EDITOR’S NOTE: Take Florence King, add two martinis, some boiling water, and undefined “instruments,” top with rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide, mix all with an ingrown toenail, and what results is a gut-busting screed against New Age Hypochondria.
We hope–we know–you will thoroughly enjoy this March 29, 1993, curmudgeonly classic–ripped from the bulging files of “The Misanthrope’s Corner.”
And we hope (and we know) that you will thoroughly enjoy all of Miss King’s side-splitting back-page oeuvre for National Review, which we have collected–each and every eye-poking, tooth-rattling, jaw-jarring word–and have published, without editing or abridgment, in STET, Damnit, The Misanthrope’s Corner, 1991 to 2002, which is available only from NR. Order it securely here.
A few weeks ago a woman in town noticed I was limping and asked what was wrong. When I said I had an ingrown toenail she beamed with joy and recommended her podiatrist, singing his praises so fervently that I couldn’t get a word in. Finally, when she paused to dig in her bag for his card, I spoke.
”Stop. I don’t care to associate with the sort of person who majors in feet.”
An ingrown toenail is as challenging as a crossword puzzle. I had a martini to prepare myself for surgery; then, when I felt good and supple, I sterilized my instruments in boiling water and went to work. I got the little bugger out, then doused my toe with rubbing alcohol, followed by hydrogen peroxide-”Stand the sting and you get to watch the foam,” as my grandmother used to say when she doctored my skinned knees.
Afterward, I had another martini to celebrate my recovery. As I sat watching my foaming toe, it occurred to me that what I had just done might well be declared illegal in the not-too-distant future. Now that the Gray Gelding has put Regina Dentata in charge of national health, I could end up in the Hillary-Billary dock.
The charge would not be anything so forthright as “practicing medicine without a license”; no, they would call it “medical unawareness” or, better yet, “health dissing.”
Once they found out my medical history and realized my family invented health dissing-no prenatal care, mother ate and smoked for two, born at home, delivered by grandmother, father stayed in kitchen-I would be sent, like poor Marge Schott, to a re-education camp and given electroshock treatments to clear my brain of an opinion I have held as long as I can remember, which I’d yell at my captors as they dragged me away: “Fussing over your health is low class!”
Nobody ever told me this in so many words, but somehow I imbibed it, just as I imbibed the idea that the more money you have, the less you should appear to have. When I read The Late George Apley I instinctively liked the rich protagonist for having darned tablecloths and threadbare rugs, just as I instinctively liked Honoré de Balzac when I read his biographer’s calculation that he drank 50,000 cups of coffee so he could write all night in spite of what it did to his heart.
Churchill put it best when he observed, “Most of the world’s work is done by people who don’t feel very well,” but nowadays practitioners of aristocratic stoicism are said to be “in denial.” A sterner, nobler America is anathema to New Age philosophes; their ideal is the wailing proletarian who lives by the soap-opera credo, “I’m sick, therefore I am.”
Deer-on-velvet sensibility comes through loud and clear in the ubiquitous “Health Watch” segments on television news. These emotion-drenched reports feature scuzzy-looking individuals who hold up their drainage bags or their cross-eyed kids to the camera; unappetizing women with their breasts clamped in mammogram machines; and blank-eyed expectant mothers who allow themselves to be photographed in the stirrups.
Invited to “tell their story in their own words,” they slip into the whining nasal tones of trailer-park grievance collectors, explaining that it all started when the medicine that was supposed to cure this caused that; then another medicine they took for a disease they thought they had but didn’t caused the double vision that caused the accident; and then the triplets ate the asbestos.
These sagas of pain and wrecked lives and germ-free plastic bubbles are supposed to be moving, but they move me to expropriate George V’s words on hearing that one of his courtiers liked little boys: “I always thought people like that shot themselves.”
New Age hypochondria lends itself to the literary exercise feminists call “deconstruction.” If we keep peeling the artichoke of “health awareness” we eventually will uncover an unpleasant truth that pollsters cannot reach.
Notwithstanding our worship of perfect bench-pressed bodies, we like them much better if their owners admit to overdosing on steroids and waste away before our very eyes, preferably in public-service commercials about the dangers of steroids. New Age hypochondriacs glorify the lame, the halt, and the defective. Like Bill Clinton compulsively retelling the story of the New Hampshire boy who navigated his wheelchair down an icy winter highway to get to a Clinton rally, they cheer every insane feat the handicapped undertake, from double amputees climbing mountains to blind yachtsmen sailing the Atlantic alone.
New Age hypochondriacs call such foolhardy exploits “courageous,” and woe be unto anyone who disagrees with this fashionable rationalization, because something very important is at stake here.
Extolling pointless and unthreatening physical courage helps New Agers forget their own lack of moral courage. They actually hate the healthy and wish to encourage hypochondria because they are “in denial” about America’s most serious problem, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a French physician-turned-novelist, provided a merciless explanation of why: “When people can stand up, they’re thinking of killing you. Whereas when they’re ill, there’s no doubt about it, they’re less dangerous.”
Our Great Diversity rides again. Suppose they gave a civil war and nobody was well enough to come?