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30.001 Theoretical physicists


Lyall Watson
Gifts of Unknown Things, 1976
Lyall Watson, Theoretical physicists


Pages 143-147

This was not the first time I had seen a healer use a technique tailored in an imaginative and delightful way to the particular needs of the patient.

On the island of Luzon in the Philippines, healers dramatize their rituals by dressing them up in a way that makes it look as though they were actually going into the body with their bare hands and bringing out all sorts of offending odds and ends. For Filipino patients it is usually sufficient for them to produce banana leaves or bits of coconut husk, objects locally associated with the kind of witchcraft that produces illness. But for foreigners, different productions are obviously necessary. When a Swiss patient was being treated for a stomach complaint, the healer produces a Swiss noodle. Not just any old noodle, but a fresh one of a kind made and eaten only in the canton of Ticino, where the patient lived.

On another occasion, I was travelling up the Amazon in a narrow riverboat with the Brazilian caboclos when one of them developed a severe toothache. An abscess beneath a wisdom tooth had become inflamed, and the man had a high fever. I had no appropriate antibiotics, and I battled unsuccessfully to extract the tooth with a pair of the engineerís long-nosed pliers. I was considering calling off the trip and turning back downstream when one of the boatmen mentioned that a healer lived just a few hours up one of the smaller tributaries ahead.

We moved out of the muddy main stream into a quiet pattern of lagoons of clear green water. The mosquitoes and biting flies disappeared, and the air was full of kingfishers and flocks of parakeets. Eventually we reached an area where the forest had been partially cleared to plant a crop of cassava, and pulled in to the bank near a collection of palm-thatched huts.

I went ashore with the patient and saw him seated on a log in a clearing in front of the home of the healer. In a little while the great man himself came out, and he was a terrible disappointment. He was a small, hungry-looking middle-aged man with little hair and fewer clothes. Just a tattered pair of shorts, plastic sandals, and the remnant of a T-shirt which carried the unlikely claim that it belonged not to this strange man but to the State Prison of Louisiana.

A brief conversation took place in Amazonian Portuguese, and the emphasis, as far as I could understand it, was placed not so much on the patientís symptoms as upon the particular circumstances, the exact time and place, in which they had first been noted. Some sort of agreement was reached which seemed to take the blame off poor dental care and place it squarely on a malevolent outside influence, an evil spirit force which, as it happened, the healer knew well.

He turned to his hut for a moment and emerged with a number of unspecified materials tightly rolled into a ball of greasy black cloth. I was dying to see what it contained, but he simply put it on the ground between the feet of the patient and it was never referred to again.

Then the treatment began. Singing softly to himself in an Indian dialect, the healer pushed the patientís head back until his mouth was wide open. Then he put his crooked forefinger into the mouth and stirred around in there. He grunted once or twice, peered in again, and then reached in with thumb and forefinger and picked out the offending molar as though it had been simply lying there loose under the tongue.

We all examined the tooth and peered into the empty socket, which was bleeding only slightly. There was great satisfaction all round, but the healer wasnít finished yet. He said that he must still get rid of the pain. To do this, he massaged the swollen glands on the patientís throat, then made him sit back again with his mouth wide open.

The healer sat cross-legged on the ground opposite him and began to sway to and fro with his eyes closed. I watched very closely, suddenly aware that this was not just a tired little man in rags, but a very impressive person. Then someone in the crowd hissed and pointed at the patient. A trickle of blood was beginning to flow out of the right corner of his mouth and run down his chin. This was not surprising, but what happened next was something that brought a great roar of laughter from all the observers, but made the hair at the back of my neck bristle.

Out of the side of his mouth, following the line of the trickle of blood, came a column of live black army ants. Not a frantic confusion of ants, running in every direction, as they would have been if the healer has dropped some sort of container holding ants into the patientís mouth, but an ordered column of ants. Ants marching two and three abreast, coming from somewhere and going somewhere.

They kept on coming until there were a hundred or more, moving in a stream down the patientís neck, along his bare arm, down onto the log on which he sat. Then he and I and everyone present watched the column as it marched off into the grass at the edge of the clearing and away.

Thinking back on that experience later, I realized that the healer has started off the consultation by concentrating not on the symptoms of the patient, but on the peculiar circumstances connected with them. He was concerned not so much with how he had come to develop the complaint as with why it had happened to him, and why now, just as he was starting on an important trip. He tried, as all Western physicians will, to give the condition an identity separate from the sufferer, to set it up so that it could be treated. But he was not content with a fine-sounding diagnosis. He went beyond treatment of the symptoms to tackle root causes by suggesting that some outside agency, an evil spirit or some personal ritual deficiency perhaps, was responsible. The cause he came up with may not have been the right one, but by recognizing any at all, and by taking obviously appropriate action to deal with it, he was providing, in addition to his efficient dental treatment, psychiatric therapy at no extra charge.

To me that seemed like very good medicine. The patient was simply given the means to make himself well. And this was accomplished by a superbly judged piece of sleight-of-mind.

When the crowd at the healing laughed at the sight of ants crawling out of a manís mouth, it was not the nervous laughter of people in fear or discomfort. It was honest loud laughter over something that struck them as very funny. I didnít see the joke until it was explained to me later. In the local dialect, the same word is used for pain and for the army ant. The healer had promised that the pain would leave, and so it did in the form of an elaborate and extraordinary pun. It walked out.

For that patient, in his culture, with his expectations and beliefs, the treatment was highly effective. He got better very quickly.

For this observer, in his certainty, with his patterns of logic and procedure, the whole affair was shattering. It took me a long time to come to terms with it. It was years before I could even bring myself to talk of it. Whom can a scientist tell about an experience like that?

But I no longer have that problem. Not since I number theoretical physicists amongst my friends. They taught me that the objective world in space and time does not exist and that we are forced to deal now not in facts, but in possibilities. Nobody in quantum mechanics talks about impossibilities any more. They have developed a kind of statistical mysticism, and physics becomes very hard to distinguish from metaphysics. And that makes things a little easier for a biologist faced with biological absurdities.

Breaking the rules doesnít worry me anymore now that I can see that only one principle really matters. And that is rightness. If it fits, if it feels good, if it seems appropriate and meaningful, then it doesnít matter how absurd it is in the light of the established explanation of how things work. Establishments are no longer as stable as they used to be. They are having to make way for another kind of knowing which is concerned only with harmony, with keeping in touch with Earthís tune.


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