Friday, October 01, 2004

Moral saints and storytelling

My neighbor Susan Wolf is an award-winning philosophy professor who has been called "one of the most original and distinguished philosophers of her generation." Her a 1982 essay "Moral Saints" is well known (among philsophers) and widely taught.

"I don't know whether there are any moral saints," she begins. "But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them." What she means by a moral saint is someone whose life is dedicated to "improving the welfare of others or of society as a whole." High-minded but humorless, such rare people seem unbalanced:

For there comes a point in the listing of virtues that a moral saint is likely to have where one might naturally begin to wonder whether the moral saint isn't, after all, too good—if not too good for his own good, at least too good for his own well-being. For the moral virtues, given that they are, by hypothesis, all present in the same individual, and to an extreme degree, are apt to crowd out the nonmoral virtues, as well as many of the interests and personal characteristics that we generally think contribute to a healthy, well-rounded, richly developed character.

It isn't simply that the moral saint doesn't have time for foolishness.

There is a more substantial tension between having any of these qualities unashamedly and being a moral saint. These qualities [the "nonmoral virtues"] might be described as going against the moral grain. For example, a cynical or sarcastic wit, or a sense of humor that appreciates this kind of wit in others, requires that one take an attitude of resignation and pessimism toward the flaws and vices to be found in the world. A moral saint, on the other hand, has reason to take an attitude in opposition to this--he should try to look for the best in people, give them the benefit of the doubt as long as possible, try to improve regrettable situations as long as there is any hope of success. This suggests that, although a moral saint might well enjoy a good episode of Father Knows Best, he may not in good conscience be able to laugh at a Marx Brothers movie or enjoy a play by George Bernard Shaw.

In Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder portrays Dr. Paul Farmer as a moral saint--a compelling one to be sure, and not without humor, but a man with a mission so serious, a purpose so grand, that it is hard to respond other than with feelings of distant admiration and inadequacy. The jacket blurb captures the tone of the book:

At the center of Mountains Beyond Mountains stands Paul Farmer. Doctor, Harvard professor, renowned infectious-disease specialist, anthropologist, the recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant, world-class Robin Hood, Farmer was brought up in a bus and on a boat, and in medical school found his life’s calling: to diagnose and cure infectious diseases and to bring the lifesaving tools of modern medicine to those who need them most. This magnificent book shows how radical change can be fostered in situations that seem insurmountable, and it also shows how a meaningful life can be created, as Farmer—brilliant, charismatic, charming, both a leader in international health and a doctor who finds time to make house calls in Boston and the mountains of Haiti—blasts through convention to get results.

Mountains Beyond Mountains takes us from Harvard to Haiti, Peru, Cuba, and Russia as Farmer changes minds and practices through his dedication to the philosophy that "the only real nation is humanity"--a philosophy that is embodied in the small public charity he founded, Partners In Health. He enlists the help of the Gates Foundation, George Soros, the U.N.’s World Health Organization, and others in his quest to cure the world. At the heart of this book is the example of a life based on hope, and on an understanding of the truth of the Haitian proverb "Beyond mountains there are mountains": as you solve one problem, another problem presents itself, and so you go on and try to solve that one too.

All of this, and more, is borne out earnestly on the pages within.

What a surprise, then, to be treated to a talk by the real Paul Farmer last night at Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill. Kidder and Farmer both spoke in a reading sponsored by the North Carolina Writers Network that was also a benefit for Partners in Health. Kidder, who read first, was utterly upstaged by Farmer, who was at once self-effacing and sarcastic, full of deadly wit. This is not a "moral saint" on a mountaintop, scanning mountain beyond mountain, though he has walked more mountains than it seems healthy to imagine. Farmer is engaging and approachable, really nothing like the picture that Kidder's book conveys.

That he is, in fact, the same morally grounded person was clear enough, for example when he talked about the recent devastation in Haiti wrought by Jeanne, over 2,000 lives lost. He said he tires of people remarking on what "Mother Nature" has done there. Pointing out that only six lives were lost in Florida, he says it's more like "Father Power." He simply cannot understand the American government's series of policy positions toward Haiti over the years, and he further cannot understand how it can be so different from the empathy and understanding that he encounters from American citizens everywhere he goes. This is the Paul Farmer I read about, but his sparkle and spunk were unexpected.

Remember one thing Wolf says above: "a cynical or sarcastic wit, or a sense of humor that appreciates this kind of wit in others, requires that one take an attitude of resignation and pessimism toward the flaws and vices to be found in the world." Perhaps mockery is Farmer's way of coping with a world in which he figures, in the end, his heroic efforts might sputter out to failure (a possibility that is broached in the book).

With Kidder's take on Farmer proven unreliable or at most incomplete, it might be better to read Farmer's own books, books with titles like Pathologies of Power, Infections and Inequalities, AIDS and Accusation. The questions he can't let go of are structural: how are "social processes and events . . . translated into personal stress and disease"? "By what mechanisms, precisely, do social forces ranging from poverty to racism become embodied as individual experience?" (1)

Pathologies of Power is practically unmediated, "a cry for those whose own shouts go unheard. It is a bitter dose of medicine doled out on behalf of the nameless, faceless millions who have no medicines of their own," said the Boston Globe. Farmer quotes Brecht:

When we come to you
Our rags are torn off us
And you listen all over our naked body.
As to the cause of our illness
One glance at our rags would
Tell you more. It is the same cause that wears out
Our bodies and our clothes.

The pain in our shoulder comes
You say, from the damp; and this is also the reason
For the stain on the wall of our flat.
So tell us:
Where does the damp come from?

Bertolt Brecht, "A Worker's Speech to a Doctor" (2)

It's not a far stretch from Brecht to Beckett, to the self-conscious absurdity of the effort: "I can't go on. I will go on." It's assuring somehow to know that Farmer will go laughing all the way.

UPDATE: Paul Jones has a nice account with more details. Anton Zuiker also reports on the reading, coming to it from the perspective of having been on the edge of Haiti himself, at the Dominican border town of Dajabon. He links to a gallery of some amazing photos by Duke pre-med student Steve Andrawes of his foray into Dajabon. Be sure to scroll all the way to the end (a few blank spaces might make you think there aren't any more).

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