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on the illness of the ill: or, logorrhoea

August 8, 2011

I

Last summer, Oliver Sax had a piece in the New Yorker profiling the neurological condition known as “alexia.” Not to be confused with the pedagogenic condition known as illiteracy, a-lexia, as its name attests, is a condition of deprivation. Its onset is often sudden and violent. Sax describes how one of his patients, a novelist, awoke one day into a world of unintelligible symbols, enigmatically juxtaposed. All graphemes looked “Cyrillic or Korean.” He could not even read his own handwriting. The inconspicuous familiarity with which he had always read—a page, a sign, a clock-face—had dried up. Henceforth, written language would confront him conspicuous and unfamiliar, as would one’s father’s face, after being unmasked as the face of an impostor. Alexia sucks out from world the ether of legibility, leaving the afflicted to squint at letters as Tantalus groped for water.

Being ill, like being tired, sometimes seems to me to be foremost a condition of deprivation. While tiredness would be the lack of wakefulness, or vitality considered diurnally, illness would be the lack of health, or vitality in general—that is to say, vitality considered mortally. It must nonetheless be counted among the virtues of illness that is can give rise, temporarily, to some of the experiences of uncanniness to which a stroke, for example, may damn its victims irrevocably. Last week, my fever briefly induced a bout of a kind of aphasia for which I do not know the name. Aphonia is the misnomer for the loss of the ability to speak, and alogia is what they call the pathological absence of conversational aptitude. My symptoms were nearer to those of the alexic. I seemed to lose my ability to hear. This is not to say that I was deaf. It was rather a brief comprehenesional aphonia. I could still hear—in a certain way I could hear too well. The voices of those in conversation around me struck me as strange strings of sounds, guttural noises of astonishing tonal complexity and speed. How beautiful, I thought, and how strange that I can still hear myself think.

II

The ambivalence of illness—that it is both a state of deprivation and a state by grace of which the afflicted may receive other benefits (for example a firsthand experience of the subtle mutations between the perception of sound and the comprehension of voice)—correlates to the well-known ambivalence inherent to the idea of the drug. Simply put, in different contexts, or framed in different ways, the same drug can be a cure or a poison. This ambivalence goes way back. The ancient Greek noun “το φάρμακον” (“pharmakon,” whence pharmacy, pharmaceuticals) could be used to mean either cure or poison. What is at stake, then as now, is an idea of wholeness or perfection, which both the idea of cure and the idea of poison necessarily presuppose. On the one hand, a cure restores a broken system to its natural state of wholeness. If the cure is properly administered, its ill effects are to be understood as unfortunate but necessary side-effects. On the other hand, a poison infects an otherwise whole and healthy system, inducing a state of lack or excess and generally overthrowing its state of internal equilibrium. Any desirable effects caused by the poison are accidental and unnatural. Considered pragmatically, a cure is what one calls a drug used medically (that is to say, professionally) and a poison is what one calls a drug used recreationally.

(It would be worth pondering the ontological relation subtended by the terms “illness” and “ill”—the latter understood both in the sense of “being ill” and in opposition to “good,” for example in the expressly teleological phrase “for good or for ill.” If the classical philosophical question par excellence turns on the determinate difference between the particular and the general, between beings and Being (What is the goodness of the good? The redness of the red? What is Justice in general, if this particular action is indeed just? What is Being in general if anything of which it may be said that it “is,” or “there is” it, or even that it “is not”—in some sense is?), then perhaps epidemiology and etiology, which explain for us after all the illness of the ill, offer us a paradigm for a philosophical method. In any case, it is not an unwarranted fear that some day DSM may be considered an answer to the Republic.)

III

With Sax’s piece in mind, it seems ironic that Plato should have described written language as a drug. (Whether this irony is a benign coincidence caused by external contingencies or a portent of a necessity internal to the history of natural philosophy I leave to the professionals to diagnose.) Plato diagnoses writing as pharmakon in the course of his dialogue on love, the Phaedrus. There, he scripts Socrates to tell the following story: one day the Egyptian god Theuth came to god-king Ammon to present him with the invention of writing. “Here, O King, is a branch of learning that will make the people wiser and improve their memories: my discovery provides a recipe [pharmakon] for memory and wisdom.” To which Ammon replies,

[You] have declared the very opposite of [writing]’s true effect. If men learn this, it will plant forgetfulness in their souls. They will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks; what you have discovered is a recipe [pharmakon] not for memory, but for reminder. And no true wisdom And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance; for by telling them many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing; and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.

Theuth presents writing as a cure that corrects the frailties of human memory and wisdom. Ammon rejects Theuth’s diagnosis. On Ammon’s account, writing is rather a poison that atrophies memory and simulates wisdom. Thus: not memory, but external re-minding; not true wisdom but its vapid conceit. To run down the parallels: Theuth would have it that writing restores man’s internal faculties to their proper reach. Ammon would have it that writing only appears to improve memory while actually replacing it with an external crutch—a reminder, rather than a memory—which man would use instead of exercising the very memories that reminders essentially need in order to re-mind and re-present. Theuth would have it that writing increases man’s wisdom by simply adding to the (internal) archive of knowledge already in man’s possession. Ammon would have it that writing at most provides man with an external simulation of knowledge that feigns profundity and substance, ultimately amounting to “telling” without “teaching.” For you can tell someone something, and they might be able to tell it back to you verbatim, but this alone does not vouchsafe that either interlocutor is in possession of true knowledge: perhaps the words are hollowed of their meanings and detached from true living intentions, like marks on a page.

(Interesting that Ammon supports the crucial difference between speaking and writing—that writing is an ill to be avoided—on an analogy with a pair of subsets within the realm of the speaking, namely telling and teaching: telling merely repeats, while teaching both presupposes and transmits truly internalized knowledge. Derrida, in his essay, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” tracks this evanescent regression: maintaining the speech/writing hierarchy requires likening the subordinate term—here “writing”—to the subordinate term in a hierarchy within the superior term—“speech.” Which in effect admits the presence of infection within the healthy system in order to justify that system’s absolute health in comparison with its poison.)

But this subdivision is not arbitrarily chosen from all of the possible sets of virtuous speech-acts on the one hand and their dastardly simulations on the other. For the Phaedrus is ultimately about love. Specifically, pederasty and paternal love. And in the arguments about the virtues and vices of the different permutations of pederasty, a recurring redemptive theme is its pedagogical advantages. Good love is like good teaching. And by the end of the Phaedrus it is also like good writing, whose characteristics Socrates speculates, almost prophesies, but whose form he does not name (we may infer: the dialogue). So just as there is bad λόγος (writing) and bad teaching, there is also bad love. In fact, in the conversation between Theuth and Ammon bad love serves as the metaphor that also makes this parable of the invention of writing an elaborate allegory for writing’s poisonous effect. Not only does Plato (have Socrates) provide us, through Dr. Theuth and Dr. Ammon’s disupute, with two competing prognoses of man’s epistemological systems once under the influence of the drug (“prognosis positive” /“prognosis negative”). Further, Ammon suggests that Theuth’s position is actually the result of a prior infection—an infection of love. “You who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have.” The symptom of the disease is the belief that you are cured. But you are sick, for your children, whom you love, are not your own.

IV

Being ill always makes me grapple with time. It passes so slowly in some ways, so quickly in others. Rest does not come easily to the impatient, but in the acquiescence to illness there can be found a freedom in laziness. The patient must be patient. It is, after all, only temporary, at least in my case—for I’m not terminally ill, at least not in any way other than that in which everyone is. But then there’s the way in which illness, like the illness induced by recreational drug use, somehow temporarily loosens the shapes of time, fixing the temporary and loosening the permanent. There was a particular way in which I was strongly reminded of my experiences on LSD. Not in their specific content (though their was that too), but in their form. The particular characteristic of the form of experience-under-the-influence (being-poisoned) that I recalled most vividly (I might even say I came close to re-living it, as it were, although the way in which the differences among recalling, remembering and reliving are hard to nail down, and more specifically the way in which the difficulty in nailing them down seems to increase in direct proportion to the degree to which this “form” of experience is indeed being (re)lived—all of this I hope to show in what follows) is the way in which the content of experience becomes form and form content, and the way in which, for me, this kind of experience is essentially temporal.

I will describe the experience as I had it feverishly in bed, now almost a week ago. It was all hypothetical, but quite visual, and all reminiscent of being on LSD. I imagined beholding an event, be it before me presently, imagined, remembered, anticipated, what have you. In bastardized Husserlian, I intended an experience. The event or experience or fact, it stood before me in its specificity. Indeed in an increasingly vivid specificity, as it detached from the dynamic of events in which I had been immersed and grew under the gaze of my attention. But, inevitably, the event, though detaching and clarifying—coming into its own, with higher resolution—the event could never remain simply static, as though frozen for observation. Rather, psychic content morphs. It could do so in any number of ways. For example, narratively. The following is typical of my paranoiac hallucinations. I believe my experience to freeze for my benefit and by virtue of my attention—in short, under my control, available for my pleasure and inspection. But the stasis that I trust I slowly come to discover to be a rouse. Time has not stopped. They are merely playing dead, and meanwhile a circumstance is wrapping around me from behind, catching me off-guard like raptors, having lured me into a false sense of epistemic assuredness. That is but an illustration of one way in which experience, I might say, goes on. But key even in this case is not that the stasis of time is illusory and its continuity a cold metaphysical fact. That’s obviously true. But the drama of the hallucination—the stuff of the paranoia is the rediscovery of time. The uncanniness with which things become signs that something is wrong. The creeping sense that things need to be read differently, read differently before they jump out at me. It’s an experience in which, paradoxically, I anticipate time’s return. I imagined this just now, though it draws from elements of certain typical hallucinations, reveries, and dreams from throughout my life (as well as from Freud, Heidegger, Ricoeur, and some other texts that I read while researching memory and narrative for my work on Faulkner).

What I specifically imagined while in bed last week might be said to exemplify the pure form of the phenomenon I’m trying to describe: the becoming form of content, and the way in which this morphing is also an experience of time as temporality. As ever, the transformation turned on my growing self-consciousness of the fact that I am inevitably a part of the event that I would objectively behold, and that this very self-consciousness is also self-blind, and so on, and the world unfolds in its—and my—entangling inscrutability. I was, I perceived, I had an experience, and I beheld it, like I said. It grew before my gaze, detaching itself, gaining definition, finitude. And as its definition approached perfection, as its specificity really began to come out, something seamlessly began to morph. It was as though in order for the contours of the phenomenon to become distinct, the image itself had darkened into a pitch silhouette against a bright background. No longer did the experience stand slightly uprooted against its place in time. Now, the silhouette was the event, and the light, eternity. Then the foreground and the background reversed, as though my eyes had been confused by an optical illusion. I was not looking at something silhouetted by a white wall of oblivion. I was rather looking through a dark tunnel, a strangely shaped hole in a white wall. The contours of the silhouette were actually the inner edges of a frame. And through this frame there appeared not what I thought I was seeing, but something else, from a different time—but its mode of appearance, framed by the boiled down finitude of the previous vision, seemed to necessitate, or rather reveal, the single identity in which both visions participated, each somehow providing form to the other’s content, like a moebius strip.

When is this, and when am I? As I was thinking, just now, about the way in which these questions arise, I thought of an everyday (literally!) experience that I’m tempted to elevate as a paradigm: the experience of pausing as you try to figure out whether something was today, or yesterday. Or the question: when specifically in the very recent past, on what day, did something in particular happen. Or: wait, did that happen, or was that a dream that I just now unknowingly remembered. Why is it that whenever I suddenly remember a dream, it must have been last night’s dream? Why is it that I never, to my memory, suddenly recall something from a dream and know it to have been from two nights ago? It seems to me that I naturally experience time within certain sets of horizons, or as a series of panes of glass beyond glass, or through toggling frames. One to which I often return as I go about my day, is the frame of the current day—the day I am currently “in.” This is not an arbitrary or even convenient and therefore pragmatic measurement of time in any conscious or premeditated way, for it also serves as the basis, I believe, for my reckoning with the recent past and immediate future. Yesterday and the day before yesterday, and tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, which I relate to differently than a hypothetical day in the deep future, or a day long gone, or an imagined or dreamed day. I earlier mentioned this realm of familiar experience, a kind of default temporality, in relation to the experience of tiredness, which I put in contradistinction with illness. Tiredness, I suggested, is fatigue experienced diurnally, and illness is fatigue experienced mortally. It is in the free morphing of a phenomenon’s content into the hollow of a form or frame through which other things and times can move and find some fit that the fixity that separates diurnal time from mortal time comes undone, and anything can seem today, right now, back then, to come, always, or never. Each frame, the frame of my today and the frame of my life—the one bound by last night’s dream and tonight’s sleep, and the other by birth and death—can come to inform the other’s content. Temporary illness becomes metaphysical sleepiness. The day appears, as it has to many, as a fit metaphor for a whole life. A whole life is merely a day in our metempsychosis, and so on.

V

What I am trying to describe is an illustration for the way in which hallucination and metaphor name identical processes. I refer the reader to the first three pages of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! for a superior description of this sort of experience. Those pages describe a young man’s hallucinatory daydream as he listens to a story being recounted to him by an old woman. The story concerns the entrance into their small town of a scandalous historical figure some sixty years earlier, whose deeds became for the town the stuff of local legend, and for the old woman a source of personal outrage. The young man knows the story. He’s heard it all before. He doesn’t understand why the story continues to haunt him and everyone else. In his hallucination he sees the man, now a demon, now a ghost, conquering the town as the old woman’s voice conquers his mind, and building his plantation with the utterance of the divinely creative λόγος: “Let There Be...” The ghost remains the author of the voice, of the old woman’s voice and of his own internal voice. Plato would have writing the bastard son of speech, as speech can be the bastard child of thought. But what if the voice itself can be ill?

Quoth the Faulkner: “I’ve spent almost fifty years trying to cure myself of the curse of human speech.”

Read him while you can! Now back to my convalescence.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. linebrick permalink*
    August 9, 2011 4:53 am

    I’ve been thinking about some of the stuff you raise here for a while now: it strikes me that living (however temporarily) in a foreign country is not unlike being sick, as regards my own ability to read the signs around me. Let me emphasize the “temporary” aspect: as a stranger, I am so often treated like a patient here, like someone who once had full rights and may well have them again soon, like an adult who is suffering a lapse in self-control and must be infantilized. I also wonder where the illness is inside the ill, where the strangeness is within the strange. The word in Russian for “healthy” is also the word for “useful,” in the sense that vegetables are “useful” for your Vitamin C deficiency and eating coal in the morning is “useful” for curing a hangover.

    One of the most charming things about this pretty post, Élan, is that you have spelled Sacks’ name with an X, tying it graphically to the condition you go on to describe.

  2. August 25, 2011 7:09 am

    I was suddenly reminded of this post when reading something in German class this morning. One of the exercises in which we often engage is translating a set of contextless (often to the point of hilarity) sentences for the sake of practicing particular grammatical structures. This one today reminded me of this post:

    Der Kranke bleib manchmal nächtelang schlaflos. Dies machte sein Leiden nur noch unerträglicher. (The ill man remained sleepless sometimes all night long. This made his suffering even more unbearable)

    It just struck me. I’m not sure why.

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