is to do it early.

Read the review.

On music

Francis Bacon’s “sound-houses”:

Bacon described these spaces for manipulating sound in his New Atlantis (1626), a utopian work in which a European traveller, lost at sea, happens upon a society living on the mythical island of Bensalem. The “sound-houses” represent the acoustic branch of Bensalem’s state-sponsored research program, which seeks both to produce knowledge of how nature works, and to translate that knowledge into real-world applications for human benefit. In the following passage, the director of Bensalem’s scientific endeavors explains to his foreign guest:

    We have also sound-houses, where we practice and demonstrate all sounds and their generation. We have harmonies, which you have not, of quarter-sounds and lesser slides of sounds. Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown, some sweeter than any you have, together with bells and rings that are dainty and sweet. We represent small sounds as great and deep, likewise great sounds extenuate and sharp; we make divers tremblings and warblings of sounds, which in their original are entire. We represent and imitate all articulate sounds and letters, and the voices and notes of beasts and birds. We have certain helps which set to the ear do further the hearing greatly. We also have divers strange and artificial echoes, reflecting the voice many times, and as it were tossing it, and some that give back the voice louder than it came, some shriller and some deeper; yea, some rendering the voice differing in the letters or articulate sound from that they receive. We have also means to convey sounds in trunks and pipes, in strange lines and distances. 

Source: Public Domain Review.

English: Egg Tempera on Canvas
English: Egg Tempera on Canvas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

SS: On despair

Gall Bladders and Despair


Bob Lane

k_thumb.jpgbooks.jpgKierkegaard is often called the father of existentialism. His was a Christian existentialist position because after describing the human condition in the bleakest of terms he advocated a “leap of faith” to cope with the condition he so vividly described. Turning against all proofs for the existence or nonexistence of God as meaningless, Kierkegaard nevertheless offers a proof of his own with a description of human psychology that, if one agrees with his diagnosis of despair, it seems reasonable to accept his solution to the despair. Is it in fact reasonable to accept it?

Several years ago I was experiencing recurring stomach problems: I often had a churning in my stomach, sometimes right after eating and sometimes long after, sometimes in a fair amount of pain with a bad taste in my mouth. Because of the discomfort I consulted a physician. He prodded my stomach, took a brief history, asked me what sort of stress I had at my work, and diagnosed an ulcer. He prescribed tranquilizers and suggested I cut down on my stressful life as a chairman of the humanities faculty at Malaspina College.

On the doctor’s authority, and because “stress” was in the press and other media at the time, I took the pills. I did not improve. I began to think the doctor was a quack. I read more about “stress” and came to realize it was a meaningless concept: some people used it to talk about non-physical events capable of affecting one’s life in strange ways; others seemed to mean the environmental effects of physical events, while others from the New Age talked of an “imbalance of life forces in the locus that is a person in the flux of life.” Stress, it seemed, was not a very specific diagnosis, and to jump ahead of my story for a moment, it would or could be used to describe the condition that finally I was found to have. My gall bladder was non-functional because it was full of stones which was certainly a stressful condition; every time it attempted to secrete bile, the stones blocked the pathway.

The second doctor I consulted started out much the same as the previous one. He took a history, tapped my stomach, and measured other vital signs. Then he said, “I think you may have a blockage problem somewhere in the gastrointestinal system. We will have to have more tests.” His “I think. . .” was an obvious signal of tentativeness of diagnosis. He had reasons to believe that his diagnosis was correct, but without further evidence he would not claim to know what the problem was.

There was a way to get further evidence. Tests included blood analysis to determine if the amount of bilirubin in my blood was within the norms for the population. X-ray pictures were taken, after ingesting barium to show up the fleshy organs, in other words, physical evidence based on technically enhancing the physician’s eyes to deduce with high probability that something was blocking part of the plumbing.

Before the tests, what reasons did the doctor have to believe his diagnosis was worth pursuing? Several. The pattern of symptoms fit the existing model of how the system works, my age, blood cholesterol levels and eating habits were part of the profile developed over the years from thousands of similar cases. He “interpreted” the facts with a certain “complex narrative” that included facts, a model, similar cases, detailed past experiences of the profession and a certain background of knowledge. He did not, however, find” stress” a useful diagnostic term, either as a description or as an etiology. Finally, after several confirming tests, surgery was recommended and performed. The gall bladder was found to be full of stones and removed. The pains stopped.

Let’s compare my experience with the diagnostic ex­perience of the psychoanalyst in Farrell’s paper.(Note #1) After taking a history, studying the reports of the symptoms (i.e., why does this seemingly bright young man not work up to his potential?), and applying his past ex­periences to the case, the psychoanalyst makes a ten­tative diagnosis just as did my doctor: “I think it is because you always feel frightened to do directly something that father does.” This is, logically speak­ing, a tentative diagnosis, not a truth claim. Note, for example, if the “shrink” does not get the right answers to this and further questions, he might change his diagnosis, might find it is not father but mother who is the problem, and would find this by taking further tests. At the time he says “I think it is because” which is like a guess – an educated guess.

Educated guesses are more likely to be correct than uneducated ones, but if they are not, we don’t accuse the guesser of lying! The first doctor I visited may have been stupid, hurried or trendy, but he didn’t lie to me; he misdiagnosed me. He said: “I think you have an ulcer caused by stress.” It is true that he thought I had an ulcer, but false that I did have an ulcer. The se­cond doctor said: “I think you have a blockage pro­blem in the system and we’ll need further evidence to determine just what it is.” It is true he thought I had a blockage problem and true that I did, and we both knew just what would count as evidence that his diagnosis was correct: there it was, an organ the size of a marble bag stopped up with stones of various sizes! At each step in the process of testing the hypothesis, further evidence of accuracy made a more precise diagnosis possible.

We have a fairly complete and well-tested model of the digestive system from which to work. Like god, it is inside us, but unlike him/her/it, it is a visible and tangible system. A psychoanalyst of the Freudian per­suasion also works from a model, but it is not a physical one. Freud, after all, got his Oedipus and Elec­tra complexes from literature and not from dissection of brains. These models can also be evaluated in the same ways that any scientific model can be, but does it have characteristics, which are specified by explicit definition? Does it generate theoretical hypotheses? Does it provide us with verifiable predictions7 Yes, the brain is more complex than the gut in some ways, but in other ways similar enough to be studied in the laboratory. The move away from psychoanalysis in the last twenty years has been to a large extent because the neuro-biological model of the brain has proven a better “match” to the real system. Even Freud’s theory of dreams is being challenged today.

Kierkegaard in The Sickness unto Death2 uses a comparison between the physician and health and the “spiritual” physician and spiritual health. Just as no one is perfectly healthy, he argues, so too is no one perfectly free of the spiritual disease of despair. “At any rate there has lived no one and there lives no one outside of Christendom who is not in despair, and no one in Christendom, unless he be a true Christian, and if he is not quite that, he is somewhat in despair after all.”

True Christians, if there are any, are the only healthy persons; all others are in despair. What is the status of this claim? Is it the result of a long inductive process? Does one imagine Kierkegaard doing a nine­teenth century Gallup poll to arrive at this generaliza­tion? (“Excuse me, are you in despair?”) I doubt it very much! And why7 Because he later tells us that “the fact that the man in despair is unaware that his condition is despair, has nothing to do with the case, he is in despair all the same.” (“Okay, then you are in despair, right? So, I mark you down as a YES. And you are not in despair? So, I mark you down as a YES.”) Ob­viously, an inductive survey is not going to work.

These claims then are not inductive generalizations to be- assessed as true or false. They are proclamations (or stipulatory definitions) about the model Kierkegaard is developing. ‘Is it true that everyone (or almost everyone) is in despair?’ is not a question about fact. Within the psychological and metaphysical model that Kierkegaard presents us these – are stipulated definable moves. ‘Despair’ is by definition a defining feature of the human condition. What exactly is despair in this model? It is Kierkegaard’s word for original sin, the fall, expulsion from the garden of Eden, the fall from grace, the alienation from the divine.

In conclusion: we have looked briefly at three dif­ferent models and argued that the truth criteria for the claims made in the first two should be exactly the same, while in the case of Kierkegaard’s psychological/metaphysical model there are really no verifiable and testable claims or predictions being made. The differences can be seen in this way:

  • 1. When the physician talks about ‘health’ it is a statistical and functional concept.
  • 2. When the psychoanalyst talks about ‘mental health’ it is a functional and normative concept.
  • 3. When Kierkegaard talks about ‘spiritual health’ it is a metaphysical and religious concept.

Taking the “leap of faith” as a therapy for despair turns out to be similar to taking tranquilizers as a therapy for an inoperative gall bladder.


  1. B. A. Farrell, “The Criteria for Psycho-Analytic Interpreta­tion,” Essays in Philosophical Psychology, Anchor Books, 1964, pp 299-322.

2 Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey,1974.

Copyright by Bob Lane 2004. All rights reserved.