Date: 27 January 2010
Brian Dillon – Hypochondriac Lives
Hypochondria is an ancient name for a malady that is always distressingly novel and varied: the excessive dread of disease or the mistaken conviction that one is already ailing. Historically, the term named disorders of the ‘hypochondrium’: the area just below the ribs; hypochondria was a real disease with actual symptoms, often of a digestive nature. It gradually lost this organic meaning, and came to denote a generalized fear or fantasy. Hypochondriacal symptoms might now appear anywhere in the body, though they have generally (and inexplicably) tended to cluster on the left-hand side. The biographies of famous hypochondriacs – those eminent malingerers who were also, of course, often actually unwell – are strewn with instructive, often overlapping, symptoms and debilitating worries that variously hampered or enabled their life’s work. In this talk I will trace the development of hypochondria from an organic illness to a style of life, with reference to certain key figures in the annals of debility: James Boswell, Alice James, Daniel Paul Schreber, Marcel Proust, Glenn Gould and Andy Warhol. Hypochondria appears here as a form of super-sensitivity, intimately related to aesthetic sensitivity and most convincingly theorized at the end of the nineteenth century as a type of ‘common sense’ or coenaesthopathy.
Dr Brian Dillon studied English and Philosophy at University College Dublin and Trinity College Dublin before coming to Kent in 1995 to complete a Ph.D. on concepts of time in twentieth-century literary criticism and theory, focussing on the work of Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Paul de Man, Jean-François Lyotard and Giorgio Agamben. He taught at the School of English for several years before becoming a freelance writer and editor around 2002. In October 2008 Brian returned to Kent as an AHRC Research Fellow in the Creative & Performing Arts on a research project entitled Ruins of the 20th Century.