Wednesday, October 22, 2008

History as Prozac

I am usually “even tempered and good-natured, whom you never hear complain,” but like Henry Higgins, occasionally I get furiously angry. My trigger at the moment is the upcoming presidential election. As an Objectivist, I don’t think the government should dictate how I run my private life or my business; it ought to confine itself to protecting individual rights, including protecting me from attacks foreign or domestic. (See Ayn Rand’s “The Nature of Government.”) McCain and Obama are both promising more regulations and more government programs that would affect every aspect of my life, and neither one has convinced me that he’ll fight genuine threats such as Iran. So when I see either one talking on TV, I soon find myself shouting at them, and wondering how a nation with such brilliant founding principles can survive, if we're reduced to choices such as this. Pass the Prozac, please.

 My Prozac is history, because history gives me a sense of perspective on passing events. Last summer I started working part-time as a cataloguer for Martayan Lan, a bookseller specializing in works printed before 1800, particularly the history of science, travel and discovery, and art and architecture. I typically skim a book and then write a page-long description of it, setting the book in context as a major contribution to knowledge, a quaint leftover from an earlier age, or something between. Recently I’ve described a 17th-century book on heart defects, a collection of reports submitted by Jesuits around the world in the 1590s, French newspapers promoting the California Gold Rush, and a compilation of women’s legal rights in 16th-c. Portugal.

Not long ago I described a book of medical aphorisms: Latin couplets that purported to help students and physicians remember how to diagnose and/or treat various ailments. The information in the poems was probably centuries old when the book came out, and had mostly likely been distorted by years of unthinking repetition to the point of being useless, if not outright harmful.

Here's the kicker: the book was published in 1589. Forty years earlier (the whole working life of a physician at that time), Andreas Vesalius had dissected cadavers and had published the results of his research in a beautiful multi-volume work. (See the illustrations at http://tinyurl.com/6nxkr9 ). Others were also finally looking at nature rather than parroting ancient and medieval authors: physicians of this era described the circulation of the blood in the lungs and set the foundation for the systematic study of tropical diseases. Those at the cutting edge in science knew better than to simply memorize and apply medieval solutions in Latin doggerel. Many of them must have howled with rage that any publisher would print works such as Scholtz' Aphorismorum medicinalium.

And yet … eventually books like that were no longer published. Those who were constantly expanding their knowledge and confidently announcing their discoveries did eventually triumph. Reality and reason won out, in the long run - although not without staunch defenders who fought long, difficult battles.

So when I need a pick-me-up from the current depressing presidential election, history is my Prozac. If you need some anti-depressants, try these:

1 comment:

Dan Sullivan said...

I have another antidepressant to add to your list: anything written by Dianne Durante. It always works for me!