We could diagnose and heal the human frailties found in literature. But why?
Not long ago, members of my American lit survey class decided that the disturbing behaviors of Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener -- staring out the window at a blank brick wall, preferring not to do pretty much whatever he's asked to do -- were symptoms of clinical depression.
Paxil or Prozac, along with some good counseling, maybe group therapy to help with his peer interactions, was what the poor fellow needed.
Earlier, the class had diagnosed Pearl Prynn, Hester's love child in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," as hyperactive, the result of ADHD and the absence of a male role model in the home.
Ritalin and some well-directed play therapy would help her settle down and become a productive citizen.
Ah, the diagnostic model. How much easier it makes my job. No more pesky ambiguity. No more struggling with murky symbolism or extended metaphors.
Now all I have to do is observe the character's behavior, diagnose the disorder, prescribe appropriate medication and therapy -- I am a doctor, after all -- and move on to the next case history.
"He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart's shell upon it."
A clear case of paranoid schizophrenia, with delusions of persecution. A course of antipsychotic medication and some anger management counseling, and he'll be happily settled in a group home, watching "Whale Wars" on Animal Planet.
The Great Gatsby?
"The truth was that Jay Gatsby ... sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a Son of God ..."
Grandiose self-conception, symptomatic of a narcissistic personality disorder. A psychiatrist friend informs me that narcissistic behavior can be changed but that the narcissist has to be rich, because the therapy can take years and usually isn't covered by health insurance.
But hey, Gatsby is rich enough to afford five years of therapy, at the end of which, having acquired a self-conception that may actually be realized, he can move back to Minnesota, finish up at St. Olaf, marry a nice Lutheran and settle down to the pursuit of normalcy.
But wait a minute. Without Gatsby, how will we know about misdirected idealism?
How will we know about urban alienation without Bartleby? How can we understand normal without some contrasting abnormal?
Maybe Ken Kesey's McMurphy is right: Our Big Nurse society is out to analyze and medicate and electroshock and lobotomize us all into a homogenized society of conforming consumers.
Then I remind myself that most literary characters are the types who wouldn't stay on their meds even if court ordered to do so. Ahab would be bound for the South Seas with a harpoon the minute his handlers' backs were turned.
Gatsby would never accept his narcissism -- like the psychiatrist's light bulb, the narcissist must want to change -- but would pursue his Daisy delusions to the death, as in fact he does. Bartleby would prefer not to take his meds or attend his group, just as he prefers not to do just about everything else.
So we nonliterature characters need not worry: While we pursue normal happy lives through medication and therapy, the Ahabs and Bartlebys and Gatsbys will continue as our proxies in the worlds of madness and disorder, helping us by their examples to understand our common humanity.
Trust me. I'm a doctor.
Michael Nesset teaches English at Century College.
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