Medicating The Human Condition, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 22 2014 @ 5:54pm

This embed is invalid


In an interview, Scott Stossel discusses his new book, My Age of Anxiety. Why he doesn’t appear outwardly anxious:

Some people say that in stressful situations I can seem unflappable, and I think that’s partly because I’m always kind of internally flapped. And so … when there’s actually something real to be concerned about, it’s actually less anxiety-provoking than these irrational things. It’s also fairly typical … of certain kinds of anxiety-disorder sufferers, particularly people with panic disorder, [they] are exceptionally good at hiding it. They’re able to convey an impression of competence, calmness and confidence, which is maybe substantially real … but there’s an internal fear. … The gap between that and this façade where people see you as competent and effective — you’re always afraid of being exposed, which is in itself anxiety-producing.

One of my more recent therapists calls this phenomenon impression management. Impression management is not only a symptom of anxiety, because you’re worried about being exposed, but it’s also a cause because you’re constantly worried that the house of cards that is your outward image … is going to come crashing down.

Louis Menand takes issue with the book:

“My Age of Anxiety” is not a memoir. Stossel tells us things about his parents, his marriage, and his children, but only things that are relevant to what he calls, after a famous remark of Freud’s, “the ‘riddle’ of anxiety.” The same is true of what he tells us about himself. He appears simply as a sufferer. Most of his book is a scholarly exploration of the history of anxiety and a journalistic account of the present state of medical knowledge. It’s intelligent, interesting, and well written, but the subject of anxiety is a mess, and the book, intentionally or not, is an accurate representation of its subject.

It doesn’t solve the riddle, either, but that’s not Stossel’s fault. It’s because anxiety of the kind he is afflicted with is not a riddle. It’s an illness. There is therefore nothing, except in the medical sense, to solve. That’s not what Stossel wants to believe, though. He has an idea that more is at stake. He thinks that there is a metaphysics of anxiety. “To grapple with and understand anxiety,” he says, “is, in some sense, to grapple with and understand the human condition.”

But he nevertheless praises Stossel:

He is an honest guide. He is committed to thinking through the philosophical, scientific, and human implications of a mood that appears to be universal (though people who live in underdeveloped countries seem to be less anxious) and that has attracted the attention of writers from Aristotle and Robert Burton (the seventeenth-century author of “The Anatomy of Melancholy”) to Søren Kierkegaard and William James. One of the best things about him is that he’s generally agnostic toward the theories and treatments he examines. He sees the possibilities in everything.

George Scialabba thinks Stossel lets capitalism off too easily:

Late in the book, buried in a footnote, a few sentences speculate that “life in a capitalist economy produces anxiety and uneasiness [and] can be psychologically corrosive. . . . Perhaps the human organism is not equipped to live life as society”—“society,” really?—“has lately designed it—a harsh zero-sum competition where the only gains to be had are at the expense of someone else, where ‘neurotic competition’ has displaced solidarity and cooperation.” That’s it. He devotes more space to the etymology of panic (the slightly crazy god Pan) and the physiology of blushing.

Previous Dish on Stossel’s new book here here.