Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Rack

 James V. Forrestal with Harry S. Truman

Shakespeare’s famous “Seven Ages of Man” have through the wonders of modern science been augmented by an eighth: the ætas medica, for the variable duration of which one’s chief occupation is being transported to and fro various modern day temples of Asclepius.  Last week I had a kind of medical version of a busman’s holiday.  Given a week’s reprieve from my wonted regime, I spent my Wednesday instead in a gleaming new wing of the Langone Hospital in New York having what is best described as a micro-collander infiltrated into my cardiac appendage.  There are not too many things that leave you happy to get back to your good old chemo, so when one appears it needs be noted.

            But today I’ll be back to chemo, which takes place in a medical suite in Plainsboro, some three miles south of my house.  When I first arrived in these parts Plainsboro was a small village clustered around an old church and surrounded by potato fields, presumably the “plains” alluded to in its romantic name.  All that has changed, and it’s quite a bustling place now.  Gone are the potato fields.  They put up a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swinging hot spot.  Actually it's a Marriott, a CVS pharmacy, and a Panera, but same idea.  Also numerous medical offices, always to be found in proximity to retirement communities and nursing homes, of which there are several round and about.  The opium den I frequent—euphemistically denominated an “infusion lab”--is a spacious well-lighted place divided into semi-private cubicles, each furnished with a sybaritically luxurious high-tech chair with built-in butt-warmer and more bells and whistles than First Class on Air France.

            To get there involves driving through Princeton’s Forrestal campus, the site of the Plasma Physical Laboratory and its Project Matterhorn’s continuing efforts to achieve fusion and an energy bonanza of mind-boggling opulence.  Few humanists have even been there, but I am lucky enough to have a most remarkable friend, a retired physicist, who has shown me around a couple of times.  The campus is named for James V. Forrestal of the Class of 1915.  The origins of my interest in Forrestal are eccentric; he is the only famous person known to me with the initials JVF.  He was a genuine war hero, the brilliant Secretary of the Navy more consequential for the defeat of Japan than even Admirals Halsey or Nimitz.  He then became the first American Secretary of Defense.  He deserves to be memorialized by the academy; he was a great proponent of government support for scientific research.  Unfortunately he is today more remembered for his death than for his life.  On May 22, 1949, he appears to have leapt to his death from a sixteenth-floor window of a hospital in Bethesda, MD.  I say “appears,” though suicide is not in much doubt—just enough to float a dozen conspiracy theories involving Harry Truman, the embryonic Israeli Mossad, and/or extraterrestrials.

            Soon after I arrived in England in 1958 there appeared on the cultural scene a literary sensation in the form of a novel: The Rack, by A. E. Ellis, the pseudonym of one Derek Lindsay.  So far as I know, the literary world never heard of this one-book wonder again; but sometimes one book suffices.  The Rack is the story of a tubercular English military officer, Paul, who survived the War but is unlikely to survive the “cure” of two years of gruesome therapy in an Alpine sanatorium.  It naturally invited comparison with the great Magic Mountain (1924) of the great Thomas Mann, so I will offer one.  Mann’s sanatorium is all about philosophy, Ellis’s about tuberculosis.  Seldom has such a repellent subject received such a tragicomic treatment.  For the comedy part you might begin with the daunting advice in a brochure prepared by the institution’s weird superintendent.  “Sexual activities are strongly discounselled during illness and convalescence.  Patients should at all times bear in mind that a single orgasm (male or female) is equivalent, in energy expended, to a five-mile walk over rough country.”   The tragedy part, of which there is considerably more, is the remorselessness of suffering inflicted by a dread disease exacerbated by human folly and cruelty.  The reader very soon suspects that by the last page Paul will be contemplating self-destruction.  And so he is, and in a dauntingly literary fashion.  He reads on the last page of the Memoirs of the painter Benjamin Haydon the artist's anguished misquotation from the last page of King Lear written, perhaps, only minutes before he killed himself: “Stretch me no more on this rough world.”  Paul realizes the citation is slightly wrong.  Shakespeare’s phrase is “upon the rack of this tough world.”

            I read The Rack and numerous other books in paperback Penguins shared among a circle of friends.  One particularly brilliant member of this group, speaking of the novel’s ending, said to me: “He must have been thinking of James Forrestal”.  For the evidence suggests that Forrestal spent his last moments alive copying out some twenty choral verses from Sophocles’s tragedy Ajax, foreshadowing the warrior’s suicide, the subject of the play.  It little surprised me that he knew about Forrestal, for he knew about practically everything; but it does rather haunt me.  My friend’s name, too, was James; and less than a year later he put the muzzle of a fowling gun to his head and pulled the trigger.  Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass!  He hates him that would upon the rack of this tough world stretch him out longer.

The Death of Ajax (Greek krater)