Academic journal article Literator: Journal of Literary Criticism, comparative linguistics and literary studies

On Being a Discontinuous Person: Ontological Insecurity, the Wounded Storyteller and Time in Daniel Ke+yes's Flowers for Algernon/Om 'N Onderbroke Persoon Te Wees: Ontologiese Onsekerheid En Tyd in Daniel Keyes Se Flowers for Algernon

Academic journal article Literator: Journal of Literary Criticism, comparative linguistics and literary studies

On Being a Discontinuous Person: Ontological Insecurity, the Wounded Storyteller and Time in Daniel Ke+yes's Flowers for Algernon/Om 'N Onderbroke Persoon Te Wees: Ontologiese Onsekerheid En Tyd in Daniel Keyes Se Flowers for Algernon

Article excerpt

The 1960s counter-culture: A brief glimpse

For most of us, counter-culture conjures up images of a particular chapter of the American story. We associate it with the Beat movement and the sixties era, and with the infamous Summer of Love, The Free Speech movement, militant Yippies, and psychedelic drugs come to mind as well. All were symptomatic that the cultural mainstream was heading in the wrong direction. (Watts 1997:vii; italics original)

Of the countless new theories, philosophies and other socio-cultural manifestations which the 1960s counter-culture engendered, the particular concern here will be with those relating to mental illness and its treatment, and the criticisms of mainstream ideas by counter-culture authors. The broad background of the 1960s and, more specifically, writings on mental illness is singularly relevant to the subject of this article because it was during that era that Daniel Keyes wrote Flowers for Algernon.

Parenthetically, the sixties was also the time when Ken Kesey produced One flew over the cuckoo's nest, its protagonist a petty criminal recidivist who is finally given shock treatment to stifle his refusal to conform to the mental hospital's authoritarian regime.

During the 1960s, several seminal works on mental illness and its prevailing methods of treatment as well as their socio-political implications were written. Ideas drawn from these works serve as the theoretical foundations on which the present exploration of Keyes's novel will be based. For example, Laing's theories of ontological security and interpersonal perception were promulgated in 1960 and 1966 respectively. In 1961, the sociologist, Ervin Goffman, put forward his concept of the 'total institution' to describe, amongst others, monasteries, hospitals, army camps, prisons and mental institutions. Two years later, Goffman's book on the social phenomenon of stigmatisation appeared whilst David Cooper coined the term 'anti-psychiatry' in 1967. Although his work is not used here, Thomas Szasz proposed his provocative myth of mental illness, also in 1961.

These writers were deeply concerned about long-established diagnostic and treatment practices in mainstream psychology and psychiatry as well as the socio-political norms they embodied. Writing in 1964, Laing (1970) explains one of the primary issues:

   Psychiatry has been particularly concerned with individual
   experiences and behaviour regarded in our society as
   'abnormal'

   In an effort to bring psychiatry into line with neurology and
   medicine in general, attempts have been made to categorise
   such experience and behaviour into 'symptoms' and 'signs' of
   supposedly pathological syndromes or illnesses (p. 16)

These approaches to mental illness were rooted in the so-called medical model, what Arthur W. Frank (1997:75) would later call 'the restitution narrative'. Simply put, the medical process follows this generic pattern: The patient presents with symptoms of illness, is diagnosed, is hospitalised (when necessary) and undergoes a series of treatments based on the diagnosis before being discharged when health has been restored. The problem with this model arises when it is applied to mental conditions because not all of them have biological origins and therefore are not susceptible to pharmacological treatments. In pursuit of cures for the symptoms of mental illness, destructive, invasive treatments such as electroconvulsive or shock therapy (ECT), insulin shock therapy and surgical procedures such as lobotomies were used. Involuntary incarceration in highly-regimented mental institutions also occurred. The anti-psychiatry movement construed these procedures as deliberately oppressive and violent and thus useful in controlling 'abnormal' patients. As David Cooper (1967:14) summed it up as follows: 'At the heart of the problem is violence'. A little later, he states: ' ... in fact, violence in psychiatry is preeminently the violence of psychiatry. …

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