The Long View 2003-07-08: Neo-Hypochondria

John makes an interesting claim here: that psychoanalysis served the same function for mental illness as health resorts serve for hypochondriacs. That makes it seem less stupid than it otherwise might.


Yesterday I suffered the torments of the damned, if the damned have Canon printers. It was one of those rare occasions when I had to have a pile of hardcopy postal mail ready for the next morning. However, early in the day I discovered my printer was not printing text, only graphics.

I did all the obvious things. I fiddled with the preferences. I changed the black-ink tank. I reinstalled the printer. Though I despise documentation, I finally went to the Canon issues-page. There I found the polite suggestion that those little BC-21e cartridges, which hold the ink tanks, do just wear out after a while. I could not go to Staples to buy one, however, because I was waiting for UPS to deliver a package. I would have to make the run in the evening.

As I worked on the text I would have to run off that night, I fumed about all the indignities I have suffered in connection with printers and inks over the past 20 years. By and by these recollections reached the occasion when I first bought new ink for my current printer, and the thieving clerk sold me a new BC-21e cartridge along with the ink tanks, without mentioning that it was a separate component.

I checked the stationery closet. There was the spare cartridge. This was at 4:00 PM. The UPS delivery came 20 minutes later.

* * *

In a very elliptical way, this tedious incident gave me new insight into a book I just finished reading, Hermann Hesse: Pilgrim of Crisis, by Ralph Freedman. (This biography is from 1978, so looking for it online is likely to be a lost cause.) The book was written just after the Counter Culture period, during which Hesse had been popular in America, but little understood. Freedman's purpose was to break the news to Hesse's English-speaking admirers that Hesse was by no means an outsider author. Much of his German reputation, in fact, was based on historical romances and novels about family crises.

I read the biography to find more about Hesse's view on macrohistory; I have even argued that Hesse's last book, The Glass Bead Game, is essentially Spenglerian science fiction. Freedman, however, was little interested in this aspect of his subject's thought. As is a biographer's privilege, he focused on something else that was at least as important for Hesse: his connection with analytical psychology, and especially his ties to Jung.

Hesse was a Hypochondriac of the Strict Observance. He was chronically debilitated all his life by eye-aches and ear-aches, though the trouble seemed to become serious only after those rare occasion when his doctors attempted real treatment. He lived in that "Magic Mountain" world of annual "cures" at the better resorts. Psychoanalysis was a big part of that world. Indeed, it was invented chiefly to treat the neurasthenic disorders that flourished in that cultural context.

Today there is still some psychoanalysis, and I suppose there are still a few neurasthenics. However, people I know rarely obsess about illness, however devoted they may be to "fitness." What they do complain about is tiny technical issues, like me with my little printer-problem. Some people talk about them all the time, asking for advice and sympathy. We get upgrades we have no practical use for: like a trip to the springs at Baden, the exercise just makes us feel better. The popular use of computers gives us another way to express our conviction that something is not quite right.

The conviction is correct; we simply mistake its cause.

* * *

Sometimes things seem too right. The PATH (Port Authority of New York and New Jersey) subway station at Exchange Place in Jersey City reopened this month, and I recently had occasion to use it. The station is on the west side of the Hudson River, directly across from the World Trade Center site, to which it is connected by a tunnel. Oddly enough, most of the World Trade Center PATH station survived 911, but Exchange Place had been closed because of water damage in the tunnel. Some reports said the flooding was caused by attempts to fight the fire. In other accounts, the damage was caused by a broken water-main that was part of the fire-suppression system. Since these stories are not incompatible, we may compromise by believing both.

Washington DC and, I gather, London have very deep subway systems, because those cities are built on marshy ground. The bedrock is far below the surface. Manhattan Island, in contrast, is essentially a ridge of granite with some dirt sprinkled on top. This permits its subways to be as shallow as its inhabitants. Exchange Place is different, though. It is right on the riverbank, so the station platform is almost as deep as the tunnel that goes under the river.

The station was renovated in the 1980s, but before that it was a masterpiece of decaying inner-city infrastructure, as mysterious as Moria. Cowards could take a huge, slow, elevator from the surface to the platforms. The more adventurous route was by a dimly lit stairway. The stairs snaked around for no good reason, sometimes giving way to short corridors before diving down again. The platforms themselves were covered in echoing tile and disconcerting silence. The ventilation never quite worked, so the air in the tunnels was usually misty. One summer, when I worked the night shift at a local post office, I took a train home from that station every night at 1:00 AM. It sticks in my memory.

The odd thing about the recent repairs is that not so much as a single tile in the wall looks different from the last major renovation. There is the same grand stairway-and-escalator going directly from platform level to the surface, with the same dismal neon-sculptures set in the ceiling. (Runners like those stairs. Cowards can still take an elevator.) What did the Port Authority find to do down there for 19 months?

A new World Trade Center station opens in November, by the way. The Port Authority tried to think of another name, but decided to keep the old one.

* * *

This is not a joke. On the frontpage of today's New York Times, a story appeared under the byline of Donald G. McNeil, Jr., with the commendably self-explanatory headline: Chill Therapy Is Endorsed for Some Heart Attacks. A little later, there is a quote: "This is very exciting; there are potentially a lot of people who can benefit," said Dr. Terry L. Vanden Hoek..."But it's just the tip of the iceberg."

Probably it's not a joke.

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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  Hermann Hesse: Pilgrim of Crisis, A Biography By Ralph Freedman