Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Malaise of the Modern Age

Years ago I read renowned feminist critic Elaine Showalter's book Hystories (unfortunately out of print) which is utterly fascinating.  Showalter's premise is that hysterical syndromes clearly point to the hidden fears and needs of a culture.  That's important.  The hidden fears and needs of a culture.  Not of an individual.  Showalter lumped together several disparate phenomena: False memory syndrome, Satanic Ritual Abuse, Alien Abduction; and closer to reality and which caused her to be a lightening rod for vituperous criticism: chronic fatigue syndrome; Gulf War Syndrome; recovered memory of all stripes; multiple personality. All of these exemplify what Freud and Charcot would have termed "hysteria."

Although hysteria is somewhat different, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome bears an uncanny resemblance to the 19th Century diagnosis: neurasthenia.

Here's a quote from the medical record I was typing today:  "Tired all the time; don’t feel well; weak; weight problems; headache, dizziness; blurred vision; loss of vision-R. eye; double vision-L. eye – several times a week; leg pain with walking; joint pain; neck pain; low back pain; indigestion; abdominal pain; anxious; tense; irritable; trouble sleeping; sexual difficulties; nocturia; leg and feet and L. arm go numb a lot and remain numb for hours; lots of muscle spasm..."

So what's to be made of this?  Perhaps the neurasthenic is in a constant state of what John Bradshaw called "hypervigilance," and the host of physiological effects of stress find their expression in musculoskeletal strain, joint inflammation, and fascitis.  Perhaps, we are literally "tearing ourselves apart," dealing with the stress of our culture.  Perhaps this is why less freedom can feel more comfortable.  I wonder if people who live under rigid, predictable, draconic regimes have less physical pain than those who live in a democracy with its chaotic factional distress.  It would be an interesting study.

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