There is a brilliant moment in Ben Marcus New Yorker short story, “The Dark Arts,” ( The New Yorker, May 20, 2013). Julien the central character has come to Dusseldorf for treatment for a chronic and unspecified illness. He is staying in a hostel called the Millerhaus and waiting for his volatile girlfriend, Hayley who never seems to be coming. “He even felt sort of healthy, although it made him nervous to think so, and damned if he knew what healthy meant anymore. He’d long ago lost track of how he was suppose to feel…Perhaps he had been fine this whole time. He wasn’t legitimately sick. Perhaps this was just what it felt like to be alive…Did everyone else, he wondered, feel listless, strange, anxious, dull, scared—you could pretty much go shopping from a list of adjectives—and did other people just clench their jaws and endure it, without running to the doctor, as he did, again and again?” Then an etiology is uncovered involving the suspicion of a brain tumor. “If you tell me it’s all in my head now...you won’t be lying,” Julien quips to his German doctor. The ambiguity remains, but one almost wishes that Marcus hadn’t opened up the possibility of the tumor explaining everything. In our culture there is a tendency to take a pill for every ache and then the pill taking goes on even when the ache fades since there’s the aftermath, the wake left by the injustice of the discomfiture itself. People have lost the ability to tell whether they are in physical or mere psychic pain and they’re no longer sure which pain they’re medicating when they seek out painkillers. Both Freud and Heidegger wrote about the word Unheimlichkeit and if you hit the hyperlink you’ll read how one very eloquent Australian blogger writes about the term. The word literally means “not feeling at home,” but refers to the sense of estrangement and dislocation that Freud called the “uncanny” and may be the fate of the wandering cosmopolitan individual, metrosexuals and the like, uprooted from tradition and victims of a pleasure principal that makes the absence of pleasure feel like pain. It’s also a condition that conducive to the making of art. Marcus’s character Julien fits the bill. Another way to put this is that Julien is a latter day Hans Castorp only his Zauberberg is Dusseldorf.
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