CLASSIC DALRYMPLE: Sweet Waist of America, excerpt (1990)

It’s been far too long since we posted another Dalrymple classic, and the last chapter of his fifth book, Sweet Waist of America, certainly qualifies. Summing up his 8-month stay in the country after the conclusion of its extraordinarily brutal civil war, he finds universal themes of progress, intellectual dishonesty, and the search for meaning in the particulars of one of Latin America’s most violent conflicts.

For anyone who has lived in Guatemala, other countries, by contrast, are lacking in savour. The problem confronting the people who want to promote a prosperous tourist industry is how to take out this over-strong flavour so that only the safely picturesque remains.

-Norman Lewis, The Volcanoes Above Us

I had spent eight months in Guatemala, and it was time to leave. The longer I stayed, the less certain was I that I understood the country I had chosen to write about; I left before the increasing intricacy of what I found there sapped my confidence altogether. Indeed, I began to wonder what it meant to understand a country. Did it mean to have a nodding acquaintance with all its social classes, to have interviewed its president, to know its past, to predict its future? Suppose a Guatemalan were to write a book about England after a stay of only seven months: should I not laugh at his errors, were I not angered by the presumption of his enterprise? Continue reading

Does Brain Damage Make a Case for Ending Sports?

Dalrymple seems to think so, though I can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic. His experience certainly does make him skeptical of medical trials:

When I was working in Africa I read a paper that proved that intravenous corticosteroids were of no benefit in cerebral malaria. Soon afterwards I had a patient with that foul disease whom I had treated according to the scientific evidence, but who failed to respond, at least as far as his mental condition was concerned – which, after all, was quite important. To save the body without the mind is of doubtful value.

I gave the patient an injection of corticosteroid and he responded as if by miracle. What was I supposed to conclude? That, according to the evidence, it was mere coincidence? This I could not do: and I have retained a healthy (or is it unhealthy?) skepticism of large, controlled trials ever since. For in the large numbers of patients who take part in such trials there may be patients who react idiosyncratically, that is to say, differently from the rest.

Do Drug Trials Often Fail to Reveal the Harmful Side Effects They Discover?

For a variety of reasons and in many ways, doctors and medical researchers often fail to investigate the harms caused by medical treatments.

This is the royal road to over-treatment: it encourages doctors to be overoptimistic on their patients’ behalf. It also skews or makes impossible so-called informed consent: for if the harms are unknown even to the doctor, how can he inform the patient of them? The doctor becomes more a propagandist than informant, and the patient cannot give his informed consent because such consent involves weighing up a known against an unknown.

Read the details at Pajamas Media

The strange case of Robert Louis Stevenson

Doctors figure prominently in the works of Stevenson — unsurprising perhaps, since it was true of his life too.

Stevenson’s life and work is always of great interest to doctors. He grew up in the most medical of all British cities, Edinburgh, he was surrounded by doctors and medical students, and he was ill from childhood. He was driven abroad not only by romantic, bohemian restlessness, but by the search for a curative climate for his chronic ill-health.

He spent months on the island of Abemama, in the Gilbert Islands in the central Pacific, where I once worked for three years. Abemama, which in Stevenson’s day was under the sway of a petty tyrant, is still very remote today; and it inspired some of his later writing.

 

Slavoj Žižek, the Ideal Fraud

Slavoj Žižek is the archetypal intellectual, in his inscrutability, his charlatanry, his black t-shirt emblazoned with “I WOULD PREFER NOT TO”:

I want to avoid all misunderstanding: this is no condemnation of Professor Žižek; on the contrary…I am not against charlatans; I even admire them if they are amiable, as of course the vast majority of them are (an unamiable charlatan is almost an oxymoron). To be able to glide through life in the knowledge that one is bogus is a great achievement, far greater than that of the majority of genuinely earnest people. If the world, including academia, were to be purged of its charlatans, how dull life would be!

Extortion on the Docket

A recent civil suit against a restaurant chain has made Dalrymple deeply critical of the US civil justice system:

It is against natural justice that a person should be able to make a claim against a defendant and have nothing to lose, only something to gain, whereas the other party, the defendant, loses whatever the outcome, in time, in worry, and financially (his costs are not recoverable either in theory or in practice).

Read the whole piece at The Library of Law and Liberty

When Austerity Isn’t Austere

Are slight reductions in unaffordable spending really austerity?

Suppose that, for a number of years, my spending had been larger than my income, so that I had accumulated a large debt. Suppose also that I had nothing to show for my excess expenditure, which has all gone to increase my level of current consumption. Interest payments on my debt now exceed my outlays on such items as food, clothing, and shelter. The bank to whom I owe the money tells me that things cannot continue like this.

I agree that things cannot go on in the same way, and, as a token of my seriousness, I promise that henceforth, I shall not drink my nightly bottle of Meursault but only half a bottle of Chablis. This will reduce my excess expenditure from, say, 6 percent of my annual income to 4 percent. I call this sacrifice of Meursault for Chablis “austerity.” Would anyone take me seriously?

Warmth is Cool

Many aspects of life could perhaps be divided into classicism versus romanticism, says Dalrymple, writing at The New English Review. While he certainly identifies more with the rationalism of a David Hume or an Alexander Pope, Dalrymple also sees the need for the intuition and passion of a John Keats and wonders what the right balance between the two is.

Clearly Hume would be more in favour of classicism than of romanticism, and on the whole I am with him there. But virtues, aesthetic as well as moral, turn into vices when pushed too far; classicism can become dry, formalistic, and deadening if it is permitted to go on for too long, while romanticism, called into being as a revolt against it, can become in time posturing, insincere and hectoring. Clearly there is a need for both, but what is the happy medium between them? Can it actually exist?

You know the answer.