Saturday, 1 March 2014

Trouble or Transcendence? Health, Illness and American Culture in the 1970s

On Thursday 27th February the Centre for American Studies was pleased to welcome Professor Martin Halliwell (University of Leicester) to the department's 2013-2014 seminar series.  In his excellent seminar paper, Trouble or Transcendence? Health, Illness and American Culture in the 1970s, he discussed the rise of psychiatric treatment’s move from state regulation to deinstitutionalised facilities in the 1970s, and the repercussions this had for cultural treatments of mental illness in the era.  

Professor Halliwell began his introduction by discussing the shift of large-state medical facilities to private ones in the post-revolutionary 1970s, which challenged the homogeneity of medical thought at the time.  This expansion of the medical discourse beyond the conventional constraints of the state brought a number of positive qualities with it, especially for minorities in the United States and their access to medical treatment.  Furthermore, this multiplicity of medical dialogues was echoed in the culture of the period.  In the previous decade the criticism of institutionalisation found in works such as Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) and Allen Ginsberg’s poem Kaddish (1961) continued into the literature of the post-revolutionary 1970s.  However, the latter period developed its own critiques of institutionalised medicine into one that additionally praised certain forms of mental illness.  Rather than seeing mental illness necessarily as an impediment, some contemporary writers viewed it as bestowing heightened, superhuman qualities to the individual.  Professor Halliwell exemplified this with his analysis of Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You A Rose Garden (1977).  The main character Deborah, a sixteen-year old girl suffering from schizophrenia, finds surcease from the cruelties of the world by retreating into the imaginary world of her mind, a world expressed by Deborah as simply “Yr”.  The vibrant but cruel inner world found in depictions of the mentally afflicted, Halliwell noted, became a pervasive one within this period, a view that he argued indicated a romantic strain in cultural examinations of mental illness.  His subsequent discussion of the paintings of schizophrenic Martin Ramirez reinforced this narrative, with his paintings depicting the freedom found in mental illness. (both of Ramirez’ paintings displayed in Professor Halliwell’s paper can be found here and here)  The use of the word “extraordinary” in particular by writers such as Greenberg became more and more prevalent, and quickly became tied to this specific medical narrative reinforcing the view of mental illness as an innately positive and redemptive quality.

At this point Professor Halliwell noted the resonance of 1960s social messages within this medical discourse.  With a strong emphasis on freedom, expression and psychological exploration within the social dialogues of the 1960s, he argued that the infusion of these same emphases within medical thought was an attempt to reunite the social ideologies of the counterculture within the post-revolutionary 1970s.  However, the social, political and economic contexts of the 1970s did not readily absorb these ideologies, resulting in the high ideals of the 1960s clashing with the hard realities of the 1970s.  This fusing of social and medical messages of the 1960s and 1970s was exemplified in his examination of Martin Scorcese’s production Taxi Driver (1976) and Percy Walker’s text Love in the Ruins (1974).  Professor Halliwell argued that the main characters of both productions, Scorcese’s Travis Bickle and Walker’s Dr. Tom More, are idealists with a distorted vision.  Whilst both characters recognise something is wrong, whether it’s Bickle’s disenchantment with political life in Taxi-Driver or More’s troubles with the spiritual emptiness of American life in Love in the Ruins, they are unable to express these concerns coherently. Halliwell noted became a hallmark of 1970s medical culture, where many Americans found themselves fraught with undiagnosed anxieties.  Bickle and More are, as Professor Halliwell noted, victims of an age of fracture, caught in a period of social malaise with no hope for a suitable diagnosis.

Professor Halliwell succeeded this analysis of social and medical incoherencies with a review of literary works that depicted the strong narcissistic tendency of 1970s American culture.  His reference to Tom Wolfe’s description of the period as the Third Great Awakening reinforced the strange moulding of religion and therapy inherent in 1970s medicine.  However, in a period dominated by feverish self-analysis and self-enlightenment, there were criticisms of the narcissistic tendencies this religious and therapeutic concoction created in American culture, for example Tom Wolfe’s essay The Me Decade (1977) and Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (1979).  As Professor Halliwell afterwards commented, this sense of spiritual dissatisfaction was even criticised by President Jimmy Carter.  In what came to be known as his “malaise” speech presented on July 15th 1979, Carter noted the crisis of confidence evident in American life, and criticised the self-indulgence and consumption of the age.  Don DeLillo’s Americana (1971) was subsequently discussed and the strong narcissistic qualities of the protagonist David Bell, a character he noted shares a strong literary lineage with Chuck Paluhniuk’s character Tyler Durden in Fight Club (1996).  Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was given as a further example.  Halliwell argued that the fictional characters of DeLillo and Pirsig’s texts are not referenced as examples of characters who necessarily find spiritual salvation, but rather they depict the frenetic but typically fruitless self-analysis of the 1970s.  In a comment he made earlier in his paper, he noted that spiritual inwardness was treated as abhorrent in an age where everything was laid out by individuals but never effectively analysed, once again demonstrating the inherent incoherencies of the decade between social, cultural, political and medical realms.  

Professor Halliwell concluded with an analysis of multiple-personality disorder diagnoses in the 1970s, or what writers in the period had previously referred to as psychic splitting.  He introduced the dilemma of how an age of fracture is affected when those fractures multiply.  Citing Flora Rheta Schreiber’s Sybil (1973), an account of the first ever case of multiple personality disorder ever psychoanalysed, he noted how this account raises the question of selective recall in the patient, and how if the patient is in full control of the account, and there is a chance of them embellishing details, this has profound ramifications for literary narratives dealing with mental illness.  This dilemma as Professor Halliwell commented presents the battle between fantasy and reality in the culture of the 1970s, and one that can be seen in his previously cited literary and cinematic examples.  

In the question and answer session after Professor Halliwell’s presentation, he raised an interesting discussion of how the bicentennial celebrations of American independence in 1976 were celebrated amidst the medical and social turbulence of the period.  He noted that there was an increased interest in national health in the celebrations, and one that was inherently linked to the national spirit, an emphasis that reflected the increasing dominance of medicine within American culture. However, like much of Professor Halliwell’s presentation, this emphasis on the strong national health of the United States was in sharp contrast to the experience of Vietnam veterans, who argued that there wasn’t enough support for them once they returned home.  This national disassociation between political rhetoric and the actualities of 1970s American life reinforced the various contrasts in Professor Halliwell’s intriguing, engaging and compelling discussion of 1970s culture and its representations of health and mental illness.

By James Nixon
PGR at the University of Glasgow

The Centre for American Studies 2013-2014 seminar series will continue with Dr. Joanna Cohen (Queen Mary University): Creating the Consuming Interest: how tariff debates shaped the American consumer, 1828-1865.  This will be held on Wednesday 12th March in Room 208, 2 University Gardens at 5.15pm.  All very welcome!

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