Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Lourdes save me!: "Hankering after the lie"

Emile Zola's emotionally powerful book, Lourdes, published in 1894, is a poignantly detailed account of people suffering from severe disease, traveling to Lourdes, France, in the hopes of a miracle cure at the hands of a young maid, Bernadette Soubirous.  It was her visions, years earlier, that started the phenomenon by which the Virgin Mary was supposed to have endowed the local waters with miraculous healing properties.  Zola spent some time at Lourdes, to soak himself in the phenomenon and live up to his idea of 'naturalism', making the novel a kind of fictionalized documentary.

Bernadette Soubirous (source: Wikipedia)
Bernadette's story turned the Grotto at Lourdes into a major pilgrimage destination for those most in agony.  They crowded together in trainloads by the tens of thousands, rumbling across France to Lourdes in the hope of a cure centered around the intervention of God, prayer, priests, or angels. In his sympathetic empathy for people "hankering after the lie" of a miracle just down the track, Zola was understanding, but his explicit, highly angry skepticism was made, one might say, painfully clear.

Zola's tale is full of the wrenching tears, sadness and suffering of people with the most desperate of problems that medicine couldn't cure.  Indeed, this is as most of us will be when our time finally comes.  Most of humanity have died not knowing that their hoped-for miracles never happened. Today there are still desperate or credulous people who seek cures from God or from mountebanks, but at least those who are reasonably educated and have the access mainly trust to empirical medical science; that seems a huge conceptual jump beyond simple, desperate prayers.  Medical science is a huge conceptual jump beyond simple, desperate prayers, and has marvelously transformed our health experience, especially in the developed world. We have to be entirely thankful to the biomedical research and clinical systems for this.  Who would trade our medical (or dental) lives for those of the 19th century?  Still, I'll wonder below whether there's some potential irony in that.

Flooding to miracle waters by the trainload.  Source: Wikipedia
"The need of the Lie, that necessity for credulity, which is characteristic of human nature."
A young woman, Marie, a suffering heroine in Lourdes, had become paralyzed in an accident. She poignantly believes in St Bernadette,  and says glowingly after hours of intense prayers at Lourdes that "At four o'clock I shall be cured!"  And she was--but it was no miracle, as we'll see.

Zola noted in great and angry detail how the simple purity of Bernadette in her (apparent) apparitions and belief in the curative powers of the waters, were quickly shunted aside, and co-opted as a grotesque source of mammon by Church officials, turning Lourdes into a kind of health-tourist Disneyland: "An elaborate organisation had been gradually perfected, donations of considerable amounts were collected in all parts of the world, sufferers were enrolled in every parish...."  Do we not have our equivalent in much of the biomedical system today?  Research clearly is costly, but one must note the similar self-serving and open-ended nature of this enterprise side of things, engaged in by our particular version of the high priests, the academic 'church', and the magical waters it promises in our own time.  This is actually not new, even to medicine, and the various territory-guarding priesthoods of health go back to Hippocrates.

One could perhaps, write a similar novel today.  Patients wouldn't be in crowded trains but in crowded waiting rooms in hospitals, or in the skilled nursing sections of a modern retirement center. The struggle to get 'hospitalisation' care in Zola's time, or tickets on the trains to the curative waters of Lourdes, is today the struggle to get care covered by insurance, or to get a bed or scheduled treatment.  It might seem more orderly, and be administered by bureaucrats rather than nuns and priests, though as Zola clearly documents, the Church was a massive bureaucracy of its own, even when it comes to formal committees--including at Lourdes--to give the imprimatur to claims of miracle (not so unlike today's PR empires trumpeting each daily research miracle?).  The psychological and even material circumstances are quite similar, because the old pathos and wishful thinking are still here, along with the hopes, dreams and judgments, though perhaps they're often harder to see as people sit quietly waiting for the nurse to call their names.

Ironic cautionary notes?
Zola rants at length against a world driven by superstition and false hopes, exploited by religions.  He pleads for a new religion, one based on reason, as he calls it, that is about the realities of finite life and its imperfections, rather than imaginary wishful-thinking.  But there is an irony in his emotional plea, one we might listen to carefully: he notes that this superstition still existed after what, even then, had been a century of science with its touted powers and promises.  The failure of science to cure their diseases was leading people to return to superstition, rejecting science--rejecting reason.

Zola bemoaned that the "thirst for the Divine, which nothing had quenched....seemed to have returned with increased violence at the close of our century of seemed that science alone cold not suffice, and one would be obliged to leave a door open on the Mysterious....what divine falsehood...could be made to germinate in the contemporary world, ravaged as it had been upon all sides, broken up by a century of science?  Ah! unhappy mankind, poor ailing humanity, hungering for illusion, and in the weariness of this waning century distracted and sore from having too greedily acquired science, it fancies itself abandoned by the physicians of both the mind and the body, and, in great danger of succumbing to incurable disease, retraces its steps and asks the miracle of its cure of the mystical Lourdes of a past forever dead!"

We've now had an additional century of science since Zola's book was published.  That we still have unconquered disease is understandable.  Diseases are diverse, and those we still cannot cure or prevent present massive challenges.  Of course, the target is an ever-moving one, with solved problems giving way to the unsolved ones that remain.  For the latter, even highly touted new treatments often only help some patients and it is not at all unusual to see that highly hyped new treatments in reality add but a few months of life, or a partial remission, for but a fraction of those who received them--and it is not necessarily true that those extra months are all that tolerable.  We are aided and abetted in the strong claims by the media, university or commercial spinners, and the interlocked careerist, funding-based mutually reinforcing systems.  So far, in our century, the public is buying it, as ever.

No fault lies in our not having divined (forgive the metaphor!) a cure, and the exaggerated promises of transformative advances are understandable in human terms--but not so different than what was coming from other pulpits in times past.  Is there any danger that the public will again see science, with its opulent cathedrals and assertive promises that often mammonize hope, as an enterprise of false illusions?  The suffering remain, after all, in the realm of fear, not reason.  To what alternative solution--or lie--might their hopes turn?

Of course, our inherent inevitable mortality means even our modern system will ultimately fail every one of us. As sentient organisms we don't want pain, and as knowing organisms we don't want death, and it is all too easy to 'Tsk, tsk' the system when it is others than ourselves suffering from awful diseases, and it's not yet our turn.  Ultimate failure is an open secret that neither the system nor its patients like to acknowledge.  The currently growing hospice movement is facing these realities, unless it too becomes co-opted as a 'system' with its own self-interested self-promotion.  Precedent suggests that may happen, but it's a very good thing at present, as we've noted here before.


Zola visiting Lourdes.  Wikipedia, from the magazine Gil Blas, 1894
Maybe some day we'll have the promised cures, sipping genetics or whatever other magic waters come along.  If so, then the medical priests will have earned their respect in every way.  But of course that, too, is a dream.  If all known diseases were cured by one miracle or another, we would still degenerate or even if that could be prevented, we'd be so numerous as to be stacked many-high on top of each other, struggling for food or water and so on--a geriatric nightmare of its own sort.

An ironical year
A century on from Zola's time we may still be at risk of people again turning away from the exaggerated promises of science, and given much of the world today it would be ironic but not so strange if there were a turn to some form of religion or mysticism, some emotional rejection of 'objective' science.  

But there is another sort of irony in the story of Lourdes.  In 1858, eerily reflecting the impending conceptual clash that Zola writes of, while the real Bernadette Soubirous was having the visions that would lead to the pilgrimages to the waters of Lourdes, Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace publicly announced their discovery of evolution, that directly threatened religious explanations and led steadily to the altars of science instead as a competing explanation for human affairs. 

Zola's touching kind of docudrama makes one aware of the nature of hope, as well as false hope, and our willingness to believe what our particular day's preachers promise.  Zola himself bitterly debunks the claims at Lourdes.  Many of the pilgrims died, some reported improvement (almost always temporary), and only a few were 'cured'.  The trains left somewhat emptier than they were a few days earlier, populated by the returning survivors, still with their ailments, each inspired that the cure will surely happen to them at Lourdes next year!

As described in the link given below, a biography of Zola suggests that he saw a cured case of tuberculosis but changed that to a fatality in his book, to make his main point against superstition. But he was very clear that, as we often see reports today of, for example, placebo effects, it was nervous afflictions (that we refer to by terms like 'psychosomatic') that seemed most likely to be 'cured'.  Real physical problems were not.  The hero in Zola's book, a doubting priest who even had carnal feelings for Marie, understood that that was the nature of her 'cure', but in deference to her faith in Bernadette he made the altruistic decision to let Marie live with her illusions, thus permanently distancing her from his non-belief.

Such a book, though sometimes a bit ponderous in realistic details, is a good reminder of the human rather than just the sociopolitical, economic or even coldly scientific sides of the story.  But this should not take our eye off the importance of keeping science's eye on the proper ball: not that of self-serving empire building and inertia, but of truly addressing human agonies in the best way possible, fallible though we be.

Overall, perhaps we never learn--or, maybe, in being mortal it is not possible that we can learn, and completely accept the grim-reaper's realities that we know, in our hearts, are there.  At least, each of us will have to learn this in his or her own way, at the end.  No miracle can prevent that.

An afternote for fiction lovers
Here is a very nice blog post discussing Lourdes.  The blog is a fine one, about great literature that has survived fads and fashions and stands on its own legs.


Blair Zhang said...

I love your lecture on genomics class!!! I love the feeling that you expand my mind on genomics research and evolutionary perspectives.I want to follow your lectures after genomics class at PSU. Sorry I might post this on the wrong place, I want express my love of your lecture and your thoughts.Thank you professor Weiss.

Ken Weiss said...

Thanks! If my classes (and posts here on Mermaid'sTale) help you to think more deeply about the subject,or to enjoy it more, then that was my objective in teaching those classes.