Cambridge 02138

The eugenic temptation, raising boys, Beowulf, F.O. Matthiessen

Understanding Addictions

While I was pleased to see Harvard Magazine address this vast and critical issue (“Deep Cravings,” by Craig Lambert, March-April, page 60), I was disturbed by the article’s potentially misleading tone. It is interesting to some degree to learn sophisticated insights such as Gene Heyman’s model of addiction as an “ambivalence” rather than a “compulsion,” but the overly analytical and cognitive tone was almost unbelievable, even for Harvard.

In presuming by its subtitle that “new research on the brain and behavior clarifies the mysteries of addiction,” the article suggests that we are conquering a problem that is in fact conquering us.

The impression that addiction is relatively easy to overcome is outrageous, though this is the logical inference to be derived from the bizarre sidebar about alumna Ann Marlowe, who quit heroin and said “it was not a big deal” and advised that heroin can be useful for jet-lag. The fact that William Burroughs, the “most famous Harvard-educated addict” (a dubious claim in itself), killed his wife in a drinking spree is glossed over in a sentence, and the actual ugliness of his last 20 years is nowhere admitted.

While some “experts” may confess in passing that no one really has an answer to the origins of addiction, one gets the feeling that Harvard is far more interested in the intellectually fascinating aspects of the neuroscientific research and the “reptilian brain” than in the massive and insidious e≠ects of this disease. One gets the feeling that Harvard is playing the flute while Rome burns.

Thank heavens for George Vaillant’s down-to-earth observations on the final page, which include some practical connections, such as the useful one between smoking and drinking, and which reach back over decades of life-experience and lift the overall focus of the article out of its social vacuum. Funny, too, that after all the fancy scientific research, he still refers to such banal solutions as AA, spirituality, and human community.           

William S. Patten ’70
Princeton, Mass.

 

Editor’s note: Lambert makes clear on the first page of his article that addiction “remains one of the costliest and most intractable of all social problems. It confounds rationality: millions of addicts persist in their blatantly self-destructive behavior despite the loss of family, friends, jobs, money, and health.”

 

Ann Marlowe’s libertarian views, while certainly not mainstream, are more and more discussed, as are self-directed Social Security investments, et cetera. To insure that “recreational” as well as therapeutic usages of a broad range of drug products don’t negatively impact the common good (taken to be traditional, mainstream approaches to life), we need to set up self-funding treatment policies. Cigarettes, currently illegal drugs, and dangerous pursuits (bungee-jumping, Russian roulette) would have a high tax set aside for this purpose. Insurance premiums, private or Medicare, shouldn’t be escalated by off-the-curve activities. We also need some pretty strict guidelines on  the values of life, limb, and (soon) mind in this increasingly litigious society.

George de Man ’61
Atlanta

 

A superb article. One suggestion to Dr. George Vaillant: his list of four factors that predict success in breaking a habit should have one more factor—the arts.

I have been working since November with a bunch of high-school kids who are preparing Anything Goes (from which the song “I Get a Kick out of You” comes, with its lyric, “I get no kick from cocaine”). They began as a motley crew. Now, with words, music, and dance, they are using lots of new leadership skills and mental and physical skills; they are focused, energetic, and working toward a common goal. They have bonded. The show will produce a great high for them.

Many people who make budget decisions about the arts in schools and churches and public life think of them as frills because the arts are indeed frills for many people. But for others, one of the arts may be the only open avenue to a productive life. If their school doesn’t introduce them to it on a high level, the avenue may be blocked. I wonder how many kids might never start or continue drug use if we had healthy arts programs K-12.

Marian Whitney Archibald ’63
Ambler, Pa.

 

As a 12-stepper who is most grateful for the 12-step program, when I read Vaillant’s example of progress in overcoming an addiction problem—a beneficial progression of switches in the addictive substance(s) of choice from alcohol, to coffee and cigarettes, to overeating, and then to drinking gallons of water—I was laughingly taken with the patronizing cuteness of the analysis. Of course, this perspective offered by Vaillant ignores the real essence of the 12-step program: that we are spiritual beings and, until we put the true God in the place of the more tangible nonspiritual gods of alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, food, et cetera, we cannot lead the disciplined, moderate, balanced life necessary for a reasonable degree of happiness on this earth.

When Vaillant cites religion as a replacement for the addictive substance, he implies another falsehood fatal to true spirituality, that life need always be a “high” of one type or another for an addict.

Submitted anonymously (I am a member of one of the
Harvard College classes graduated in the 1950s)
in
accordance with the 12-step tradition of anonymity

 

Americans think irresponsibly around the addiction issue. We blame and penalize other countries for producing drugs to meet a demand and a distribution network largely dependent on Americans. We have had a history of supporting the development of drug cultivation in foreign countries, like CIA support for the Nationalist Chinese in Burma in the 1950s and Afghan rebels in the 1980s, who fostered drug production in those countries.

Addiction is about more than William S. Burroughs, or stopping time, or medicating, feeding, finding, or healing the self. It, like nationalism and religious extremism, is at the root of much of the evil —the murder, the torture, the rape, the disease, the massive dislocation, the greed, the government corruption—that is with us. Uncovering the mechanism of addiction is essential for finding new ways to reduce demand.

Alex Walley ’93
Baltimore

 

The Eugenic Temptation

Everett Mendelsohn (“The Eugenic Temptation,” March-April 2000, page 39) gave an excellent review of the history of genetic engineering and the headlong rush to embrace its potential, for good and for ill. However, he did not mention the most damaging aspect of the eugenic temptation: the argument it gives for neglecting the social and environmental factors in personality. If crime, caring behavior, and intelligence are all purely genetic, then social policies have no effect. This has given politicians, especially in the United States, the perfect excuse for shredding the social safety net, instituting punitive “welfare reform,” privatizing access to quality education, and so forth. The companies that make profits from genetic engineering are part of this rightward movement.

As Professor Mendelsohn noted, media often trumpet that “it’s all in the genes.” Yet the evidence from experimental psychology and from neuroscience is that the human brain is not fully formed at birth. Rather, the growth of synapses in the brain is strongly influenced by experience, particularly between the ages of 4 and 7. Childhood abuse, for example, can have lasting effects on the adult brain. So can parenting, good or bad, and early education, as the success of Headstart attests. Even at 7 we are not yet our full selves, since our frontal lobes, where planning takes place and emotion and reason are integrated, do not fully develop until adolescence.

Every personality trait, and every mental skill, involves both nature and nurture. In the case of crime, though we have not isolated a “criminal gene,” genetic factors do play a role. Yet studies in Denmark have shown that the young men most likely to commit crimes are those who had su≠ered both complications in the birth process and early rejection by their mothers.

The question of “is it nature or nurture?” needs to be replaced by “what forms of nurture bring out the most desirable qualities in human nature?” As the interrelationship of social and biochemical factors becomes more widely recognized, that will become the main question of an organized scientific effort that can dwarf even the Human Genome Project. This is an effort, underway already, that includes psychology, neuroscience (experimental and clinical), and computer simulation, and is drawing in the social sciences and philosophy. When policy makers and ordinary citizens become part of the effort, we hope it will no longer be the case that “ethics lag behind technology.”

Daniel S. Levine ’67
Professor of psychology
University of Texas at Arlington

 

Fortunately, we don’t seem to be quite at the point where purposeful modification of human genes is practical. When we do reach this point, I am not sure how we should handle the ethical questions that will arise. I am sure, however, that we should not do it by trying to deny the basic conclusion of biological research. This conclusion, as stated in a recent book by Dean Hamer, is dismissed by Mendelsohn as follows: “Hamer confidently claims that ‘the emerging science of molecular biology has [shown] beyond a doubt that genes are the single most important factor that distinguishes one person from another.’”

I know that many people find this discovery disquieting, but denying that the embryonic development of an organism is controlled by its DNA is not a viable position. Certainly environmental problems can interfere with that development, but it is clear that the DNA sets the limits to the potential; environment can only affect whether that potential is realized. A fruit fly, no matter how healthful its environment, is not going to write Paradise Lost.

It may appear from Cambridge that all intelligent people know this. However, there are a significant number of intelligent people outside of academia who hold an antiscientific view of the world, so the risk that the scientific view could be suppressed for political reasons, at least locally, is real. Such suppression can come from either end of the political spectrum: from the left, as in the Lysenko affair in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, which destroyed the careers of a number of biologists, or from the right, as in the Scopes trial in the U.S. at about the same time.

Pieter B. Visscher ’67
Northport, Ala.

 

Mendelsohn’s essay was one of the more thought-provoking things I’ve read in some time. He makes clear that procrastinating on addressing the moral and social consequences of the breakthroughs made on many fronts in genetics research will be much too costly. However, the costly aspects implied in the essay seem to include only applications of the research by otherwise well-meaning people. What would be the cost if the research is used by governments like the Nazis in Germany or Communists in the former Soviet Union? Such governments still exist. Does anyone doubt that if such governments became stronger and more powerful, they would hesitate for a second if they could use the results of genetic research to improve their competitive advantage over democratically run governments?

Charles V. Guidotti, Ph.D. ’63
Orono, Me.

 

Moneyed Managers

When on successive pages of the March-April issue, I read that the top five Harvard fund managers in 1999 averaged compensation of $8 million per capita (“Pay for Performance,” page 75), and that salary plus housing for new assistant professors would rise to $55,000 (“Taking Care of Junior Professors”), I wondered who in Cambridge has his hand on the throttle.           

This low figure is less than one and a half years’ tuition, room, and board charges for a Harvard undergraduate, and less than 1 percent of what the University paid its top-performing fund managers. Starting high-school teachers in Berkeley earn $40,000 for 36 weeks’ work.

While I realize we live in a winner-take-all world of compensation, Harvard should not forget that assistant professors are the working capital of undergraduate education and the venture capital of the entire University.

Frederick C. Dietz ’63
Berkeley, Calif.

 

Raising Boys

Kindlon and Thompson are right about boys (“The Boy’s Dilemma,” March-April, page 18). As the mother of boys, I know firsthand that they can be socialized to be verbal, sensitive, insightful, and responsive (i.e., companionable) without sacrificing their masculinity in any way. The kind of exchange that Thompson recounts with his son is what makes for any intimate relationship. While those conversations are more readily fostered in our culture with little girls, they can be with boys as well, leading to the development of adult men who can be not only providers and protectors, but also tender and empathic partners.

When one of my sons was in the ninth grade, the mother of one of his good friends said to me with real sorrow about her son, “He doesn’t talk to me.” I asked my son why he thought his friend did not talk to his mother. My son responded, “I think it’s because he’s mad with his mother, but I don’t think he knows that.” He continued, “I don’t think he knows this, either, but I think he’s mad with his mother because she’s afraid of him. I don’t think she knows that, either.” This was a lovely example of the distance that can grow between parent and child at puberty (particularly a mother and son), when the defensiveness that Kindlon mentions can seal a boy off from the emotional expression he so needs, which will undoubtedly find expression in a less constructive way.

M. Burch Tracy Ford, Ed.M. ’90
Head of School, Miss Porter’s School
Farmington, Conn.

 

Move Over, Earl Derr Biggers

Detective story fans, myself included, should be thankful for your “Vita” on Earl Derr Biggers, creator of the Chinese detective Charlie Chan (March-April, page 58). As often happens, Biggers the author has fallen into the shadow of his more famous creation, and it’s good to see him brought into the light. But to write, as Barbara Gregorich does, that Chan “inaugurated the golden age of American mysteries” is going too far. Spirits of mystery writers past are rising up from their repose, among them the shade of my grandmother Mary Roberts Rinehart.           

Granmary, as we grandchildren knew her, was born near Pittsburgh in 1876. She became a nurse, married Dr. Stanley Rinehart, and, when money became a problem, began to sell short fiction. Her first full-length mystery novels, The Man in Lower 10 and The Circular Staircase, appeared between 1906 and 1908 and made her famous. Her output continued through 1953 or so, but her major contribution to the mystery genre was made during the first three decades of the 1900s. For years after Lower 10 appeared, the Pullman Company had to put up with train passengers who refused to occupy that space in their sleeping cars. Although she wrote many other books and articles as well, Mary Roberts Rinehart was best known for the genteel mixture of mayhem and romance that she concocted for her detective stories.           

I’m sure that other voices from Beyond will challenge Gregorich’s claim for Earl derr Biggers and the golden age of the American mystery. You may even hear by carrier raven from a certain graveyard in Baltimore.           

George Rinehart ’50
Annapolis, Md.

 

Beowulf by Wilbur

Daniel donoghue’s fine article on Beowulf translation at Harvard (“Beowulf in the Yard: Longfellow, Alfred, Heaney,” March- April, page 25) immediately brought to mind fragmentary work done by Richard Wilbur, A.M. ’47, Jf ’50, when he was a junior fellow.

In particular, he translated exactly the passage you reprinted for comparison among the translators; those who read the three versions may find Wilbur’s very different rendering of interest (below).

This translation first appeared in the sixth number of a small magazine called Wake (numbers 1-5 were titled The Harvard Wake), as the first element of “Notes on Heroes” (the others being poems by Wilbur, the second titled “Beowulf”). It was collected in Wilbur’s The Whale and Other Uncollected Translations (1982), along with another fragment, “Beowulf’s Death-Wound.”

Given the strength of these lines, and Wilbur’s demonstrated prowess in translation since, we can only regret that he did not eventually take on the whole poem—though clearly to have done so at the time would have been an intolerable diversion from the main thrust of his poetic development.

John Lancaster
Amherst, Mass.

 

The Persecution of F. O. Matthiessen

I have followed with interest recent discussions of Harvard’s response to McCarthyism, in the magazine and in John Bethell’s Harvard Observed. In my judgment both have neglected perhaps the most egregious damage done to Harvard in that sorry time.

On April 1, 1950, professor of history and literature Francis Otto Matthiessen  jumped to his death from an upper floor of the Hotel Manger in Boston, ending a brilliant career as a writer and teacher as well as unrelenting persecution by the scurrilous Boston press of the era. His suicide occurred only a few weeks after McCarthy discovered the Red Menace at work in the State Department, so perhaps it cannot be described as a result of McCarthyism, but certainly it was a product of the same dark forces.

Like Harry Levin, Matthiessen brought invigorating change to the musty world of literary studies at Harvard. In a field dominated by traditionally narrow specialists, Matthiessen ranged widely, demonstrating by his example that literature is not merely about variorum texts and biographical minutiae, but above all about ideas. When he talked of power and politics in Shakespeare’s plays, Simone Weil and Copernicus shared time with Marlowe and Holinshead. His published works likewise covered topics as diverse as Elizabethan translation, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Theodore Dreiser. His monumental American Renaissance added a term to the literary lexicon and stands even today as the virtual defining work in the multidisciplinary field of American studies.

An odd coincidence brought me to Matthiessen’s notice. At a time when most undergraduates were adjured to focus on the safely deceased, he encouraged my interest in the work of Robert Penn Warren [Litt.D. ’73], a writer of (at the time) limited output who su≠ered the added taint of recent commercial success; when Warren visited Harvard as a potential candidate for the Boylston professorship, Matthiessen arranged a chance for me to meet him, a rare privilege for an obscure junior.

Despite his academic eminence, Matthiessen was all but stoned in the streets in the last years and months of his life, for his politics were out of step. He spoke on behalf of Henry Wallace at the Progressive Party convention in 1948. In March 1949 he took a prominent role alongside Dimitri Shostakovich, Charlie Chaplin, Arthur Miller, and others in the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace, which definitively split American liberals into the anti-Communists and the accommodationists. Matthiessen stood in the forefront of the latter. A lecture at the Salzburg Seminar, followed by travels in the remnant states of the old Austro-Hungarian empire, produced From the Heart of Europe, in which he argued that destruction of the old alliance between royalists and fascists created an opportunity for new democratic states to bridge the widening gulf between East and West. Above all, he committed himself to the belief that good will on both sides could overcome the antagonisms already hardening into the Cold War. The book met a predictably hostile reception, and to the Red-baiters of the day its author became almost a caricature: the archetypical naive, pinko professor, a fellow traveling with such usual suspects as Harlow Shapley and Wendell Furry.

Matthiessen’s political views and activities may have been foolish, even entirely misguided, but they were, of course, also quite legal. His personal life, however, was another matter in the mores of the day. As previously noted in these pages (“Have I any right in a community that would so utterly disapprove of me if it knew the facts?” by George Abbott White, September-October 1978, page 58), he was assumed to be homosexual, in orientation if not in actual behavior, though rumor made little distinction between the two.

A reader familiar only with today’s Globe would not credit the vile and venal Boston press of the 1940s and early 1950s. In steep economic decline, priest-ridden, still mired in all the corruption of the Curley era, and no bastion of liberalism on either social or political questions, by common agreement Boston had the worst newspapers of any major American city save possibly Los Angeles. Hearst’s Record-American, the Post, the Herald-Traveler, even the Globe, scrambled for the lowest common denominator. In the fashion of the times, Red-hunting became an obsession even before McCarthy acquired the patronage of Joseph Kennedy. F.O. Matthiessen became a favorite victim of the jackal pack. His principal pursuer was a local Westbrook Pegler wannabe, a sportswriter turned political savant named Bill Cunningham, whose lucubrations graced the Herald. Cunningham’s rabid pursuit of Matthiessen continued beyond the grave. His valedictory column set a standard of viciousness remarkable even in that uncivil time and place.

Conant et al. may have been heroes or they may have behaved like poltroons. Either way, Harvard would have survived unscathed. Tragically, the same was not true of F. O. Matthiessen.

Bernard R. Carman ’51
Easton, Pa.

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