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GP 18 January 2006: Getting out of Limbo

Paradise Found, Limbo Lost. Harold Bloom, the rather delightful ober-professor of everything at Yale University, began the New Year by commenting on “Paradise Found, Limbo Lost,” in the New York Times (January 1, 2006), noting the new Pope Benedict’s theological slight of hand decreeing that Limbo is to be abolished for all the esoteric reasons that church leaders of all faiths now conjure up to do irrelevant things.  Limbo’s been part of Catholicism since the 13th century.  Bloom is not condemning the Pope’s editorial judgment, he’s just amused.

We last conversed with Bloom in “Bloom—In Praise of Divorce,” where we learned how he got his license at Yale to talk about most anything.  When it’s all said and done, we find his illuminations about spiritual matters even more profound than his comments on literature, so it’s good that he can wander about, perhaps separating himself from a rather daft university that has kicked the Congregationalists off campus in order to fortify its non-sectarian, politically correct credentials.  In the sixties you kicked ROTC off campus; now you drive away religion.  At any rate, read the humorous Bloom, who alas will never see a bottle of Fundador that his friend Anthony Burgess promised to give him when they both arrived in Limbo.  By the way, Limbo is where people used to go if they were good people in all respects but had failed to get properly anointed.  It’s a halfway house for the spiritually unbranded.

We should bask in the irony of a Limbo (supposedly) abolished.  The official eradication of Limbo is nothing more than a denial of the facts of life.  Limbo is perfectly descriptive of the spiritual estate that now totally encompasses our planet.  At the very moment Benedict tries to wipe it away, as if it were a Freudian stain, it has become supreme, the very religion of our time in most affluent societies.  In Limbo, we are neither here nor there, caught as we are in suspended animation.

The state of nowhere has taken hold in most of the major churches in the developed world, all of which are suffering erosion, for somehow they have lost their way.  But this is true in politics and several other domains as well.  The governments of Germany, France, the United States, and especially Italy are largely dodging fate, destiny, their responsibilities, and the future.  Everywhere the citizenry is said by trend readers to be thoroughly disaffected.  As near as one can tell, the root cause of this rootlessness is a sense of purposelessness, a spiritual vacuum, that has arisen despite the outpouring of religious zealotry in the Middle East, in some parts of the West, and in the warmer climes about which we comment in “Celebrating  Tomorrow.”

Retired professor Lynn Nelson, about whom we have essayed in “Unstoppable Lynn Nelson,” is tired of all the wailing and gnashing  that our global citizens evince, rapturous moaning today the most common refrain in Limbo.  It is de rigeur to complain and to do nothing about one’s complaints.  As Lynn says below, if we want to, we can.

Egg on His Face and Everything Else.  Nelson reports:

My New Year’s resolution has been to stop listening to all the experts explaining how catastrophic things will be if (or when) avian flu mutates into a strain capable of spreading from human to human and cutting out the feathered middle-bird.  I have my own reasons for becoming so bored with panicked pronouncements, and I would be more than happy to share them with you.

If I recall correctly, it was in the Winter quarter of 1949-1950 that a notice appeared on the bulletin board of our college house.  It asked for volunteers to participate in a medical test and offered further information to anyone who might be interested.  It appeared that the people in white coats had developed a new vaccine that showed promise of combating influenza.  No payment or privileges were offered to participants, but most of us decided that it would be interesting to see if the stuff worked.  So it was that early one grey and drizzly day, about two hundred of the residents of Burton-Judson courts traipsed across the Midway—braving a bitter wind blowing off the lake—to Billings Hospital, as it was called back then.

We were given a short lecture before baring our arms to the needles and were intrigued to learn that the vaccine had been cultured in chickens’ eggs.  One intrepid volunteer asked if it would kill us if it didn’t work and was told that the entire staff sincerely hoped not.  Then a mass of doctors and medical students began jabbing everyone they could reach.

We were not so immature as to believe that there would not be some reactions and were quite prepared for the sore arms and slight fevers that developed before we had made our way back to the shelter of our dorms.  The process was new  and quality controls were not what they later became, so there were bound to be impurities in the vaccine and reactions were inevitable.  We were not prepared for the nature of these reactions, however, and soon found a source of great interest and not a little merriment in hearing of the various problems that the volunteers soon began to report.

I suppose that most of the contamination came from the eggs in which the cultures were grown.  In any event, my roommate soon discerned a terrible smell in our room and accused me of having conducted some infernal experiment when his back was turned.  He eventually went for a walk to catch a breath of fresh air but found that the smell—which was that of sulfur dioxide—persisted even in the clear cold winds coming off Lake Michigan.  He realized, with some apprehension, that the smell was that of rotten eggs and began to wonder if he had been permanently saddled with a grievous disability by the new wonder-working vaccine and buried himself in his studies in an attempt to take his mind off the smell that followed him wherever he went.  Luckily, the effect wore off in a couple of days, and he found that he had accomplished a great deal of excellent work.  He seemed quite pleased when I pointed out that the madeleine cookies that had inspired Marcel Proust to write his Remembrance of Things Past were usually flavored with orange water and that it was no doubt the smell of the cookies that had awakened his genius.

I also had my own reaction, but I never mentioned its nature to him.  For almost a
week, I constantly had the taste of an egg salad sandwich in my mouth.  But I was—and am—devoted to egg salad sandwiches, and I was able to pursue my studies without the sudden urges for a snack or a cigarette that often interrupted me just as I began to believe that I was of the verge of understanding something.  This more than made up for the number of poseurs who were constantly clucking and crowing in the hall, insisting that their noisemaking was simply a reaction to the vaccine with which they had been injected.

I suppose that this all happened a long time ago, but I’m now of an age when the distant past sometimes seems like yesterday and this morning’s breakfast as if it never was.  The point of all this rambling is that it was not all that long ago that there simply were no vaccines for influenza, but there was no cries of death, destruction and devastation should the new strain of avian influenza unless we immediately begin spending billions of dollars to develop a vaccine to protect us.  In my humble opinion, this is a simple matter of hysteria.  If people were seriously concerned about an imminent and inevitable pandemic, there are a number of eminently rational and practical things to be done, but no one seems uninterested in doing any of them

Of course, I could be wrong.

Tactics Versus Strategy.  We have participated in several long-winded strategy sessions in the New Year, the last an 11 hour wing-dinger.  Since cost-cutting has been the dominant theme in business for at least 15 years, the ability to formulate strategy has atrophied.  Participants in such sessions wheel between tactics that merely extend their present day-to-day, opportunistic operating styles to embryonic, undeveloped ideas that hint at a strategy.  In other words, our top level managers also are stumbling around in Limbo, not energized by a belief in tomorrow and a devotion to greatness.  Replicated in boardrooms across the country, this strategic impasse is squeezing the future out of our economy.  Afraid of getting some egg on our face, we are often not the adventurers who would join a  Caesar.  As he crossed the Rubicon in 44 B.C. with the cry, “Alea iacta est”—i.e., “The Die is Cast”—he had little use for the concept “return on investment” because he was much more interested in the point of no return.

Along with Caesar, we are in 2006 at one of the turning points of history.  That’s when strategic opportunity is at its greatest, when you can take advantage of discontinuities.  Not to have and not to pursue a forceful strategy is tantamount to leaving a whole lot of money on the table.

A Pony around Here Somewhere.  We are reminded at this point of two Ha’vard professors, Professori Skinner and Box.  For one of their experiments they got hold of a couple of squash courts at the edge of Cambridge.  One they stuffed with a huge, astounding assortment of toys.  In the other, they laid down a mammoth pile of horse manure.  Into the toy room, they put a little girl.  And a young boy entered the other, each to do as they pleased.  The professors left them alone for an hour or so.

Coming back, they peeked through the glass at the little girl.  She was sitting on the toy pile, wailing.  “Little girl, little girl, what’s wrong?”  “Oh,” she said, “they’ll be broken in a couple of days, and the dress is the wrong color on this doll, and they’ll get dirty and I will get sick from all the germs.”

Taken aback, they went to the next court.  There, through the glass, they saw the young man running about the room, flipping manure up into the air, laughing up a storm, totally at play.  Rushing in, they asked, “Conant, how can you be so happy, with all this dung about you?”  The lad replied, “With all this horse manure, there’s got to be a pony around here somewhere.”

It’s as easy to be happy as unhappy.  They’re just styles of the mind.  It’s as easy to do something as not.  Action and in-action are just different ways of dealing with psychic energy.  And it’s far better to find yourself a pony, so you can ride out of Limbo.

The Limbo Dance.  The Limbo is not only a state of exile in the land of nowhere.  It is also a dance from Trinidad where lithe dancers make their way under a stick that is moved closer and closer to the ground.  It’s hard to do, and is only for those with the most limber of bodies, which is not one of our complaints.  As well, the dance symbolizes how hard it is to get out of Limbo—in spirit, in politics, in business.

The French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about his conception of hell in his play No Exit.  The players discover slowly that there is no getting away from each other as the dialogue unfolds.  This, for Sartre, is what hell is all about—when there is no getting on with our future, as we get caught in a celluloid frame where the movie never advances.

Fortunately Limbo is not that way.  There’s a way out.  If we will give up the gnashing of teeth that a media-driven age has fostered.  If we will stop repeating the moment we are in and decide instead to explore the uncertain world ahead.

P.S.  Lynn Nelson’s encounter with the smell of eggs does remind one of the expression “egg on one’s face,” a metaphor for embarrassment.  American Heritage thinks it may hearken back to a time when dissatisfied audiences pelted actors with eggs to show their displeasure.  Calculating people never make good strategists, absorbed as they are with not getting eggs on their faces.

P.P.S.  We read that flu vaccines got their start with Thomas Francis, Jr. in the Midwest, where, we assume, flu bugs have always run rampant, though he had done his first investigations in the East.  The distinguished Francis, incidentally, mentored Jonas Salk who in time came up with polio vaccine.

P.P.P.S.  There’s a flurry of recent comment about the relationship of commercial activity to religion, which we have touched on in “The Decade’s Best Seller.”  Probably more interesting is the thought, yet unproven, that a religious frame of mind is the sine qua non of the strategist.  Bruce Henderson, the founder of the Boston Consulting Group, was a one-time Bible salesman, though we never got around to asking him whether his religious belief informed his strategic breakthroughs.  Peter Drucker, of course, was a very religious fellow and, at the end, devoted his talents to nonprofits including churches.  John Roebling, creator of the Brooklyn Bridge, is most interesting in this regard.  We have said as much “Big Beliefs Make Big Men,” suggesting that Roebling’s religious interests and his mentoring by the German dialectical philosopher George Frederick Hegel had a great deal to do with his vast achievement.

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