Insert Comma logo
Insert Comma • A Portfolio of Leigh E. Rich
Enlightenment through immunology
Categories: Books, Health, Religion, Science

An interdisciplinary romp with a professor of pathology

By Leigh E. Rich

Faith, Madness and Spontaneous Human Combustion: What Immunology Can Teach Us About Self-Perception
By Gerald N. Callahan, Ph.D.
A Thomas Dunne Book for St. Martin’s Press
January 2002
256 pages

Who came first, the pathologist or the poet?

The world may never know, particularly after deep perusal of Gerald N. Callahan’s treatise, Faith, Madness and Spontaneous Human Combustion: What Immunology Can Teach Us About Self-Perception. Callahan’s thoughts—strewn about the book’s pages like a torrent of free association between science, art, narrative, philosophy and postmodernism—are even more intriguing than the perplexing, verbose title.

But there certainly is method to Callahan’s madness as he blurs the stodgy lines long separating the academic disciplines and other human-imposed categories we use to make sense of this life. Callahan, an assistant professor of pathology at Colorado State University and a poet and essayist to boot, must be every student’s favorite teacher, for he does not “lecture at” but rather weaves an interdisciplinary tapestry anyone can pull about his shoulders for warmth and guidance on a journey toward self-enlightenment and thinking outside of the proverbial box.

True, this is a text primarily about the human immune system—the maker of individuality, according to Callahan—but it is geared for the scientifically wary or weary and the multidisciplinary dilettante or jack-of-all-trades simultaneously. Faith, Madness and Spontaneous Human Combustion is akin to any Shakespearean play—something to be enjoyed at many levels, separately or all at once.

Unlike most scientific and medical books, Callahan’s opens elegantly with a discourse on Georges Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” the pointillist painter’s creation an apt metaphor for the billions of microscopic dots that make up the immune system and, thus, the individual being. Callahan writes, “If you look too closely, everything disappears.”

The crux of the book, however, which Callahan innocuously slips in through the spaces and gaps in his purposefully disjointed narrative about life, love and family—just as viruses or bacteria or any harmful “other” bypass our immune system through its necessary and “life-ensuring” holes—is the exploration of the evolution and inner-workings of the thymus, the lymph nodes, T lymphocytes, the nervous system, the brain.

All of these “parts” and more make up the immune system, one which cannot succeed without spaces and gaps that sometimes let in deadly invaders and one which significantly shapes each of us as individuals. Without our immune systems, Callahan writes, “there would be no George W. Bush, no Sinéad O’Connor, no dogs, no cats, no birds, no slugs. No one. Just a single muddy pool where the word ‘us’ would suffice to describe all of life.”

Encircling this sophisticated yet easy-to-understand immunological text, Callahan offers what appear to be barmy ramblings about his mother struggling with a mentally degenerative disease, strangers he’s met in McDonald’s and on the streets, the faithful flocking to Catholic churches to eat dirt, and other seemingly endless blurrings of mind-body, self-other, health-disease.

After reading one section of the book, in which Callahan tenders a biochemical and postmodern explanation of just how the eyes “see,” one is convinced that “our minds construct rather than receive pictures” and, after reading another, that our sense of individuality is rooted in the unique genetic rearrangements that take place in thymuses and the gaps and holes permeating immune systems. How we envision ourselves and the world, according to Callahan, is just that—a construction of our minds and bodies. “A hundred billion dots writhing inside a human thymus. And from that frenzy comes a first portrait of self. … A miracle nearly. But an inherently imperfect process. …The essential image of self is the gift of the immune system.”

One imagines Faith, Madness and Spontaneous Human Combustion is similar to partaking in one of Callahan’s college classes: Though it seems to stray off course at times, every chapter, every vignette, every word has a purpose. Whether that purpose comes from the mind of a sound scholar or a deranged intellectual, it comes from genius, from collapsing the mind-body dualism, from comprehending the sound of one hand clapping. “New understanding demands new words,” writes Callahan, “or at the very least that old words be twisted like warm iron to serve new purposes.”

In the end, Callahan takes his readers on a poetic and exploratory voyage that demands a visit to the National Gallery, an understanding of Eastern philosophy and quantum physics, a peek inside the mechanics of life, an appreciation of poetry and prose, and, most importantly, an open and willing mind. “We are who we are only because we defend ourselves every moment of every day. And who we are is everything. Pieces of others. Portraits painted somewhere between our brain and our thymuses. We are the dirt we’ve eaten and the songs we’ve sung. We are the light of stars and darknesses old beyond imagining. We are at once spontaneous fires and sacred water. We are faith and forgiveness. We are our own deaths and we are the eternal thoughts of others.”

Faith, Madness and Spontaneous Human Combustion makes clear the uselessness of discovering who came first—the poet, the scientist, the philosopher, the artist. For, just like individuality, such crude distinctions often only exist within imperfect human minds. 

Rich, L. E. (2002, February 8). Enlightenment through immunology. [Review of the book Faith, Madness and Spontaneous Human Combustion: What Immunology Can Teach Us About Self-Perception by Gerald N. Callahan, Ph.D.] Rocky Mountain News.

Comments are closed.