January 31, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Villette.
There was a reading and reception for Poe’s 200th birthday yesterday at the Duke library — a fine event, with some exceptionally good readings of six Poe works (three prose, three poetry). Ariel Dorfman, who read “The Cask of Amontillado,” made a great point about how appropriate it was that Poe lived and died in Baltimore, the dividing point between the cold, rational North and the Gothic South, just as his works feature both some of the first detective stories and some of the most overheated Gothic prose ever.
Plus I’ve been reading Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy very slowly, as bedtime reading, for the last few months. It is really quite a fantastic read — a page or two at a time is perfect, since the whole book’s basically one big digression after another anyway. And it has me thinking about all the things we’ve meant by “melancholy,” down through the centuries, and why and how the word and concept persist.
So: let’s talk about mental illness. Specifically, hypochondria. Ishmael’s famous “hypos.” (And the comparison is illuminating: when Ishmael felt suicidal, he was able to run off to sea. Lucy had no such option; her short trip across the Channel was harrowing enough, and then, if she wanted to keep a measure of independence, she had to find some place to do respectable work — viz. the passage on p. 329-331 in which Lucy reveals to the de Bassompierres that she is a teacher.)
We now use “hypochondria” to refer to the condition of constant fear of illness; the meaning in the nineteenth century was similar, but referred more to low spirits, melancholy, a depression-like state, with no apparent cause. I am not a psychiatrist, so I use the following terms as a layman, but what we now call bipolarity and depression seem to have been considered symptomatic of hypochondria. Oh, and hallucinations could also be a symptom, in some cases.
Of course, you can find Gothic and/or Victorian attitudes toward psychology and mental illness discussed ad nauseam; and you can even find studies of Brontë’s writing and the psychology of the time in books like this. It can all seem fairly played out. But personally, I never seem to get tired of the subject: the time was the crossroads between so much superstition and speculation and so much new science, thought, and experimentation. That pre-Freudian century contains so much potential energy in the enthusiasms for phrenology, spiritualism, evolution, utopian thinking and living. Plus, no matter how much Brontë is contextualized and demythologized, Charlotte really does seem a special case, and Lucy Snowe — well, Lucy Snowe’s something else entirely.
(A crabby aside: the academic party line now seems to be contextualizing and historicizing the Brontës, products of their time and environment and all that. I hear this from profs, I see it in books and articles. Now, I know the Brontës have been considered these utter anomalies, writing their wild imaginings in the hinterlands, but must we really insist that no one is special, that there’s nothing strange or amazing about these sisters’ writings, that they’re just products of their historical moment((s), I’m sure the lit profs would add) like all the others? Can we keep the humanities at least a little non-scientific, please, and savor something that smacks of miracle? I know, I know: no one’s getting tenure savoring a miracle. End crabby aside.)
Hypochondria pops up over and over again in Villette, and there are times when Lucy certainly does seem clinically depressed or manic. The writing at the times of depression can be quite heart-wrenchingly sad and beautiful. Chapter 15, “The Long Vacation,” when Lucy becomes desperately lonely and resorts to a Catholic priest’s confessional, and the beginning of chapter 24, as she suffers a seven-week silence from Dr. John, are especially memorable. But the two episodes most directly touched by hypochondria (so far, at least) are the appearances of the ghost-nun and the king of Labassecour.
The nun, a legend of Madame Beck’s school, appears to Lucy in chapter 22, and the circumstances are quite intriguing. Lucy has received her first letter from Dr. John, and read it in the garret, and been made very happy by its warmth and “good-nature.” (Lucy, that tricksy narrator, is coy on this throughout, but I do think she is in a fairly conventional kind of love with Dr. John, even if she doesn’t admit it to herself.) “The present moment had no pain, no blot, no want; full, pure, perfect, it deeply blessed me.” Then we get a remarkable run of paragraphs — I love how the textures and rhythms of this passage telegraph their Gothic-ness but nevertheless powerfully build suspense:
Are there wicked things, not human, which envy human bliss? Are there evil influences haunting the air, and poisoning it for man? What was near me?…
Something in that vast solitary garret sounded strangely. Most surely and certainly I heard, as it seemed, a solitary foot on that floor: a sort of gliding out from the direction of the black recess haunted by the malefactor cloaks. I turned: my light was dim; the room was long — but, as I live! I saw in the middle of that ghostly chamber a figure all black or white; the skirts straight, narrow, black; the head bandaged, veiled, white.
Say what you will, reader — tell me I was nervous or mad; affirm that I was unsettled by the excitement of that letter; declare that I dreamed: this I vow — I saw there — in that room — on that night — an image like — A NUN.
Dr. John soon diagnoses this as an effect of hypochondria, and I, at least at first blush, am inclined to agree. The image of a silent, celibate woman — one of the dreaded Catholics, no less — appearing to Lucy after a glimmer of romantic hope is simply too powerful to resist as a figure out of her own mind. The nun reappears to Lucy thereafter, and there remains some degree of Gothic mystery about whether the nun actually is a ghost.
But turn it around: what if it’s not a phantasm of sexual fear and frustration or some long-lost relative of Lucy’s, but a bloody ghost? What if it’s an affront to Reason? There is, after all, the remarkable dialogue between Lucy and her Reason on p. 265-6 (beginning at no. 19 in the e-text), and the ensuing castigation of the “hag” Reason to the glorification of Imagination and Hope. What if the nun is exactly what Lucy Snowe needs to acknowledge as the reason behind her impulse to flee to the continent — the missing (or repressed) part of herself?
The other remarkable passage on hypochondria is Lucy’s observation of the king, sitting in the royal box at a concert Lucy attends with Dr. John, and her recognition in him of a kindred spirit:
There sat a silent sufferer — a nervous, melancholy man. Those eyes had looked on the visits of a certain ghost — had long waited the comings and goings of that strangest spectre, Hypochondria. Perhaps he saw her now on that stage, over against him, amidst all that brilliant throng. Hypochondria has that wont, to rise in the midst of thousands — dark as Doom, pale as Malady, and well-nigh strong as Death.
And but so here it is again, in another form: the great white shark of pain.
October 20, 2008 § 3 Comments
Now reading: Infinite Jest.
Remember The Raw Shark Texts, that book I told you to read a couple of months ago? Well, here’s a strand of its source code.
Other than that, I don’t really feel like saying much about this; I’d forgotten about its existence; it is very sad and terrible and scary in a number of ways, but reading it also felt strangely therapeutic. Some small measure of explanation, perhaps, or at least my assumption thereof. (And it is my assumption; this section is from Kate Gompert’s point-of-view, mostly.) But it felt like DFW telling me how it was, I guess, and horrible as it is I was glad to hear it from him. I hope it did him good, and I think it helps us understand how maybe he hung on for longer than he thought he could.
Hal isn’t old enough yet to know that… numb emptiness isn’t the worst kind of depression. That dead-eyed anhedonia is but a remora on the ventral flank of the true predator, the Great White Shark of pain. Authorities term this condition clinical depression or involutional depression or unipolar dysphoria. Instread of just an incapacity for feeling, a deadening of soul…. Kate Gompert, down in the trenches with the thing itself, knows it simply as It.
It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self’s most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. It is an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself…. Its emotional character… is probably mostly indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.
It is also lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed…. Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution. It is a hell for one….
The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise…. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames.
-David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, p. 695-6
September 14, 2008 § 3 Comments
Too soon. Too soon. Too soon.
The news was horrifying in a lot of ways, not least of which the method. All of us who loved his work are torn between wanting to know why and not wanting to know anything at all, I think. I’m sure it wasn’t meant as a grand gesture, though. I think we can all agree on that. It’s sad and terrible and I can’t imagine what kind of pain he must have been in, to do this.
While I’m going to reread the last complete novel we’re ever going to get from DFW because it’s the only way I can think of to mourn and celebrate — and because I’ve put it off too long already — it’s two other pieces that my mind keeps going back to. One is “The Depressed Person.” It is so hard to admit that understanding, and empathizing, and expressing, are not the same as overcoming. It’s hard to admit that someone who has shown such a capacity for, and commitment to, all of these things, could commit the ultimate selfish act. Again: what agony he must have been in.
The other is “Up, Simba,” just because of the timing, I suppose. It has been such a shitty month, on a national level. And DFW must have been so disappointed in Senator McCain — in all of us. And I can’t believe I’m never going to hear another word from the one thinker on politics, governance, civic duty, that I actually trusted.
He was one of our great writers, one of our great thinkers. And now he’s dead, and I’m looking at the shelf and his section is far too small. Let’s read him, and remember.