Even if you have not read a word of Shakespeare, chances are that in this day and age, you have probably seen a movie rendition of the “Romeo and Juliet.” In a scene as poignant as it is profound, Juliet wonders — perched as she is on a balcony — “what's in a name” for “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” or as miasmic, and as deadly if, that is, you happen to suffer from a particularly acute form of an allergy.
Allergy is a disease. It discombobulates, disorients and numbs you. Your sense of normalcy is the first casualty of an allergy . It wreaks havoc on your expectations of the universe. It forces you to re-evaluate your presence in the world. In short, an allergy gets to you in ways that even Socrates, in all his eloquence and persistence, fails to do. Note that while Socrates was killed trying to make us understand that “an unexamined life is not worth living,” an allergy will kill if one were to ignore the warning signs. With an allergy one's life is in peril. Bluntly put: your life will terminate if you do not examine the way you live.
Juliet's anxiety stems in part from the contradiction between a name and the reality it represents. Historical enmity between the Capulet and Montague families is an impediment to the desires unfolding in Juliet's body for a reality embodied by Romeo the lover. Juliet wonders: “what is Montague, it's not a hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man…tis his name that is Juliet's enemy.”
Now, allergy is widely understood as a reaction caused by the mistaken perception of the body that an otherwise harmless substance is a threat. Once your mind perceives a substance as an invading allergen, then, the immune system tries to eliminate it in a process that makes life a living hell. Either the mind “suspects” and torments the body or the body “knows” and re-educates the mind.
The first reaction might be psychosomatic but it is no less real. What the mind thinks, the body acts on. Allergy is life writ large. Our reaction to a given “reality” — our perception of it — is very much linked to what that reality is named. Whether it is called Romeo or a Montague, liberty or licentiousness, a daisy cutter or an incinerator of human flesh, a martyr or a thug blowing up innocent kids, veal parmesan or butchered and mostly burned baby calf toped by her mother's milk — names will have a lot to do with how we come to perceive a reality embodied.
So what exactly is in a name? Quite a lot actually. The development of a civilization, and her stability, literally hinges on her naming convention. The Chinese were astute enough to have observed the importance of this “name game.” They called it the doctrine of the “rectification of names,” many centuries ago. Confucius, in the Analects, notes the problem thus:
…if language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.
But with allergy, just as in life, nothing is that simple. In today's jargon, the life of a sign is such that the signifier and the signified are, in a complex sort of way, intertwined. A civilization, through the efforts of her court intellectuals, might promulgate self deceptive stories, but allergy makes one attentive to the fiction and the nuances. That is the thing about allergy you see.
Allergy pushes the limits of common sense. Out on the fringes of the “normal” experience, allergy dissolves the clear cut mind/body dualism. By further blurring the distinction between the names and the reality they (mis)represent, allergy forces one to become attentive to the ongoing complex power play. In a sense, in allergy the body sometimes revolts against the power of the mind by cutting throw the illusions that hold our social lives together. Through allergy, the body comes to share its “wisdom” with the mind.
The body becomes sick when the social body is in turmoil and one is left with actions the possibilities of which the mind is too petrified to fathom. This might be an answer to the riddle of the peculiar symptoms exhibited by our wives, our mothers, our sisters, ourselves or our lovers these days. It might pay to look a tad more carefully into the social constitution of the malady. To make life more tolerable, then it becomes essential to examine the illusions.
Allergy is a force of nature. It is just as real, just as constant, just as powerful, and just as disruptive as a typhoon, a tornado or a blizzard. More so than in other aspects of life, with an allergy one quickly learns that it does not pay to be a hapless victim. One is forced to take charge of one's life. Sure, one consults an assorted army of the “experts,” but no one is as familiar or as attentive to one's body and one's needs as oneself. Your local preacher or mullah might make you feel better, but no sense searching the voluminous chapters and verses of the Qoran or the Hadiths to find the authoritative pronouncements and the cures.
One quickly learns to abandon silly ideas about the immediate causes of an allergy. One finally comes to learn about causality. It might just so happen that there are clouds in the sky each time one has an allergy attack. But if one wants to be free of an allergy, one learns that concomitance should not be equated with causality. It might be a mere coincident that one's allergy attacks are coeval with the presence of the clouds. But this assumption too must be put to test. Subsequently, one is forced to learn to reason; to look for real causes, to experiment, to postulate, to form hypotheses, to validate assumptions and to refute.
Popular prejudices won't help one either. One quickly learns that the rehashing of a wide variety of the nauseatingly repulsive gobbledygook won't help restore health. No sense blaming the Global Jewish Conspiracy, the British Intelligence Services, the Bahais, the CIA, the Kremlin, or Paris for your allergies. You must abandon stupidity to be functional again.
And so here we go, as a friend would want, attempting to close the circle. What exactly is in a name afterall? Spiritual anguish? Physical torment? The joy of discovery?
One learns in suffering through allergies that there are no easy answers in life. What masquerades as an authoritative pronouncement is often wrong. Experts are helpful, but persistently off the mark. Holy books might make you feel good, but they won't help you find the root causes.
There is no substitute for introspection, for analysis, for the exchange of experiences, for the careful examination of the problems, for an experimental approach to the proposed solutions; or for an open mind and for the freedom of inquiry and for the freedom of action and for the attentiveness to the nuances. Just as in life, our approach could literally spell out the difference between living well and dying.