Podcast • April 30, 2012

Siddhartha Mukherjee: an innovator in the race?

Siddhartha Mukherjee brings authority and a certain kinship to our conversations on historian Tony Judt and his last words — Ill Fares the Land — on the malaise of our times and the abandoned remedy, ...

Siddhartha Mukherjee brings authority and a certain kinship to our conversations on historian Tony Judt and his last words — Ill Fares the Land — on the malaise of our times and the abandoned remedy, which Judt called “social democracy.”

Dr. Mukherjee wrote the enthralling “biography” of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, which won the Pulitzer for non-fiction last year. So he is a big-picture diagnostician who looks first to the history of a disease and its treatment to frame his understanding. I think of him first as Tony Judt’s alter-ego in the oncology lab.

But then it turns up in a footnote that Siddhartha Mukherjee knew Tony Judt well for most of 20 years. Indian-born, American trained and twenty years younger than Judt, he was a Judt favorite in a running series of seminars on the full spectrum of medical, social and cultural maladies. They became close friends. “Benign skepticism” in the face of received wisdom was their common working principle. One of their shared methods was a process of sifting through wrong ideas of the problem. They had some persistent differences, too.

You see, Tony is a great eliminator. He arrives at his theory by the process of eliminating nonsense. He finds, as you know, that the answer already exists. You need to reset the clock. The answer existed in our past,” which for Tony Judt embraced the free education and robust public services he grew up on in 1960’s and ’70’s London. Tony’s thought was we could find those mechanisms again. “I thought Tony was spot-on about the malaise in our society, about a collapse in the public conversation… I differ in the sense that I believe less in elimination, more in innovation. I think that the answer does not exist… and in fact the solution is to innovate our way into the answer. Unfortunately I believe that if the country is facing perhaps a moral crisis in the political realm, I think we’re facing an innovation crisis in the scientific realm. And by that I mean that we don’t even know how to train minds — or we’re beginning to forget how to train minds to solve our way out of the problem. That’s what worries me.

So my question is: How would Siddhartha Mukherjee apply his “innovative, oppositionist, disruptive” repairs to the confusion and fear that shadow the public stage in 2012?

We have to innovate our way out of that, too. A good example of this is what I think of as a kind of ‘psychic innovation.’ Take, for instance, the immigration crisis. I think that is a reminder of the need for psychic innovation of that crisis. This is — historically — a nation founded on immigration. The fact that in 2012 that founding force is a crisis in Arizona, say, is a peculiar twist of human history. There must be an innovative way, an entrepreneurial way, to think about immigration and restore the kind of spirit that made it such a positive force in the 18th and 19th Centuries… There must be a political solution that allows this force of young minds desperately trying to get into this country and to convert that torpor that you and I are talking about. It’s an innovation problem. I came here as an outsider, and I continue to be amazed at the quality of social innovation. This country made society plastic. You know, elastic. Why is it that we’re now having a debate about whether we’re suffering from some kind of torpor, when in history you took society and molded it in a different image?

He leaves me with a different puzzle: what would a real innovator sound like in presidential politics? “Everything else is largely irrelevant,” Mukherjee declares. “There are many problems and the solution is to have an incredible engine of innovation. How do we silence all the distractions, and put all our energy into social innovation around health care, around debt, around the economy, so that the conversations become real?”

Photo by Rene + Radka.

Podcast • November 13, 2008

Our Better Angel: Chris Adrian

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Chris Adrian. (44 minutes, 20 mb mp3) Chris Adrian: Pain’s Artist, Doctor, Minister The writer Chris Adrian is a medical doctor, a pediatric oncologist, who seems to have ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Chris Adrian. (44 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

Chris Adrian: Pain’s Artist, Doctor, Minister

The writer Chris Adrian is a medical doctor, a pediatric oncologist, who seems to have known from the beginning that our bodies are not the problem. I think of Beatrice, an attempted suicide, “the jumping lady,” in “The Sum of Our Parts,” one of ten stories in Adrian’s shimmering, glow-in-the-dark collection A Better Angel. Beatrice is comatose, being readied for a liver transplant. But “that part of her which was not her broken body” doesn’t want to live. Her spirit lifts off, finally, “in search of a place without loneliness and desire; without misery and rage, without disappointment; without crushing and impenetrable sadness.”

In Chris Adrian‘s world, the people who jumped out of the twin towers on 9.11 are still falling, some in the strangest of places. In “The Vision of Peter Damien,” for example, they are raining down on a medieval Ohio farm town which may also stand for Iraq. It’s a world where, as he says, “dead people don’t go away.” Out of his own experience and his own obsessions, Chris Adrian’s stories embrace the natural and the supernatural, articulate souls as well as hurting minds and bodies. It was his writing teacher at Iowa, Marilynne Robinson, who turned him toward theology, toward the unexpected pleasure of reading John Calvin, and then to Divinity School at Harvard.

Our long conversation here fortifies the hope that bad times make good books, and that Chris Adrian is as good as they get at making metaphors of this very strange moment. In one of his most widely read stories, “The Changeling,” which ran in Esquire with the title “Promise Breaker”, a single father hacks off his own hand with an ax to address the psychosis of his son Carl, who has taken on himself the pain of the 9.11 dead. “Is it enough?” the father asks. “And I think I mean is it enough to prove to them I love my son, or that I deserve to have him back, that I mean it when I say I promise to take better care of him, that I promise to be a better father, to unroot whatever fault in me threw him into the company of these angry souls who died to make us all citizens of the world…” In Chris Adrian’s cosmos of irremediable pain, father and son can both be seen meeting agony with love. “I am still a fan of happy endings,” as Chris Adrian said to me in conversation. “It was meant to be a happy ending.”

CA: I tend to write about whatever is troubling me most deeply at the moment. That used to mean writing about death, my brother’s death specifically. He died when I was 22, he was 25. A lot of what is in the first two novels has to do with that. But as I got older and became more removed from his death, in time at least, my capacity to be troubled by things that were not quite so personal opened up. And as I started to notice what a sorry state the world was in, and particularly America was in, it started to intrude into fiction in areas that used to be more personal or more private.


CL: It seems so brave to introduce not just angels, which are almost cliché, but a spirit reality that’s in endless conversation with us, with individuals but even with countries.  Where does that conviction come from?

CA: I guess it’s a notion that I have demonstrated to myself in my own obsessions and the way that I have engaged in troubling things over the years, that has proven to me that dead people don’t go away after they’re dead. I think that is true for individuals that lose them, and for communities, and for countries and for the world at large. That is something I explored in a relatively ham-handed though satisfying personally way in that the first novel I ever got published [Gob’s Grief] which  was about the civil war but more particularly about a man who loses his brother in the civil war and spends the next ten years trying to build a machine that will bring his brother back to life but also bring back all of the other soldiers who died in the civil war with the idea that the whole world would be transformed if death were abolished.  


CL: The godfather of doctor-writers, [Anton] Chekhov, once said, “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature my mistress; when I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other.” Throw in pastoral ministering in your life… how do these things relate to each other?


CA: They all, especially the medicine and the writing, because I have been at that longer than the divinity stuff, certainly seem to inform each other. I don’t think that I could do one without the other; I would be a worse writer and a worse physician if I weren’t a writer and a physician both. The things I am privileged to see in my work as a physician drive my work even when it is not about a hospital… I don’t want to say I imagine my patients’ lives, but I think that the habit of trying to imagine the world from someone else’s perspective even if that person is just an imaginary construct you’re using in the course of your work as an artist, makes it easier to make room for how big people are in real life.  It helps you to remember to keep in mind that there is a lot more to the world or the person sitting across from you than what is in that little room.

Chris Adrian in conversation with Chris Lydon, November 11, 2008.