It makes me anxious to type that sentence, given the political divisions stoked by the pandemic. (Read: I’m not an anti-vaxxer!) Douthat seems anxious, too, when he reports that going beyond the “medical establishment” was what helped him start to feel better. Key to Douthat’s battle with chronic Lyme was the use of something called a Rife machine, which delivers waves of electromagnetic energy at targeted frequencies. The American Medical Association, however, banned Rife machines decades ago, and most doctors regard Rife treatments as quackery.
Douthat knows it sounds strange. But the world, he reminds us, has always been “stranger than official thinking allow[s].” So, Douthat thinks, we must extend the spirit of scientific inquiry beyond the current medical-establishment consensus: given the “strange reality” of chronic Lyme, and in the absence of a clear way to treat it, we should be more open to “strange experiments”—to pursue a diverse range of treatments and to “embrace the experimental spirit that chronic sickness seems to obviously require.”
That’s the more conventional side of Douthat talking. That’s Douthat, the meritocrat, the successful professional who is proud of his Harvard degree and at home in the chattering class. And that Douthat calls us to expand the scientific project, using scientific terms like “experiment,” in a way that is edgy but not essentially countercultural. It’s the same side of Douthat that claimed the core liberal virtue of “open-mindedness” in a recent New York Times column about the Rife machine. This Douthat reassures us that the problem with our scientific, empirical, liberal order is that we are insufficiently scientific, empirical, and liberal.
I get that side of Douthat. I’m a Gen-X meritocrat, too, who cherishes my position of credentialed legitimacy. And those are pretty convincing arguments, at least to modern liberal ears. But the Ross Douthat I really love, the Ross Douthat who shows up in The Deep Places in a flurry of beautiful, anguished words, is the Ross Douthat who takes us way beyond polite, professional-class conversation. I love the Ross Douthat who sees God in a sand dollar, who fights zombies in his dreams, who quotes Dante and recites mantras, who thinks of his once-Pentecostal mother speaking in tongues, who communes with saints and ancestors—and who hangs on to each of those things, no matter how fantastical, because he knows they hold him together. He knows that those things are real, too.
Alongside his own inclination to adopt the language and spirit of modern, scientific liberalism, Douthat more profoundly understands that some of the bedrock assumptions of modern science and modern liberalism—that we inhabit bounded, individual bodies in a rationally intelligible world—are incomplete. The small bits of mastery that science gives us over our bodies and our world are far eclipsed by the mystery that is everywhere: around us, between us, inside us. To limit ourselves to modern, scientific, liberal paradigms of knowing is to miss so much of the enchantment, the magic, of life.
The written word itself has a kind of magic to it. Words allow us to see, with our eyes, some evidence of things unseen—whether those things be deer ticks or diseases or angels or suffering or faith—in a world where we too often see too little, and too darkly. Thank God that, through all of this, Douthat kept writing.
The Deep Places
A Memoir of Illness and Discovery
$26 | 224 pp.