In "Sleeper," Woody Allen wakes up 200 years from now and learns that in the interim science has discovered that cigarettes are good for you. Well, life plays better jokes than art. Remember the Type A personality: ambitious, aggressive, competitive, hostile and driven? It was long supposed to cause heart attacks. Surprise. It prevents them.
In the current issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, a 22-year study shows that Type B men, laid-back and mellow, had about twice the chance of dying from heart disease of Type A's. The Type A personality, it seems, has an "apparently protective effect" in preventing coronary death.
Authors Ragland and Brand, the Copernici of pop psychology, note modestly that theirs is "an unexpected result." Unexpected, and devastating to an entire industry that has grown up around the myth of mellow. Goodbye TM, yoga, mantras, and all the groups and schools and groups of schools for venting aggression and finding your center. Time to get out of touch with your feelings. Heart problems? Try commodity futures or maybe air-traffic control.
Of course, the whole idea of a relaxation industry -- mellowness training -- is so cockeyed that belief in it requires a partially bent mind to begin with. But that was part of its charm. Less charming was the accompanying ideology. Ideologies are always looking for "objective" validation in biology. Anti-A ideology -- as practiced by, say, the anti-macho, new age militants bent on getting all the popguns out of toy stores -- was buttressed by the argument that competition is not just ill-mannered, it kills.
Buttressed no more. On Wall Street, traders have just been given, literally, a new lease on life. Main Street, too, rejoices. The price of health today for the average guy is already too high: bran flakes in the morning, a five-mile jog at noon, more roughage at night, no cigar, no booze, no eggs, no butter, no pastrami. And then they order him to get a personality change! Now, at last, the tide is turning: still no pastrami, but he can keep his personality.
Type A personality was first postulated to cause heart disease in the '50s. The idea reached its peak of popularity during the '70s, when the contemplated navel and transcendental relaxation were in vogue. Shortly thereafter, in 1981, the link was officially consecrated as scientific fact by an independent review panel which declared Type A behavior to be a risk factor for (that is polite medical talk for "cause of") heart disease. The panel, in fact, called Type A "coronary-prone behavior."
The debunking of that idea could be just what the flagging '80s need for a revival. After all, Type A is the '80s type: all greed and drive and excess. Science's rehabilitation of Type A should give pause to the zeitgeist sniffers who have declared the '80s dead.
Newsweek, for example, recently reported that the '80s are over and the '90s already here. Ah, the '90s: after "the dizzying self-obsession of the bygone 80's . . . we turn for home, settle in and simply potter awhile," says Newsweek. "If you want us, we'll be in the garden."
Yeah. Having angina.
We can now view another anti-80's tract, Oliver Stone's "Wall Street," in an entirely new light. The movie is a parable about Type A's. They are all villains: greedy, shifty, ostentatious, insatiable and casually cruel. The movie's one cartoon good guy, the working stiff, is laid-back. He doesn't pace when he talks. No phone in his car or bathroom. He is content with his job, his family, his bar. He is not out to make a buck or a splash. He's a double B. And then, wouldn't you know, by God, he gets the heart attack. Stone makes it happen right after the A's betray him, ruin him, and turn his only son against him. Stone wants you to blame the heart attack on the A's, those rascals. But now we know better: the B's do it to themselves. You can look it up.
So arise all you hard-driving, bone-crushing, swash-buckling, nerve-racking, flame-throwing A's. You who have endured the gentle scorn of your Type B friends, saddened, they aver, that you insist on killing yourself. And all that time you were applying layers of Type A protection to your coronary arteries.
There is a new self-confidence descending upon the Type A's of this world as they enjoy the vindication of retroactive justice. If they can just resist the smugness -- which can be dangerous to your health since it is a gateway to B-hood -- they can, with scientific certainty, turn to their tormentors and pronounce on them that most awful of curses: We will bury you.
Gordon Gekko will live to be a hundred. (In jail, it is true, but you can't have everything.) It's Alan Alda who'd better be stocking up on nitroglycerin.