Saturday, February 28, 2015

Lloyd C. Douglas, Magnificent Obsession


Opening Passage:

It had lately become common chatter at Brightwood Hospital -- better known from three hundred miles around Detroit as Hudson's Clinic -- that the chief was all but dead on his feet. The whole place buzzed with it.

Summary: The highly successful neurosurgeon, Dr. Hudson, is overworking himself, but this seems likely to change because he is marrying a young woman, Helen, and going on his honeymoon. Unfortunately, not very long after the marriage a terrible accident happens and Dr. Hudson dies. What is worse, he could have lived, but the machine that would have saved him was being used at that moment to save someone across the lake: rich and largely useless playboy, Robert Merrick.

Merrick, however, is affected by the fact that his life has come at the cost of a man who did, and would have continued to do, extraordinary good to others, and, making friends with a nurse at Brightwood, Nancy Ashford, he sets out to make the sacrifice worth it and learn about Dr. Hudson. With Nancy's encouragement, he sets out to get a degree in medicine, and with her help he decodes Dr. Hudson's secret journal, in which the surgeon claims to record a secret of extraordinary power. In the meantime, he meets Helen Hudson and falls in love with her; a relationship that is more than slighly complicated by the fact that Bobby is the reason Helen's husband is dead, as well as by the fact that Joyce, Dr. Hudson's daughter and Helen's stepdaughter (but only a few years younger than Helen), is in love with Bobby.

This is a gimmick book. That is, one's interest in the plot is kept up in part by the fact that it is organized around a gimmick. Gimmicks can be handled extremely well -- Umberto Eco writes gimmick books, for instance, and good mystery novels are very often built on gimmicks -- or much more weakly -- The Da Vinci Code is an example of story that is moved along almost entirely by gimmicks. The trick to a gimmick is that you want it to be something that the reader can puzzle over but also could in principle solve (whether they ever actually do or not), without making it obvious that the author is dumbing down a story to the reader's level. I would say that the two-level gimmick is used here is somewhere in the middle: there is a reasonably clever cipher for the journal, not difficult but not obvious, and the deciphered journal provides clues for Dr. Hudson's secret. The clues basically amount to veiled and incomplete allusions to a particular page in a Bible, and fully understanding what is going on requires being able to tell what the alluded-to passage is. Since the Bible is one of those books that is both very familiar and very unfamiliar, this is a balancing act: readers who know the Bible well could find the allusions obvious and repetitive, while readers who don't know it very well need to be able to find it. The novel reduces the danger of the former problem by making its main characters exactly the sort of people who are not going to be familiar with the Bible and by repeatedly stating theological claims in terms very different from what you would expect, as if they were being translated into a different language. The latter, on the other hand, are certainly given enough clues to figure it out, although we have to keep in mind that as this book was written in 1929, its original readers would not have had a search engine and would have had actually to take a Bible off the shelf and flip through it to try to find out Dr. Hudson's secret -- which, of course, would have been part of the point. I'm not sure it ends up being wholly successful, but it's a clever enough attempt that, with everything else going on in the book, it doesn't need to be wholly successful, just enough to keep things moving along.

This is also a spiritual secret book. Most spiritual secret books (The Celestine Prophecy, for instance) sacrifice story to message. I don't think that this is the case here. You can hardly miss the message, but arguably it sacrifices the clarity of the message to the story; it involves no spoilers to say that the secret has something to do with voluntary giving, but much of the story makes the voluntary giving seem quite selfishly motivated. This is not the full story, but a great deal of the problem arises from what would perhaps have recommended it to its original readers -- it's a religious story in which religion is deliberately played down and into which anything obviously religious makes only occasional and minimal entrance. This makes the spiritual secret come across more like a kind of attempt to manipulate things by magic, de-sacralized religion precisely coming across as a kind of magic. Again, this would recommend it to a lot of readers, in the same sense that there are plenty of people who are allergic to discussions of prayer who will nonetheless eat up books like The Secret, which substitutes something pseudo-naturalistic to do loosely similar things. Douglas does a few things to prevent religion from becoming only a kind of magic -- like most modern fiction, 'science' is the word the book actually uses for 'magic' -- but the book doesn't really avoid it, or even try very hard, in part because its characters are not the sort of people who could make that distinction very well in the first place. The story leads the message, which overall makes it a better novel than most spiritual secret books.

The romantic side of the story I found somewhat wearing, but it's not awful. Part of this is that the characters have their plausible weaknesses and strengths, even though it is sometimes difficult to find oneself fully sympathizing with Bobby and Helen as the structure of the romance really requires. Possibly the books is doing too much to develop the romance plot entirely as it should have been.

In addition to the book, I also listened to two radio versions -- the one by Lux Radio Theater with Irene Dunn and Robert Taylor and the other by Screen Guild Theater with Myrna Loy and Don Ameche. As I suspected, there is heavy movie-influence here, and the romantic story is played up. I liked how it was played up in the Lux Radio Theater version more than in the other, although I think the psychology of the characters was in some ways more plausibly expressed in the other. The cipher, of course, doesn't carry over, so the secret itself is played down in both cases. One strength I think the radio versions had over the book is that romantic love is a more obvious -- and less potentially problematic -- proxy for religious love of neighbor than science is. That is because we have actually adapted to romantic love to be religious in tone. People joke about Christian pop music being Jesus-Is-My-Girlfriend music, which is occasionally funny because true; but they often fail to grasp the fact that the reason it sounds this way is because there is a long tradition by now of poets and singers talking about their girlfriends as if they were Jesus. Indeed, you can trace this very easily, since it has often been done deliberately. Golden Age Hollywood, TV, and Radio are especially guilty of this. But because the religious tone of romantic love has become such a staple, the radio program's focus on romantic love rather than science and technology makes the story seem considerably more religious in character, despite the fact that the religious elements play even less of a role in the story. A very interesting comparison and contrast.

Favorite Passage:

"At all events, you have the scientific outlook -- the scientific approach," insisted Doctor MacLaren. "Perhaps you noticed at what pains I was to avoid the old stock phrases of theology."

"I fear I wouldn't recognize them as such," confessed Bobby. "But -- what's the matter with the old terminology?"

"Obsolete! Misleading! We'll have to evolve a new vocabulary for religion to make it rank with other subjects of interest. We've got to phrase it in modern terms; don't you think so?" Doctor McLaren was eager for his guest's approval.

"Perhaps," agreed Bobby tentatively. "I don't know. Whether people could learn any more about religion by changing its names for things of concern to it, I'm not sure. It just occurs to me -- casting about at random for a parallel case -- that the word 'electricity' means 'amber.' All that the ancients knew about electricity was that a chunk of amber, when rubbed with silk, would pick up a feather. Now that it has been developed until it will pick up a locomotive, electricity still means amber. They never went to the bother to change the name of it. Maybe they thought there was at least a pleasant sentiment in retaining the name. More likely, the never thought about it, at all. Too busy trying to make it work, I suppose." (pp. 291-292)

Recommendation: I don't know that you need to go out of your way to read it, but as light pop reading it is certainly better than many other books that became bestselling popular sensations; and when it pretends to get in deep water, it at least gestures at genuinely deep waters rather than at some shallow stand-in made up in its author's head, like so many books of this kind do. Taylor Caldwell could have done, and later would do, better, but I would give it a Recommended, if it happens to come your way and you want something light.


Lloyd C. Douglas, Magnificent Obsession, Collier & Son (New York: 1929).


  1. MrsDarwin8:08 PM

    I think I read this book when I was a teenager -- the description rings just enough bells. I recall thinking it not a little sacrilegious for reducing the words of Christ to "insert tab a into slot b" magic formulas. I also recall wondering if the super medical device was all that useful, seeing as I read it in maybe 1995 and no one had invented it yet.

  2. branemrys10:10 PM

    If you remember the super medical device, that makes it practically certain that this is the book you were remembering! Now that you've mentioned, this book is, in an odd way, a science fiction novel. We have the cauterizing scalpel thingy, which is a technical advance in a cutting-edge science of the day, and the discovery of a new 'science' with its scientific laws. You could change it all to a more modern SF trope, nanites and telepathy, perhaps, and it would structurally be the same story.

    The only other book by Douglas I'm certain I've read is The Robe. (I may have read The Big Fisherman, but I'm not sure.) I think, rather ironically given that it's about events in the first century Roman Empire, that The Robe does a much, much better job engaging with modernity (which I take it is part of the point).

  3. MrsDarwin10:23 PM

    Yep, self cauterizing scalpel! I agree that there was a SF vibe to the pseudo-theology which reminded me of Isaac Asimov's Foundation, in which the priests use "magic" as a cover for any technology the great unwashed aren't ready to understand. Here, theology -- or maybe theology is too strong a word for Douglas's religiosity -- is the same, a kind of super-science with rules only the clever can understand and exploit.

    I did like The Robe much better, but not as well as The Silver Chalice by Thomas Costain, another mid-century Biblical epic about the silversmith who made the Holy Grail. I don't know much about Costain, but he must have been big at one time because I was always finding books by him at Goodwill, nice hardcovers too. He wrote a two-volume set called The Tontine, about a lottery in which the last living ticket holder won all the money, which I remember as being quite engrossing.

  4. branemrys10:30 PM

    I've certainly read The Silver Chalice. I remember liking it, but I don't think that I liked it as well as The Robe -- although it has been much longer since I've read it, so I might not be remembering it as well.

    Another good one is Frans Venter's The Man from Cyrene.


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