It takes two to be deluded about alternative medicine. Like the buyer, the sufferer should beware. But which of us can face life wholly without illusions and even, on occasion, of delusions? Were I to suffer a disease incurable by orthodox methods, I’m not entirely sure I would reject elixir of hedgehog or decoction of sea-slug. Idiocy is annoying only in others
Disapproval is the precondition of tolerance, for otherwise it is either indifference or active approval. It therefore requires the constant exercise of both judgment and self-discipline, for the dividing line between the tolerable and the intolerable is not only frequently blurred and dependent on circumstances but constantly shifting.
Tolerance increases, or at least becomes easier, with age, perhaps because of declining levels of hormones in the blood (criminality that requires physical effort declines in the criminal’s thirties, by the end of which it all but disappears), but also because experience teaches that the world is not so simple as youth imagines, and that no one, not even oneself, has all the answers to the little problems that life throws up. Even the simplest personal problems are sometimes intractable.
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In my youth I was intolerant, particularly of what seemed to me the most patent intellectual absurdity. Among the objects of my intolerance was alternative medicine, for people who were sceptical about the claims of scientific medicine (as I subsequently learned, not always wrongly), were utterly credulous of the claims of those who advocated the wearing of red flannel underwear or a diet of carrot juice. For those claims they demanded no evidence, and even very clever people fell for them. George Bernard Shaw denied the germ theory of disease and the benefits of aseptic surgery but believed in Dr Jaeger’s woollen system: but then he always preferred publicity to truth.
I am somewhat less hostile to alternative medicine nowadays, not because I think it is any the less nonsensical or even fraudulent than it ever was, but because modern medicine still does not cure all the ills that flesh is heir to and people must find their consolation where they can. An experience in South America altered my perspective. I was on a bus in Colombia full of poor peasants with their chickens and goats when an itinerant hawker got on who was festooned with a supply of uña de gato (cat’s nail) ointment round his neck. He proceeded to recite a patter worthy of Dr Dulcamara in L’elisir d’amore and he held the peasants (and me) spellbound. His ointment cured everything, he said, from skin complaints to cancer and was, moreover, cheap at twice the price—which, of course, he had halved for the occasion. The fraud was obvious, but the peasants bought.
Normally such a display of gullibility would have appalled or irritated me, but I was instead moved by the pathos of it, the peasants parting with some of their little money for an “objectively” worthless product that would nevertheless bring them some comfort and security where proper medical care would have been so difficult to come by. The placebo effect is never to be despised.
I remain less tolerant, or perhaps I should say less charitable in my thoughts, towards supposedly well-educated middle-class people who believe in alternative medicine. It seems to bear out Chesterton’s dictum—whose precise location in his oeuvre is uncertain—that when people stop believing in God, they will not believe in nothing, they will believe in anything. What is the point of having gone through a quarter or a third of your life in education and training to emerge believing that the key to longevity, if not eternal life, is sunflower seeds or royal jelly?
Moreover, as a friend of mine established, alternative medicine is not alternative—it is additional. Very few of the ginseng brigade abjure the assistance of modern medicine but rather take it in addition. They are generally the type of people who describe themselves as spiritual and not religious, which means in essence that they don’t want their beliefs to impose any obligations on them.
In my experience, women are particularly susceptible to the siren song of the healing chakras of the earth, and similar alleged phenomena. This is borne out by a very good Australian novel, of which I had not previously heard and that I found in a second-hand bookshop. I bought it on account of its attractive cover and low price. It was The Spare Room by Helen Garner, published in 2008.
It is narrated by a woman of the author’s age, Helen, who lives in Melbourne. She invites her friend from Sydney, Nicola, to come to stay in her spare room for three weeks. Nicola is suffering from cancer which has already metastasised. Her prognosis is very poor, but she wants to be treated at the Theodore Institute, a down-at-heel but expensive alternative medicine clinic in the centre of Melbourne, run by a professor who is actually a vet. There she receives high-dose infusions of vitamin C (proper trials of which in advanced cancer are indeed being conducted), but also far more unorthodox treatments, one of which put me in mind of Wilhelm Reich’s orgone boxes.
Nicola refuses to acknowledge that, far from improving, she is getting worse. She maintains an infuriating brittle optimism and when she suffers bouts of fever after her infusions insists that it is the vitamin C that is driving out the toxins from her cells and that she will soon be cancer-free. She also goes in for coffee enemas (that great medical thinker, Princess Diana, believed in them with the same fervour as my grandmother believed in a weekly dose of castor oil).
Throughout her so-called treatment, Nicola fails completely to recognise what a strain she is putting on her friend, who has constantly to clear up after her. Her self-obsession is iron-clad. She drives her friend almost to despair. She believes in pseudoscientific notions with a gullibility that makes the belief in seventy-two virgins seem almost rational. The protagonist is driven to report the Theodore Institute to the authorities.
The novel is extremely well-written in appropriately spare language. There is only one scene that grates, in which Nicola’s friends gather round her to assure her that her life has not been wasted. Helen asks Nicola why she thinks people love her, and she is surprised at the question. Helen says, “You don’t suppose it is because of your character? Like for example what a faithful friend you are? Who has never been known to bear a grudge? Or your bottomless generosity? The way everything you touch becomes beautiful?” Another friend says, “What about how funny you are?”
This feminine psychobabble strikes me as about as authentic (in the sense of being true of Nicola, though I have heard many women talk in this fashion) as treatment at the Theodore Institute, or the mutual hugs of Middle Eastern potentates. If anyone said to me that everything I touched became beautiful, I’d want to throttle him. In fact, Nicola has shown none of the qualities imputed to her, nor the slightest trace of any of them. She has displayed not a hint of a sense of humour or any glimmering of wit. Illness makes people self-centred, no doubt, but not as self-centred as Nicola. Egotism on her scale is not the result of circumstance.
That said, however, the book is a fine exploration of the inclination of spoilt and educated middle-class women especially to indulge in superstition (men have different weaknesses) about health and medicine: though it is possible that the author of the book will not be altogether pleased by my interpretation of it.
The narrator, Helen, is so outraged by the Theodore Institute that she goes to the authorities to have it closed down. Is she right to do so? We live in curious times (perhaps we always did). Just as in the question of sexual morality we veer dizzily between the utmost public libertinism on the one hand and a puritanical censoriousness on the other, so in matters of medical ethics we demand both the autonomy of the patient to decide for himself or herself what treatment to have or to refuse, and complete protection by the authorities from the consequences of our own bad choices. We want our cake and to eat it—perhaps that is what is sometimes known as the human condition.
The conflict between libertarianism and authoritarianism persists in my own mind. I dislike fraud or even well-intentioned nonsense, but I keep in mind the late Marshal Mobutu’s great dictum, that it takes two to be corrupt. Similarly, it takes two to be deluded about alternative medicine. Like the buyer, the sufferer should beware. But which of us can face life wholly without illusions and even, on occasion, of delusions? I am not even sure that, were I myself to suffer a disease incurable by normal or orthodox methods, I would not resort to elixir of hedgehog or decoction of sea-slug. Idiocy is annoying only in others.
Anthony Daniels’s most recent book is The Knife Went In: A Prison-Doctor on Modern Britain (Gibson Square), published under his pen-name, Theodore Dalrymple.