Joseph Conrad and Psychological Medicine

Joseph Conrad and Psychological Medicine

Joseph Conrad and Psychological Medicine

Joseph Conrad and Psychological Medicine

Synopsis

Conrad's life and fiction are often read through the lens of Freudian thought, though Conrad understood his own health from a pre-Freudian perspective. Joseph Conrad and Psychological Medicine recovers that perspective, revises our understanding of Conrad's life, and rethinks the dominant themes of his work in light of pre-Freudian medical psychology. Beginning with a social history of late-nineteenth-century medical psychology and hysteria studies, Bock's study presents a clear and readable synopsis of fin-de-siècle theories of nervous disorder and moral insanity, shows how Conrad's doctors were trained in medical theories that privilege the physiological over the psychological, and describes what Conrad endured during his water cures at Champel-les-Bains and in an English culture that constructed nervous disease- particularly his diagnosed neurasthenia- as a feminine disorder. Joseph Conrad and Psychological Medicine reads Conrad's fiction medically, showing how Conrad's work focuses on such narrative strategies as Conrad's rhetoric of hysteria and enervation and his vivid, nervous descriptions, and it shows how major tropes such as restraint, seclusion, and water- all treatments for insanity- were important issues in the medical discourse of Conrad's day and are themes that run through Conrad's fiction.Bock's study also suggests that Conrad's major breakdown of 1910 was an epiphany, an event Conrad feared for decades but that afterwards allowed him to shift the interests of his fiction. The post-breakdown fiction offers less brooding and more allegorized narrations of Conrad's medical history as he moves towards a greater acceptance, late in his life, of his gender and sexuality.

Excerpt

I abhorr [sic] quackery.—Joseph Conrad, from a letter to
J. B. Pinker

In the summer spa season of 1907 during one of the bleakest periods of his life, Joseph Conrad wrote to John Galsworthy from Champel, Switzerland, where he was taking a cure: “I am keeping up but I feel as if a mosquito bite were enough to knock me over. Good God! If I were to get it now what would happen! As it is I don’t know very well what will happen. It will be nothing good anyway—even at best. And how to face it mentally and materially is what keeps my nerves on the stretch” (CL, 3:454). While the letter seems irritable and overwrought, the whole Conrad family was, in fact, quite ill, and Conrad was struggling to finish the novel version of The Secret Agent. Borys Conrad, then nine years old, had been plagued by a series of childhood ailments for five months—adenoids, measles that relapsed, bronchitis, suspected tuberculosis—and Conrad himself was recovering from a bad spell of gout, complicated by eczema and the anxiety he felt about the health of his family. The infant John developed whooping cough, which he passed on to Borys, who then developed rheumatic fever—the effect (Conrad speculated) of an earlier bout with scarlet fever—and finally pleurisy. It was, Conrad wrote to John Galsworthy, “a sort of quiet nightmare that goes on and on,” in the midst of which the author would occasionally “steal an hour or two to work at preparing The Secret Agent for book form” (CL, 3:448). At the end of that novel, the ex-medical student Ossipon (nicknamed “the Doctor”) ominously castigates a fellow anarchist: “‘Just now you’ve been crying for time—time. Well! The doctors will serve you out your time—if you are good…. It’s time that you need. You—if you met a man who could give you for certain ten years of time, you would call him your master’” (SA, 227).

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