Global Province Letter: How to Arouse the Living Dead
April 7, 2010

Man knows that the world is not made on a human scale; and he wishes that it were—André Malraux

The Living Dead.  Most of us know that true survival has very little to do with the guns carried around by survivalists or the antiseptic behaviors advocated by preachy ideologues who want to ban salt, automobiles, paper bags, and gosh knows what else.  Each, with their idée fixes, stand for a hermetic existence resembling that of those vegetative souls on their last legs whom the docs keep alive with feeding tubes and intravenous gadgetry.  Modern life has given us endless options for an existence that is no existence at all.

Indeed, this digital age has cast many of us into a virtual world that separates us from nature and everyday living.  iPods, and Blackberries, and notebook computers, and home entertainment centers, and flat panel TVs have formed a cocoon around us that cuts us off from the world as it is.  Immanuel Kant and other 19th century metaphysicians argued that the human sensory apparatus reshapes what nature has to offer us: we are automatically at a distance from that which we would observe.  Now, by virtue of technology filters, many of us are twice removed from the great world out there.  We ourselves saw this recently on the train to Porto and on the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow where lacquered ladies nattered away on their cell phones for the whole of the journey, never taking stock of their traveling companions or the Greater London panorama out the windows.

It takes a certain obstinacy to get outside the digital bubble.  Much to the despair of the BMW set that peoples our neighborhoods, we motor around in our 1996 Roadmaster, brace ourselves with scotch plaid bow ties, and prefer to tell the time of day with analog clocks that are not powered by expensive batteries.  To drink the cup of life fully these days requires an anachronistic temperament where one is either behind or ahead of the times. To truly survive, one must partake of the rich human experience tinged by beauty, laced with intellectual content, and filled with embraces one man and one woman to another. To be here on our patch of earth fully in touch with our brothers requires that we put aside all the frenetic impatience and digital compulsiveness that permeates modern life.

Perhaps we must take lessons from those who have richly survived in the face of the daunting challenges posed by our mortality if we are to better refute the times.

Intimations of Immortality.  William Wordsworth wrote an ode called Intimations of Immortality. Harry Gersh had a few such intimations.  In the 1970s, after he had put his kids through school, he quit his job at The Segal Company and enrolled at Harvard, for sure its oldest freshman at age 64.  He took math and astronomy and all sorts of things that would stretch the brain and take him off his well-rutted path.  When we visited with him on a park bench in Harvard Yard, he told us he had a theory.  Said he, “I cannot do a darn thing to fix this tired old body.  But it’s possible I think to revive the brain.”  “Besides,” he said to us then, “My kids have had a superior education.  Now it’s time for me.”  If you look in the record books, you will find he graduated in the Class of 1980.

We’re sure that Harvard was the richer for it, since he, unlike his young, ambitious classmates who had to tap dance for grades, was in Boston merely to clear his littered head and prepare himself for his last decade by better reconnecting with the world around him. We like it, for instance, that he took a course in astronomy, transporting himself to the stars well beyond these earthly confines.  He lived out his final years in Martha’s Vineyard, the last pasture for many interesting New Yorkers, passing away July 30, 1988.  Clearly he had been determined not to let himself go to seed, but to make sure that his retirement was as complex and colorful and informed as was his life as a working stiff.  Perhaps the true survivor never really retires.

Endurance.  There’s a small company on Long Island our firm has occasionally counseled that several times looked like it was at death’s door.  It once manufactured collagenase, about the best thing going for bedsores.  But overbearing government regulation almost stopped it in its tracks.  A single idea kept it going.  Its founder Ed Wegman and his son Tom Wegman believed that injectable collagenase could cure a host of irksome ailments such as Dupuytren’s disease.  This year, so many years later, its injectable product has come to market, because it licensed its technology to another company, Auxilium Pharmaceuticals. As the New York Times recently said, “It took half a century.” From BioSpecifics we learn that meaningful survival takes grit and a long-term outlook.  If, in fact, one has the right idea, one must stay with it—for decades.

Modesty Becomes Us.  Most of us forget about Portugal, that somewhat ambiguous country that shares the Iberian Peninsula with Spain. We first visited there in the 1980s, all because a very lush travel magazine enumerated with wonderful pictures the 25 most romantic places in Europe.  Portugal, as it turns out, had more of these blessed haunts than any other country in the Old World.  In another letter, we shall explore its many charms—the compelling courtesy and generosity of its citizens, the intriguing poetry of its artists such as Fernando Pessoa, who is nicely commemorated in Lisbon’s Chiado district although he was ignored by the Portuguese of his day, and the special wines of the Douro, which are redolent with sunburnt flavor.  We commend to the reader unfamiliar with Prince Henry’s country its well-wrought Azulejos tiles about which our colleague has essayed in Spicelines.

But what should interest statesmen the world over is the very fact that Portugal has survived when it could have faded away.  For a very small period its neighbor Spain overwhelmed it, but soon enough Portugal regained its independence.  That said, we must understand that its apogee came in the 16th century, and its fortunes have waxed but mainly waned ever since. 

We recently conversed about its long and rich history with Antonio Salavessa Costa, who devoted some 40 years to his country both as a public and private official—in Europe and abroad.  As he has said, the last time Portugal really projected substantial power was in 1511 when it conquered Malacca, which became its strategic outpost in the East Indies.   The Portuguese Empire endured, thereafter, not because the country carried a big stick, but because it talked quietly. As Costa is wont to say, it held on in Macao, not because of its might but because other powers, such as China, “allowed us to be there.”  It comported itself in a way that was not threatening to other powers and avoided the posturing which might cause others to shatter it. 

Right now Portugal provides a double lesson to these United States.  With the end of the Cold War, there is no clear power center in the world.  It becomes the United States to walk and talk softly.  Moreover, all the big powers are internally troubled and suffering from systemic weakness.  It behooves us to make friends with the Portugals and other small countries that not only have increased geopolitical power in the new order of things but also know a few things about survival.  As we have said continuously on the Global Province, the little marginal countries of the world are all astir, and we had best make them our friends and learn from them.  They thrive, not because of their firepower, but due to their charming, creative people-power and their circumspect deportment.

Malraux.  André Malraux cut quite a figure in modern French literature and in affairs of state.  In Man’s Fate and elsewhere he suggested that life can only achieve its zenith if it is lived staring death in the face.  We must challenge the gods, even if, in the end, they will take us down.  Survival, in this view, is only worthwhile if we keep our determination and brainpower very animated and act as if we are going to last forever—or at least 6 centuries.  Survival without live intellect and big ideas and huge purpose is just a fool’s game.  We are here to turn back the night.

P.S.  This month General Motors sold more cars in China than it did in America.  This should not cause us to exaggerate the importance of China, but to realize that we need to tool our products and businesses to thrive in countries where per capita incomes are vastly lower than those of America.  At the right price point companies can find expanding markets in the developing world, even if the economies of the developed world are stalled.  For instance, one might study the operations of Unilever which has enjoyed so much success in poor, rural India.

P.P.S. In the 20th century, we learn that Portugal survived because of an interesting dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, now forgotten and well known only by a very few.  What one most gleans from the biographies about him is that he most thought of  preservation—preservation of the homeland and of the Portuguese Empire—as his main mission.  In fact, he had little interest in progress or modernization.  He turned ‘holding on’ into an art form. In his early career he was an academic at the university in Coimbra—an unusual background for a head of state.

P.P.P.S.  One take on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is that the measuring instrument or observation tool we employ distorts the very phenomenon we are trying to understand. Scientists who take this principle to heart usually fail to realize that human faculties themselves are one of the instruments that distort our perception of phenomena.

P.P.P.P.S.  It’s just a matter of time—and a few deaths in Cuba and the United States—before we draw close to Cuba again.  It is another small country which we can help and which can help us.  To get re-acquainted with its people, we can recommend Jack Beckham Combs’ The Cubans, which is just now coming off the presses.

P.P.P.P.P.S.  Our isolation from the world in which we live is surely one of the central reasons why burgeoning depression has afflicted the modern soul.  That is yet one more reason why we labeled mental disease more of a public health problem than a personal dilemma in “I Know Nothing: Modern Psychiatry.”



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