Cover Illustration: Max Hergenrother; cover design Charlotte Strick.
Brian Dillon on Nine Tormented Lives
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
Among the theories advanced in the last quarter of a century is that hypochondriasis exists on a continuum with others of what are known as the anxiety disorders. It has much in common – obsession, withdrawal, repetition, a refusal to accept “rational” answers to the perceived predicament – with such illnesses as anorexia, body dysmorphic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.
According to this way of thinking, it is anxiety itself that is at issue, and the hypochondriac’s fear is fundamentally a mistake, an error in his or her apprehension of the body and its relation to the world.
The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives by Brian Dillon brings together a cast of characters including Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale and Andy Warhol, doomed by accident or predisposition to suffer a life of exhausting symptoms for which their doctors could find no cause.
A research fellow at the University of Kent and the U.K. editor of the quarterly journal Cabinet, Dillon chose the nine for the aptness of their symptoms to the definition of hypochondria reigning in their time. Their lives and illnesses each represent “a stage in the centuries-long development of that diagnosis.”
Self-reflective people, they also left an excellent and easily accessible record of their own experiences. For some writers and creative types, Dillon suggests, hypochondria is “the founding condition by which time and space could be set aside for their work,” and hence, a potential underlying, subconscious vulnerability.
Biographies of a body, real or imagined
This book is not a history of hypochondria, but a history of hypochondriacs. Each of its nine chapters attempts to write the biography of a body…I have tried, so far as possible, to stay close to the body in question, be it the actual and ailing body or the imagined, fantastical body…
The Hypochondriacs constructs the history of an idea of disorder. Rather than following a specific set of symptoms as new medicine addresses and re categorizes them (as, for example, when one reads about consumption, which as it began to be understood differently, becomes tuberculosis) Dillon chooses to follow the diagnosis of hypochondria itself across several centuries, even as the set of symptoms to which it is applied changes, and as the understanding of the disorder undergoes change as well.
As such Dillon’s book is invaluable for yoga teachers and practitioners on two counts. First, in the somatic literature The Hypochondriacs provides a good vantage point from which to observe how the values of the culture in which we live influence medical diagnosis and concepts of illness.
Second, Dillon alerts us effectively and with no small degree of entertainment to the difference between what we mean by a word as we use it today to describe a physical state of the body, and what that same word meant when people used it in a different time and place.
A boundary blurred by nature
How we understand our bodies, how we define health, what we imagine and empower as the cause of illness all shape the way we make sense of what we feel. “We behave in this regard as if the boundary between sensible vigilance or precautionary and pathological preoccupation or fear were perfectly clear, when it is not.”
The hypochondriac imagines that good health is a neutral condition in which not only does nothing untoward occur within or on the surface of the body, but nothing happens to the body at all.
It may even appear that for the hypochondriac the solidity of a real disease is preferable to the fog of optimism and uncertainty that passes for most of us, most of the time, as good health.
In his introduction, Dillon notes that while at times doctors appear to think hypochondriacs exaggerate, other theories suggest some people seem to notice the normal functioning of bodies – the beat of the heart, the sensations of digestion – more strongly than others, and are unable to integrate these sensations as benevolent and healthy.
How can we know our bodies?
The nine lives given in The Hypochondriacs trace the ideas associated with the condition from melancholy and spleen to hallucinations and debilitating fear. Perhaps the most compassionate and intelligent aspect of Dillon’s brief biographies is his insistence the affliction is too easy to dismiss as a disorder rather than a damn good set of questions, the answers to which trouble all of us.
The question that the hypochondriac raises is precisely this: how do we know, any of us, when we are sick and when we are well?
A parade of other questions follows in the wake of this one. How is it possible to know our bodies, in isolation from our experience of our bodies? How can we be sure of such knowledge when the body seems to change from day to day, from hour to hour? What would be a rational attitude towards, or a practical level of alertness to, these changes?
More hauntingly: how can we reflect upon the prospect of our own deaths, in the way that we surely must as life advances, and at the same time avoid the fear that seizes and cripples the hypochondriac?
Are we healthier people, or better people, or more creative people, for acknowledging it, or for ignoring it?
The strength of Dillon’s approach is its reliance upon the description of the condition they suffer available in each person’s own writings. The Hypochondriacs matches these portions of self observation with concepts in medicine contemporary to each. The reader is able to assemble a general view of an individual as they would have considered themselves in their own world with its cultural norms and medical knowledge.
Dillon further appends an excellent set of notes on his sources, “classic treatises, recent medical or cultural studies and a less easily described subset that has more oblique things to say on the subject” of which any reader interested in somatic experience will be appreciative.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.