Unfathomable Craziness

Adam Phillips

  • Svengali’s Web: The Alien Enchanter in Modern Culture by Daniel Pick
    Yale, 284 pp, £19.95, May 2000, ISBN 0 300 08204 5

First of all we have to imagine a world in which people suffer and have no hope that anything or anyone can make a difference. Then we have to imagine what it would be like to live in a world of people who have no wish to help each other or to feel better. If we don’t do this, the history of medicine, and of its country cousin psychiatry, not to mention the history of religion, will hardly seem different from a history of quacks and con-artists ingeniously exploiting the hopelessly vulnerable. The question has always been: what, if anything, can be done? Only when we acknowledge the very real drawbacks of living in a world in which everyone’s unhappiness renders everyone else clueless, can we review our contemporary options and their histories with some sense of relief. We may have very real doubts now about, say, aromatherapy, or ECT, or cognitive psychology – or even about people having personal trainers – but we quite literally have to do something when we begin to feel in some way troubled. It is fortunate that pain has made us so inventive.

As unhappiness shows no sign of disappearing – and its staying power makes us look more like fashion victims than truth-seekers in our quest for therapies – we would do better to think of our solutions as inevitably provisional and uncertain, instead of sneering at them. Our misgivings about the available treatments for our contemporary miseries too easily turns into a cover-story for an intolerance of, or impatience with, suffering itself. Scepticism about treatments becomes suspicion about patients (if the treatment is fraudulent, and it works, then the condition it was nominally treating must be fraudulent too: so everyone’s a fool). The contesting of cures, if it does nothing else, keeps the idea of cure alive; but it tends to make people in the so-called helping professions excessively judgmental of each other (i.e. rivalrous). On the other hand, the prestige involved in helping people has always been integral to the treatment, and it has been to the consumers and purveyors of charisma that historians and psychologists have increasingly turned their attention. As a psychoanalyst and a historian, Daniel Pick is unusually well-qualified to have written this often intriguing book.

The intricate complicity between symptoms and cures – and between what people are considered to be suffering from and what they claim to be suffering from – has made the history of medicine, in its broadest sense, of so much recent interest. Part of the fascination (so to speak) of mesmerism and hypnosis – and of the history that is so well told in Svengali’s Web – is that, as potential cures for a wide range of miseries, they were so quickly seen to be at once remarkable breakthroughs, and disreputable, if not criminal activities. It was not clear whether (like the psychoanalysis that was born of this tradition) they were solutions, or problems in themselves, or both. Indeed for some people, the fact that these forms of treatment helped the patient was itself the patient’s most serious and revealing symptom; and what it revealed was the patient’s pathological naivety. People were not being cured through hypnosis, the critics said, they were suffering from being hypnotisable: what they really needed to be cured of was their susceptibility to certain cures. These new treatments, in other words, had ironically disclosed what some feared might be the most terrible, perhaps the most constitutively human problem of all: that people could have considerable influence over each other. That bodies affected each other in daunting and undreamt of ways; that eyes and voices and hands – among other body-parts – were essentially rhetorical organs.

Both as a theatrical spectacle and as a medical treatment, hypnotism made it clear that bodies were persuasive, and that the appetite for persuasion and for being persuaded was exorbitant. It may seem odd, in retrospect, that this should have seemed so shocking. Christianity, after all, was an extravagant acknowledgment of the power of the body; and sexuality, through its various historical formations and deformations, has always been spoken of as a fascination (sex, too, has a reputation for being the problem and the solution). But what the hypnotist exposed, perhaps most devastatingly in such a progressive age as the 19th century, was just how lowbrow people really were. It wasn’t truth or goodness they were after: they wanted to be moved. And it wasn’t exactly the other person’s logic, or their argument, or the information they provided or even their education that was convincing, so much as the look in their eye or their smile. As many commentators – then as now – were quick to point out, this makes politics more volatile than some want it to be, and science much less influential than some think it should be.

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