What Price Perfection?

What Price Perfection? October 6, 2011

John Belushi and Humphrey Bogart were born too late. On the other hand, if you’re reading this, and haven’t yet died of lung cancer, or from shooting up a speedball, you might be right on time. According to the New York Times, researchers at San Diego’s Scripps Institute are planning work on a vaccine that will prevent recipients from feeling the effects of these substances.

Like any vaccine, it contains small elements of the dangerous agent, and is meant to trick the body into producing antibodies that will thwart them before they take effect. Results have been mixed so far. Smokers injected with the vaccine frustrated researchers by quitting smoking at the same rate as smokers injected with a placebo. On the more encouraging side, vaccinated cocaine addicts who snorted up under laboratory conditions reported wanting to beat down research assistants for giving them stuff that had been stepped on.

In itself, this is good news. If people, finding themselves in the grip of a life-threatening or life-destroying addiction, would resort to a vaccine in the hope of regaining some sense of control, I’m certainly not about to stand in their way. But the Scripps researchers’ ambitions are vast. They’ve also experiment with vaccines against alcohol, marijuana and obesity — the last of these designed “to block the effects of a peptide hormone produced by the stomach called ghrelin that signals hunger in the brain.”

When I consider that science, if it has its way, will soon be able to pre-empt any self-destructive or socially unacceptable behavior, I think of Chris Christie. The notion that his Santa Claus figure might represent some disqualifying character defect got shot down quickly enough, but the point is, it got raised in the first place. Embedded deeply in the American character is a strain of ascetism that condemns any outsized appetite — except, naturally, for the lust after power and renown that tends to sustain people through the psychic buffetings that attend any political career. That’s perfectly kosher.

If voters like their candidates lean, focused and driven, that’s their right. But if that demand is pushing medical researchers to turn every citizen into the sort of person who could survive a vetting from either party’s national committee, humans as we know them might cease to exist. If that sounds panicky or dystopian, consider the rate with which the notion of sex addiction has been gaining in popularity. Though the American Psychiatric Association has yet to recognize the condition, sex rehab clinics exist, and have attracted the likes of David Duchovny and Tiger Woods, among others.

To be fair, many of the patients under care seem to be very far out of control. According to Marty Kafka, who treats self-described sex addicts at McLean Hospital (in view of his name alone, he should title his memoir “In the Penile Colony”), addicts experience sex as a joyless compulsion. Kafka uses a set of fairly stringent criteria to distinguish true addicts from people with strong libidos. Best of all, his treatment regimen does not include chemical castration.

And yet I find it worrisome. As Hannah Roisin observes in Slate, “Addictions share cultural boundaries with character failure.” Medicalizing the fringe end of some frowned-upon behavior can only serve to stigmatize its more mundane manifestations. The randy frat boy and the corn-fed Iowan come under suspicion as fellow-travelers with the poor souls in treatment.

When it comes to defining normative, or at least optimal, behavior, American society is looking less forgiving all the time. In a Times opinion piece, James Atlas identifies an emerging subspecies, “Super People.” From a brochure that profiles winners of a prestigious fellowship, he lists the defining characteristics:

…there doesn’t seem to be anyone on this list who hasn’t mastered at least one musical instrument; helped build a school or hospital in some foreign land; excelled at a sport; attained fluency in two or more languages; had both a major and a minor, sometimes two, usually in unrelated fields (philosophy and molecular science, mathematics and medieval literature); and yet found time — how do they have any? — to enjoy such arduous hobbies as mountain biking and white-water kayaking.

The rise of these demigods may be the logical response to the concentration of American wealth. One percent of the population earns one-quarter of its annual income; Ivy League schools, whose graduates rank among the likeliest candidates for that share of the pie, comprise less than one percent of America’s college-aged population. As the bar goes up, people take special measures to clear it. Stiffening competition has created a de facto educational fast track. “If your child is in an elite school,” writes Atlas, “there are no more dumb kids in his or her math class– only smart and smarter.”

So we’re looking at an aristocracy of talent — nothing wrong there. But when it comes to the survival of the fittest, I am a trickle-down theorist. If squeaking into a top school or landing a top job is getting more difficult, then mediocre schools and jobs should soon raise their standards, too — after all, they’ll be catching the elite spillover. Such circumstances, I fear, will make any eccentric tendency look like a potential block to success. If people can’t actually medicate or vaccinate themselves to keep from smoking, or eating, or slacking off, or having too much sex, or — in my darkest fantasies — making faux pas in interviews, they’ll certainly wish they could. The self-improvement market being what it is, there will always be some mountebank, if not some respectable researcher, catering to that wish.

Self-improvement is fine. It’s admirable. But I’d hate to live in a society that expects perfection, and demands that anything outside that narrow box be hastily sanded away. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Birthmark,” a lofty intellectual named Aylmer becomes obsessed by a hand-shaped birthmark on his wife’s cheek. In his mind, it evolves into an all-or-nothing proposition: either it goes, or she does. He concocts an elixir that, finally, does them both in: just as the birthmark disappears, his wife dies.

Hawthorne moralizes: “Yet, had Aylmer reached a profounder, wisdom, he need not have flung away the happiness which would have woven his mortal life of the selfsame texture with the celestial.” In other words, where his wife’s appearance was concerned, Aylmer shot for divinity and came up dust, the schmuck.

Now, I don’t see much chance of us actually killing ourselves or each other in the name of perfection. But I’m afraid we could start judging ourselves — and each other — with such a cold and ruthless eye as to make life seem a living death. To put it aother way, how can we really be merry if we start second-guessing ourselves every time we eat or drink?

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