06 November 2009

Live and learn

Despite two years of Greek in college and extensive medical googling in more recent times, here's a bit of linguistic lore I only discovered earlier this week when reading a Guardian article on famous hypochondriacs—James Boswell, Charlotte Brontë, Florence Nightingale, Charles Darwin, Marcel Proust, Glenn Gould. There is actually a part of the body known as the hypochondrium, the upper part of the abdomen just below the ribs.

Hilary Mantel* elaborates on this in her LRB review of the book by the author of the Guardian piece, Brian Dillon:

For the Greeks, the hypochondrium was the area just below the ribcage, the site of digestive disorder. This region of the body is where feelings of unease pool, then overflow. It is dangerously proximate to the heart; by the 16th century, the gnawing, mobile, ambiguous pain was associated with melancholia. It afflicted all parts of the organism, and yet no particular part. In engravings, its languishing victims, head resting on palm, surrounded themselves with the pots and jars of the apothecary, but he could do little to cure their gripings, rumblings, belchings, vertigo and bad dreams; nor could he cure the accompanying emotions of anxiety and grief. But which came first, the physical or mental symptoms? Could they be divided? Was the disturbance on the bodily plane, or the astral plane? The melancholy man might fall into the delusion that his body was altered in some fundamental way; there was a frog or serpent inside him. In 1685 Thomas Willis judged the melancholic-hypochondriac patient to be prey to ‘wandering pains, also cramps and numbness with a sense of formication’, as well as low spirits, wandering attention and fear of death. Since then the term ‘hypochondria’ has withered in meaning. For Freud it was merely ‘the state of being in love with one’s own illness’. But it seems to be more complicated than that. There are diseases that are artefacts of treatment, produced by doctors; there are diseases that are produced by thinking about doctors. In hypochondria, the whole imagination is medicalised; on the one hand, the state is sordid and comic, on the other hand, perfectly comprehensible.

Both articles are well worth a look. Mantel's last paragraph (I've put the first and final sentences in bold):

Now perhaps Google owns our bodies; it is possible to have access, at a keystroke, to a dazing plurality of opinion. There is an illness out there for every need, a disease to fit any symptom. And it is not just individuals who manufacture disease. As drug patents expire, the pharmacological companies invent new illnesses, such as social anxiety disorder, for which an otherwise obsolete formulation can be prescribed. For this ruse to work, the patient must accept a description of himself as sick, not just odd; so shyness, for example, becomes a pathology, not just an inconvenient character trait. We need not be in pain, or produce florid symptoms, to benefit from the new, enveloping, knowledge-based hypochondria. We are all subtly wrong in some way, most of the time: ill at ease in the world. We can stand a bit of readjustment, physical or mental, a bit of fine-tuning. Our lifelong itch for self-improvement can be scratched by a cosmetic surgeon with his scalpel or needle, our feelings of loss assuaged by a pill that will return us to a state of self-possession. For hypochondria, the future is golden.



*winner of the 2009 Booker Prize for her novel on Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall. A personal note: when Michael was giving his talk on Sand at the Manchester Science Festival last week, it turned out Science overlapped with Literature and Hilary Mantel was speaking elsewhere in the city at the same time. Might this be why the audience at Blackwell's Bookshop was so sparse? One of the reasons anyway. . . .

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