From Neurotic Misery to Ordinary Human Unhappiness

6 August 2009


Sigmund "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" Freud

Sigmund "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" Freud

Freud has been variously quoted as saying that psychoanalysis could treat hysterical or neurotic misery, but that it could not treat ordinary human unhappiness. The most a patient of psychoanalytic therapy could hope for was deliverance from the neurotic misery; pscyhoanalysis, in the words of a famous novel, does not promise you a rose garden. This comes from the concluding paragraph of Freud’s Studies in Hysteria, which has been translated many times, hence the varying words of the quotation:

…much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health, you will be better armed against that unhappiness.

Freud, Studies in Hysteria, translated and edited by James Strachey

The DSM — the official go-to guide for mental disorders — has eliminated the classification of “neurosis”, and “hysteria” is a term held in even greater suspicion given its past usage. Both were crucial terms for Freud, but it is difficult to find an authoritative definition of terms no longer current in scientific usage.

Biology online gives the following definition of obsessional neurosis:

A psychological disorder with a pervasive pattern of inflexible perfectionism which begins by early adulthood as indicated by many of the following symptoms: an unattainable perfectionism with overly strict standards which often make it impossible to complete a task; preoccupation with details, rules, lists, order, organization, or scheduling to the extent that the major point of the activity is lost; unreasonable insistence that others submit to exactly his or her way of doing things; an unnecessary, excessive devotion to work and productivity to the exclusion of leisure activities and friendships; rumination to the point of indecisiveness; overconscientiousness about matters of morality, ethics, or values; restricted expression of affection; lack of generosity in giving time, money, or gifts when no personal gain is likely to result; and an inability to discard worn-out or worthless objects even when they have no sentimental value.

The same internet site gives the following definition of hysteria:

a nervous affection, occurring almost exclusively in women, in which the emotional and reflex excitability is exaggerated, and the will power correspondingly diminished, so that the patient loses control over the emotions, becomes the victim of imaginary sensations, and often falls into paroxism or fits.

The chief symptoms are convulsive, tossing movements of the limbs and head, uncontrollable crying and laughing, and a choking sensation as if a ball were lodged in the throat. The affection presents the most varied symptoms, often simulating those of the gravest diseases, but generally curable by mental treatment alone.

In the quote from Freud above, as well as in the definitions of neurosis and hysteria, it is individual mental illness that is the apparently exclusive concern, but these formulations are highly suggestive, pointing to formulations that would describe neuroses and hysteria unique to collections of individuals. We have all heard of the “madness of crowds” and of tulipomania in early modern Holland and the whole history of speculative bubbles since then. Freud himself suggests in passing the possibility of universal neuroses. In his famous essay, The Future of an Illusion, Freud wrote:

“…devout believers are safeguarded in a high degree against the risk of certain neurotic illnesses; their acceptance of the universal neurosis spares them the task of constructing a personal one.”

Confessional communities, each with their distinctive religious rituals, while not in any sense universal, clearly embody what Freud had in mind and constitute neurotic and hysterical socio-cultural practices. It could be argued (and I think that this is implicit in Freud) that the hysterical and neurotic misery of the universal neuroses of religion are pathological, and that we can reasonably hope for deliverance from this religious misery into ordinary human unhappiness.

James Boswell, obsessive-compulsive journalizer of Samuel Johnson's life.

James Boswell, obsessive-compulsive journalizer of Samuel Johnson's life.

Not only individuals but also entire societies can be transformed from the neurotic misery of compulsive ritual into a state of common unhappiness. What is needed for this is a psychoanalysis of culture that goes to the origins of that culture and all its hidden horrors in order to discover the initial traumas that provoked the neurotic response. We already have a name for this, and it is history. The practice of history — history that rigorously embodies methodological naturalism — is the treatment for religious pathology.

Kit Smart wrote his poem Jubilate Agno while institutionalized in an asylum for religious mania.

Kit Smart wrote his poem Jubilate Agno while institutionalized in an asylum for religious mania.

At the present moment of history all this sounds a bit incredible, and the reader may well think I am joking, but during the Enlightenment the English poet Christopher Smart was institutionalized in St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics for “religious mania” (notably not Bedlam, which was the only other asylum in England at this time). The confinement was controversial at the time, and Dr. Johnson defended Smart. Boswell, in his Life of Johnson, records the following conversation concerning the poet:

BURNEY. “How does poor Smart do, Sir; is he likely to recover?”
JOHNSON. “It seems as if his mind had ceased to struggle with the disease; for he grows fat upon it.”
BURNEY. “Perhaps, Sir, that may be from want of exercise.”
JOHNSON. “No, Sir; he has partly as much exercise as he used to have, for he digs in the garden. Indeed, before his confinement, he used for exercise to walk to the ale-house ; but he was carried back again. I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities, were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I’d as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else. Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it.”

Was Kit Smart mad? No more nor less than Johnson, though Johnson himself might be institutionalized today, not for his religious observances but for his personal hygiene. In perhaps the most famous of Johnsonian apocrypha, there is a story that a lady said to Johnson that he smelled. Dr. Johnson is said to have replied, “Nay, madam. You smell; I stink.”

Would Samuel Johnson be committed today for disinterest in personal care?

Would Samuel Johnson be committed today for disinterest in personal care?

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Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “From Neurotic Misery to Ordinary Human Unhappiness”

  1. […] normalize your problems. “Ordinary Misery” or “Ordinary Unhappiness” (to generously paraphrase Freud) is the goal here, folks. Which is another way of saying that if you stay inside your own head too […]

  2. […] normalize your problems. “Ordinary Misery” or “Ordinary Unhappiness” (to generously paraphrase Freud) is the goal here, folks. Which is another way of saying that if you stay inside your own head too […]

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