SOCRATES: Some things I have said of which I am not altogether confident. But that we shall be better and braver and less helpless if we think that we ought to inquire than we should have been if we indulged in the idle fancy that there was no knowing and no use in seeking to know what we do not know; -- that is a theme upon which I am ready to fight, in word and deed, to the utmost of my power.From Plato's dialog, "Meno"
The moderator wore gray tweed. His head, sleepily propped by a hairy fist, combined with the green felt covering on the conference table to evoke thoughts of billiard parlors. As Asa finished, the moderator slowly rose, walked to the lectern and leaned into the microphone. "Are there any questions of this, uh...interesting paper? Questions?" He flexed up on his toes and panned the room with interrogatively arched eyebrows. In a moment, turning to Asa, he said "Thank you very much Doctor..." glancing at the conference program, "Tsook."
Asa walked down the plush- covered steps of the platform and made his way up a side aisle against a counter current of incoming crowd.
"Dr. Zook." A short, slight man with a full head of white hair and a perfectly fitted brown suit blocked Asa's further progress. He offered Asa a small, leathery hand. "That was a magnificent paper," he said. "My name is Fisher Adrian. I wonder if we might go somewhere and chat? There are a few things about your research I'd like to discuss, if you have the time and inclination."
"Yes. Of course," Asa replied. "I'm free for approximately an hour."
The projectionist was beckoning and holding up Asa's lantern slides. "I'll get them for you," Fisher Adrian said. Before Asa could react, Fisher Adrian's nimble feet were performing a gavotte as he moved between the rows of chairs to and from the projection stand.
"Thank you," Asa said as Fisher Adrian handed him the thin stack.
"Let's find a congenial place to talk, shall we Dr. Zook?"
Asa followed Fisher Adrian. In the lobby, as they passed the desk, Asa looked at his watch. "There is something I must do this afternoon," Asa said. At the front desk Asa paused and inquired in French of one of several room clerks if the hotel had a radio.
The clerk's nostrils and eyelids widened and he looked Asa up and down. He responded in English, "Are you one of our guests, sir?"
"Yes," Asa answered.
"All our rooms have radios, sir." The clerk folded his arms and faced the other way.
Fisher Adrian was grinning when Asa turned around. "I don't think he believed you, Dr. Zook. You're out of uniform." He continued grinning as he held open the heavy door of the cocktail lounge and insisted that Asa enter first.
Inside, piano music in a high register competed with a din of masculine voices. The piano sat on a dais within an oval, leather- padded drinking bar, all the stools of which were occupied, each by an occupant who seemed enchanted by the pianist above. Floodlight diffused through an amber filter exaggerated the bareness of her shoulders and created sparkle from within her blonde tresses. She looked their way, smiled at Fisher Adrian, transposed to B flat and began to sing. "She's very attractive," Fisher Adrian whispered.
"Yes, she is," Asa agreed, but his attention was on the hostess now walking toward them. Her lips and eyebrows cooperated in a generous smile as she said with an incompletely masked hint of Frankish morphemes, "We are full at the moment, sirs, but I believe two gentlemen in the back will be leaving momentarily."
She stood beside Asa, looking toward the interior of the lounge, but occasionally turning to him and offering a perfunctory grin. Her lower lip pouted slightly as she stood her vigil. It was a generous lip, moist and nibbly! On one reassuring excursion, her eyes, met Asa's gaze, and they briefly exchanged smiles. He became aware of the faint contractures of apparent concern on her brow and eyelids. And he wanted to touch her arm and say, Don't worry. The delay is trivial, and not of your making to begin with. And he wanted to ask her name and when she'd be off duty. But of course, he did not. Once, while stopped for a sandwich in Plattsburg, he'd overhead a truck driver pose the question to a waitress. She was choking back tears when she refilled Asa's coffee cup. As he watched the cocktail hostess worry about her hypothetical gentlemen from the rear, Asa decided not to risk offending her. But before he quite knew what he was doing, he was telling her, in French, that she took her work far too seriously for the good of her health, that stress provokes illness, that the delay was completely beyond her control and that he and his companion were enjoying the piano music. She blushed and smiled, but her facial contractures persisted.
The hostess's departing gentlemen finally appeared, and she led Asa and Fisher Adrian to the table. Asa watched her comely posterior until she was no longer in sight. Fisher Adrian drew his attention. "She's quite attractive, too," he said.
"Very beautiful," Asa responded.
"Do you have a family, Dr. Zook?"
"Father, brother and grandparents."
"No wife, children or alimony?"
"No. I do see a particular young woman, although only seldom nowadays. But whenever I can. In fact, I scheduled this trip as much with her in mind as with delivering my paper."
"English or French?"
"Say, I'm always one who hates to compete with l'amour, but I did want to talk science with you, doctor...May I call you Asa?"
"Does anyone ever call you Ace?"
Asa grinned broadly. "Yes. Sometimes."
"I'm Fish to my close colleagues. And I'll make a deal with you. You call me Fish and I'll call you Ace -- unless you'd object to that." Asa did not object. Fish produced a rough- surfaced briar pipe and a plaid, canvass tobacco pouch. "Mind?" he gestured with the paraphernalia. Asa did not. "Medical students once called me the Kingfisher. I was certain death for anything shallow. But I haven't heard that appellation in many years. Not since Havering Institute was organized and I became its founding director. You've heard of Havering?"
"Wonderful. Anyway, Ace, we have a most enterprising head librarian at Havering. I'd asked her to find everything in print by or about an Asa Zook. Of course, she brought me your impressive stack of scientific articles. She also found a sizable number of papers in the philosophical journals by an Asa Zook. You wouldn't happen to be one in the same person, would you?"
"I may be. I am principally a philosopher, or try to be. My formal scientific works are related to but are ancillary to my central line of inquiry, which is fundamentally metaphysical."
"You're listed as a neuropsychiatrist and biophysicist."
"I did a combined residency in neurology and psychiatry. I now teach neurophysiology. But I have given up medicine. I have no talent for it. And, as you can probably surmise from my publications, I do no laboratory experimentation. My scientific research is purely theoretical."
"That's some of what I'd wanted to discuss with you. But first, I'd like to get a little background information, if I may." He looked up at the waitress and ordered "Teacher's with just a tad of soda and no ice, if you please, dear." Asa ordered black coffee.
"We rarely did residencies in my day," Fisher went on. "I merely announced to the world that I was a pathologist, and a pathologist is what I was. But my true calling was biochemistry, which was really a new science when I was in school. I did just enough teaching and clinical diagnosis to justify a salary. Otherwise my body and soul belonged to the laboratory bench. But let's talk about you, Asa Zook. I would know nothing at all about you, except for your piece on mitosis."
"On the wave phase character of cell division?"
"Yes. The first of your articles I ever saw, in fact. An institution such as Havering, I believe, must stay abreast of everything and anything having to do with cells. Especially cell division. Even what's way out on the loony fringe. Our younger people are too riveted to the bench to do more than keep current with the main line journals of their own specialties. Most scientists aren't big readers, anyway. I understand and appreciate all that. But I try to keep my own eyes open for potential nuggets in unlikely and generally un- looked into places. A director has to be of some use." He chuckled. "I always read a great deal, anyway, even before I hung up my lab coat.
"I almost didn't finish your article, Ace. I was just about to pitch it in fact, when, fortuitously, the next page happened to pop open, and I spotted a statement buried in the second paragraph. The sentence made me pause, read the page and then finish the article. 'Is this guy trying to say there's a general means of selectively arresting neoplastic growth?' I asked myself."
"No I was not," Asa interrupted. "I was asserting what I said; namely, by focusing on wave phase, a general harmonic treatment of cell multiplication may be possible such that division among neoplastic cells may be blocked while sparing that of normal cells."
"I understand that, Ace. I did after reading your paper three or four times -- and got it through my down- to- earth skull that you were treating mitosis as an abstract dimension. That you were conceptualizing cell multiplication as a theoretical space, one dimension of which is, in essence, the very reason why Havering Institute exists at all: Stopping cancer."
Asa blenched. The hostess walked by, but he was barely aware of her.
"Are you all right son?" Fish was asking and touching Asa's arm. "You suddenly became very pale."
Asa took a sip of coffee. "I have an aversion to that particular word. But I'm all right. It just caught me by surprise." He took another sip of coffee.
"I don't believe, Dr......Fish that you grasped the import of my article. I was not presenting a theory of neoplastic growth, nor a plan for selectively inhibiting it. I merely sought to show that an Hegelian logic attends the growth cycle; harmonic phase is the central idea. I merely wanted to show that a precedence exists for a mathematical theory, one part of which could conceivably predict the circumstances that would selectively block any given mitosis. Discovered, the theory would be internally consistent, would generate logically provable statements. But there is no a priori way to know if the theory would be physically valid or clinically significant."
"I know what you're saying, Ace, believe me. I spent many days finding out. 'Existence theorem,' I think you theoretical fellows call it, isn't that right?"
"Yes. One can organize a theory around a logically false statement. My purpose in the article was merely to point out that such a search would not be a complete waste of time."
"Why haven't you published more on the subject?"
"I've abandoned the line of inquiry." Now Fisher Adrian winced.
"God man! How could you do a thing like that?"
"Intuitively, I could see the possibility of a far more inclusive theory. My talk today, in fact, was about a small corner of it."
"Well," Fish looked around and signaled the waitress. "I'm relieved to hear that. Excited in fact! But..." Fish frowned. "I fail to see the connection."
"I'm having much difficulty with this aspect of my research, I must admit. I presented today's paper on the geometry of DNA in hopes of stimulating someone else to see what I'm missing."
"That's some of what I wanted to discuss with you, Ace." The waitress brought another Teachers, and Fish immediately took a sip. "Don't answer if I'm prying too deeply. But Asa, does your scientific work issue from a broader generalization? Does your quest encompass the living process as a whole?"
"Yes. But my working model is full of blanks. It is far from complete. Some parts of it are in my philosophical papers on Hegel and Marx. But even as a philosophical doctrine, my system requires empirical data that remain missing. I'd hoped an experimentalist would test some of my predictions, and that the tests would directly or indirectly supply the missing facts."
"That will never happen, Asa. No experimentalist will even read your papers, let alone be crazy enough to risk six months testing what sounds like pure mumbo jumbo. Your theories will die with you unless you directly participate in their testing.
"I read a piece in the Sunday Times by an editor who assures us readers that good works always manage to find their way into print and to their natural audiences. Claptrap! Ideas are the most perishable of human products. On my own bookshelf there's a thin volume entitled The Fragments of Empedocles. Where are the missing lines? Why haven't they survived?
"There's a parallel myth among scientists; namely that by some unspecified force all significant knowledge eventually gets uncovered. But damn it, ancient Greece died a long time ago, and with it, God knows what treasures of thought. Millennia have passed by entire civilizations without their knowing what was common knowledge among contemporaneous schoolboys on other parts of the planet. No sireebob! Don't warm yourself with the false notion that if you fail someone else will eventually succeed. It just doesn't work that way. Particularly not with what goes on inside the noodle of an Asa Zook."
Asa looked away. He took another sip of coffee and sought out another visible target to lessen the sting in Fisher Adrian's words. A man at the next table had his elbow bent on the bold headline of a front- page newspaper article, which Asa tried to read. "...Ike..." was all he could make out.
He turned back to Fisher Adrian. "I am not an experimentalist Dr. Fisher. The choice is really not mine."
"Nonsense. I'm not suggesting, now, that you rush back to school, set up a lab and begin fumbling. But I am more than suggesting that you refine your predictions, give them detail and clarity. Give the experimentalist something concrete to grasp. And then you'll have to do more than merely put forth your theories in the severe lingo of the scholarly journal. You'll have to participate directly -- personally -- in the testing.
"You know, Ace, biology isn't physics. Ours is not a tidy community were the experimentalist looks to the theoretician to stake out the plan of attack. And let me suggest this to that magnificent philosophical mind of yours. Biology is different from physics because the subject matter dictates that it be.
"Now these white hairs in my head don't make me a Nineteenth century vitalist. Remember, I'm a biochemist before I'm anything else. Living matter obeys the laws of the universe. However, the focus of physics is on universals. On generics. Biology does to some extent, too. But biology is also a science of individual variation. Can you imagine life without variety? Of course not. And it's this very attributed -- variety -- an experimentalist must confront in every single investigation. To want to get rid of variety...Well, you'd be chucking living matter from science.
"Ace, let me ask you this. When you make a calculation, what preoccupies you? The local constants or the function? That's rhetorical, and I'll answer it myself. Obviously, your main concern is with the function, with what unites the class as a whole. The features that depend on a particular mathematical neighborhood, the constants -- one situation, one individual, one species -- you go to great pains to set aside."
"So as not to obscure the enduring features of the theory."
"Aha! But unless you factor individuality back into your theory, Ace, it isn't going to be biology. Biology is detail as well as principle. Life is specifics, peculiarities, nuances as much as it is common bonds of class and group and phylum. And the scientist -- or philosopher -- who cannot come to grips with this reality cannot abide the living process."
Fish examined his empty glass, started to call the waitress, but "On second thought..." decided against it. "Details!" he declared. "Accounting for them is the true art of the experiment. Details, details and more details. In the design and control of the experiment. In the execution of the study. In the harvesting and polishing of results. Every speck. Every crumb. Details, details. We experimentalists are masters of them.
"But, God bless us, Asa, we're desperately short of theory. I'm not referring to the lettings of hot air. Our species has never suffered a shortage of gas bags. And, lordy! lordy! science has its just share of them. Nor do I refer to the numerical and statistical treatment of data. I mean the hard- nosed theories of the sort you produce. Theories that tell us what our work really means; what it suggests for the future; how it fits into the scheme of things as a whole; where the most important benefits are apt to lie. Science needs philosophy, Ace. Philosophy of the Asa Zook sort."
Fish raised his open hand. "Before you interrupt, let me cap off my statement with a question..
"Asa, is the biological theory I'm alluding to even remotely possible? I mean, can the general and particular actually be integrated into a single valid universal theory? Or if we clutch the one are we necessarily obliged to surrender the other"
"I don't know, Fish. But you pose a very interesting question. I'd like to delay my answer until I've had time to ponder it in depth."
"Do you promise you'll make a try at it, Ace?"
"I will give it an intuitive first approximation. But I promise no more than that."
"Do you ever get to New York, Ace?"
"New Jersey on occasion. To visit my family."
"On your next trip, how's about bringing your answer into Havering? Better still -- and I can pay your carfare for it -- give us a lecture while you're there. Tell us about some of your work. Perhaps some of that stuff from today about nucleic acids. There's a lot of excitement around the institute about the new double- stranded DNA model. But you pick your own topic. Just come see us. And bring me the answer to my philosophical question about life."
Fish straightened up now, lightly wiped his palms on his vest and signaled the waitress. With the serious talk out of the way, he could have that third drink, he thought. "I am puzzled, I must admit, Ace, about what drew you into medicine in the first place?"
"It was a serious mistake in judgment on my part. I was an utter failure as a doctor."
"Do you like teaching?"
"Yes. In my first year of medical school, I happened to share a cadaver with two classmates who were failing both gross anatomy and biochemistry. While tutoring them, I discovered a latent capacity for teaching. Now, it gives me a sense of day- to- day purpose I never experienced before."
"I detested teaching, especially when I was young and eager to get into the laboratory. It was just one more pain in the ass to have to put up with. But you don't feel that way at all, do you?"
Asa looked at his watch. "I have an appointment to keep, Fish," he said, reiterated his promise to try Fish's question, thanked him for the coffee and rushed off.
Asa had not kept careful track of the time. In the elevator, he fumbled out his grandfather's letter to confirm the frequency band. Grampa was speaking in Quebec and even if they couldn't get together, Asa would be able to hear him on the CBC.
When the elevator door opened, Asa charged down the corridor. At the door, the key did not work. "Heavens!" He'd held the key ring upside down and misread the room number. Laughing, he sprinted in the opposite direction.
Grampa was already into his speech by the time the radio hummed hot, crackled and finally surrendered the familiar tenor voice. Asa kicked off his shoes and stretched out on the bed.
Grampa's words carried an uncharacteristically sad refrain. Missing was the humor he usually inserted to lighten, if not the seriousness of his message, certainly the burden of carrying it away. His theme was the main theme of his life: One God meant one and only one people; one Jesus meant one love of all mankind. But hatred filled the world in our day. And in his own country, the fires of evil burned brightly, everywhere. Grampa spoke, by name of, senators Asa did not know, of incidents he'd been unaware of, about strife and woe of which he was ignorant. Item by item, Grampa fused his points and facts to his theme. Then he shifted to anecdotes about the valiant few who had stepped forward "To take up the true cause of the Lord of Love." Asa began to feel drowsy now....
"Page," Asa vaguely heard. "Joyce Page Winfield," Grampa had said. And Asa was wide awake, sitting up straight.
What had Grampa said about Joyce? Whatever, he had already moved on to something new. Then he was winding up with a prayer, which Asa's mind refused to register. Organ music began, faded and an announcer was speaking alternately in French and English. Asa rose, turned off the radio and went back to the bed.
Joyce. Joyce Page. He called out: "Are you yet wise enough to be old, Asa Zook?" He listened. The Deep Brain gave no answer.
He stood, went into the bathroom and soaked a washcloth in a stream of scalding water. He diffidently wrung out the cloth, let it cool a moment, unfolded it over his face and gently pressed the warm wetness against his eyes.
Deep Brain broke silence: You have another date to keep this day it advised. "I would never forget that," he answered. He mimed a kiss through the moist mask. When the Deep Brain made no response, Asa let his grandfather's voice replay in his mind's ear. After the cloth lost its warmth, he exchanged it for the deep nap of a fresh, dry towel.
"Grampa, Grampa. If only your love could penetrate the opacity. Why does wrath enter so readily?"
Wait! Asa suddenly realized his grandfather could use this metaphor. He quickly dried off, went to the writing desk and wrote, "My dearest Grampa..." He told of hearing parts of the speech and of his own rue that messages of hatred seem to reach the human spirit so much more readily than the carriers of love. And the analogy to light had simultaneously crossed his mind: "hate/love: red/violet." He went on to describe the transfer of electromagnetic radiation to a physical body. "The lower energy red waves are absorbed quickly, near the surface; and the surface becomes inflamed. But violet waves being more energetic penetrate far deeper and survive long after the hot passions of red have spent themselves in the shallows." Asa supplied his grandfather with the physical facts and suggested cosmic rays for love. "Let the vibrations of wrath expend themselves, my dear grandfather, while your wave fronts of love hurtle through eternity. I love you very much, Grampa. Asa."
And now it was time for sleep.
Measured by the clock, Asa slept only minutes. But now he was on his side, wide awake and as fully refreshed as from a whole night in deep slumber. He'd skipped lunch and was very hungry. And his lust was also very much awake. Yet it was too soon to go. Even if he walked, he'd arrive embarrassingly early. Nor could he eat. For afterwards, she'd want to cook. It was part of the ritual. He would not eat for a week to witness her glee at his devouring a meal she'd prepared just for him. He decided to divert his appetites by answering a letter from Pietro Dicampo.
"I must decline your invitation, my gracious old friend. But I am simply not qualified to speak on an issue or about a subject of this type, not as a scholar. My ostensible qualifications would only deceive the audience. Ethics continues to elude me, more so as I grow older.
"I have preferred to see mankind within the larger context, indirectly and from afar. Up close, one too quickly apprehends the flaws of human character, the arresting ugly details that garner the cynicism in our day. From my distance, the human organism shows up as but a part of Nature. Our species recapitulates Nature's principal theme. Of course, Nature has her contusions and abrasions. We suffer them ourselves, thereby. But from my vantage, from the work that has become my life, I am aware always of the on- going repair, the reconstruction, the perpetual renewal of the infinitely reverberated refrain: Life, Life, Life: Love! Love! Love! And, my dear old friend, we are a necessary part of it.
"Unfortunately, my remoteness also makes for ignorance; for a blurred vision of the hereness and the nowness in which all living creatures are obliged to exist. One must be near the hurly- burly of everyday life to speak with wisdom of human conduct.
"I rarely read a newspaper. I would not know where or how to cast a vote. I am a resident of no place in particular, nor spiritually a citizen of any land. My exercise of manners and customs, automatic among others, must be deliberative acts for me. How my dear old teacher of Greek, can such a person point a direction for others to follow? Indeed, I am barely able to chart the course of my own morality. And I have often failed at this. Therefore, I must turn you down.
"Your publisher sent me a copy of your latest work. It is as splendid as its predecessor. I hope more will follow. Love, Asa Zook."
"Are you all right, Asa?" Odette's voice came out of the umbra somewhere on the opposite side of the featherbed. Asa turned toward her sounds. A galaxy of microscopic holes in the window shade transmitted enough street lamp light from to register just- detectable stimuli on his retinas, and he searched for any scotopic hint of her visible whereabouts. She seemed to be sitting upright on the edge of the bed. He averted his fingernails to avoid digging her flesh, cautiously extended an open hand, found her back. Straddling her spine with his index and middle finger, he slowly and gently pressed a transient spoor in her skin, up and down...up and down ...up and down from the base of her neck to the dimples of her sacrum. He answered: "Had I no eyes nor ears/ To hear nor see/ Still would I be in love by touching thee."
She turned around. Reflexively, he withdrew his hand to a safe position. He thought he could make out the shadow of a thigh now cocked on the bed. His palm verified her thigh, and he explored its hot, almost fluid medial surface.
"You say nice words, Asa. Did you make them up yourself?"
He laughed softly. "No Odette. I'm not a poet."
"You speak like a poet."
"Only because you coax love from the very core of me, Odette."
"That's even more beautiful, Asa." He smiled through the darkness. She lifted his hand from her thigh, held it to her mouth and caressed his knuckles with her lips. "I miss you, Asa."
"I miss you too, Odette."
"I always missed you when you weren't here."
"But I was here a great deal. I often didn't eat just to be next to you."
"You did not have to pay." She eased down beside him and rested her cheek against his. "We could have pretended to be lovers. As in the movies."
He eased his arm between her body and the friable surface of the bed, drew her closer and kissed blindly at loose tresses his nose told him were within range of pursed lips. "Fiction gives illusions of love, Odette. We should never chose the idol over the goddess herself. Not when we have the choice. We are lovers, Odette."
"Do you have a sweetheart now, Asa?"
"I am jealous. Will you marry her?"
"No. And it is not one woman, Odette."
"Not many. But several."
"Then I am not jealous. Well...only a little. Are they pretty?"
"More beautiful than me?"
"No. You are more beautiful than all the others."
"Are they like me?"
"They do resemble you, yes."
"All but one."
"She is your favorite?"
"Only when I am with her." Odette tensed and drew away, but she returned to him when he quickly added, "But when I am alone, my desires are always for you, Odette." He tried to kiss her, but she averted her head.
"Do the others let you kiss them?"
"When they know that you love them? I knew the very first time. That you loved me. I couldn't believe somebody would love me. And I was afraid."
"Of what, Odette?"
Asa drew her head back to his, and she permitted him to kiss her. Then she rested her head on his shoulder, and they held each other quietly for several minutes. Odette spoke next. "Asa? Do you believe in God?"
He pressed his lips into her hair. In a moment, he whispered, "I believe in Nature." In another moment she was breathing like a sleeping child.
Copyright, 1996 by Paul Pietsch, all rights reserved. May be copied for personal, educational or other non-commercial "fair-use" purposes, as defined by U.S. copyright law.
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