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Friday, December 19, 2008

Mental Health: Social problem? Spiritual problem? Both?

In Sin or Insanity?: Salvation through Retaliation in Flannery O'Connor's "The Partridge Festival," Stephen Sparrow (May 2008) discusses O'Connnor's approach to insanity, contrasting it with others:

In the early 1970s, internationally renowned psychiatrist Ronald David Laing dumbfounded many of his professional colleagues by declaring that apart from cases where the human brain had been affected by physiological illness, physical injury, or some deformity existing at birth, all mental illness was nothing other than social phenomena, which, just as in the case of "normal" social behaviours, has been acquired by the individual from his adjacent social environment. Laing was no Freudian so it was little wonder that psychiatrists world wide were dismayed, since the effect of his pronouncement meant that in most cases their methods to cure the mad (as Laing called them) were futile, and that furthermore, the money being poured into trying to identify a gene responsible for schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders was money wasted and tantamount to man searching for God through a high powered microscope.

Laing's controversial statement should make us all grateful, since any purported genetic link to mental illness would in the future inevitably be used to screen individuals in an experimental attempt to eliminate what "experts" see as mental illness and what the rest of us might prosaically refer to as bizarre or unusual behaviour--which is often the stuff of every interesting story ever told. The corollary is that any attempt at genetic manipulation to modify human behaviour is an attack on free will and as such is doomed to fail. Having said that, there are some mindsets where free will is a practical impossibility--obsessive states leading to paranoia are an obvious example, but rarely if ever is one born into that condition. Obsessive states usually come about through behaviour that over a period has so gradually changed, that even those closest to the afflicted person barely notice the effect until it is much too late to easily reverse the condition.
From what I can tell, people who are obsessive frequently know that their feelings are unreasonable, but they also don't think they can control them. So they may well hide them out of shame in many cases.

(For example, if I believed that house flies contained little videocams and were spying on me, I would probably say nothing to anyone until I experienced some kind of mental health crisis ... at which point people would be astonished to discover that I had thought so for years. All anyone would notice in the meantime is my systematic approach to exterminating flies - but that can be explained by the pursuit of cleanliness.)

Anyway, Sparrow writes,
Devoutly Catholic, Flannery O'Connor was deeply distrustful of modern psychiatric practice and in her short story "The Comforts of Home", her character Sarah Ham admits that she habitually lied because she was insecure. O'Connor's omniscient narrator then informs us that Sarah "had passed through the hands of several psychiatrists who had put the finishing touches to her education." O'Connor also dismissed as a romantic notion, the "traditional" association of insanity with the Divine (letter to John Hawkes 22/6/61).
O'Connor is one of my favourite novelists. She lived a short (1925-1964), pain-filled life, so her work focuses on the spiritual reality that is all around and within us - but we often do not even see it. That reality embraces mental illness as well.

Here is a survey discussion of her work. In my view, her "The Displaced Person" (on line here) is the best American long short story of the twentieth century.

(Note: "Long short story" is an oxymoron to be sure, but it refers to a short story roughly over ten thousand words - much longer and the story will soon be growing up into a novella! But O'Connor makes a good use of every single word.)

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