September 15, 2008 2 Comments
Couldn’t stop thinking about it.
What to make of the Firecracker’s attraction to schizophrenia as a word and lifestyle, and why did it become the writer-singer-songwriter’s passport into a different kind of world? Schizophrenia, after all, goes beyond the mere desire for altered states of mind. Yeah, Coleridge loved opium, but this exceeds drugs, hallucinations, trumps the scope and governance of the will. Is this why it’s appealing? Is it a release from an oppressive hyper-consciousness? Is it a kind of Fate?
As evidence that what I’m saying actually happens, and that the word crops up in oddly reverential ways, some examples:
- Talking about Lynch’s union of the banal and the grotesque, DFW says, admiringly, that “there’s a certain schizophrenia about it.”
- From “In the Company of Creeps”, an article in Publisher’s Weekly:
Wallace characterizes the public reception of both Infinite Jest and a followup essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (Little, Brown, 1997) as a ‘schizophrenia of attention.’
- The Firecracker I married described his turmoil over whether or not his desires were compatible with being married to me as being sliced in half while in the shower. He called this his schizophrenia, and declared finally that his interest in madness isn’t intellectual, but religious. In my lower moments I think he yearns for it.
My sister is schizophrenic. She’s plagued daily by origami devils and monster faces in her food. She spends hours tracking down hackers breaking into her computer, scratches strips of skin off to get at the bugs beneath, turns sly and calculating whenever a collection agency calls to collect on one of the forty cell phone accounts she’s opened and closed and left unpaid. She resents that no one will believe that the doctor removed her temporal lobe during one the many unnecessary surgeries she’s convinced them to perform. She’s tried to kill herself three times.
I mention this to justify—or at least disclose—what might be an unreasonably rigid sense of what schizophrenia means. For me, it’s always meant a clinical condition.
So I thought I should check and see what it actually means. The word was coined in 1910 (or 1896, depending on whether you ask the OED or The Guardian). The OED defines it thusly:
A mental disorder occurring in various forms, all characterized by a breakdown in the relation between thoughts, feelings, and actions, usu. with a withdrawal from social activity and the occurrence of delusions and hallucinations.
Used in the U.S. with a broader meaning than in Britain (cf. quots. 1979, 1980).
The earlier term was “dementia praecox,” the premature unraveling of the mind. Schizophrenia means “split mind,” a term coined by Eugen Beuler to describe the splitting of mental functions. (It’s kind of ironic that these days “split-brain” patients are epileptic survivors whose corpus callosa—the bundle of fibers connecting the two cerebral hemispheres—have been surgically cut.)
In fact, the word seems to be losing status in the scientific community. The romance is unfelt in this quarter, and some people are trying to get rid of it as a category altogether: From Kate Hilpern’s article “Muddy Thinking” in The Guardian
“As a single word, schizophrenia can ruin a life as surely as any bullet,” says Hammersley. “I know of one woman whose psychiatrist told her it would have been better for her to have cancer. Our desire to dump schizophrenia in the diagnostic dustbin is therefore not just about the poor science that surrounds it, but the immense damage that this label brings about. Lives are being ruined on the basis of a highly suspect diagnostic system.”
Other scientists defend the label. Vague and bland as it is, to dispose of it would eliminate research funding. They’ve pressed on, and two in particular have come to a pretty awesome conclusion about a possible genetic basis for autism and schizophrenia.
Turns out the quest for a baby’s mental health is the ultimate Boy vs. Girl genetic free-for-all, the egg-and-sperm version of the bedroom scene in A Pocketful of Miracles. Nature recently published an opinion piece by Christopher Badcock (heh) and Bernard Crespi called “Battle of the Sexes”.
Here is what they found. Read more of this post