May 5 2010

Hypochondria

Brian Dillon


Vincent van Gogh's Corridor of Saint-Paul Asylum in Saint-Rémy, 1889


In classic Greek medicine, hypochondria was known first as a disease of the digestive tract, and only secondarily as one of the mind. The psychological aspects gradually came to dominate definitions of the condition, so that nowadays, we don't really distinguish hypochondria from an overactive imagination. The books below were all written by or about inventive malingerers, providing firsthand testimony from the world of the worried well.

Boswell in Holland 1763–1764 by James Boswell

At the age of twenty-two, Boswell travelled to Utrecht, intending to study law. Instead, he had a nervous breakdown, which he thought was a fit of hypochondria. He felt dejected, lazy, and fearful; he fretted about his bowels, his diet, and his sexual laxity. He prescribed himself vigorous study and exercise but lapsed into lassitude, billiards, and debauchery. Later, Boswell wrote a series of essays for the London Magazine under the pen name "The Hypochondriack"—he had only ever written anything, he claimed, in order to keep his hypochondria at bay.

The Diary of Alice James

According to her diary—and she wrote nothing else except her equally smart and amusing letters—Alice James suffered from "spinal neurosis," "stomachic gout," "squalid indigestions," and "nervous hyperesthesia." To which we can add the "hysteria" that she was diagnosed with as a young woman, and the crippling back pain she suffered, like her brother Henry. Her whole life seemed to be one psychosomatic episode, until she was diagnosed with cancer and wrote: "To those who wait all things come."

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

In the eighteenth century, hypochondria became fashionable; it was thought to be a disease of the aesthetically inclined. By the start of the twentieth century, it was tuberculosis that supposedly marked one out as especially sensitive. The two conditions are bound together in Mann's novel; the hero, Hans Castorp, "in possession of a first-class cold," visits his cousin Joachim at a sanatorium and is swiftly suborned among the ranks of the picturesque unwell.

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

The details of Proust's hypochondria are intrinsic to his art: He retreated for the last decade of his life to a cork-lined room in Paris, pleading susceptibility to sound, as well as suffering from asthma and allergies. The latter could explain why he could only admire Paris in blossom through a car window, and his coughing fits when his servants lit a fire or vacuumed. His need for extremely soft towels and handkerchiefs seems, however, to have been part of the performance of his own invalidism, which, by 1922, the year of his death, he had turned into a kind of theater.

The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1, 1929–1940

Failing bodies, and fears of such, are everywhere in Beckett's work. His half-crippled, flatulent, and pustular characters are constantly longing to be rid of their bodies. Beckett himself, as the first volume of his letters attests, was a martyr to minor but incommoding ailments, and the excessive fears that went with them: boils on the neck, palpitations of his "bitch of a heart," bad teeth, and, like his mentor James Joyce, bad eyes.

The Andy Warhol Diaries

Warhol had plenty to be worried about: bad skin, bad hair, a poor physique and, after he was shot in 1968, a keen sense of his own mortality, accompanied by lingering pain and frailty. In short, as he put it himself, he had "a bad body." His Diaries detail the extent of Warhol's hypochondria in the last decade of his life. He fears cancer, AIDS, brain tumors, and aging; in one memorable entry, Andy imagines he's caught pneumonia from drinking a very cold daiquiri.

Brian Dillon is the author of The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives, published this year by Faber & Faber.

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