February 17, 2010
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
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.
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.
The Guardian wrote of the book:
"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."
My book The Hypochondriacs recounts the stories of nine eminent examples of the worried well: James Boswell, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Alice James, Daniel Paul Schreber, Marcel Proust, Glenn Gould and Andy Warhol. It is both a cultural history of hypochondria – a term that turns out to have a vexed and confusing history – and a literary experiment in the limits of sympathy. I wrote the book partly out of my own experience of what is known today as "health anxiety." As a recovering hypochondriac, I'm uneasily aware that it is not a condition that attracts much pity, and I wanted to get as close to my subjects as possible, to understand their pathology from the inside. Some of them were genuinely unwell, but used their illnesses to buy time and space for artistic or intellectual work; others were frankly deluded or just cripplingly scared. All seem to have been painfully oversensitive – sometimes absurdly so – to the world around them. As a writer, I have a neurotic – maybe even hypochondriacal – attitude to music: I can't listen and write at the same time, though sometimes a song will conjure the right mood before I begin. What follows is a mixture of songs that have meant something to me in my most fretful hours and music that links directly to a few of my anguished subjects.
"I've Got You Under My Skin" by Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra
As a teenager, I had a mild case of psoriasis that I managed in my mind to inflate into painful, disfiguring severity. I guess I was primed to overreact because for most of my childhood my mother had been very ill with a rare autoimmune disease and I started to believe that sickness (and especially skin disease) was simply what lay in store as I got older. In 1987, I watched the British TV series The Singing Detective, in which the writer Dennis Potter brilliantly recast his own bedridden struggle with psoriatic arthritis as an ironic musical noir, and I really became convinced that I'd soon be crippled and suppurating too. In one of the show's scabrous lip-synch scenes, this 1940s recording of Cole Porter's song provides the chorus to the narrator's decline. I haven't heard it since – it's not on the Singing Detective soundtrack album – but any other version, including Sinatra's jauntily unspooked reading, can still bring on the old itch and a haunted shudder.
"Under Ice" by Kate Bush
My mother died when I had just turned sixteen, and one of the records that got me through the next few years, when my depression and hypochondria really got into their stride, was Kate Bush's Hounds of Love (1985). There are songs on that record that I find it hard to listen to today; I'm not even going to try to talk about "Mother Stands for Comfort". But "Under Ice" – another fragment from the album's long song-suite "The Ninth Wave" – seems to say something more universal about a state of mind and body that is very close to what several of the hypochondriacs in my book experienced. The tragic and witty Alice James springs to mind, with (as her brother Henry put it) her "little life, shrunken and rounded in retrospect." At its worst, fear cuts the hypochondriac off from the world, quite as if, like the anguished voice ventriloquized in this song, he or she were trapped beneath a frozen river, watching life moving on above, weakly crying out: "It's me...."
Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould
Gould's physical eccentricities at the piano were well known during his performing career; it is said that engineers worked hard to remove all evidence of his strange humming and other vocalizations from this, his celebrated recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, in 1955. He was by all accounts already a full-blown hypochondriac; his fear of catching cold led him to perform in coat, scarf and even (fingerless) gloves, and he often demanded a phalanx of electric heaters in chilly concert halls. But it was after his retirement from live performance in 1964 that his anxieties properly took hold. He sued Steinway & Sons when a piano tuner patted him too boisterously on the shoulder. He was so afraid of high blood pressure that he bought two expensive monitors, in case one of them should break down. He dosed himself, disastrously, with prescription medicines and maintained an eccentric diet of arrowroot biscuits and occasional scrambled eggs. When he died in 1982, at the age of fifty, he was found to have suffered from almost none of the ailments that had preoccupied him. Paradoxically, his fear of contagion seems to have allowed Gould the creative autonomy he craved: much of his greatest work took the form of radio documentaries (his Solitude Trilogy) that are unsurprisingly all about the advantages of seclusion.
"Holocaust" by This Mortal Coil
This song is not strictly a malingerer's lament but its air of desolation has a lot in common with the hypochondriac's worst moments. The original, on Big Star's troubled album Third/Sister Lovers, is enervated in the extreme: the sound of mind and body shrinking to a still point of melancholic inertia. But the version on This Mortal Coil's It'll End in Tears (1984) is sung by Howard Devoto from Magazine, and he adds to Alex Chilton's opiated whimper something like an aesthete's pride in the elegant expression of his own suffering. The result is arch and abject at the same time. One of the strains of hypochondria in my book is an odd sort of dandyish malingering: Marcel Proust was the best (or worst) at parlaying his enfeeblement into creative energy – he retired to his bed in a cork-lined room on the Boulevard Haussmann, the better to rally his faculties for the nocturnal task of writing. In his last decade, Proust was (barely) living proof of what can be achieved when, as this song says, "you're sitting down to dress, and you're a mess."
"A Dream" by Lou Reed and John Cale
Andy Warhol's health anxieties began when he was a child, when a bout of St Vitus's Dance left him frail and odd-looking. As a boy, he watched his father die, and then his mother suffer the indignity of major bowel surgery and a (possibly unnecessary) colostomy. It all made him painfully aware that the world was divided into "good bodies" and "bad bodies"; acne, baldness and his poor physique didn't help. But it was after Warhol was shot by Valerie Solanas in 1968 that his hypochondria really progressed; he developed a morbid fear of hospitals and, as his Diaries recount in moving and at times hilarious detail, worried constantly about imaginary diseases and the effects of aging. He died, famously, from what he was most afraid of: minor surgery on his gall bladder. On this song from their tribute to Andy, Songs For Drella (1990), Reed and Cale conjure out of the darkening atmosphere of his diaries what it must have been like to inhabit that bad body in its last months: "I was so scared today. There was blood leaking thought my shirt from those old scars from being shot. And the corset I wear to keep my insides in was hurting." It's a spectral portrait of one of the hypochondriac's typical fears: that his body might fall apart before his eyes.
"Morphine" by Michael Jackson
From an early age, Jackson was a prodigious hypochondriac of a special sort. As a teenager, he was tormented by acne and by the size of his nose; as a young man, he began the ruinous process of redesigning his body that puts him, historically, in the company of the most extreme hypochondriac in my book: the German Judge Daniel Paul Schreber, who thought he was being turned into a woman and his body invaded by "little men." In 1987, from the depths of his already well developed self-pity, Jackson wrote to People magazine: "Have mercy, for I've been bleeding a long time now." But his strangeness was not just a matter of personal tragedy. He stands in a way for the collective hypochondria that afflicts celebrity culture today; his outrageous plastic surgery and addiction to pain killers are the symbols of a whole stratum of the very famous who seem to live out their unease with the world on the very surfaces of their bodies. On this disturbing – and at the time scarcely remarked – track from his 1997 album Blood on the Dance Floor, Jackson sketches his predicament in the eeriest of refrains: "Demerol. Demerol. Oh God he's taking Demerol...."
"Memento Mori" by Matmos
Immanuel Kant once wrote that hypochondria was a kind of heightened alertness to what is going on in one's body, like "listening, in the quiet of the night, to a cricket chirping in the house." One physiological explanation for the hypochondriac's fears and fantasies is that he or she feels more keenly than the rest of us what are actually just normal bodily sensations, and so interprets them as dire warnings or catastrophic events within. (Gould and Darwin are tragicomic examples of this sort of "somatosensory amplification": both kept sedulous records of their own indigestion and flatulence.) According to this theory, the Matmos album A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure (2001) would either be the hypochondriac's worst musical nightmare or a source of rapt forensic interest. Almost all of its sounds are amplified from medical procedures, including liposuction, hearing tests and plastic surgery. On "Momento Mori", the buzzes and creaks are the sounds of bone saws at work: a whole interior universe of illness and cure unfolds, and the unhappy hypochondriac (or even this half-recovered hypochondriac) finds it freakishly compelling listening.
Brian Dillon and The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives links:
The Daily Beast review
Daily Mail review
Feminist Review review
Huffington Post review
Irish Times review
Los Angeles Times review
New Scientist review
Newcity Lit review
The Second Pass review
Times Online review
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (highlights of the week's comics & graphic novel releases)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (highlights of the week's book releases)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists