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Essay: Hope Sprouts Eternal

6 minute read
Otto Friedrich

“Hope” is the thing with feathers–

That perches in the soul–

And sings the tune without the words–

And never stops–at all–

–Emily Dickinson

There are usually two crude drawings, side by side. Mr. Before, the bald- headed man on the left, stares glumly into a future of rejection, loneliness and despair. No bright-eyed new friends for him. Mr. After, who has doused himself with Yuppiegoo, now sprouts a coiffure worthy of Mick Jagger, and he smiles toward a future of romance and success. Dom Perignon in the Bahamas, white tie. Yours for only $1.98, or some such, say those little ads that have long appeared, along with offers of trusses and tattooing kits, in the back pages of the hairier men’s magazines.

No longer. The Food and Drug Administration announced last week that it intends to ban all over-the-counter cures for baldness (along with a number of alleged aphrodisiacs and other worthless nostrums). It is not banning any prescription drugs, notably minoxidil, an anti-high-blood-pressure medication that Upjohn is now testing on baldness. Nor is it opposed to hair transplants. It is forbidding only those obscure salves and creams that falsely promise an end to baldness. “These products do not prevent hair loss or grow hair,” said an FDA spokesman, Edward R. Nida. “How you lose or keep your hair depends on how wisely you choose your parents. For the most part it is hereditary.”

Fair enough. It is part of the FDA’s job to protect us from snake-oil salesmen. The Government quite rightly went to court to make Carter’s Little Liver Pills stop implying that they had anything to do with liver function (they are now advertised as a laxative). And we now know that Lydia Pinkham’s soothing syrup, once a favorite remedy for women’s ills of all sorts, was 20% alcohol. The FDA argues, as do most doctors, that ineffective medications can be harmful because they tend to prevent a patient from seeking effective treatment. It is on that ground that the agency has fought against letting cancer victims be treated with apparently worthless products like Laetrile, even when the patients want them and claim to feel improvement. But ) baldness? Do furtive applications of Yuppiegoo really prevent a bald man from seeking more serious treatment? Does he really need serious treatment at all?

There is one school of thought, inhabited mainly by bald men, which claims that bald is beautiful. Bald men are alleged to be volcanoes of libidinous energy. Think of Yul Brynner, think of Kojak, think of Picasso goatishly chasing girls at 90. But despite such supposed proclivities, bald men are also said to look wise (think of Henry James or Oswald Spengler) and statesmanlike (John Glenn?). All well and good, but prejudices persist. Given a choice, Frank Sinatra decided on hair transplants, and Burt Reynolds acquired a toupee. When are we likely to elect our next bald President?

Right or wrong, a large number of sedately bald men would rather look like some wild-haired rocker, Bruce Springsteen, say. When the Washington Hospital Center asked for volunteers to test the effects of minoxidil, 10,000 hopefully offered themselves. One hundred were chosen; the other 9,900 were left to console themselves with Yuppiegoo and daydreams. And that is what the FDA, ignoring President Reagan’s preaching against Government regulation, seems to be heartlessly and needlessly trying to regulate out of existence.

The daydreamer dreams of miracles, dreams that the impossible will somehow turn out not to be impossible. The Man of La Mancha is one of his heroes; so are Walter Mitty and the would-be outfielder in Damn Yankees. In more religious times, mysterious alterations of the usual suggested divine intervention, or at least the help of a saint, but both church leaders and philosophers tend to be skeptical about these things. Proofs are demanded, testimonies weighed. Still, the streets of Lourdes are lined with stores selling rows and rows of bottled water from the grotto, and the grotto itself bristles with the crutches discarded by those who walked away. How would the FDA rule on the efficacy of such water?

It is easy enough to hope when there is some reason for hope. That is what guides nations, founds corporations and reaches all the standard milestones of progress. But it is unreasoning hope, futile hope, doomed hope that occasionally expresses the poetry of surprise. If everyone subscribed entirely to the rule of common sense, the world would be a quite different place. Christopher Columbus would probably have looked to the Western horizon and told his crew, “There doesn’t seem to be anything in sight. Let’s turn around and go home.”

Military campaigns would have ended differently. George Washington, surveying his ragged forces at Valley Forge, would have surrendered. So would Winston Churchill in the early days of 1941. The march of industrial technology would have zigzagged. Thomas Alva Edison, after spending $40,000 to test umpteen hundred possible filaments for an electric light, would have shrugged and said, “I give up. Nobody will ever figure this out.”

Most of the heroes of literature would have been far less heroic. Romeo would have said to Juliet, “You’re a neat girl, but I don’t think our families are ever going to let us get married. Maybe we should split up.” Captain Ahab would have given up whaling and retired to grow petunias in a suburb of New Bedford.

These changes apply even to the nonheroic aspects of daily life. If common sense invariably outweighs uncommon hope, some consequences are deplorably certain:

— When the astrological column in the newspaper, the one that nobody really believes, says that a handsome stranger will soon appear, no handsome stranger will appear.

— The lottery ticket bought by some ailing grandmother who needs money for an operation will not win.

— A penny thrown in a fountain will make a soft plink, then sink to the bottom and lie there helping to clog the drains, nothing more.

— When Yuppiegoo is rubbed on that bald spot on the back of the head, nothing will happen.

If hoping for the impossible is often foolish, it is still preferable to its opposite, which is despair, and the numbness that accompanies despair. Dante knew well what he was saying when he reported that the words “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!” appeared over the gateway to the Inferno.

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