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The Symptoms of Pott’s Disease

It is hardly surprising that newspapers nowadays more and more resemble magazines that are produced weekly or monthly instead of daily. With modern technology they can hardly any longer be the first to break news; as their circulations fall and journalists are “let go”—to use a delightful euphemism for dismissal so dear to more refined or sensitive bosses—they cannot do much investigative journalism, either. What is left is gossip about celebrities, explanations of the obvious, speculation about the future based on what has happened in the recent past, drivel about the sport, and articles catering to modern man’s fathomless narcissism.

Nevertheless, I am so attached to the physical sensations and ritual associated with reading newspapers that I still buy and read them. Young people do not share my enthusiasm; I don’t know any young person who reads a newspaper. I hope they—the newspapers, not the young people, of course—will last me out.

Yesterday I read a French newspaper aimed mainly at aging bourgeois bohemians of a left-wing persuasion, many of them with ponytails. There was an article in it about Antonio Gramsci, the Italian political philosopher who was imprisoned by Mussolini for eleven years, and who died in prison in 1937. He is generally regarded as a neo-Marxist, though as far as I can tell, his main idea—that ideas play a determining role in history—is directly contrary to the whole of Marxist philosophy.

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Gramsci was a hunchback—or, as I suppose we say these days, differently formed. Probably he had Pott’s disease, tuberculosis of the spine. This is a disease with which most modern doctors in the West are unfamiliar, I am glad to say. I saw a lot of it in the South Seas. I remember in a particular one patient, a pretty girl and locally famous dancer, who contracted it. Everyone assumed that it was caused by a rival dancer who had put a spell on her. Counter-magic was tried, but the disease progressed until she was paralyzed from the waist down. It was only then that they decided to give Western medicine a try. The disease was halted, but she never danced again.

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