Quote of The Week

“The human mind is programmed for survival, not for truth.”

Philosopher John Gray


Bird Brains

Our birds are spoiled. I think of them as “our” birds because they spend so much time in our back yard, shopping around the feeders and giving the indoor cats high blood pressure. But “our” birds have no real loyalty. If the feeders are empty they fly to another house down the street, without a word of apology. When we moved into this place there were seven different feeders in the yard, and all the local birds knew the address. In the interests of economy and common sense we reduced this number to five, which seems more than enough choice for any reasonable bird.

I assume that birds, like us, appreciate a certain amount of choice but not too much. So I try to simplify things for them by pre-selecting a menu that, I hope, will have something for everybody. But this is more complicated than it sounds. The bird food industry, like every other industry, seems to have decided that when it comes to choice, only too much is enough.

The bird food shop gets more bewildering and more alliterative every year: Cardinals Choice, Songbird Special, Finch Fantasia, Grackle Gourmet, Chickadee Chow, Dodo Delight, and on and on. It doesn’t take much experience mixing and matching these products to understand that we are not being offered real choices but different combinations of a few basic ingredients with imaginative names on the labels. Birds have very small brains, that’s why we use “bird brain” as an insult, yet they are not fooled by these sales techniques. They eat everything, because it’s all bird food.

We humans may not be quite so smart. We are fooled by hype and promotion all the time. Consider the choice of sneakers. My old sneakers are rather dilapidated, and have suffered indignities from the ducks at the local pond. When I was in mid-town Manhattan the other day I noticed that almost every other store sold sneakers. There were huge billboards advertising sneakers. When I looked down at the sidewalk it was obvious that just about everyone in the street was wearing sneakers. Some people call them “athletic shoes,” which I suppose is a kind of sympathetic magic. But I needed some sturdy footwear so I went into one of the stores at random, thinking it would be very easy to get some sneakers and be out in less than five minutes.

I was out in less than one minute, but without anything to put on my feet. This huge store had thousands of sneakers stretching off into the distance, far too many to choose from. Yet a sneaker, like bird seed, is just a combination of a few basic ingredients: a sole underneath in case you step on something sharp, an upper part made of some plastic or canvas stuff, laces to stop it falling off, and a few primary colors for decoration. It’s not a meaningful choice at all, except for the size and the price. Yet people are passionate about sneakers, invest them with magical powers of performance and status enhancement, and even commit violence to get them. I read about a town in Germany, Herzogenaurach, that is home to both the Adidas and Puma brands. The town is completely divided. Workers from the two factories don’t socialize, or wear the other company’s sneakers, or even marry each other.

Sneakers are sneakers. Birdseed is birdseed. Who are the real birdbrains here?

Copyright: David Bouchier

This is a Test

Nobody likes to be tested, yet tests and examinations seem to be an inescapable part of the human condition. The Chinese had an elaborate system of academic examinations more than two thousand years ago. The most ancient universities in Europe have been around for over a thousand years, teaching and testing, and it’s still going on. At the end of every semester students are faced with examinations. Enough knowledge has been imparted, so the professors hope, that the students can be quizzed and assigned to their proper places in the academic hierarchy.

Tests seem curiously redundant in this so-called information age. Never has so much knowledge been available so easily to so many with so little effort, regardless of education. By the magic of the algorithm, whatever it is, search engines like Google and databases like Wikipedia have become a vast electronic crib sheet that can answer all our questions in less time than in takes to say “duh.” Why waste valuable brain cells remembering anything? The only problem is that if your brain is empty to begin with you don’t know what questions to ask the oracle, or what use to make of the answers.

I’ve taken a lot of tests and exams in my lifetime, and I bet you have too. But they tend to get less frequent and more voluntary as one gets older. The last formal test of knowledge I can remember taking was thirty years ago. This is a rather alarming thought. I could be ignorant of virtually everything, and not know it. I’m sure I would get an F on my understanding of computers, baseball, particle physics, or celebrities. But maybe I don’t even know the things I think I know, because it is so long since I’ve been required to prove it. Nobody has asked me recently to explain the key ideas of Montesquieu’s great book The Spirit of the Laws, or to conjugate a Latin verb.

Of course we are informally tested all the time. Everyday life poses numerous questions that require an answer: Is it garbage collection day today? What kind of sauce goes best with halibut? Who is attorney general this week? and so on. But nobody is keeping score and, frankly, we get lazy. A question about solid geometry, which would be a gift to any student prepared for the test, can catch a senior citizen unprepared as he browses the shelves of the pharmacy. When conversation in the sports bar turns to Beethoven’s last quartets we may not be able to contribute anything useful.

I tested myself, using some SAT old exam papers from the web. I did well enough on sentence completion and comprehension, and I knew when Jamestown was settled and what the War of 1812 was about. But when it came to questions on science and calculus I flunked out completely. My final score was so embarrassingly bad that I don’t even want to talk about it.

It has often been said that the knowledge of one’s own ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. I think Socrates said it first, but maybe I’m wrong about that too. And perhaps that’s why we test so much, not to reveal ignorance to the examiner but to the student. Also, as every teacher knows, it’s a guilty pleasure to give a test and not have to answer it yourself.

But to reduce the complacent superiority often felt by adults perhaps we should all be tested from time to time, without the help of Mr. Google. It wouldn’t do us any harm to be reminded of all the important things have forgotten, or that we never knew.

Copyright: David Bouchier

It’s the lack of thought that counts

Meditation: the very word has a relaxing feeling about it. No thought in no place, quietness, peace, perhaps even enlightenment. It sounds almost too good to be true.
Over the years I’ve been encouraged by various (possibly false) friends to try meditation. They claim it had done wonders for them, and that I should seek out a guru. But I’m really not a guru kind of person, and the big commercial meditation companies had no attraction either. Why pay large sums of money to learn how to sit and think about nothing?

But recently I’ve felt that a little mental vacation would do me good, just a short break like the standby mode on a computer: everything switched on, but nothing happening. I decided to bypass the guru and try the library, where the index showed a healthy stock of over seventy books, videos, DVDs and audiotapes on the subject of meditation. Surprisingly, almost all these items were checked out. There must be more mental stress and anxiety in this comfortable corner of Long Island than I had thought.

The book I found on the shelves was quite old, but meditation itself is thousands of years old so the instructions could hardly be out of date. The authors offered a list of goals for the potential meditator, not all of which were appropriate for me. One suggested goal was the perfection of the body, “asana” in Yoga. But the pharmacist looks after that side of things. Another goal was to detach oneself from thought, action, and emotion; but I’m rather afraid that, without those, there might be nothing left. Yet another goal was stress reduction, but I don’t have stress, or I didn’t until I started on this book. Meditation, I was assured, could help me to tune in more fully to the world around me. But I want to tune out for a while. The only goal that appealed to me was that associated with Za-Zen which, if I understand it correctly, is to meditate in order to reach a mental condition that by definition cannot be reached. That’s my kind of goal.

But the Zen masters tend to give me a headache:

This Dewdrop Universe
Is just a dewdrop
And Yet
And yet

Writes Zen Master Izza – and you can’t argue with that, which perhaps is the whole point.

Even Zen offers no escape from the hard discipline of meditation, which is to live in the present moment and not let your mind go chasing shadows in the future and the past. But there’s no time to live in the present moment. It is already full, mostly with making lists of things to be done in the future. When the future comes I won’t have time for that either.

But of course the whole point of meditation is to break that cycle, so I decided to meditate at once, before the future caught up with me. I prepared in the approved way, sitting relaxed in a quiet place, breathing deeply, and trying to empty my mind with a silent chant of “OM”. In the background I played some appropriately spacey New Age music. No incense, it makes me sneeze. My model and guru substitute was the cat Robert, who can sit and stare into space for hours without (apparently) being distracted by any thoughts whatsoever. The music played. The cat stared into space. I stared into space. Time passed. I began making mental lists of things to do after I had finished meditating.

This wasn’t working. It was time for a little mental Jujitsu. I gave up thinking of nothing and tried to remember the names of the American Presidents in historical order: Washington, Adams, Jefferson…Madison…and, success at last, my mind had become a complete blank.

The cat lost concentration and began looking at me suspiciously. Suspecting some infringement of his feline copyright he began to shred the carpet. Perhaps I really do need a guru, or at the very least a more philosophical cat.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Makeover

It seems that nothing defines us so much as our desire to be something else, which may explain the impulse to dress up at Halloween, and at weddings, and other occasions when anonymity may be useful. We love the idea of the makeover, the dramatic transformation, the sudden effortless leap from one state of being to another. There’s nothing new about this. The Greek myths are full of transformations although, because the ancient Greeks had a pessimistic view of life and fate, the transformations were often of a negative kind. The gods could change themselves into animals, birds, or humans, and sometimes got stuck in that inferior state. Often the gods and goddesses transformed others punish them. Daphne, the beautiful daughter of a river god, for example, was demoted into a laurel tree, Narcissus and Hyacinthus became flowers. It wasn’t much better in Biblical times. Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt for some minor infraction of the rules. Shakespeare loved to play with transformations, as when the weaver Nick Bottom was turned into a donkey in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Our more optimistic culture gives a positive spin to the fable of the instant makeover. Some of our most popular legends and fairy tales are about how an ordinary person, through luck or magic, turns into an extraordinary person. Men become gods or heroes, women become (very often) princesses, like Cinderella or, more recently, pop stars. In the Wizard of Oz the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion all dreamed of getting a makeover, although they didn’t need one. Batman, Superman, and all the other super-heroes and super-heroines dreamed up by Hollywood are appealing precisely because of their chameleon quality.

But now the dream of instant self-transformation seems to have escaped from the fantasy world, and is propagating like a malicious virus in real life. It has morphed into TV shows like American Idol that promise instant celebrity, and endless makeover shows that offer bullying advice on fashions, plastic surgery, fitness, fatness, and even good manners. Now the shows have expanded their realm even farther, instructing us how to makeover our homes, our gardens, our children and even our pets. Nothing is immune from this rage for sudden and dramatic improvement except perhaps the mind. I haven’t heard of any TV shows that claim to improve the mind, although a brain makeover is what many of us most urgently need. I myself would like to be smarter, younger, taller, and thinner, in that order, but nobody is offering that particular package deal.

The myth of the instant effortless makeover is enormously seductive. But if magic fails there is always the slow road. It’s called re-invention. Unfortunately this is hard work, and it takes time. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American lives, but how wrong he was! Think of Ronald Reagan. American lives are all about second, and third, and fourth acts. The Wall Street Journal even has a regular column called “Second Acts” that has featured a Bay Area defense attorney who became a college track coach, a Telecom executive who started a fashion handbag business, and a banking executive who became a chef. One of the champion self re-inventors is Rosey Grier whose odyssey took him from pro football with the LA Rams to being a TV personality and singer, a Christian Minister, and currently an expert on needlepoint.

The end result of self-reinvention is every bit as dramatic as a makeover, and it last longer, and you learn something in the process, and you can recognize yourself in the mirror afterwards.

Copyright: David Bouchier

As others see us

I have always been intrigued by the notion of seeing the world through the eyes of another person, or even another animal. I know it’s not possible, physically or metaphysically, but sometimes I dream that it is.

This fantasy of mine started with a bad-tempered black cat called Peter. I grew up with this cat and I never understood him, although he understood me perfectly. No matter how long you live with a cat his or her opinions of you will remain a mystery. What is the feline view of the world? When my present cat Robert decides to sit on my desk, nose to nose, staring at me with great intensity for long minutes, what does he see? A love object? A large ungainly animal that should be a cat but isn’t? A slow and inefficient automatic can opener? Or is he thinking something so profound that I couldn’t possibly understand it? Dogs are easier to read, at least on the surface. But I have a feeling that underneath all that hail-fellow-well-met tail-wagging enthusiasm they are thinking dark and devious thoughts. Your typical dog is a salesman, whereas your typical cat is an eastern mystic. Either way, you lose.

It’s exactly the same with human beings. We can never understand how other people see the world, no matter how much we talk about it. And because people are better at acting than dogs we spend much of our social time trying to guess what is really going on in their minds. What we call shyness is really an acute awareness of this gap between what we see and what we get. That’s why we routinely say things like: “He seems friendly enough,” or “I get the impression that she’s clever.” We don’t know, and we know that we don’t know. Some people like to pretend that they see beneath the surface. They say: “I read it in his face” or “I saw it in his eyes.” No they didn’t! Think of good old Bernie Madoff, everybody’s trusted friend. Think of poor old Julius Caesar, stabbed to death by his honorable friend Brutus. Beware the Ides of March. You never know.

What we would most like to know about other people, and our pets, is: what do they think of us? It’s summed up in this famous couplet by the Scottish dialect poet Robert Burns. This is an English version.

Oh would some Power the gift to give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion.

If we could see ourselves as others see us, through their eyes, would that put an end to all our vanities and misunderstandings? Would we love our enemies at last? In science fiction, the power to read thoughts always leads to disaster. We can’t live with each other without keeping secrets.

This is probably good because it gives us a million reasons to pretend, to have fun dressing up our bodies and our personalities. Daily life is such an entertaining show precisely because we can’t quite see the machinery behind the curtain, although we know it’s there. Other people are interesting precisely because every one of them is a puzzle with no solution. Sometimes I agree with Shakespeare’s cynical view that all’s the world’s a stage, and all the men and women (and cats) are merely players. But who knows if that’s what I really think?

Copyright: David Bouchier

In the Footsteps of Zeus

We spend more time arguing and worrying about the unknown Presidents of the immediate future than about the semi-mythical Presidents of the past. Yet the past is full of lessons, messages, hints and metaphors that still give food for thought, if only we pause to think.

The role of modern Presidents is not unlike that of the gods of ancient Greece and Rome. The gods represented certain important ideas or principles, and they had the power to set events in motion but not to control them. They were insulated from the ordinary population by layers of lesser gods. At its most imperial the role of the President corresponds to that of Jupiter or Zeus the chief god of the ancient world, whose symbol was the eagle and who was very fond of casting thunderbolts and otherwise throwing his weight around. The men who framed the Constitution were educated in the classics, which is why Washington DC looks and functions so eerily like ancient Rome. The founders knew all about the Olympians, and they never quite abandoned the imperial idea even as they created a democratic constitution.

All Presidents inherit the uneasy compromise of 1787. They are expected to be amiable and Olympian, democratic and commanding, all at the same time. It’s impossible. Real life Presidents tend to wobble from one extreme to the other. Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who came to America in 1835, was one of the first to write about this uneasy balancing act. He decided that democracy was better than monarchy, but worried that democracy would produce nothing but mediocre and capricious leaders because most voters would mistrust candidates with superior talent or intelligence. H.L.Mencken took the argument a step further in the 1920s when he argued that if we keep voting for Presidents who seem just like us we will end up with a President who is just like us, just a regular likeable guy, instead of the extraordinarily gifted and talented individual we really need.

Washington and Lincoln loom so large in history because they were extraordinary men, and not regular, likeable guys. They had the gift of leadership, a word much spoken today but rarely put into practice. Leadership meant getting out in front, even at the risk of unpopularity. Both Washington and Lincoln attracted their share of hatred and abuse in their own lifetimes. Modern politicians can’t afford the luxury of getting out in front. They must converge towards the center, trying to embrace every contradictory viewpoint to please the maximum number of voters while at the same time expressing absolute certainty about everything. Modern Presidents and Presidential candidates don’t share their doubts in public, as Lincoln and Washington often did. They act as if everything is under control. It’s the grand illusion, the shadow of leadership without the substance.

Vox populi, vox dei, as the Romans might have said before the Emperors came along and changed the rules: the voice of the people is the voice of god. Today, Washington and Lincoln would never get beyond the first primary. Great leaders are scary: they can lead us in any direction – to the top of the mountain or over the cliff. If we stay with the metaphor of ancient Rome it might be safer if not wiser put gung-ho leaders like Jupiter into retirement and choose from among the lesser slate of deities. A likely candidate from the Roman Parthenon would seem to be Minerva Goddess of Wisdom running as an Independent of course. But then Minerva, following the time-honored practice of trying to appeal to everybody was, in her spare time, also the goddess of war and warriors. I’m beginning to think that there’s no such thing as an ideal candidate, in this world, or the last, or the next.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Binary Code of Love

Never in human history have there been so many ways for young lovers to find each other. The Internet and its clever offspring have transformed what used to be a long and arduous quest into something more like a rapid-fire video game.

The uncertainties of love have always been a favorite theme of literature. It makes (or used to make) a great plot device simply because anything could happen in the search for love, and the whole process took a long time. Jane Austen, who was more brisk than most, kept Elizabeth and Darcy apart for weeks in Pride and Prejudice, before they even got to hold hands. Those of us who have reached a certain age can relate to these old stories. We can remember writing love letters, buying flowers, visiting parents, and generally tiptoeing up to love.

Nobody has time for that now. The old proverb “Give time to love” is as redundant as “A penny saved is a penny earned.” Love, like everything else, must be grabbed and consumed in a hurry, and preferably on credit, which is where the Internet comes in. Here the process of finding, meeting and courting a mate goes into overdrive. We spend a quarter of a billion dollars a year on meeting and dating sites.

It certainly speeds up the process. Lonely hearts can review dozens or hundreds of prospective partners in a very short time, and use online messages to decide who may be compatible or not. It’s what mothers did in Jane Austen’s time, organizing dinners and dances for their eligible girls and giving the thumbs up or thumbs down to any suitors who came forward. Now the computer does it all for you. You can even buy a love detector that measures your beloved’s sincerity by the sound of his or her voice. This explains why half of all adult American women and men are single.

Flirting on the Internet must be rather like tasting good wines with cotton wool blocking your nose. There are no Pherenomes (the subtle biological smells that send sexual signals) and therefore no real physical attraction or electricity. Nobody believes the carefully selected ancient photographs, or the improbable claims about height and body-mass index. You must fall in love with a self-description. So at least Internet dating promotes literacy, and creativity, but the passage from online to real meetings must doubly perilous, like going from watching a Harry Potter movie to actually sharing a dinner table with Lord Voldemort.

The latest thing in the science of love, as reported in The New York Times, depends on a different kind of personal chemistry. Matchmakers have started using algorithms, the same clever mathematical models that allow search engines to work. They can sort through a huge amount of information to find the ideal, compatible partner for anybody in an instant. This should eliminate the long, tedious process of dating entirely, although the evidence is not yet in on whether it actually works.

It all sounds a bit soulless and unromantic, but at least it’s better than yearning helplessly for romance or sitting by the phone, waiting for someone to call. Love has gone digital, and the computer will find your perfect match in just a few seconds. If you hate computers you are out of luck.

Copyright: David Bouchier

New Brain

We spent part of our winter vacation watching British television. I wouldn’t recommend this to anybody, but the weather was so terrible that there weren’t many alternative forms of entertainment. The only consolation was that we were able to watch one of those antique British programs that has somehow escaped the international dumbing down of television. Back in 1962 I was listening to this same show on the radio. It’s called University Challenge, and it was originally based on an American quiz show called College Bowl.

The British adore quizzes. They have them everywhere, even in pubs, and University Challenge is an absolutely classic example of a general knowledge quiz designed to make everyone in the audience feel like an idiot. Two teams of four students from different universities answer a series of rapid-fire questions, and the winning team goes on to the next round. There are no flashing lights, no glamorous hostesses, no expensive prizes, and no dramatic sound effects, just plain question and answer.

What never fails to astonish me is the breadth of knowledge and the quickness of mind displayed by the young multi-national students, who are mostly in their late teens or early twenties. The questions are a bewildering mixture of science, mathematics, literature, art, music and popular culture, and no hesitation is allowed. Here are some actual examples that I scribbled down during the program. Try slipping these into the family conversation.

• What flower was a symbol of oblivion in the nineteenth century and came to represent the opposite in the twentieth century?

• Which Flemish painter came to England in 1632 and became the royal painter at a salary of two hundred pounds a year?

• What four letter homograph can designate both a unit of measurement and an insectivorous mammal of the family Talpidae?

• What compound with the chemical formula C6H50H was used to treat wounds in hospitals in the nineteenth century and what is its common name?

The students got all four answers correct before I even had time to think about the questions. Younger brains really do work faster but also, apparently, they have much more knowledge in them. Working as a team at our best speed my wife and I usually get about fifty points in University Challenge, and the student teams get up to two hundred. I don’t think we need to worry too much about the brains of the next generation: we need to worry more about our own.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Just so you don’t lie awake thinking about it, the answers to those four questions are: the poppy, Hans Holbein, the mole, and carbolic acid.
How could we have forgotten?

Democratic Weather

Mark Twain complained that everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it. And indeed we are perpetually fascinated by the weather precisely because we can do absolutely nothing about it. We can’t predict it, and we can’t change it short of moving to a different climate zone, which is a form of cheating. The weather is like illness: we can run, and we can hide, but in the end we have to face it.

The arbitrariness of the weather led our ancestors to assume that it was sent by capricious gods to annoy or punish mere mortals, or perhaps just for celestial entertainment. This theory has persisted for thousands of years, and I’m inclined to believe it. Weather forecasting, in spite of satellites and computers and sophisticated modeling techniques, remains almost as fallible as stock market forecasting. The weather will do what it will do, sending us from sub-zero to springtime warmth in a day or two, and from drought to inundation in a matter of hours.

Winter here in the northeast is full of surprises, mostly nasty ones. It keeps us off balance. The only good thing I can find to say said about our erratic weather is that it protects us against political enthusiasms. If you don’t believe me, watch the television news every night for a week (Public Television of course). You will see a lot of political action all around the world. Most of this action consists of young men rioting, setting fire to things, waving machetes, looting stores firing guns in the air, and generally behaving badly. The scene is so familiar that we tend to glaze over. Where is this particular riot happening? Who can tell? All we can say for sure is that the participants are never wearing overcoats or fur hats or snow boots, never. They are very casually dressed, as if for the beach, and this is because they are warm. They are in the tropic zone, somewhere between latitudes twenty north and twenty south. Riots are no fun in a cold climate unless you can arrange to have them indoors.

Even in more moderate latitudes a period of warm weather can spell trouble. The Paris police, for example, will not go into certain suburban areas on very hot days. But the warmth doesn’t last long, that’s the important thing. Nineteenth century social philosophers took it for granted that climate affected behavior. Because they knew nothing about political correctness they referred to the “Warm blooded races” of the tropics. Now we understand that blood and race have nothing to do with it. It’s warm weather that causes the trouble. Hot weather cultures are different from cold weather cultures, politically speaking, and it seems obvious why. Nobody can sustain political faith, let alone enthusiasm, through a northern winter. These chilly latitudes were settled by dour Germans and Scots and Norwegians who had been miserably uncomfortable at home, and crossed the ocean and the continent to find somewhere even worse. The weather reminded them every day of uncertainty, fate, misery, and death, which is how they liked it. This gives northerners a cranky, negative disposition, a disinclination to believe anything, especially political manifestos, and weather forecasts. The cold, and the anticipation of it, cools our passions all the way down to freezing point. Steady warmth, by contrast, is inflammatory. It promotes outdoor activities like mass protests, and riots, and it releases an enormous amount of energy that we ice people have to waste on scraping windscreens, shoveling snow, and simply avoiding hypothermia.

Even within this nation there is a political thermometer. South of Mason Dixon politics tends to become more extreme, and dirtier (think Florida in 2000 and 2004, not to mention Texas and Louisiana). Between latitudes 30 North and 30 South people don’t seem to have much use for terms like liberal, progressive, tolerant, or broadminded. They are drawn to authoritarianism and rigidity. It is more than unfortunate that the federal capital is in Washington DC and not where it started in Philadelphia. Those long hot summers in DC overheat the blood even of politicians from Maine and North Dakota. They lose perspective. They forget about the uncertainty principle, and they begin to think in terms of absolute truths. Since there is no such thing as an absolute truth this leads to silliness, and finally to madness. We are only saved by the fact that winter eventually descends on Washington and restores politicians to a normal condition of confusion, depression, and helplessness.

If my theory is correct – that moderate temperatures promote moderate politics and vice versa – we have many things to be thankful for – not least that the southern tip of Florida falls just short of the tropic line, although only just.* Goodness knows what they might get up to down there if they had another couple of degrees of southern latitude. We should also consider the possibility, if my theory is correct, that the effort to plant liberal democracy in the blazingly hot Middle East has less chance than a snowball planted in a similar place.

*Note: Key West lies at 24.55°, and the tropics begin at 23.5°

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Plague

In The Plague, a 1947 novel by Albert Camus, the citizens of Oran in Algeria are decimated by a dreadful infectious disease, which (having no choice) they bear with heroic stoicism and endurance. Clever literary critics say that the plague described in the novel is a subtle metaphor of the German occupation, or of evil in general. But I read it as a much more transparent metaphor of the common cold. If there is one universal plague on the whole human race, this is it.

The common cold knows no boundaries, respects no persons, and ignores the seasons. A summer cold is bad enough, especially when you catch in a place like the south of France. But an start-of-winter cold, as I’ve just discovered, is even more aggravating. I had made it all through last year, for once in my life, without getting a single cold. Just when I thought I was free and clear, an incautious trip in a packed, germ-ridden Long Island Rail Road car reminded me what I had been missing. As I write, and try to speak, the cold is at its height. I’m not happy about it.

The ordinary head cold has been a plague of the human race forever. It’s strange to think that Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Caesar, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Beethoven all knew these symptoms intimately. How many historic disasters have been caused by the common cold? Was the captain of the Titanic perhaps not feeling quite his best that night? At Yorktown in 1781, was General Cornwallis fully alert and in command of his faculties? There has to be some explanation for what happened.

Victims try to dignify their common colds with more impressive names: they say it’s a virus, it’s flu, it’s an upper respiratory infection. But no, it’s just a cold, totally unimpressive and unimportant, except to the sufferer. We get no sympathy, and really deserve none. Friends and family try elaborately to keep their distance, without seeming to.

I’ve always thought that people with colds should just stay home, and stop spreading the germs around. I hate those valiant souls who crawl into the office coughing and sneezing like explosive Typhoid Marys, just to show how dedicated they are. There’s an argument to be made for voluntary or even compulsory quarantine for cold sufferers. It’s estimated that workdays lost through colds cost $17 billion a year. Keep people from infecting their fellow workers, and that figure might drop all the way to zero.

A cold takes about ten days to run its course. There’s no treatment. Antibiotics are worse than useless, building up resistance against the day when you get something really serious. Vitamin C, as recommended by Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling, seems to be largely a mythical defense. The only comfort I know is to stay in bed with radio, DVD, pile of good books, some cats, and a hot toddy made up of whiskey, hot water, lemon and honey. Modern technology has given us some small consolations. Paper tissues are great, and so are those strange green medicines that help us to breathe at night. But on the whole, it’s a rotten medieval kind of disease with no redeeming features.

I can say with a sniff of pride that I once played a very small part in the losing battle against the common cold. Years ago, as an impecunious young writer (the description still applies, except that I’m not young now), I spent weeks at an establishment called The Cold Research Center near Salisbury in England. It was a perfect getaway, the perfect workplace, totally isolated, and the deal was that we were human guinea pigs. The researchers learned some things from their experiments on us: for example that you can’t get a cold by being wet or chilled, or by sitting in a draft. The best way to get a cold from someone is to shake his hand. They also concluded that colds are more or less incurable, because they are not one infection, but about two hundred constantly mutating viruses.

I can’t imagine that such a perverse disease could have evolved by accident. Somehow, as Albert Camus suggested, the plague of the common cold has a deep metaphysical purpose in human affairs. It’s an evil, cunning plot, whatever it is. I’d like to meet the person responsible, and shake his hand.

Copyright: David Bouchier