Sunday, March 20, 2011

Zeno’s Conscience: Psychoanalysis

I had put myself in the doctor’s hands with such trust that when he told me I was cured, I believed him completely and, on the contrary, I didn’t believe in my pains, which still afflicted me. I said to them: “You’re not real, after all!” But now there can be no doubt! It’s them, all right! The bones in my legs have been converted into vibrant scales that hurt the flesh and the muscles.

My therapy was supposedly finished because my sickness had been discovered. It was nothing but the one diagnosed, in his day, by the late Sophocles for poor Oedipus. I had loved my mother and I would have liked to kill my father. … The best proof that I never had the sickness is supplied by the fact that I am not cured of it.

Svevo saves his most scathing comments about psychoanalysis for this concluding chapter, likening it to a religion intended to highlight the pain of the past as a way to endure the present. Zeno’s journal entries make fun of the dreams he told his therapist, both real and invented, as well as the reeducation imposed on him. Zeno realizes the therapist avoids the obvious: “I believe, however, that he is the only one in this world who, hearing I wanted to go to bed with two beautiful women, would ask himself: Now let’s see why this man wants to go to bed with them.”

Zeno, fed up with his therapist, visits the family doctor seeking scientific analysis instead of spiritualism. At the possibility he has diabetes, Zeno sinks into a reverie—finally, a sickness he can love and savor. Finding out he doesn’t have diabetes, he confesses he feels “very much alone” and abandoned. He avoids memories and dreams for fear of what psychoanalysis has done to him. But then something miraculous happens, if Zeno can be believed…a very big “if.” His health improves, he quits smoking (even if temporarily), and enjoys his life and family. He feels healthy, not just relatively but absolutely. His outlook on life changes: “Sorrow and love—life, in other words—cannot be considered a sickness because they hurt.”

Naturally I am not ingenuous, and I forgive the doctor for seeing life itself as a manifestation of sickness. Life does resemble sickness a bit, as it proceeds by crises and lyses, and has daily improvements and setbacks. Unlike other sicknesses, life is always fatal. It doesn’t tolerate therapies. It would be like stopping the holes that we have in our bodies, believing them wounds. We would die of strangulation the moment we were treated.

Zeno’s improvement and maturation feel a little contrived—Zeno the sage, after all the pages of his comic contradictions, seems quite a stretch and more like Svevo’s lecturing to the reader. Two things help counter some of those feelings. The first comes in the realization, or maybe it’s just hope, that Zeno hasn’t changed completely and some of the essential “Zeno-ish” still resides in him. The second comes from the imposition of World War I, impacting his life directly as well as giving him the opportunity to mature (even if forced on him).

Still, the last two pages feel like Svevo’s preaching about the pollution of present-day life where sickness flourishes as man “becomes increasingly shrewd and weaker.” I think it’s easy to read too much into the last paragraph, especially since it runs counter to almost everything preceding it. Even so, it highlights the possible outcomes of sickness or life:

Perhaps, through an unheard-of catastrophe produced by devices, we will return to health. When poison gases no longer suffice, an ordinary man, in the secrecy of a room in this world, will invent an incomparable explosive, compared to which the explosives currently in existence will be considered harmless toys. And another man, also ordinary, but a bit sicker than others, will steal this explosive and will climb up at the center of the earth, to set it on the spot where it can have the maximum effect. There will be an enormous explosion that no one will hear, and the earth, once again a nebula, will wander through the heavens, freed of parasites and sickness.


LMR said...

Very curious. Thanks for the review. I read Svevo before, but not yet this masterpiece. The paragraph about the pain not being real is hilarious!

Dwight said...

This is one of those books that once you finish it you want to turn around and read it again to see what you missed the first time (while thoroughly enjoying it the first time through). At least that's how it was for me. Looking back on it, I need to set aside some time to do so!

LMR said...

Have you read A Perfect Hoax? It's a novella, and I enjoyed it very much. It's a great send-up of writers.

Dwight said...

I've not read it, but it sounds like I'll need to!

Mimus Brown said...

I think the novel does a good job of showing how sick everyone around Zeno truly was, not just Zeno. In some ways, he is the more sane of the sick ones, including his own sick therapist who is more interested in disease and diagnosis than the human experience. I read the novel and put it down thinking Zeno's sickness was perhaps healthy in that he could at least own it, whereas most of the rest of the people in his life never truly owned theirs. It was a great read. Enjoyed your summary.

Dwight said...

Thanks. I'm thinking I need to revisit this book again soon!