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Reading: A War for What Ails Us

The medical metaphor of 1903 was neurasthenia, an effeminizing weakness that Teddy Roosevelt cured by strenuous exercise and military adventure. Today we might call it the wimp factor.

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The past often looks curiously familiar. In 1899, the ostentatiously macho Teddy Roosevelt urged American men to follow him to new heights of masculinity. Decrying what he called the "soft spirit of the cloistered life," he advocated the hard, martial regime of the "strenuous life" as a kind of salvation for upper-class men who had become overcivilized and flabby. Roosevelt called for a resolute reassertion of testosterone at home and abroad. "Boldly face the life of strife," he bellowed, "for it is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness."

By the time he made this speech, Roosevelt himself exemplified the virile ideal he so avidly advocated. He regularly bounded up mountainsides because they were there and hunted buffalo and more exotic big game, and in an astounding burst of energy once played 91 games of tennis in one day. William Dean Howells, the naturalist writer, observed Roosevelt with a kind of awe: "He is so strenuous I am faint thinking of him. No man over forty has the force to meet him without nervous prostration."

But it had not always been this way, as Tom Lutz's fascinating critical study of cultural hypochondria, American Nervousness, 1903, points out. The man who by the turn of the century was denouncing his critics as a "small body of shrill eunuchs" and describing pacifists as "timid and scholarly men in whom refinement and culture have been developed at the expense of the virile qualities" had in fact begun his political career as something of a sissy. Entering the New York state assembly in 1882, wearing the outfit of an affected dandy and "speaking in a high-pitched voice with an exaggerated aristocratic accent," as Lutz describes him, Roosevelt seemed the very model of effete elite decadence. The newspapers took to calling him "Young Squirt," "Jane Dandy," and perhaps worst of all, America's own Oscar Wilde.

Suffering from asthma and other symptoms of what was then called "neurasthenia" or "nervousness," Roosevelt sought to combat the disease with frenetic physical activity to "build himself up." Hoping to purge himself of "eastern" effeminacy, Roosevelt took numerous trips west in the 1880s. As Lutz notes, these trips were "attempts to attain a state of manliness . . . to exorcize through exercise his effeminizing sickness, and at the same time to masculinize and thereby strengthen his political position." The attempts worked. In many ways, Roosevelt's vision of national redemption through manly posturing was simply an extrapolation of his own personal story of redemption. Less charitably described, it was neurotic sexual overcompensation writ large.

The parallels between Roosevelt and the current occupant of the White House should by now be perfectly evident. Like Roosevelt, who conflated military and sexual prowess in talk of the "big stick," George Bush has combined a love of generals with anxious concern over his privates. Throughout his political career Bush has faced ridicule as a wimp--real Texans, humorist Molly Ivins noted, don't describe trouble as "deep doo doo." He's expended considerable energy trying to overcome this image. As the comedian Dana Carvey has observed, Bush's voice is an equal mixture of Mister Rogers and John Wayne. Of course, the John Wayne part is a pure affectation; listening to Bush's speeches, I can't help thinking he's doing an impersonation of a man.

Marx once observed that history repeats itself: the first occurrence is tragedy, the second farce. In this case it's not quite so simple: Roosevelt's story and Bush's are both comic and tragic. Bush began his search for masculinity by denouncing broccoli--evidently sissy food. Instead of moving on to the other vegetables, he turned his attention to foreign affairs, first going mano a mano with Noriega (with the help of a rather large army), then moving on to a duel with Saddam. Bush built him up in the popular consciousness as a threat equal to Hitler so that one of the most one-sided slaughters in history would be seen as a test of America's, and Bush's, manly resolve--a cure for weakness.

"We've kicked the Vietnam syndrome," Bush announced shortly after the war in the Middle East ended, as if the slight restraint America had shown in its post-Vietnam foreign policy had been a debilitating disease to be cured through action. The aggressive edge to Bush's voice indicated that he felt he had kicked the "wimp syndrome" as well. As Roosevelt and Bush both learned--to the detriment of their many innocent victims--the personal is political. Last winter a sign at one antiwar demonstration wryly lamented this fact: "I'll never call you wimp again."

In an intriguing aside in American Nervousness, Lutz seems to draw similar conclusions about Roosevelt's political actions: "Roosevelt equated American indecisiveness about becoming a great military and economic world power with cowardice and with the moral laxity . . . of leisured elites, and he offered a single answer to both problems: replace morbid self-reflection with action, preferably military action." Such thinking, Lutz comments, has characterized American foreign policy from Roosevelt's day to our own.

Of course the parallels between American culture now and at the turn of the century go far beyond the conflation of sexual fears and aggressive imperialism. The story of Roosevelt's masculinization makes up only a small portion of Lutz's fascinating and multifaceted account, which helps put Roosevelt's odyssey in a broader cultural perspective and suggests ways later historians might make sense of Bush and of our own times.

American Nervousness is largely the story of how American political and cultural discourse has been psychologized. As the George Bush example shows, psychological discourse is still central to our understanding of the world. Lutz traces the beginnings of this crucial typically modern development, which arose at the turn of the century.

As Lutz shows, medical and psychological metaphors permeated American culture at that time, from broad political debates to the intimate details of personal life. Above all the discourse centered around a disease called neurasthenia, whose diverse symptoms included depression, migraine (or "sick headache"), asthma, and even premature baldness. "Just as every age has its prevailing disease of the body, so has it its characteristic spiritual ailment," a character in a 1903 Jack London novel observed. For Americans at the turn of the century, neurasthenia was both.

The disease acquired its popular definition in an 1881 book by the physician George M. Beard, also entitled American Nervousness. Beard argued that neurasthenia occurred in sensitive individuals--especially "brain workers" and those in the leisure class--exposed to the hectic pace of modern life. "American nervousness," he wrote, "is the product of American civilization." As Lutz notes, the disease was thus always something of a badge of honor: it was ubiquitous in America because America was the crowning jewel of civilization, and even within this exalted land the "distinguished malady," as Beard called it, affected only the best and brightest.

Most of those who studied or complained of the disease shared Beard's assumption that modernity caused nervousness. "How can we be happy," one modern man of the 1890s complained, "when the nerves are kept jangling day after day and night after night?" But most complained with a sense of self-satisfaction because, like Beard, they saw the disease as a sign of the progress of civilization. In fact it became rather fashionable to suffer what was called "the disease of the age": one writer noted enthusiastically, in Confessions of a Neurasthenic, that the disease enabled one to "move in Neurasthenic circles."

By 1903, the year Lutz focuses on, discussion of neurasthenia had pervaded American culture. The symptoms of neurasthenia were so diverse that the disease could be adapted to a variety of different political and cultural agendas. "[I]t would be difficult to overemphasize the cultural consequences of neurasthenia. . . ." Lutz writes. "Neurasthenia offers a common horizon to the texts of 1903 because of its ubiquity, which was itself made possible by the disease's amorphous possibility."

Lutz notes that by 1903 neurasthenia had become "both a medical speciality and a central new cultural articulation of psychological, moral, physical, social, and economic understandings, especially understandings of . . . change." The turn of the century was a watershed in American culture: America passed from the Victorian age to modern times. "Neurasthenia," Lutz contends, "was the primary discourse available to mediate these transformations in 1903, and it was available in numerous forms and packages, from many sources, and advertised with numberless promises." Lutz's book particularly excels in articulating the diversity of these packages and promises.

In some ways, neurasthenia was a method of holding fast to old certainties in a time of change. Neurasthenia was defined differently for men and women, for example, and proposed cures for the disease helped to maintain strict boundaries between the sexes--to reinforce notions of women as naturally and rightfully passive and dependent, the mirror image of independent, active men. "[M]any 'overly active' women," Lutz notes, "were isolated in bedrooms to be taken care of by nurses, while many men feminized by the disease were sent out west to become men again." (The drum-pounding "Iron John" men's movement of today seems a pale rerun of these earlier "cures.")

If one could ignore the vicious imperialism male cures helped to instigate and justify, the western voyages of neurasthenic men would seem merely comic. The effects of the cures on women were often tragic. The consequences of the "rest cure" were described in horrific detail by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in her autobiographical short story "The Yellow Wallpaper." Gilman found herself at the mercy of the famous Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, whose cure was intended to force women into infantile dependency by depriving them of any stimulation or activity whatsoever. As readers of her story know, this cure drove Gilman to the brink of madness; by the end of the story her heroine was scratching at the walls hoping to set the "creeping women" within the wallpaper patterns free. Mitchell's male patients, by contrast, were sent to the Dakotas for vigorous horse riding and what we today would call male bonding.

But neurasthenic discourse, as Lutz argues, did far more than simply legitimate conservative efforts to maintain the status quo. A reaction, albeit a confused and contradictory one, to the effects of industrialization, it also helped prepare the way for cultural modernization, forging a trail for the consumer culture to follow.

Lutz's claims seem to echo the arguments made by historians such as Jackson Lears, who argues that neurasthenia was a symptom of the "antimodernist" ideas of American elites at the turn of the century. Lears claims that this antimodernism grew from a larger pattern of "evasive banality" in fin de siecle elite ideology; in complex and highly ironic ways, that evasion helped to prepare the way for modernity. "Historians have long castigated "Gilded Age' culture for its failure to grapple with the realities of a . . . new industrial society," Lears wrote. "In actuality that "failure' served an important social purpose. By denying the dilemmas posed by modernization, the official doctrines provided both a source of escape from unprecedented conflict and a means of legitimizing continued capitalist development."

Lears argues that neurasthenia--or its cures, at least--helped to prepare the way for the "therapeutic ethos" that has characterized 20th-century American culture. Those attempting to cure the disease turned in the early 20th century from the repressive strategies of men like Dr. Mitchell to therapy based upon what Lears calls "a new faith in psychic abundance." These therapists, like their predecessors, advocated personal solutions to social ills, but their solutions differed from the older ones because increasingly they offered self-realization through the enjoyment of abundance. Often viewed as a kind of liberation, even today, to Lears's mind the new ethos offered only a more palatable psychic slavery. "[T]he therapeutic outlook," Lears charges, "has . . . undermined personal moral responsibility and promoted an ethic of self-fulfillment well attuned to the consumer ethos of modern capitalism."

Though Lutz is broadly sympathetic to this approach, he is more interested in understanding the multifaceted nature of the discourse than in providing a clear-cut historical narrative with definitive conclusions. This methodology helps Lutz to explore the diversity in the discourse, which others have downplayed. "Neurasthenia," he argues, "is less an ideological formation [as Lears would have us believe] than a multiaccented story."

In line with this approach, American Nervousness provides short biographical sketches of a variety of public figures--most literary or intellectual--who suffered from neurasthenia and who understood their suffering in different ways. While Teddy Roosevelt climbed mountains and charged up the San Juan hill, William James saw his own struggle against neurasthenia (which, from the sound of it, would today be diagnosed as depression and treated medically) as justification for a philosophy that relied on the liberating effects of sheer willpower. Mabel Dodge Luhan, an advocate of literary and sexual bohemianism, arose from her neurasthenic episode "an avatar of desire" with her "sense of self reconstructed." Jane Addams, similarly reaffirmed in her selfhood after her own neurasthenic suffering, turned to social work, not sexual revolution, as her route to "spiritual communion . . . and the end of despair."

In the end, Lutz finds it impossible not to draw conclusions, though the plethora of figures he has studied makes any simple moral impossible. "[N]eurasthenia," he concludes in typically multifarious fashion, "whether used as a mark of distinction or shabbiness, as . . . evasive banality, as a forerunner for the therapeutic, as hypochondriacal escapism, as a critique of patriarchy, as a refusal (or embrace) of the market . . . clearly helped people negotiate the transformations in social structure and economic activity which reshaped cultural life in America between the Civil War and World War I."

But if Lutz's conclusions are vague, his book is extraordinarily thought-provoking. It suggests, though it does not argue explicitly, that psychological discourse arises in periods of transition, "betwixt and between" stable social and cultural formations as a way to explain and negotiate these confusing periods.

This interpretation sheds light on more recent episodes of psychological discourse. George Bush, for example, justified violence by citing personal and societal regeneration; the occasion was the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites, so that the old cold-war certainties had fallen away and American cold warriors found themselves without clear--or at least explicable--goals. "Before the war you were living in a society without a plot, meandering amidst its own collapse," critic Gary Indiana noted recently in the Village Voice, "and then, all of a sudden, things had a logic, a story line, a definite sense of direction." It didn't much matter that hundreds of thousands were to die in a senseless war: America had a purpose again, and its leader was a real man, no longer merely a third-rate John Wayne impersonator. We could all feel good about America, about ourselves.

The gulf war served as a powerful, if irrational, antidote to doubt. For many Americans the war itself was secondary to the unifying purpose it served at home, to its function as a kind of new-age mind cure. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the primary media images of the conflict were those of American celebration.

Now, even Time magazine wonders in a headline: "Was It Worth It?" But to have raised such doubts even several months ago would have been to brand oneself a venomous traitor, a traitor primarily because such doubts detracted from the therapeutic postwar euphoria. In the pages of the normally sober Tribune, for example, columnist Joan Beck chided those who asked tough questions about the war, leading her readers instead to the ultimate therapy of irrational celebration: "be euphoric . . . be encouraged and happy . . . rejoice . . . see hope for the future . . . feel a joyous pride . . . be elated . . . be relieved and happy . . . applaud . . . be delighted . . . feel a surge of proud patriotism. . . . "

Bush's Therapeutic Little War had its precedents not only in the imperialist self-renewal of Teddy Roosevelt but in the feel-good politics of his immediate predecessor. Ronald Reagan in 1980 offered a symbolic alternative to the cultural politics of 70s permissiveness, attacking liberals for breeding a culture of self-indulgence and narcissism. But his invocations of family values and self-discipline were largely rhetorical, for he offered a politics of self-gratification more extreme than that of any 70s guru offering liberation through self-discovery. His warm vision of "morning in America"--so symbolically rich, so politically bankrupt--provided useful cover for an aggressive resumption of class warfare. At the same time, it "cured" the country of the troubling questions raised by the various liberation movements of the 60s and 70s--just as Bush was later to cure the country, through unreflective action, of the questions raised by Vietnam.

The successes of Reagan and Bush--aided and abetted by politicians of all stripes--returned the country to new ideological certainties, and with those certainties has come a relative decline in psychologized political and cultural discourse. Now the primary metaphors of debate are military: the war on drugs, the war on crime, and so on. Sometimes these crusades are seen quite literally as military: last July Leroy Martin, Chicago's superintendent of police, suggested that constitutional rights should no longer hold in neighborhoods under siege, that we could learn a few lessons in crime fighting from the Chinese government--and even from Hitler.

It may seem we've come rather far from the issues Lutz raises. We have not. Lutz reminds us that we see and understand the complexities of the world, and of our own personal experiences, through rough metaphoric approximations. At times, as in the era Lutz examines, the primary metaphors are medical. Some of the most prevalent metaphors of this century have been psychological and military; often these three metaphoric discourses have been combined. And these crude metaphoric approximations have done great violence to the world and to our understanding of it.

In her perceptive essays on the metaphors of illness, Susan Sontag suggests the extent of this destructiveness, focusing on the metaphoric interpretation of such illnesses as cancer and AIDS. As Sontag would argue, the broader cultural metaphors for and about AIDS--those that distinguish between "innocent" and "guilty" victims, those that define the disease as a form of moral punishment--have had a baleful influence.

In her brilliant short work AIDS and Its Metaphors, Sontag argues "against interpretation," attempting not to "confer meaning" upon the disease but to remove its encrustation of metaphor and meaning, which so inhibits treatment and so often precludes humane consideration for people with AIDS. She quotes Nietzsche, who hoped to "calm the imagination of the invalid, so that at least he should not . . . have to suffer more from thinking about his illness than from the illness itself." As she explains, "Illness is not a metaphor, and . . . the most truthful way of understanding it is one most purified of, and resistant to, metaphoric thinking."

If the human body needs to be purified of metaphoric thinking, perhaps, to engage in metaphoric logic ourselves, the body politic should also be purified.

Lutz rejects such attempts at purification as utopian, and perhaps he is right. Metaphor is such a fundamental way of understanding the world that to abandon it would be almost to abandon logic itself. But his book amply documents the harmful effects of opportunistic metaphoric logic.

If nothing else, American Nervousness should lead some people to be more conscious of their own use of such thinking, and more important, to be critical of such uses by powerful elites. War has never been a legitimate form of therapy--not in Teddy Roosevelt's day, when imperialism was the symbolic cure for national neurasthenia, and not today, when gulf war "euphoria" is offered as salvation for the "bad feelings" caused by Vietnam.

American Nervousness, 1903: An Anecdotal History by Tom Lutz, Cornell University Press, $29.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff.

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