Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Dangers of Tuberculosis

In the original, 1967 film "Bedazzled," Mephistopheles, played by Peter Cook, urges a pigeon to defecate on a vicar. He explains to Stanley/Faust, played by Dudley Moore, that he gets a two-for-one that way: pride from the pigeon and wrath from the vicar. You see, the real danger of evil is that it provokes more evil. This is something Proverbs knew well, and so did the author of the Letter of Peter.

However, when one works in the Tower, nothing is more common than the Spanish Cloister's ground molars or the slap fight of impotent malice. I have always watched these dramas from the sidelines. Lord knows, I've gotten in my fair share and more of them in various online incarnations, and I'm glad, in a way, for the nights of insomnolent rage at various arguments with assorted dullards on useless bulletin boards and the tiresome Mobius strip arguments I had on Wikipedia. These gave me an inoculation against some of the more trivial games of the workplace. This is important, because these spit contests at work have grave consequences, while those online grunt-and-heave fights have nothing behind them or ahead of them, really. Melanie Klein argued that the real value of art was that it allowed for a fantasy realm in which we may safely work out the impulses that are too dangerous for reality. At least I remember that as being her sentiment. It could have been Antonin Artaud, for all I know. That I take to be the value of online argument, too.

However, some diseases are worse than others. In particular, one must avoid Typhoid, Cholera, and Tuberculosis. Typhoid is a disease found most often in Philosophy, English, History, and Political Science departments, although it has been known to strike even law schools. I would include Schools of Education in the list, but I'm not sure, in those cases, where the disease begins and the patient ends -- ignorant as I am about the workings of such places. The primary symptom, though, is fever. It's highly communicable, but there are, of course, carriers. This is what makes the disease dangerous. A person will have an idea -- that all traffic signals are expressions of power designed to destroy the feminine, for example -- and this idea will produce an ague as some grow hot and others do not. Generalized lassitude will eventually occur, as the constant exercise and vexations of the vessels by the fever eliminate all reserves of operating cash and tenure procedings. This can result, ultimately, in paralysis and death. The carriers, in these cases, are those who appear calmest in the storm. They can normally be detected by looking for extra titles after their names. They are not the professor of linguistics, but the Germaine Greer Professor of Applied Linguistic Field Resistance Theory. Two tents, the infected and the uninfected, pop up like mushrooms.

Cholera, at first glance, seems the opposite of typhus. It is not dyssentary, and it is not what happens when departments sit for too long. Instead, it is the private mania. Any academic department can fall victim to this disease, and it is quite fatal. Unlike typhoid, it is not communicable. Victims are not carriers and do not spread it to one another. Instead, they share a single stream of funding, and it allows them to pursue their own interests to the exclusion of all else. The result is that the students become increasingly odious. They are distractions. Maintaining academic disciple becomes difficult. You were hired to teach labor relations in the 20th century, but, you know, that's simply not very interesting anymore. Instead, you really want to do a survey of web comics. You were hired to do the survey class in basic Chemistry, but, after a while, that just seems so empty that you'd rather have your freshmen working on pieces of the puzzle of denaturing high fructose corn syrup. Your colleagues sometimes make you go to meetings, but they're annoying.

Both of these diseases result in death, but the one I had been unprepared for is George Spigott's pigeon: Tuberculosis.I realize that my anatomy lesson is going long, and I don't want to make my parishoners late for lunch, but I really must warn them about the dangers of TB. Tuberculosis seems to be commonplace anywhere there is an existing crisis. It is usually a single-point infection, but it is not called "consumption" for nothing. The primary symptom is an inability for department members to communicate, as tumors choke off the air supply. Effectively, the effort to push aside these tubers causes everything else to grind to a halt, and, eventually, the same lassitude, paralysis, and death occur as in typhoid.

Fever may or may not be present, but TB gets inside and immediately insinuates itself into the function of the metabolism. If a person steps into a crisis by volunteering to sort things out, then that person achieves an indispensible position, whether qualified or not. TB, in academia and business, is when a person becomes the conduit for everything, and yet no one remembers ever deciding to cede that power or those decisions. This person may or may not bring a Big Idea or Grand Unifying Theory or Major Task. It isn't necessary. All that is necessary is that staffing be insufficient or funding be insufficient. As those two conditions are pandemic, all patients are vulnerable to an infection by TB. In the name of exigency, emergency, or efficiency, tubers spread across the whole body. What's amazing is the inexorable and sluggish nature of death.

We need not read The Magic Mountain to know how agonizing a death by TB is. It takes years, causes inordinate attention, requires vast armies of helpers, and results, in the end, in death. It is like age itself in the way that it marches forward, grabbing more and more of the vital systems, until the cells are either cut away or die on their own.

I confess, I have always been, like the vicar, given to wrath in the presence of those tumors. They are now infecting me, and I have begun to loathe the very idea of them. I shall seek peace of heart and mind, but I hope not indifference to injustice. The balance is a fine one, and I accept all good wishes toward finding it.

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