Risk bets

NEW JERSEY - At a family gathering one afternoon in San Diego over the holidays, my wife's sister-in-law mentioned, almost in passing, that some years ago she had gone to Tijuana to buy fertility drugs when she had trouble getting pregnant with a second child. The drugs were much cheaper south of the border, she Said.

Lee Siegel,

03 Fevereiro 2013 | 01h00

The room became silent. She had gone on to have twins, a boy and a girl, and the girl had been born with a brain tumor. Ten years old now, she has survived. Yet every day is a gift.

I found out later that the family had known about the fertility drugs, but not about the fact that they had been purchased in Tijuana. The question that immediately sprang to everyone's mind that afternoon was whether the drugs, obtained in a Tijuana pharmacy, had been tainted in some way.

Behind that question was another one that had been haunting them all for years. Were the drugs themselves, tainted or not, carcinogenic? Because my wife's sister-in-law had achieved her dream of having more children-for millenia, an impossible aspiration for women with low or no fertility-the subject was never discussed. Confronted with a choice that held the possibility of fulfilling her desire yet at an excruciating price, she seized it. The family had accepted her decision, and then anxiously resigned themselves to the painful outcome.

These dilemmas, in which the promise of some near-miraculous result is balanced with a fearful potential consequence, have, for Americans, anyway, become routine. We accept them as the product of our age of scientific marvels-new and unprecedented realities that are accompanied by the specter of terrible side-effects.

Yet there is nothing new about making sacrificial pacts with unleashed forces of science and technology. Such choices are in fact so embedded in human history and experience that they once gave rise to a clarifying legend. As everyone knows, they were called "Faustian bargains," in reference to a real 16th-century scholar-sorcerer, who may or may not have been named Faust. Having exhausted all human knowledge, he was said to have summoned the devil, to whom he signed away his soul in exchange for absolute power and ultimate knowledge. The transaction had a famously unlovely ending, as Faust squandered the devil's dubious gifts on sensual and material pleasures before heading down to eternal damnation in a puff of gory Smoke.

Through all the variations on the legend-from Goethe to versions by Balzac, Oscar Wilde, and Thomas Mann- "Faust" retained its resonance as a cautionary tale of the price paid for unlocking nature's secrets and for refusing to yield to our physical limitations.

In our time, however, the tale has lost its admonitory power. The Faustian ordeal is run-of-the-mill, over-the-counter. The Faustian bargain is now an allegory for experiences that we all live through, as our countless trade-offs for the sake of vitality and health implicate us in the possibility of our own Destruction.

Day by day, science and technology retrieve order from chaos, and day after day, we face our Faustian conundrums. There are the energy drinks loaded with toxic chemicals, and there are the herbicides and pesticides. There are the statins straight out of a sorcerer's magic book that stave off heart disease even as they may destroy the liver, and there are the CT scans and the radiation therapy that slowly kill us while preserving our lives. There are the steroids that break sports records and ruin athletic careers-and might bring on cancer-and the fertility drugs that, as my wife's sister-in-law so sadly discovered, perhaps carry terrible perils.

There are the cell phones with their unknown dangers, the life-saving inhalers that can cause pneumonia, the dietary supplements that possibly prevent cancer and possibly cause cancer, the antidepressants that protect against post-partum depression and harbor the potential to harm the fetus in the womb.

And then there are the procedures, the endless maze of Faustian, two-faced medical procedures. My wife and I spent weeks deciding whether, pregnant at the age of 42, she should have an amniocentesis that could reassure us, or send up the red flag of a "negative result," as the doctors call it, or cause a miscarriage that would rob us of our last precious chance for a second child. (We refused the pact. The child is fine.)

Perhaps the emblematic Faustian figure of our time is Lance Armstrong, whose intensive use of steroids perhaps caused his cancer, and who then defeated what might have been the physical effects of the steroids only to be destoyed by their moral-and legal-consequences. But though Armstrong traded away a great deal, he got a great deal in return.

The disgraced cyclist's case was rare. Few people nowadays gain as much in their Faustian bargains as they put at risk. As the Faustian bargain has become run-of-the-mill, the ratio of pay-off to peril has become lopsided.

There is the high school or college student doping herself with steroids to keep up with her peers. There is the elementary-school kid who has been put on Ritalin (possible side effects: convulsions, anxiety, Tourette's syndrome, high blood pressure, cardiac arrest) because he is not meeting the Draconian measurements dictated by standardized tests.

There are all those people shoveling antidepressants (possible side effects: insomnia, sexual dysfunction, weight gain, seizures, high blood pressure, trouble breathing, nightmares, suicidal impulses) into their systems just to get themselves out of bed in the morning and to work, for fear of calling in sick and losing their jobs. There is the woman, of whatever age, relying on the toxic technology of feminine "beauty" products, trying to survive in a culture that anathematizes the imperfections of aging or of appearance in women. The list of trade-offs between near-miraculous effects and destructive side-effects-the eternal damnation of our day-goes on and on.

Yet there is no romantic grandeur to these desperate deals. Unlike Faust, who received the absolute power and the ultimate knowledge he bargained for, what we get for our risky gambles is just one more day in the game. If we're lucky.

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