Monday, January 02, 2017

`I Must Live With These Mysteries'

“No; I merely want to make a philosophical point, namely that the world is, and ever will be, full of insoluble or unsolved mysteries, whatever our pretensions to absolute understanding.”

That’s Theodore Dalrymple, a retired physician, on why discoid eczema has returned to the sole of his right foot. In his Dictionary, Dr. Johnson’s definition of “mystery” suggests more than mere ignorance or lack of information; it hints at metaphysics: “something above human intelligence; awfully obscure.” Secondarily, and closer to modern usage, he offers “an enigma; any thing artfully made difficult.” Dalrymple purposely chooses to muse on a minor medical malady because, even as a physician, much about the body and its health remains a mystery. In popular culture, doctors and scientists, when not treated as selfless heroes, are Faustian villains bent on usurping divine sovereignty. This is Dalrymple’s (and Johnson’s) hobbyhorse – human vanity.

On New Year’s Day, my two younger sons and I visited Anthony Gorry at his home near Rice University. We have exchanged emails but this was our first meeting. Tony has retired from Rice as the Friedkin Professor Emeritus of Management. He was a professor of computer science and vice president of the university for information technology at Rice and adjunct professor of neuroscience at the Baylor College of Medicine. In 1991 he was elected a member of the National Academy of Medicine. In recent years he has written essays and fiction, worked at learning Greek and, seven years ago, was diagnosed with leukemia. He has undergone two stem-cell transplant treatments.

My middle son quizzed him on stem cells, but mostly we talked about education and books. I sat across the room from his bookshelves and recognized old friends – a block of green Loebs, Heinrich Zimmer’s Philosophies of India, Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life, the Princeton Plato and even a hardcover set of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars books (they were a gift from Gorry’s father when he was eleven). Gorry is now reading a selection of Henry James’ travel essays and not long ago read The Portrait of a Lady. He talks less about his illness than anyone I have known who is comparably ill. About the mysteries surrounding his skin disorder, Dalrymple writes:

“In practice, no one ever would solve them because the time and effort required would be completely disproportionate to the knowledge gained by doing so. In other words, I must live with these mysteries and will go to my grave not knowing the answer or answers to any of them.”

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