March 2010

Elizabeth Bachner


Beauty, Decay: Reading The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives by Brian Dillon

R.I.P. Lee.  I came home and found out that Alexander McQueen was dead. We were strangers, but he was my favorite. The world needed ten or thirty more years of him, of all the crazy, scary, threatening beauty he brought into it. If he’d died, like Derek Jarman, of a disease, or if he’d died, like Quentin Crisp, of old age, it would be a different kind of sadness. He’d just lost his mother. There’s a media circus around why he died the way he did. And he did all of his life’s work in the middle of a media circus, just like every other artist working today. (That is, every artist who publishes, every artist who goes public, every artist who shows. Not the ones who don’t.) “Fashion,” says Karl Lagerfeld, “is ephemeral, dangerous, and unfair.” Not just fashion. I try not to write about what everyone else is writing about. But Alexander McQueen changed my life, in a subtle way. After I first saw his work, I somehow felt that instead of pushing and pulling and punishing and improving my almost-alright body (to paraphrase Ai), I could be a work of art right this second. I could have layers and layers of ruffles swirling around me, and raptors landing on my head and shoulders. I could wear a mask, or not. I could have my breasts showing, or not. I could have my organs showing, or be drowning. I could wear pink. Or gold. I’ve felt more beautiful since he came on the scene. 

Yes, I do care about the earthquakes and wars and famines that are keeping most of the world from finding a few moments of peace and a hot dinner this winter, this Fashion Week. Yes, I care that un-famous people are killed every day, in horrible ways, or they take their own lives. I don’t mean to imply, by writing about him, by picking him as a favorite, that all of those other lost lives were less important, or that all of those other suffering strangers don’t matter. And yes, I don’t like sweatshops, and I don’t like beauty ideals that prod people to slather themselves with chemicals and animal refuse, or dangerously bleach their skin, or make themselves vomit, or pay someone most of their salaries to cut into their healthy human faces or chests with a scalpel to mutilate them and put plastic inside. But I liked him. He showed how adorning our fantastic bodies can be exhilarating, can add more texture to the world. Art is art. We live in a strange time to make it. 

I’m reading The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives by Brian Dillon. The author was born in 1969, just like Lee McQueen, the year of the summer of love (or was that 1968?). A time when some people were trying to open up the boundaries of the mind and the body. Dillon's parents both died when he was young, and in his twenties he struggled with an obsession that he would be the next to go, that every vague physical irregularity might be a sign of “dread disease.” The subjects of his case studies -- James Boswell, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Alice James, Daniel Paul Scherber, Marcel Proust, Glenn Gould, Andy Warhol -- range from just eccentric to full-on batshit delusional, but they have more similarities than differences. Each was an obsessive chronicler and observer of life within a human body. Each was, officially or unofficially, a writer -- someone who spins life into a narrative, sometimes instead of experiencing it. Each was trying to hold it together, to control his or her inner and outer world, and each was sometimes self-aware enough to understand the tragicomic extent to which that project is a lost cause. Each fought a losing battle against mortality. They were all just like us.

“People are lonely,” Allen Ginsberg once said, “It’s strange to be in a body.”

It’s not just McQueen’s early death that makes me think about these noted hypochondriacs, or his fame, but the content of his art itself, what he was trying to show us about the human body -- its transience, its fragility, its power, its loveliness, its grotesqueness, its vulnerability to sudden transformation. 

“Almost every historical period has felt itself to be an era of heightened hypochondriacal anxieties... Our bodies are not alone, but trailed by the sick and the dying, and by those who merely thought they were sick and dying, that have gone before us...” writes Dillon, “Our bodies, which at our most confident we imagine to be wholly our own, are doubled and shadowed… by the temptation towards beauty and the certainty of decay.” 

Brian Dillon is great, in these case studies, at showing us how each character tries to perform sanity, to hold it together instead of, to use Alice James’s term, “going to pie” -- letting the logic of his or her unfathomable body or addled mind take over, bringing on craziness, embarrassment, illness, misery, or ruin. Sometimes it’s less treacherous than that. Sometimes these people just overthink everything.

James Boswell had a habit of obsessively making plans and timetables for himself -- his rigorous daily schedules included not only activities (“Latin till breakfast, something till eleven, then dress and at twelve French, then walk and dine”), but firm instructions to himself about how to act, think, and feel, almost as if those things didn’t come naturally at all: “Guard against liking billiards. They are blackguard, and you’ll have high character with Count Nassau &c. if you don’t play.  Be easy and natural, though a little proud. Write out full mem. that this is your winter to get rid of spleen and become a man.” When his plans fell apart, thwarted by his digestive problems and the simple fact that spending fifteen hours studying French, Voltaire, Tacitus, and Scottish civil law with no break, then moving on to “journals, letters and other books” can be kind of hard, he replaced his Plan with an Inviolable Plan. His spleen just wouldn’t leave him alone, for which he chastised himself: “You endured severe torment. You was pitiful and wretched.” He decided that idleness was his only real disease, and he could conquer himself.

Boswell was afraid that he would dissolve. Dillon writes, “He dreaded his becoming formless, friable or liquid, a character without distinct lines, a soul without design, a body without borders.” This is especially interesting in the context of the “glass delusion,” a recurring motif in the history of hypochondria and melancholia from the late middle ages onward -- a person’s belief that his or her body was made of glass. Similar somatic delusions, Dillon tells us in his study of Daniel Paul Schreber, include patients imagining “that they have lost limbs, that they have been turned into animals, that they are dead, that they do not exist or, as in the case of an unfortunate baker who was afraid to go near his oven, that they are made of butter. The more temperate hypochondriacal delusions of Boswell or Charles Darwin fall along the same continuum -- the sense of the body, or the self, as keenly unreliable, vulnerable at every level. 

The brilliant and frustrated diarist Alice James had regular episodes of exploding into crisis, of “going off” or “going to pie” with her shattered nerves and “squalid indigestions” and feeling of failure to manage basic life. She takes up a journal to “bring relief as an outlet to that geyser of emotions, sensations, speculations, and reflections which ferments perpetually within my poor old carcass for its sins.” There’s a tension in each case study between the feeling that something is inherently wrong with the body, the soul, the mind, and the conviction that being out of control is one’s own fault, brought on by a lack of discipline. For Alice, after years of complicated nervous ailments, when she was first medically diagnosed as being truly ill, she greeted the news with “a kind of joy.” From a young age, Dillon suggests, she thought that if she allowed her authentic self to “show too clearly through the grey garment of her public persona,” she would descend into “madness and disgrace.” 

Hypochondriacal delusions are complicated -- they aren’t always a mark of full-on insanity, and they are, more often than not, only partly imaginary. According to nineteenth-century neurologist Jules Cotard, the hypochondriac’s sensations were based on “an exaggerated psychological response” to bodily sensations. The hypochondriac felt that, in Dillon’s words, “his body had revolted, or that it was under attack from certain external organic processes.” Even the most delusional of the cases in this book had some self-awareness, a sense that sometimes illness was metaphor. Judge Daniel Paul Schreber (who, to the fascination of Freud and others, believed that God was turning him into a woman to give birth to a new race of men) experienced menacing at the hands of malevolent supernatural forces. Pianist Glenn Gould believed that a man had caused him grave injuries by touching him on the shoulder. Yet Schreber, against his doctors’ advice, examined his experiences in Memoirs of My Nervous Illness. And Gould was aware of the problem of reconciling his intense need for privacy and isolation with his music.

Most of these people actually were getting violated, in some unfortunate ways, by the social and physical climate of their times. Charlotte Bronte wrote Robert Southey a letter about her desire to be a writer, and was basically told that nervous illness was a girl’s only role in the literary world. Andy Warhol lived in (and helped create) the age of celebrity -- soon after he’d been shot, a fan pulled off his beloved wig in the middle of a crowd. Daniel Paul Schreber was a veteran of the child-development experiments of his creepy father, who hooked him up to devices that held his eyes open or kept him straight-jacketed to the bed. Florence Nightingale lived and worked in a disgusting bath of human faeces. The people of 1858 London, her own city, were using the Thames as a sewer, but her work at a hospital on the Bosphorus was grosser: “Her patients lay wrapped in great-coats that were stiff with dried blood: they drank water that, it was found on examining the source, flowed through the decaying carcass of a horse; they lost teeth, and even toes, to scurvy. When a clergyman bent over them to write down their dying words, his page was overrun with lice.”

Nightingale’s case will surprise readers who have only encountered her as a staunchly heroic figure, the Lady with the Lamp. She was formidably passive-aggressive, for lack of better options. She lived in constant, irreconcilable conflict with the expectations of Victorian woman, the (male) medical bureaucracies preventing her from making reforms that could save hundreds of lives, and the social and familial demands that stole her privacy and freedom. The true state of her health is historically unclear -- a brew of debilitating real and imagined illnesses. “Nightingale’s plight… seems of a piece with that of countless women of the period, for whom ill health afforded the only respite from domestic responsibility… She was in many ways the saint that Victorian sentiment wanted her to be, and in other respects a monster of self-belief, self-delusion, and expertly-employed enfeeblement.” Hypochondria isn’t always about imagining that you have fake diseases, Dillon says -- people like Nightingale, Darwin, or Proust (whose asthma was very real) may be counted among the hypochondriacal “by virtue of their stage-managing the sickroom to their own (perhaps unconscious) ends.”

All great artists, writers, and thinkers are not hypochondriacs, of course. But are all great artists, writers, and thinkers nuts? Robert Sapolsky has an essay in The Trouble with Testosterone where he characterizes everyone who believes in “New Age mumbo jumbo” as schizotypal, but what exactly qualifies as “New Age mumbo jumbo”? Surely the belief that we are made up of subatomic particles, or that we live on a spherical planet, would have qualified at some point. Perhaps it’s not the content of one’s thinking that makes us schizo-y, but the form -- the way we use ourselves as a metaphor, and see metaphors everywhere, and question the workings of life and death, and communicate with the universe. In Going Sane: Maps of Happiness, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips offers all kinds of thought-provoking commentary on this problem. One of the most interesting points he makes is that we allow pubescents a brief spell of madness en route to settling into humdrum adult life: “Adolescence is a crisis -- a madness one could say -- because the adolescent is trying to work out whether life is worth living.” As adults, one could argue, we are meant to get a hold of our passions, and settle unquestioningly into life in the body. We are supposed to fully metabolize the idea that “sane” is the opposite of “suicidal.” 

Everyone makes a big deal about the trials of making great art or having scientific breakthroughs, but my guess is that basic ordinary daily life is much worse, much harder than writing À la recherche du temps perdu or The Origin of the Species. You can finish a book, however agonizingly, but you can never finish the daily processes of the body, the eating and the shitting, the sloughing off dead skin. Once you finish, you have to do it all over again. And even if you find a way to make it all about pleasure -- even if you eat Ladurée lemon macaroons and put glitter on your silky arms wear cashmere and have dirty sex with craggy Irishmen and get caked with Dead Sea mud and schvitz at the Blue Lagoon Spa in Iceland -- you still have to do it, the shitting and eating and cleaning yourself part, again and again. You can never finish the fucking thing and start a new book. And, from your first moments, you’re decaying. You’re dying, and so are the people you love and want. It’s ephemeral, dangerous, unfair. It’s not surprising that this rankles bright people.

Then again, as Dillon puts it, the Romantic cliché that “the artistic or inventive type” is naturally melancholic, neurasthenic, or hysterical is perilous, as it risks “reducing art and innovation to a matter of difference, pathology, or even madness.” He has a point. He chooses to go with Deleuze’s assessment: it’s not that “great artists, great authors, are all ill, however sublimely, or that one’s looking for a sign of neurosis or psychosis like a secret in their work, the hidden code in their work. They’re not ill; on the contrary, they’re a rather special kind of doctor.” Hypochondria, for Dillon’s nine characters, was “both an illness and a cure: the catalyst or condition that allowed the artist or thinker to function… a kind of calling, a vocation, that structured a life, or the productive portion of a life.”

A few weeks ago, I was working on a never-to-be-finished play that had a (hot, male, semi-druggie) character in it who always dressed in head-to-toe Alexander McQueen. I was reading The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America, a journalistic look at what was really a series of Romantic experiments, an early-Sixties exploration of different possibilities for how people could live in the body. There was the brief idea that, instead of controlling and regimenting embodied life, instead of loathing and turning against sex and death and decay, we might let the self (whatever that is) bleed into the rest of the universe, and let the universe bleed back. We might let ourselves go, drop out, go to pie. I was reading The Beginning of the End by Angelo Quattrocchi and Tom Nairn, a story of the events in Paris in May, 1968, a fantasy of human life turning to ecstasy. “The tale must be told in metaphors,” says the prelude, “The collective hopes of a new order are now incommensurably stronger than the small, private fears nursed by the injustice of the present.” There were signs around: “Freedom is the consciousness of our desires,” and “One pleasure has the bourgeoisie, that of degrading all pleasures.” It was a disaster, like all revolutions, like all counter-revolutions, like all human experiments and group social projects, and here we are with Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline and an insurance-driven plan to diagnose whiny kids with “temper dysregulation with dysphoria,” and teens who don’t fit the mold as “pre-psychotic.” We’re turning to Aldous Huxley for explanations in an entirely different way than the Harvard Psychedelic Club did. 

Brian Dillon’s phrase has stuck with me -- “the temptation towards beauty and the certainty of decay.” In her study Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, Julia Kristeva refers to beauty as “the depressive’s other realm.” Under the subheading “fulfilling the beyond here and now,” she writes: “Naming suffering, exalting it, dissecting it into its smallest components -- that is doubtless a way to curb mourning… Nevertheless, art seems to point to a few devices that bypass complacency and, without simply turning mourning into mania, secure for the artist and the connoisseur a sublimatory hold over the lost Thing.” 

We can’t (shouldn’t, won’t) reduce art or brilliance to either madness or a cure for madness. Clearly it doesn’t work that way -- if you look at case studies, of hypochondriacs or not, of artists or not, you’ll find a crazy range of approaches for dealing with human carnality and loneliness and grief. Yet of course there’s some relationship. We lose artists and thinkers, to the same maladies that take the lives of non-artists. Those sixties people would’ve said that everyone could be an artist and a thinker, if they’d just open up, but I don’t think that’s true. Otherwise the really genius ones wouldn’t change the world so much, right? And they do change the world, don’t they? People are lonely. It’s strange to be in a body. Art is art, artists are artists, and I’m not sure what constitutes madness or sanity. I will figure it out, I will solve it, I will write all about it, after I’ve conquered my spleen, after I’ve lived out my Inviolable Plan.