Hypochondria

Do you also have an elderly uncle which, at family gatherings, keeps on telling you “I feel I’m withering away, you’ll see, a couple more month and its cancer for me!”. Or maybe its your grandfather, which keeps a blood pressure monitor next to his bed, checking his stats three times a day, never forgetting to check online on every mysterious ache or pain affecting him at least once a week. If so, your analyst or practitioner would probably tell you that you are dealing with a hypochondriac.

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Similarly to paranoia, the hypochondriac is a victim of a persecutory power. But for the hypochondriac this power is strictly embodied in the terrifying organismic dimension of the body. The hypochondriac will describe the body as uncontrollable, as a deathtrap hijacking his soul, eventually sentencing him to death. He will suffer from obsessive thoughts revolving illness, and the deterioration of the body, as well as compulsive pains and other physical symptoms. Accordingly, we see the hypochondriac regularly disposed to constant pre-emptive attempts at the discovery of disease.

Nevertheless, before having anything to do with the body, hypochondria is an affliction which revolves the desire for knowledge. It is an obsessive attempt to know what our body hides from us, what goes on inside of it, and how it affects us. Some might even call it an academic endeavour, attempting to articulate something of the inarticulability of our inevitable death.

Accordingly we should view Hypochondriac delusions, such as phantom pains, as pieces of knowledge provided in the hopes that somebody could make sense out of them – like a doctor for instance. Through the interaction between “bodily-knowledge” (pain) and the knowledge of practitioners, the hypochondriac hopes to learn something of this aspect of the body which can only be mastered in actual death.

Wrongfully identified as fearing death, the hypochondriac is actually constantly in a state of contempt in regards to the enigma of dying. At the price of his own body – inflicted with pain, sacrificed as a piece of “bodily-knowledge” – the hypochondriac’s desire stands strong, demanding to know something of the twilight, even if only its exact time and place.

The Hypochondriac - William Sharp

The Hypochondriac – William Sharp

It is common to mistake the hypochondriac as latching to life, refusing death for the sake of living. But the hypochondriac laches to life only as long as knowledge about death has not been achieved. Accordingly, the hypochondriac can be considered as a worshiper of death, sacrificing his own body for the sake of some of its knowledge. He does not want to die before knowing, he lives for the sake of this knowledge, and embraces death as a partner.

Nevertheless, as Freud puts it quite bluntly – the object of the death drive is always already lost, that is to say that there is nothing to know about it. Thus, the only way to know it is as nothing – as a true place holder for the aim of the subject’s desire. The tragedy of the hypochondriac is not being aware that this knowledge can only be achieved retroactively, as well as by mistake.

This point is summarised quite delightfully in an ancient Mesopotamian tale that first appeared in the Babylonian Talmud called “The Appointment in Samarra”.

“The Appointment in Samarra” as retold by W. Somerset Maugham (1933)

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to the market to buy provisions. In a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, “Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.” The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace, and he saw death standing in the crowd, and he came to it and said, “Why did you make a threatening gesture at my servant when you saw him this morning?” Death then replied, “That was not a threatening gesture, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

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This story teaches us so much, but for now let it teach us that in the end we must accept Truth as our limit point, and that in our errors and mistakes, we inevitably take part in it. Much to the hypochondriac’s dismay, his desire then might as well be reversed, for it is not in knowing, but in the process of forgetting, that we can inevitably raise death to the dignity of life.

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“In Voluptas Mors,” photograph by Philippe Halsman (in collaboration with Salvador Dalí)