I just finished the slyly debunking article about the “girl in the dark” in last week’s New Yorker. The girl in the dark is a woman named Lyndsey (or not – that is her pseudonym) who began to experience such violent bodily reactions to light that she quit her job and made the house she shared with her husband into a blacked out den in order to survive.
Ed Caesar, the author of the article, never comes out and says that he believes the condition is psychosomatic, but the article obviously tips that way. Lyndsey strongly objects to this interpretation. To her, this is a way of dismissing the condition, or blaming her for it, instead of finding out what it “really is.”
I was struck by how we have regressed to a pre-Freudian era in the terms that are set for illnesses and conditions.
There’s an obvious antinomy in the argument that psychosomatic conditions aren’t real. The ground of that objection is based in a sort of common folk psychological positivism, a naïve materialism. The argument goes that an illness or something with sickness like symptoms is real if you can trace the cause back to some alien presence in the body – a virus, a bacteria – or some genetic or natal cause. Otherwise, the symptom or disease like condition is not real, in as much as its cause is some idea. It is, instead, feigned. However, how would feigning be possible if ideas in some sense had no effect on the physiological condition of the body? Once we grant that the effect can occur, we have granted another causal route for bodily conditions. We don’t really have to go too far afield in our folk interpretations of our actions to see the most commonplace instances of this. I have an idea that I want to run, so I run. Running causes my heart to beat faster and my breathing to quicken. Nobody would say that the heart beating faster and the breathing wasn’t real. One might say, however, that I was proximately responsible for this by my decision to run. We can change our example and make the responsibility charge (which, I should point out, is a term that is overdetermined – it is not just a way of talking about a cause, but a way of talking about the morality of an act) a little fuzzier. I’m afraid of heights. When, for instance, I went up with A. to have drinks on top of a swank L.A. hotel, recently, I experienced some slight physiological changes and a great deal of a sort of proprioceptive mental discomfort that I cannot trace back to a decision I made, as in the running case. Instead, the phobia has a subconscious status. I am aware of it, but I can’t turn it off and on in the way I can the decision to run. Even those peope who are resistant to the idea of a subconscious would probably try to pursuade me to treat it like running or other actions I turn off and on, implicitly acknowledging that it has another footing. In habit, say.
The point is, whether Lyndsey’s condition comes from chemicals or a virus or something unconscious, it is in as much as she feels it real. A therapist might speak of Lyndsey’s unconscious decision to feel in a certain way, using the model of decision-making that would put the idea on the same plane as the decision to run, but this is a simplification and distortion of the unconscious idea. Eventually, Freud, needing “deciders”, came up with a topography of the self that included the ego, the id, and the superego. It is not clear, however, that decision actually describes the effect of an idea on the unconscious level.
The unconscious is back in style, scientifically, although neurologists try to make clear that they are not talking about the yucky Freudian unconscious, with all that sex going on. This unconscious is sexless and data driven. It has become obvious that we take in far more sense data than we can consciously process. It has to go somewhere. The popular model for this is the User illusion – taken from computers. Users downloading a file will look at the little graph showing the file being downloaded as if it is connected to the activity, instead of being a mere icon pointing to the activity going on, and thus unconnected to it in a real sense – in the same way that the blinking light warning you to get oil for your car is not the thing you pour the oil over when you get the oil. The user illusion idea is that mostly we deal with icons in our consciousness instead of the real processes going on in our unconscious.
This view of the unconscious dovetails with Freudian theory much more than the neurologists and pop scientists think. That is because most of them have never read Freud at all, but have read magazine articles about what a kook Freud was. Oh well.
The violent resistance to the suggestion that a symptom or condition can have its ultimate cause in the unconscious is another symptom of the flatheadedness of our time. On the other hand, the original Freudian therapeutic impulse, which was about understanding our unconscious idea and thus ‘curing’ the condition or syndrome, seems to have been way too optimistic. What changes the body necessarily operates through the bodies tools, and corporal tendencies can reinforce themselves in different ways once a condition is established. It is likely that if Lyndsey were really suffering from some psychosomatic condition, she would really need certain physical treatments. My point is that the rejection of the psychosomatic is something encouraged by the positivist trend in medical science that is ultimately therapeutically unsound.
The unconscious – can’t live with it, can’t live without it.