[ this end up ]

We’ve nothing to lose but boredom and despair.

In Food, Inspiration, Quotes on February 12, 2011 at 9 pm

Angelo Pelligrini‘s speech to the University of Washington Medical Alumni Association, spring 1979. A bottle of wine and a loaf of bread are on the podium.

Macbeth: How does your patient, Doctor?

Doctor: Not so sick, my lord,
As she is troubled with thick-coming fancies
That keep her from her rest.

Macbeth: Cure her of that.
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas’d,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote,
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

Doctor: Therein the patient must minister to himself.

Macbeth: Throw physic to the dogs; I’ll none of it.
If thou couldst, Doctor, cast
The water of my land, find her disease
And purge it to a sound and pristine health,
I would applaud thee to the very echo
That should applaud again.

(From Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Act V, Scene 3)

I have begun thus unceremoniously, reading lines from a tragedy familiar to you all, for two reasons: It seemed an effective strategy for diverting your attention from these puzzling and, given the time of day, appetizing exhibits, and concentrating it on me—five feet seven of a particular molecular sequence of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphorous atoms; and epigenetic ally, the structural elaboration of an unstructured egg.

And that I am, genotypically defined.

However, phenotypically defined, I am what you see: five feet seven, a trim one hundred and sixty-five, a young lion, an unbridled colt of whom, my dear ladies, you must beware. For when I was an immigrant lad twelve years of age, in the Grays Harbor country, intent on beginning to sow my wild oats among the blond Nordic maidens in the New Land, a saintly teacher of Presbyterian allegiance and Scottish descent, warned me, having seen it in action, that the twinkle in my brown eyes would get me in a peck of trouble. It has. It still does. It always will. But oh, the honey-sweetness of that trouble.

Now then, should you be amazed at my phenotypical self, happy as the grass is green and blooming as the month of May, a prodigy whom age cannot wither nor custom stale its infinite variety; if, I say, you are amazed at what you see and yearn to learn the formula that has produced such a prodigy, you shall have it. In the ontogeny of the unstructured egg, the prime nutrients have been, since pre-natal days and with every dinner thereafter, the best of the staff of life and the finest of the Holy Blood of the grape. Therefore, I say to you aging Aesculapians and your mates; and especially to you as may be living in fear of being over the hill, and tempted to mutter with the melancholy Dane “O! that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew”— to you I say: a pox on such gloomy thoughts! Stock your cellars, improve your cuisine. And instead of putting money in your purse, put rosemary on your lamb chops, and grace the ingestion with good bread and fine wine. And a plague on sleeping pills! A tot of sherry when you retire and a heavenly choir will induce the innocent sleep, sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care.

But enough of this scrupulously honest self-description, genotypically and phenotypically noted. It has served its purpose, though given to you with tongue-in-cheek braggadoccio. I want now to explain to you my second reason for having chosen to preface my remarks by reading a brief and familiar scene from a familiar tragedy. The embattled Self in that scene is in dire trouble. Its memory must be relieved of a rooted sorrow’ the written troubles of the brain must be erased; its bosom must be cleansed of the perilous stuff that weighs upon the heart. In short, it must be purged of its morbidity and restored to a sound and pristine health. Hence the appeal to the doctor in obedience to the wise dictum drawn from Materia Medica: venienti occurrite morbo, oppose a distemper at its first approach.

I was reminded of that scene when I read the course objective stated on your program, and noted the subject of my colleagues’ lectures; for the scene seemed to me an appropriate introduction to what those who planned this course for physicians hoped to accomplish. The objective of this course is to provide physicians and their spouses with new insight as to who they are and how they function in society in order to help them better live their lives. The assumption here is unmistakable. Pope was wrong when he said whatever is is right. All is not well with physicians and their spouses and, by a logical extension, with the rest of us. There is a malaise, a morbo in what is so glibly called these days “the human condition.” I put it this way because the rest of us no less than you are in need of what the course assumes you lack, or do not have enough of a knowledge of what you are in relation to the times in which you live and the world you inhabit. You don’t know who you are as physicians, sexually, under stress, from the point of view of literature and history. Nor do you know what kind of people you would like to be. Hence, the general malaise, the morbo, the perilous stuff that weighs upon the heart. And to cleanse the stuffed bosom, you need, above all else, self-knowledge.

You may remember the Delphic oracle’s injunction: know thyself; and you may remember Freud’s revision of that injunction to read: to know thyself is to be known by another. Those who planned this program must have known that; for they have provided the necessary others by whom you shall come to know thyself. This, then, is a vast psychiatric ward, minus the Freudian couch for lack of funds. And that’s a pity, for you are required to imagine yourselves prone upon it. Posture has been an essential strategy for all spiritual exercise; and Freud knew this. The prone position induces relaxation, passivity, receptivity, humility, and submission. Freud, however, who knew so much and probed so relentlessly the embattled self, only to conclude that he could do no more than lessen its endemic misery, did not know that wine is a relaxant. Fortunately, I who know so little, do know what the presiding deity of the brotherhood of Shrinkers did not know. So I have provided the wine. It is a bottle of Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon 1974. You are asked to imagine that you have it at your elbow. Take of it an imaginary sip, thus. Take another. And now that you are relaxed, receptive, submissive, and appropriately humble, lend me your ears; for I come not to bury the embattled self, not to decrease a little its misery, but to find its disease and purge it to a sound and pristine health. Abjuring drugs and surgery, I shall effect the purge by magic. However, in this thaumaturgical procedure, no less effective than your pharmaceutical, I shall need your aid; for you must remember the Doctor said, “Therein the patient must minister to himself.” Grant me, then, your willing cooperation.

Imagine yourselves a Phoenix. You are being consumed by fire. Burn, burn with a gem-like flame the embattled Self. Leave not one molecule unconsumed. And now, abracadabra and hocusspocus, arise from its ashes completely transformed. Transformed into what? Precisely into the kind of people we would like to be. However, since man does not exist in vacuo, since he is ineluctably an integral part of his total environment, we are now, by virtue of the so potent art of your Prospero, the kind of people we would like to be, living in the kind of world we are pleased to inhabit.

May I now attempt a brief profile of what we have miraculously become? We are men and women each of whom has an unambiguous identity and a will instructed by conscience endowed with certain rights and free to set a course teleologically determined and joyfully pursued; men and women who are not alienated from themselves, from their fellows, from nature. Restored to a sound and pristine health, our hearts and minds, our feeling and thinking, our faith and reason are in perfect harmony; dedicated to becoming something rather than on getting something – remember the rosemary on your lamb chops? We pledge all our efforts and our resources, for ourselves and our posterity, toward perfecting the arts of living. And the world that we inhabit is congenial to the realization of these ends.

Such is the vision of the kind of people we would like to be; and if we are not such people now, or if we are only partially, latently, potentially so, the reason is that we live in a world that is not congenial to the realization of our transformed selves. But even as we made the world what it is, we have the necessary genius and means to make it what it ought to be. Do we have the necessary will instructed by conscience? This entire program, the kind of inquiries it proposes, is evidence that we are groping our way toward such a resolution. And since we are unhappy with what we are, there must be causes for the malaise, the morbo, the alienation, the ambiguity, the pollution, the consumerism, the evisceration of the planet Earth, the strut and fret and strain of day by day existence.

The causes of this collective wretchedness are several; but there is one to which the others are ancillary: the prostitution of science in the service of a heartless technology. I hinted at the hegemony of science when I defined myself genotypically. We have come hither by deceptively seductive stages: the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Industrialization, the Gilded Age of the Robber Barons, the Atomic and Hydrogen Age. And where are we now? I shall give you the answer of an eminent scientist, the biochemist Erwin Chargaff “Science has been operating under the Devil’s doctrine. It says whatever can be done must be done—a doctrine that abolishes with one stroke all problems of conscience and free will. In the name of that doctrine, the two greatest technological missdeeds of our day, the atomic bomb and the landing on the moon, are certainly the children or at least the bastards of science. A single concrete example of the Devil’s doctrine is what is vulgarly called genetic engineering. It is not so much that I fear success—there won’t be any—but rather that each such attempt, windy and hopeless and barbaric as it may be, lifts our sciences and all of us to an even higher level of moral chaos.”

The reference here is to those molecular biologists who are playing games with recombinant DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA is generally thought to specify the hereditary properties of the cell. In it are encoded all the characteristics of the cell that can be transmitted throughout the generations. By genetic recombination in the intestinal tract, the hope is the production of two Einsteins in every American home; but the irreversible consequence may be the production of little biological monsters.

Thus, we are about to—shall we say progress?—into the Age of Recombinant DNA, a venture which Chargaff and other eminent scientists oppose as an unconscionable assault on Nature. They also abjure and condemn with understandable bitterness the scientist’s version of the Hippocratic oath, the Devil’s doctrine that what can be done must be done. And where do I stand?

I lack the necessary knowledge to support or oppose that doctrine with authority. For I am, as some of you know, an amateur in the kitchen, the garden, and the cellar—the fellow next door who has written extensively on what constitutes the Good Life. However, I am also a teacher who abandoned the law for the humanities, and who has at long last reached the highest pinnacle in the academy, a status which a guard at one of its several gates called E-me-ri-tus, that mysterious disease of what are called the Golden Years. And as such, I am bound in conscience to declare with conviction and authority, borrowing a phrase from the hurly-burly of politics, that in the world of tomorrow, the Humanities must be given equal time with science. For if we are intent on becoming men and women in whom heart and mind, feeling and thought, faith and reason are in perfect balance, and living in a world congenial to the realization of this goal, we must balance the teaching of science with instruction in the arts of living; and particularly the art of living together.

The late Jean-Paul Sartre, having tortured his mind with a relentless search for the meaning of existence, having explored existentialism and Marxism, finally embraced such traditional values as hope, fraternity, the family, and democracy. In his last months he said: “Today, I consider that everything which occurs in one’s consciousness in a given moment is necessarily tied to, often engendered by, the existence of others. What is real is the relationship between thee and me.” I have known illiterate peasants who have lived by that credo. The educated brain, uninstructed by an educated heart and conscience can be a menace.

And now I am about done. I have said no more than you could reasonably expect from your little old wine maker in answer to the question: What kind of people would we like to be, living in a world congenial to the realization of that vision. Let us say that that is akin to Tennyson’s far off divine event to which the whole creation moves. Far off but attainable, if we restructure our lives and reassess our values with that vision in mind.

Meanwhile we must live as best we can day by day, as we move toward that vision. In a lecture in New York at the time of the moon landing, unhappy that American feet had left their print on the dust of the moon, dubious that such a technological triumph would in any way improve the human condition, I concluded thus: The world is sick with too much brains. If we must probe the moon and outer space, let us balance that act of reason with an act of faith and probe the heart of our neighbor. Let us answer confrontations on the street with fellowship at the dinner table; and to counteract the venom of discord, let us pour the holy blood of the grape and eat together of the staff of life, symbols of communion, fellowship, and hospitality.

And now to you of the medical faculty, I shall make an unorthodox proposal: add to your curriculum a course on The Dinner Table as Prevention and Therapy. Ask me to conduct it and require it of all your students. A few months ago I suggested to our governor that she should add to her staff a chef and wine steward, reminding her that the great Talleyrand won his diplomatic victories with the resources of his kitchen and his cellar. To the offer of my services there has been no reply; and that is why matters in Olympia have been getting gloomier and gloomier.

In order to whet your appetite for lunch, let me describe a notable dinner prepared by Rosa Mondavi, Robert’s mother, in her kitchen and with my assistance. In the fall of 1968, at the height of the vintage season, the air permeated with the aroma of crushed grapes, on a Saturday afternoon, Rosa and I fashioned 950 ravioli. The filling was a composite of veal, pork, chicken, calfs brains, herbs and spices. The enfolding pasta was made with semolina and eggs. The savory sauce was enriched with game birds from the vineyard. The roast was venison; the mushrooms were Boletus from the Mayacamas hills, the wine was vintage Cabernet from her private cellar, the abundant bread had been baked the preceding day in her oven.

The preparation of that dinner was a labor of love, made the more so by frequent sips of a noble Zinfandel, and punctuated with jovial remembrances of things past in the Old Country. There were fourteen of us at the table, all immigrants or children of immigrants, enjoying with never-ending gratitude the bounty of the New Land. None had ever heard the words alienation and the human condition. No one referred to the wine with such words as fruity, full-bodied, nicely balanced. Occasionally one of us caught another’s eye, lifted the glass, winked, sipped, and smacked the lips. No sophisticated word monger could have praised the wine more eloquently.

Rosa was in her late seventies, a grand, spirited Mother figure full of the joy of life, irrepressible, indefatigable. In the performance of a Mother’s various labors, I have seldom seen such capable hands as hers. In her way of life, as the old Church Fathers used to say, Laborare est orare. Labor is a form of worship.

After dinner we danced the tarantella. And then we slept. No pills. No tranquilizers. No soda for sour stomachs. The dinner table as prevention and therapy.

Once more I direct your attention to these symbols. In the leavened loaf there is strength; in the bottle of wine there is gaiety. Let us look to our kitchens and stock our cellars. Call friends and family to the dinner table. Salute each other with beaded bubbles winking at the brim and purple stained mouth. Act now. Pull the cork. Don’t hesitate. We’ve nothing to lose but boredom and despair.


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