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The Anvil and the Hedgehog

Aristotle proposed that human beings could be divided into the rulers and the ruled.  Goethe saw us as either hammers or anvils.  For Archilochus, Erasmus and Isaiah Berlin, the fox knows many things, and the hedgehog one great thing.  For Philip Rahv — thinking only of American fiction writers — it was redskins and palefaces.

        Increasingly, it seems to me that such dichotomies only scratch the surface.  For example, there are on the one hand those who when they want a cup of boiling water, put a cup or so in a teakettle and heat it up; and on the other hand there are those who fill the kettle and make, say, eight cups, one for themselves and the other seven for . . .? On rainy days I find myself noting that — distinct from those such as myself who scrupulously avoid all puddles — there is another, at least equally large group of people who proceed as if it hadn't rained in weeks.  (Do their shoes repel water?  Or do such people not mind having wet feet?  Or is it a special technique — mind over matter — these people walk in and out of puddles and don't feel a thing?)

        Many years ago, when I was working at a small magazine, I came to feel that a worker faced a simple but most consequential choice: to be either a doctor or a patient.  The top editors had chosen to be doctors, and as a result they enjoyed their authority, were paid more and had more stable jobs.  At times they enjoyed the admiration — the love even — of the others involved in putting out the magazine.  The cost was that they always had to pretend to be stronger and wiser than they actually were, and they had to be ever available to deal with crises, real and imagined weaknesses, the complaints and self-indulgence of these others.

      Having competed for and won one of the top editor's posts, naturally I felt that the patients — the writers — were paying an excessive cost: to so often feel and appear weak and inadequate as they struggled to say what they wanted, organize their material, find cuts, meet the deadlines.  In the first phase they would come to the editors for coddling; in the second — carried away by our role, as doctors and patients are wont to be — we editors were often "forced" to finish the writers' stories for them.

          But this is also to touch upon what the fortunate patient enjoys: people who make it their duty to take care of them, people who listen to their problems and offer solutions and encouragement.

       How exhausting the doctor's work now seems.  I think of the medical doctor daily acquainted with and denying the — at times fatal — limits of his knowledge and abilities.  How simple and yet full the patient's life: his pain, what and who might relieve it.