Tuesday 9 June 2020

Favourite Books #9

Obviously, we all gravitate towards books which body forth and reinforce our own opinions, beliefs, prejudices - because they articulate what we feel. While it is salutary to have one’s complacencies challenged, it is also gratifying to know that we are not alone – especially if one considers oneself to be in a minority.

To quote Wittgenstein himself, as recounted by his Irish psychiatrist friend and former student, Maurice Drury:

“You must always be puzzled by mental illness. The thing I would dread most, if I became mentally ill, would be your adopting a common sense attitude; that you could take it for granted that I was deluded.”

I find the following passage from Wiggtenstein’s Nephew by Thomas Bernhard to be among the most moving and insightful in all of modern literature. I particular like the use of anaphora with the phrase ‘so-called mental disease’, and the observations on the use of language as a fortification against truth, rather than as a means of arriving at it, reflections which would have pleased the great philosopher himself.

‘In the last twenty years of his life, my friend had to be admitted to the mental asylum Am Steinof at least twice a year, always at short notice and always under the most terrible circumstances, or, if he was staying in Upper Austria when he was overtaken by one of his attacks, which grew more and more frequent as the years passed, he would be taken into the Wagner-Jauregg Hospital, near Linz. He had been born and brought up in Upper Austria, near the Traunsee, where he had right of domicile in an old farmhouse that had always belonged to the Wittgenstein family. His mental disease, which ought properly to be termed a so-called mental disease, manifested itself very early, when he was about thirty-five. He himself did not talk about it much, but putting together all I know about my friend, it is not difficult to form some idea of its genesis. Even as a child Paul had a predisposition to this so-called mental disease, which has never been precisely classified, having been born mentally sick, already suffering from the so-called mental disease that was to afflict him all his life. Until the day he died, he lived with this so-called mental disease just as naturally as others live without it. It furnished the most depressing evidence of the helplessness of the medical practitioners and of medical science in general. This medical helplessness of the doctors and their science led time and again to the wildest designations for Paul’s so-called mental disease, though naturally never to the correct one; all these designations for my friend’s so-called mental disease repeatedly proved incorrect, not to say absurd, cancelling one another out in the most depressing and disgraceful fashion. The so-called psychiatric specialists gave my friend’s illness first this name and then that, without having the courage to admit that there was no correct name for this disease, or indeed for any other, but only incorrect and misleading names; like all other doctors, they made life easy for themselves – and in the end murderously easy – by continually giving incorrect names to diseases. At every end and turn they would use the term manic or depressive, and they were always wrong. At every end and turn they would take refuge (like all doctors!) in yet another scientific term, in order to cover themselves, to protect themselves (though not the patient). Like all other doctors, those who treated Paul continually entrenched themselves behind Latin terms, which in due course they built up into an insuperable and impenetrable fortification between themselves and the patient, as their predecessors had done for centuries, solely in order to conceal their incompetence and cloak their charlatanry. From the very start of their treatment, which is known to employ the most inhuman, murderous, and deadly methods, Latin is set up as an invisible but uniquely impenetrable wall between themselves and their victims. Of all medical practitioners, psychiatrists are the most incompetent, having a closer affinity to the sex killer than to their science. All my life I have dreaded nothing so much as falling into the hands of psychiatrists, beside whom all other doctors, disastrous though they may be, are far less dangerous, for in our present-day society psychiatrists are a law unto themselves and enjoy total immunity, and after studying the methods they practiced quite unscrupulously on my friend Paul for so many years, my fear became yet more intense. Psychiatrists are the real demons of our age, going about their business with impunity and constrained by neither law nor conscience.’

THOMAS BERNHARD (1931 – 1989) grew up in Salzburg and in Vienna, where he studied music. In 1957 he began a second career as a playwright, poet, and novelist. The winner of many of the most prestigious literary prizes of Europe including the Austrian State Prize, the Bremen and Buchner prizes, and Le Prix Seguier, he has become one of the most widely translated and admired writers of his generation.

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