Charlotte Brontë found in her illnesses, real and imagined, an escape from familial and social duties, and the perfect conditions for writing. The German jurist Daniel Paul Schreber believed his body was being colonized and transformed at the hands of God and doctors alike. Andy Warhol was terrified by disease and by the idea of disease. Glenn Gould claimed a friendly pat on his shoulder had destroyed his ability to play piano. And we all know someone who has trawled the Internet in solitude, seeking to pinpoint the source of his or her fantastical symptoms.
The Hypochondriacs is a book about fear and hope, illness and imagination, despair and creativity. It explores, in the stories of nine individuals, the relationship between mind and body as it is mediated by the experience, or simply the terror, of being ill. And, in an intimate investigation of those lives, it shows how the mind can make a prison of the body by distorting our sense of ourselves as physical beings. Through witty, entertaining, and often moving examinations of the lives of these eminent hypochondriacs—James Boswell, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Alice James, Daniel Paul Schreber, Marcel Proust, Glenn Gould, and Andy Warhol—Brian Dillon brilliantly unravels the tortuous connections between real and imagined illness, irrational fear and rational concern, the mind’s aches and the body’s ideas.
1. James Boswell’s English Malady
‘He is a convalescent whom the last relapse will infallibly destroy.’
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Correspondence générale de J.-J. Rousseau
On Saturday, the 6th of August 1763, James Boswell, who was then two months short of his twenty-third birthday, was received on board the Prince of Wales packet-boat at Harwich, on the coast of Essex. The ship was bound for the Dutch port of Helvoetsluys; from there, the young man was to travel north to Leyden, and thence east to the university town of Utrecht where, at the insistence
Praise for The Hypochondriacs
“Dillon’s brimming volume . . . provides good company for the ceaselessly suffering imaginary-malady-struck.” —David Finkle, The Huffington Post
“An intriguing, suavely written blend of medical history and literary criticism, a book that adds to the growing (or metastasizing) field of pathological biography.” —Heller McAlpin, Los Angeles Times
“Dillon writes the sort of refined, slightly rarefied prose that might have once been called belletristic—an old-fashioned word for an old-fashioned but pleasant style. This balances out the freakish complaints and treatments undertaken by his subjects, and so The Hypochondriacs walks the line between voyeurism and thoughtfulness with considerable dexterity . . . What makes The Hypochondriacs fascinating is the ever-shifting spectacle it offers of human folly and ingenuity, and the revelation that it can be so hard to tell the two apart.” —Laura Miller, Salon
“Superb . . . Thought-provoking and gracefully written.” —Daphne Merkin, Bookforum
“[Dillon’s] nine case studies embrace writers and artists, thinkers and iconoclasts; they are full of insight and beautifully constructed, with a wealth of cultural reference and a breadth of imagination behind them.” —Hilary Mantel, London Review of Books
“[The Hypochondriacs] is not a book you can’t put down. It is a book you will keep putting down, both to absorb what [Dillon] has said and to postpone reaching the end. There is no higher compliment.” —Michael Bywater, The Independent
“There is an abundance of ‘wracked truth’ in this book. It will delight, inform, move and horrify any of the millions of us.” —Sam Leith, The Daily Mail
“[An] excellent book.” —Kevin Jackson, The Sunday Times (London)
Nine Tormented Lives