writing art: Lewis Thomas

Just re-read a slim 1979 volume of essays/columns by Lewis Thomas, and was as taken as the first time. Superb writing, and some thoughts that really get me.  I found one of those online:

On Warts

Warts are wonderful structures. They can appear overnight on any part of the skin, like
mushrooms on a damp lawn, full grown and splendid in the complexity of their
architecture. Viewed in stained sections under a microscope, they are the most
specialized of cellular arrangements, constructed as though for a purpose. They sit there
like turreted mounds of dense, impenetrable horn, impregnable, designed for defense
against the world outside.

The man is much into music but befitting his times it’s all Bach and such. For me other stuff works better, but I tend to think that deep down the source is the same. Thomas would/might have thoroughly disagreed. But being awed by someone’s writing and clarity of thought doesn’t mean one has to agree with warts and all:

In a certain sense, warts are both useful and essential, but not for us. As it turns out, the
exuberant cells of a wart are the elaborate reproductive apparatus of a virus.

You might have thought from the looks of it that the cells infected by the wart virus were
using this response as a ponderous way of defending themselves against the virus, maybe as a way of becoming more distasteful, but it is not so. The wart is what the virus truly wants; it can flourish only in cells undergoing precisely this kind of overgrowth. It is not a defense at all; it is an overwhelming welcome, and enthusiastic accommodation
meeting the needs of more and more virus.

The strangest thing about warts is that they tend to go away. Fully grown, nothing in the
body has so much the look of toughness and permanence as a wart, and yet, inexplicably
and often very abruptly, they come to the end of their lives and vanish without a trace.
And they can be made to go away by something that can only be called thinking, or
something like thinking. This is a special property of warts which is absolutely
astonishing, more of a surprise than cloning or recombinant DNA or endorphin or
acupuncture or anything else currently attracting attention in the press. It is one of the
great mystifications of science: warts can be ordered of the skin by hypnotic suggestion.

Not everyone believes this, but the evidence goes back a long way and is persuasive.
Generations of internists and dermatologists, and their grandmothers for that matter, have been convinced of the phenomenon. I was once told by a distinguished old professor of medicine, one of Sir William Osier’s original bright young men, that it was his practice to paint gentian violet over a wart and then assure the patient firmly that it would be gone in a week, and he never saw it fail. There have been several meticulous studies by good clinical investigators, with proper controls. In one of these, fourteen patients with
seemingly intractable generalized warts on both sides of the body were hypnotized, and
the suggestion was made that all the warts on one side of the body would begin to go
away. Within several weeks the results were indisputably positive; in nine patients, all or
nearly all of the warts on the suggested side had vanished, while the control side had just
as many as ever.

It is interesting that most of the warts vanished precisely as they were instructed, but it is
even more fascinating that mistakes were made. Just as you might expect in other affairs
requiring a clear understanding of which is right and which the left side, one of the
subjects got mixed up and destroyed the warts on the wrong side. In a later study by a
group at the Massachusetts General Hospital, the warts on both sides were rejected
though the instructions were to pay attention to just one side.

I have been trying to figure out the nature of the instructions issued by the unconscious
mind, whatever that is, under hypnosis. It seems to me hardly enough for the mind to say, simply, get off, eliminate yourselves, without providing something in the way of
specifications as to how to go about it.

I used to believe, thinking about this experiment when it was first published, that the
instructions might be quite simple. Perhaps nothing more detailed than a command to
shut down the flow through all the pre-capillary arterioles in and around the warts to the point of strangulation. Exactly how the mind would accomplish this with precision,
cutting off the blood supply to one wart while leaving the others intact, I couldn’t figure
out, but I was satisfied to leave it there anyhow. And I was glad to think that my
unconscious mind would have to take responsibility for this, for if I had been one of the
subjects I would never have been able to do it myself.

But now the problem seems much more complicated by the information concerning the
viral etiology of warts, and even more so by the currently plausible notion that
immunologic mechanisms are very likely implicated in the rejection of warts. If my unconscious can figure out how to manipulate the mechanisms needed for getting
around that virus, and for deploying all the various cells in the correct order for tissue
rejection, then all I have to say is that my unconscious is a lot further along than I am. I
wish I had a wart right now, just to see if I am that talented.

There ought to be a better word than “Unconscious,” even capitalized, for what I have, so
to speak, in mind. I was brought up to regard this aspect of thinking as a sort of private
sanitarium, walled off somewhere in a suburb of my brain, capable only of producing
such garbled information as to keep my mind, my proper Mind, always a little off

But any mental apparatus that can reject a wart is something else again. This is not the
sort of confused, disordered process you’d expect at the hands of the kind of Unconscious
you read about in books, out at the edge of things making up dreams or getting mixed up
on words or having hysterics. Whatever, or whoever, is responsible for this has the
accuracy and precision of a surgeon. There almost has to be a Person in charge, running
matters of meticulous detail beyond anyone’s comprehension, a skilled engineer and
manager, a chief executive officer, the head of the whole place. I never thought before
that I possessed such a tenant. Or perhaps more accurately, such a landlord, since I would be, if this is in fact the situation, nothing more than a lodger.

Among other accomplishments, he must be a cell biologist of world class, capable of
sorting through the various classes of one’s lymphocytes, all with quite different functions which I do not understand, in. order to mobilize the right ones and exclude the wrong ones for the task of tissue rejection. If it were left to me, and I were somehow empowered to call up lymphocytes and direct them to the vicinity of my wart (assuming I could learn to do such a thing), mine would come tumbling in all unsorted, B cells and T cells, suppressor cells and killer cells, and no doubt other cells whose names I have not learned, incapable of getting anything useful done!

Even if immunology is not involved, and all that needs doing is to shut off the blood
supply locally, I haven’t the faintest notion how to set that up. I assume that the selective
turning off of arterioles can be done by one or another chemical mediator, and I know the names of some of them, but I wouldn’t dare let things like these loose even if I knew how to do it.

Well, then, who does supervise this kind of operation? Someone’s got to, you know. You
can’t sit there under hypnosis, taking suggestions in and having them acted on with such
accuracy and precision, without assuming the existence of something very like a
controller. It wouldn’t do to fob off the whole intricate business on lower centers without
sending along a quite detailed set of specifications, way over my head.

Some intelligence or other knows how to get rid of warts, and this is a disquieting

It is also a wonderful problem, in need of solving. Just think what we would know, if we
had anything like a clear understanding of what goes on when a wart is hypnotized away. We would know the identity of the cellular and chemical participants in tissue rejection, conceivable with some added information about the ways that viruses create foreignness in cells. We would know how the traffic of these reactants is directed, and perhaps then be able to understand the nature of certain diseases in which the traffic is being conducted in wrong directions, aimed at the wrong cells. Best of all, we would be finding out about a kind of super intelligence that exists in each of us, infinitely smarter and possessed of technical know-how far beyond our present understanding. It would be worth a War on Warts, a Conquest of Warts, a National Institute of Warts and All.

Let’s get back to Bach and such. The only footage I could find online of Thomas were shots in a 1980 documentary about music wherein Thomas figures as one of the commentators on what music is and does. One of the essays (on thinking about thinking) in the book I just re-read is about music and it contains this gem:

Music is the effort we make to explain to ourselves how our brains work. We listen to Bach transfixed because this is listening to a human mind. (p.154)

However that may be, in that doc he shares the stage  with Yehudi Menuhin, who did stuff like this, which, given his appreciation for Bach, would have been closer to Thomas’ heart than the rhythms of Stomp above. So lets give the man his due and honor him with something that I’m sure we both like:


About roger henke

Still figuring out the story line that would satisfy myself here. Listening to what my family and friends evoke, what the words I absorb, the images that move me, the movements that still me, point to.
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