Sense and Sensibility (book)
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Sense and Nonsensibility: Lampoons of Learning and Literature

Curing the Classics

Advances in psycho-pharmacology and a close reading of the Fourth Edition of the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) suggest that many of the great tragedies of western literature could have been prevented.  Proper diagnosis and timely therapeutic intervention might have spared much unnecessary suffering in the annals of fiction.  What follows is but a sample:

The Metamorphosis.  The famous first sentence—As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy  dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect—already suggests a protagonist suffering from acute Dissociative Identity Disorder (DSM-IV 300.14), a condition marked by feelings of extreme alienation from one’s self.  It is now widely appreciated that, if left untreated, DID can manifest itself somatically as whole-body transformation, sometimes of a cross-species variety.  The disease can be triggered or aggravated by physical disorders such as a disfiguring skin condition—and indeed the text suggests that Samsa was seborrhoeic before the metamorphosis.  Embarrassment at this condition, combined with an exhausting schedule as a traveling salesman and an early childhood trauma (such as watching his father crush cockroaches with his bare hands), might well have predisposed Samsa to an acute case of DID.  Treatment indicated: Prozac, cyclopropanecarboxylate (the active ingredient in RAID™), and cortisone; family counseling strongly recommended. 

Ulysses.  Molly Bloom’s excited outbursts of rambling and incoherent discourse match the diagnostic criteria for pibloktoq, a culture-bound syndrome observed primarily in arctic and subarctic Inuit communities, but also occasionally in certain groups of women in early twentieth-century Dublin.  Its cause is unknown, but in this case it co-exists with a Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (DSM-IV 302.71) possibly caused by a failure to master the anxiety occasioned by an absent partner.  Recommended treatment: Prozac and, assuming cooperation of her husband, Leopold, intensive couple therapy.

The Republic.  The quintessential philosophical gadfly, Socrates was put to death by the citizens of Athens, who were convinced that his “incessant, irksome and irritating” questioning of all aspects of existence showed a “deliberate perversity.”  What the Athenians considered acts of subversion, however, can now be clearly seen as the symptoms of an Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (DSM-IV 300.3).  This disorder involves repetitive behaviors that “cause marked distress, are time consuming (take more than 1 hour a day), or significantly interfere with the person’s normal routine, occupational (or academic) functioning, or usual social activities or relationships.”  Socrates, whose specific condition might have been compounded by a Rumination Disorder (DSM-IV 307.53), can finally obtain relief (as can his fellow Athenians), for Prozac has proven its effectiveness as a pharmacological response to OCD: a recently completed pilot program to test the efficacy of Paxil, a closely related drug, helped reduce Lady Macbeth’s hand washing by 37% and Sisyphus’ rock-rolling by 24%.

Oedipus Rex.  The most famous tragic hero in world literature, the ill-fated King of Thebes has long been misdiagnosed, largely as a result of the dominance of Freudian models.  It now seems, however, that Oedipus’s problems were not oedipal in nature.  Instead, his key character traits—competitiveness in quiz-show settings, rage at the sight of suffering donkeys, and forward behavior towards older women—all support a diagnosis of Intermittent Explosive Disorder (DSM-IV 312.34), exacerbated by a previously existing condition of Oppositional Defiant Disorder (DSM-IV 313.81).  Treatment includes Prozac and extensive family therapy.

Hamlet.   The protagonist of this most famous drama has likewise endured centuries of misdiagnosis.  Now, nearly 400 years after Hamlet uttered his first soliloquy, researchers have identified the affliction that long puzzled the Prince’s kinsmen and generations of critics: Malingering Disorder, with its telltale “feigning of...the sick role...[to] avoid legal responsibility” (see Factitious Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, DSM-IV 300.19).  Treatment consists of Prozac in combination with a month in Provence and a mild antihistamine.

How Late It Was, How Late.  In this recent fictional work, the protagonist, Sammy, a Scotsman with a serious Antisocial Personality Disorder (DSM-IV 301.7), suffers from coprolalia, a chronic vocal tic that involves the uttering of obscenities (DSM-IV 307.22): thus, in the course of his musings, Sammy says the “F-word” and its close cognates at least 4,000 times.  Coprolalia is now thought to be much more widespread than commonly believed.  Earlier novels were reluctant to acknowledge openly their characters’ vulnerability to coprolalia.  For instance, it is widely suspected that Miss Emma Woodhouse suffered from the disease, but understandably, her creator could not be more candid about the matter.  In Sammy’s case, a wee bit of Prozac and a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus may well have beneficial effects.

The Bible.  Notwithstanding the unmistakable rhetorical and therapeutic gifts of the principal protagonist of the New Testament, recent clinical studies suggest that Jesus of Nazareth demonstrated classical symptoms of Delusional Disorder of the Grandiose Type (DSM-IV 297.1).  According to the DSM-IV, this disorder may cause an individual to “have the delusion of having a special relationship with a prominent person (e.g., an adviser to the President)....  Grandiose delusions may have a religious content (e.g., the person believes that he or she has a special message from a deity).”  This first and most exemplary case of the disorder might  have been treated with Prozac and a tincture of myrrh.  Treatment also calls for complete avoidance of crowds and abstinence from substances that interfere with monoamine oxidase inhibitors (such as red wine).

Romeo and Juliet.  Pressing the apparently dead Juliet to his chest, Romeo excitedly proclaims, “Arms, take your last embrace! and, lips, O you / The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss / A dateless bargain to engrossing death!”  Moments later, Juliet lies beside Romeo’s body and declares “I will kiss thy lips.”  Although long overlooked, there can be no doubt that the doomed lovers both suffered from a mild case of necrophilia (technically, a Paraphilia Not Otherwise Specified, DSM-IV 302.9).  Most experts recommend behavior modification therapy, in conjunction with Prozac.

The Brothers Karamazov.  Ivan Karamazov’s sickness has long been a mystery to researchers.  His violent mood-swings, his capacity to discourse at length, and his hallucinations suggested that a mental disorder or some philosophical point was in play.  In fact, it now seems that the principal culprit of Ivan’s sufferings was the family samovar.  His excitability, insomnia, and general “brain fever” all support a diagnosis of Caffeine-Related Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (DSM-IV 292.9).  Treatment indicated: gradual reduction of tea consumption to ten cups per day; Prozac; existential therapy.