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The (Imaginary) Illness Makes The Man

'The Hypochondriacs'

I spent so much of my childhood sick, worried about getting sick, or pretending to be sick that these three states of being blurred together in my mind. The confusion persists; now a documented sufferer of autoimmune disease — and an undocumented sufferer of a no-doubt-fatal disorder currently manifesting as side pain — I am uncertain when to take a sick day or visit the doctor, and whatever course I decide on is almost always wrong. Yes, I belong to that most exasperating class of neurotics: hypochondriacs with health problems, the subject of Brian Dillon's sympathetic, perceptive and often absurdly funny The Hypochondriacs.

Until the 19th century, morbid fear of illness was seen as only one symptom of hypochondria, which doctors treated as an organic disease, although scientific explanations varied. In one era, it was a digestive problem, in another an abdominal issue, and later a disorder linked with melancholia and distributed through the entire body. More importantly for Dillon's purposes, hypochondria, which often has a physical component, provides a reason for those with intellectual or creative temperaments to sequester themselves from the world and pursue their thinking or their art.

Dillon is an unusually dexterous writer. Each of his slim chapters focuses on a different artist or thinker, and each fully evokes the subject's fears and afflictions, showing how they're reflected in his or her life's work. Charlotte Bronte, for instance, was beset by headaches, chest pain and nervous, melancholic breakdowns that became a central theme of her fiction and tended to lift when she finished a novel.

Marcel Proust wrote all night, rested all day and roused himself between four and six o'clock for a late-afternoon-into-evening breakfast. Rather than venturing from his gloomy chamber, the asthmatic author "worked, ate, socialized and sometimes slept in his bed," forcing his servants to deliver croissants in a room clouded by burning medicinal powders. Proust is best known for the enormous, intricately detailed, multi-part novel In Search Of Lost Time. Dillon writes that the author's oversensitivity resulted in the "forensic interest his novel shows in the nature of sensations."

Andy Warhol, who despaired over, tried to forestall and relentlessly documented the decline of his body, ultimately died from one of the many medical procedures he irrationally feared: gall bladder surgery.

The Hypochondriacs is a surprising, endlessly interesting read. It's the perfect book to have on hand the next time you need to take to your sickbed — provided you're willing to risk the chance that it will make you want to stay there.

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