Since misery loves company -- at least during the time when misery doesn't want to be left entirely alone -- I grabbed on to Brian Dillon's new book, The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Lives (Faber & Faber, $25), as fast as I could. One thing I hadn't heard said before, although it now strikes me as absolutely and undeniably true, is that misery loves good company. And Dillon's brimming volume (278 fact-filled, not to say fun-filled, pages) certainly provides good company for the ceaselessly suffering imaginary-malady-struck.
For once the author -- who never identifies himself as hypochondriacal, but why else indulge in such unnecessary woe? -- gets an introduction out of the way, he tells the medical histories and mysteries of those "tormented lives." The nine memorialized are, in more or less chronological order: James Boswell, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Alice James, Daniel Paul Schreber, Marcel Proust (probably the least surprising inclusion), Glenn Gould and Andy Warhol.
In describing the afflictions -- or presumed afflictions -- gripping the nonet, Dillon goes into gory detail. Physician Robert Whytt, enumerating the 18th-century "most common and remarkable' symptoms, mentions "heartburn; wind in the stomach and intestines; low spirits; anxiety; timidity; flushes and chills; muscular pains and convulsions; flying pains in the head: flatulence; belching; costiveness; palpitations; fainting; breathing difficulties and a sense of imminent suffocation; yawning and sighing; hiccups; fits of weeping or laughter; giddiness; disturbances of sight, sound or smell; drowsiness; insomnia, 'attended with an uneasiness that is not to be described'; nightmares; sadness, despair and peevishness; elation; confused or vagrant thoughts; strange fancies and, as though such torments were not enough to occupy the patients' minds, 'persuasions of their labouring under diseases of which they are quite free; and imagining their complaints to be as dangerous as they find them troublesome.'"
(Note to reader: If at this point, you're not already experiencing any of the above problems, you fail to meet the definition of a genuine hypochondriac and may want to divert your attention elsewhere.)
A significant point Dillon makes throughout a book that qualifies as a concise history of hypochondria is that the hypochondriac's profile changes over the centuries -- but not entirely. Some of the same nagging worries plaguing Boswell, Bronte and Darwin continue to be a source of concern to, for instance, Glenn Gould. Dillon writes that the eventually reclusive pianist "suffered from flatulence...often on rising." Also, "He complained of 'back of head phenomenon,' 'pressure point awareness,' 'pressure of left temple,' and 'pockets of "ulcer-like" pain through to back' after consuming liquids. He discovered black marks on his tongue and experienced 'locked muscles' in his mouth. His urination was frequent and painful."
It's likely Proust's and Gould carryings-on are familiar to those who dwell on these things, but what about seeming doers like Florence Nightingale and Charles Darwin -- she who saw to so many of the wounded in far-flung places and he who went to the Galapagos to develop his ideas? In a letter to her physician, Nightingale writes, "Let me tell you Doctor, that after any walk or drive I sat up all night with palpitation. And the sight of animal food increased the sickness." Yes, Nightingale, who attended at beds, was often confined to hers -- as was Darwin, who kept such scrupulous records of his flatulence that he had various labels for it: "slight," "moderate," "considerable," "baddish," "sharp," and "excessive."
(Note to reader: If you've done the same or similar, you are a hypochondriac in honorable standing and will do well to remain here.)
The least known of these fabulous hypochondriacs, German jurist Daniel Paul Schreber, is the most extreme -- extreme to the point of madness. Since Schreber imagined the disappearance of vital organs, Dillon reports that the man "frequently went without a stomach -- he recalls informing an attendant that he could not dine because it had suddenly vanished. Sometimes, just before he sat down to eat, a stomach was 'so to speak produced ad hoc by miracles,' only to be removed again during the meal. On such occasions, food and drink simply poured into his abdominal cavity and from there began to fill up his legs."
The most recent example on whom Dillon lavishes his well-written coverage is Andy Warhol, who in a state of disturbing irony ignored several real conditions to concentrate on the imaginary ones. Of a psychological disease that's somehow real because it feels so palpably real, Dillon says, "Warhol is our hypochondriac precursor... We live now when Warhol's fears are emphatically our own -- weight, complexion, age, aesthetics, the virulence of new diseases and the efficacy of the cures for the old ones."
In other words, when seminal artist Warhol declared that in the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes, he neglected to mention that everyone would also be Andy Warhol for 15 minutes. Or painfully, agonizingly longer.