On illness — real and imagined — and art

My appreciation of Brian Dillon’s The Hypochondriacs is up at NPR. If you have health problems, or worry that you have health problems, or both, you should read this book.

People who never get sick might enjoy it, too — if only for the opportunity to feel superior while jogging around the park in the snow — but I wouldn’t know about that.

An excerpt of my reaction:

I spent so much of my childhood sick, worried about getting sick, or pretending to be sick that these three states of being blurred together in my mind. The confusion persists; now a documented sufferer of autoimmune disease — and an undocumented sufferer of a no-doubt-fatal disorder currently manifesting as side pain — I am uncertain when to take a sick day or visit the doctor, and whatever course I decide on is almost always wrong. Yes, I belong to that most exasperating class of neurotics: hypochondriacs with health problems, the subject of Brian Dillon’s sympathetic, perceptive and often absurdly funny The Hypochondriacs.

Until the 19th century, morbid fear of illness was seen as only one symptom of hypochondria, which doctors treated as an organic disease, although scientific explanations varied. In one era, it was a digestive problem, in another an abdominal issue, and later a disorder linked with melancholia and distributed through the entire body. More importantly for Dillon’s purposes, hypochondria, which often has a physical component, provides a reason for those with intellectual or creative temperaments to sequester themselves from the world and pursue their thinking or their art.

Dillon is an unusually dexterous writer. Each of his slim chapters focuses on a different artist or thinker, and each fully evokes the subject’s fears and afflictions, showing how they’re reflected in his or her life’s work.

You can read the rest here, and an excerpt from the book here.

See also Daphne Merkin’s review for Bookforum and Laura Miller’s for Salon, Hermione Lee on bed rest and Virginia Woolf, Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay (and her rejection of the idea that suffering begets art), Brian Dillon’s Book Notes for Largehearted Boy, and an old post of mine about being a hypochondriac with health issues.


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