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The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives by…

The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives

by Brian Dillon

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Author's writing style is tedious to read. ( )
  joyceann917 | Aug 10, 2010 |
Brian Dillon's book The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives (published in the UK last year as Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives) tells the stories of nine famous people and the role their hypochondria played in their lives. The subjects range from the historical
(Charles Darwin & Emily Bronte) to the modern (Michael Jackson and Andy Warhol), and Dillon respectfully delves into their medical and psychological histories.

Charles Darwin suffered from terrible flatulence, varying from "slight" to "considerable", "baddish", "sharp" and, on bad days, "excessive". We know this because he kept meticulous records of his bodily state. The pianist Glenn Gould (another flatulence sufferer) also generated "voluminous archives of his symptoms", from blood-pressure statistics to pulse rates.

Hypochondriasis, Brian Dillon tells us in this ingenious and intriguing book, is characterised by an intense scrutiny of the body. We should all listen to our bodies, of
course, but the nine people examined here were hypersensitive, possessing a heightened awareness of having a body and of being embodied in the world.

Dillon accepts that hypochondria is to some extent a chimerical illness, but there are enough similarities and convergences to just about string these disparate lives together, although clearly Daniel Paul Schreber – who experienced "divine miracles" and was convinced that he was turning into a woman – was insane. As Dillon observes, there is something rather impressive about Schreber's delusions and "the prodigious unreality of the mental world he inhabited", although in his classic 1911 case study, Sigmund Freud saw only a paranoiac who
could not admit his homosexuality.

In Tormented Hope Dillon looks beyond the comic stereotype of the hypochondriac to the tragicomic reality. He also makes a strong case for there being a link between "health anxiety" and creativity, following the philosopher Gilles Deleuze's observation that many
great artists have frail health, the idea of the writer or artist being simultaneously the médecin and the malade of a civilisation. Charlotte Brontë's hypochondria, he shows, was displaced on to Lucy Snowe or Jane Eyre, and Proust's was an essential aspect of his art. Dillon is a self-confessed hypochondriac and his conclusion that "the power of imagination . . . is in itself a kind of pathology" has profound implications for literature.

A major theme here is seclusion or, more accurately, reclusion. Darwin was a semi-invalid for much of his adult life, although the nature of his malady remains a mystery. His debility had its advantages: "It meant that he could retreat from the world," says Dillon, "the better to pursue his scientific inquiries." Florence Nightingale's illness was
similarly undiagnosed, but like many Victorian women she probably welcomed a stay in the sickroom: "The invalid fled into an interior world, a kind of secret garden from which she had so far been barred by convention." In her essay "On Being Ill" Virginia Woolf wondered why the sickbed has not been among "the prime themes of literature", and indeed, as Dillon shows us, Marcel Proust's bed was "a well-provisioned craft in which he set sail on a darkened ocean" (a far cry from Heinrich Heine's Matratzengruft or "mattress-grave").

A morbid fear of illness often conceals a fear of death. "A Hypochondriack fancies himself at different times suffering death in all the various ways in which it has been observed," wrote James Boswell, "and thus he dies many times before his death." An exception to this is Alice James (Henry James's sister), who was perversely happy at being told she had breast cancer because her "career as an invalid" had reached its apotheosis.

Dillon quotes from a 17th-century thesis which observes that hypochondriacs can suffer spasms as a result of "sudden Outcry, or the very opening of a Door". When Andy Warhol's silver wig was snatched from his head at a book signing, he complained that "It hurt. Physically." A more extreme example is Gould's response to being patted on the shoulder by a Steinway employee in 1959. He recoiled, muttering: "Don't do that; I don't like to be
touched," and later claimed that this incident had resulted in a problem with his left hand. It was the excuse he needed to withdraw from public performances, and his recording studio, like Proust's bedroom, became a refuge, "a technological cocoon that finally satisfied his
urge to separate himself physically from his public".

The Hypochondriacs is a fascinating book that informs and entertains as it explores hypochondria's effects not only on these subjects' lives but also their art.

Junior Cain (cainbookreviews.blogspot.com) ( )
  juniorcain | Feb 21, 2010 |
Tormented Hope, which was on the shortlist for the 2009 Wellcome Trust Book Prize, is a history of hypochondria, as told through the lives of nine noted people who were diagnosed with the disorder in their lifetimes: James Boswell, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Alice James, Daniel Paul Schreber, Marcel Proust, Glenn Gould and Andy Warhol. The author uses written personal accounts of these individuals and biographies about them, along with past and current medical literature on hypochondria and the effect of the mind on illness, to elucidate the disease process in the person, and how their illnesses were perceived by themselves and those close to them. The nine people were chosen by the author because they had written extensively about their illnesses.

Although this concept of this book was interesting to me, I did not enjoy it, and stopped reading it about halfway through. I found the discussions tedious and drawn out, and the lives of the people as portrayed by Dillon had little or no interest to me. I think that this book would be much more interesting to readers who have a strong interest in these individuals, rather than someone looking for a medical history of hypochondria. ( )
1 vote kidzdoc | Jan 10, 2010 |
Showing 3 of 3
At the heart of this thought-provoking and gracefully written book is a meditation on the lengths to which we go in order to exert control in a world governed by arbitrary conventions and restrictions, thereby gaining access to our desires and obtaining relief from our fears.
added by Shortride | editBookforum, Daphne Merkin (Feb 1, 2010)
Boiling biographical subjects down to their symptoms, and life down to health, is potentially a reductive and morbid task. What Dillon has written, though, is a brilliant series of portraits that recalls the original spirit of the literary essay. He never belittles his subjects or their work, while drawing out the pathos and humour of their hypersensitivities. The various case studies don't quite hang together; but there is a unifying sense that more is at stake than propriety – these are, as Dillon writes, "matters, after all, of life and death" – and that reading and writing can prove their own kind of ailment, and cure.
Yet hypochondria is far from a modern disorder, as Brian Dillon shows in the beautifully written Tormented Hope, a collection of biographical sketches of some of history's most notable hypochondriacs, from Florence Nightingale to Andy Warhol.

Dillon's thesis is that hypochondria served an artistic or professional purpose for these people, usually by providing them with an excuse to retreat from the world, though he warns against reducing art to mental illness. Charles Darwin's symptoms - fear, indigestion, shivering and sinking sensations - excused him from social obligations but "do not seem to have seriously affected his work schedule". Marcel Proust, who suffered from asthma but also exaggerated his symptoms and invented new ones, spent all his time in bed, where he could write. Of Charlotte Brontë, Dillon writes, "It is only by falling ill that she can find for herself the right kind of solitude, in which to invent her future self."
added by kidzdoc | editNew Scientist, Amanda Gefter (Oct 6, 2009)
Of the nine hypochondriacs Dillon focuses on – the others being James Boswell, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Darwin, Alice James (Henry’s sister), Florence Nightingale, Marcel Proust and Daniel Paul Schreber – Gould and Warhol are the type we recognise nowadays: the “worried well” who keep the alternative remedies industry afloat and pester GPs with vague aches they believe to be cancer. Hypochondria today is considered a variant of obsessive compulsive disorder which can be treated with cognitive behaviour therapy, but the meaning of the word has shifted through the ages.

The book has its origins in a series of lectures. The examples are fascinating, but the tone is dry and not enough is done to draw them all together. Michael Jackson was, no doubt, still alive and able to sue when Dillon was writing, but the book’s historical sweep left me longing for at least an epilogue on more recent health obsessives.
added by kidzdoc | editTelegraph, Cassandra Jardine (Sep 25, 2009)
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'My body is that part of the world which my thoughts are able to change.'

George Christoph Lichtenberg, The Waste Books
To Felicity Dunsworth
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You were well one minute ago, and this minute you are unwell.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0865479208, Hardcover)

Charlotte Brontë found in her illnesses, real and imagined, an escape from familial and social duties, and the perfect conditions for writing. The German jurist Daniel Paul Schreber believed his body was being colonized and transformed at the hands of God and doctors alike. Andy Warhol was terrified by disease and by the idea of disease. Glenn Gould claimed a friendly pat on his shoulder had destroyed his ability to play piano. And we all know someone who has trawled the Internet in solitude, seeking to pinpoint the source of his or her fantastical symptoms.

The Hypochondriacs is a book about fear and hope, illness and imagination, despair and creativity. It explores, in the stories of nine individuals, the relationship between mind and body as it is mediated by the experience, or simply the terror, of being ill. And, in an intimate investigation of those lives, it shows how the mind can make a prison of the body by distorting our sense of ourselves as physical beings. Through witty, entertaining, and often moving examinations of the lives of these eminent hypochondriacs—James Boswell, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Alice James, Daniel Paul Schreber, Marcel Proust, Glenn Gould, and Andy Warhol—Brian Dillon brilliantly unravels the tortuous connections between real and imagined illness, irrational fear and rational concern, the mind’s aches and the body’s ideas.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:32 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

'Tormented Hope' is a book about mind and body, fear and hope, illness and imagination. It explores, in the stories of nine individuals, the relationship of mind and body as it is mediated by the experience, or simply the terror, of being ill. Originally published: 2009.… (more)

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