By Jon Cogburn
One of the epiphanies near the end of Steve Martin's The Pleasure of My Company involves the proper typology of neuroses. The protagonist/narrator is finally able to sustain a romantic relationship because his girlfriend convinces him that his obsessions, ticks, compulsions, and avoidances fall into three categories:
- Absolutely unacceptable,
- To be worked on.
I can attest that this is a useful conceptual scheme, albeit incomplete in at least two ways. What about:
- Acceptable, and not endearing, but such that "working on" them only makes them worse,
- Endearing, but only because of a lifetime of strategies (such as being a comedian) that make the neurotic himself seem less absolutely unacceptable,
The first suggests the need for more categories, while the second suggests the need to subcategorize.
With respect to unacceptability, one could do worse than to divide in terms of the reason the neurosis is unacceptable. The overwhelming majority of absolutely unacceptable neuroses are only unacceptable because they make living in a desensitized society too difficult. This suggests:
- Absolutely unacceptable, because society makes it too inconvenient to the neurotic.
Much of the plot of In the Pleasure of My Company involves the protagonist/narrator dealing with problems in this category. He's just barely functional and not thriving. In the way of most novels, and I think most lives too, he finds salvation in love. The narrator does not suffer from the following:
- Absolutely unacceptable, because harmful to others.
I think that much of the fear of the neurotic is because of the fear that some of her neuroses fall into this category. As with most such responses to the mentally ill, it's radically unfair. If we exclude personality disorders, the mentally ill aren't particularly harmful to others. And most of the behavior that is truly unacceptable because harmful doesn't easily count as a manifestation of mental illness.
In any case, another important division, ignored by the psychologists and which crosscuts Martin's threefold division is between:
- Somewhat reasonable, from a moral or aesthetic point of view.
- Wholly unreasonable.
The neurotic comedian (redundant phrase?) can only be understood as embarking on a desperate attempt to convince others that her neuroses are really somewhat reasonable. By poking fun at the causes of her neurotic pain, the audience becomes complicit in the neurosis. Yeah, people who talk on their cell phones in the restaurant really are bad! This results in the audience not seeing those neuroses as wholly unreasonable. And by poking fun at herself, the audience stops seeing the comedian's neuroses as absolutely unacceptable because harmful to others. Look at how pathetic I am. I am no threat.
The somewhat-reasonable,-from-a-moral-or-aesthetic-point-of-view/wholly-unreasonable division is related to another:
This one is highly context sensitive. Most neurotics have a circle of close friends and a subset of family members who accommodate some of their even wholly unreasonable neuroses. It's OK to ask a friend to spit out their gum because it makes your skin crawl. They don't mind. But it's very hard to request that of a non-friend, even one you work with. One, gum chewing doesn't really fall into the category of neuroses with a moral point. Two, the downside to non-friends suspecting the extent of your mental illness issues is too great. Again, this is why we have comedians.
If you google "link between neuroses and creativity" you find many theories trying to explain the nature of this link, as well as the way it ties to the link between creativity and the abuse of substances that grant a relief from the pain caused by over-sensitivity. My going theory about all of this is that the Greeks were onto something with this business of the muse bringing you melodies, ideas, bits of language, plot twists, visions, characters, equations, etc. Creativity requires a kind of radical openness* that makes it hard to tune things out. And the stuff you can't tune out then gets in the way of the muse as well. Schopenhauer's lovely essay on noise gets this one basically right, and is a key example of the first charge of the neurotic comedian, to convince the rest of the world that there is a moral and/or aesthetic point to her neurosis.
On the other hand, David Foster Wallace's essay on cruise ships can only be read as a dialectical counterpoint to Schopenhauer. Wallace the neurotic finally gets a space where his neuroses are catered to, and he ends up just being that much more sensitive and equally miserable. It's very, very funny and insightful, but ultimately grim, especially given how things turned out for Wallace. Note that Wallace is doing the other job of the neurotic comedian. Ha! Ha! Look how pathetic I am. I can't possibly be a threat.
I went to college in the late 1980s, the last days of the university professor. Back then, before neoliberal predations (assessment, "running it like a business," faculty/administrator class division, privatization, etc. etc. etc.), the main function of the university give neurotics a place where they didn't have to be comedians to survive. To be fair, some of the professors of that era were very, very funny, because humor was their survival strategy growing up in a society both irritating and senseless (Monday Night Football. Orange Julius at the Skating Rink. Moral Equivalent of the Founding Fathers. Toll Road. Trickle Down. Televisions. Public Squalor. Nancy Reagan's Astrologer. Private Opulence. I'm Proud To Be An American Where At Least I Know I'm Free. Why's that dog all alone on a chain all day?). But in the university setting they didn't have to be funny. They could be math professors instead, wandering around on foot staring into space with minds open to Plato's heaven, grinning maniacally when things are going well up there. And nobody calls the cops, throws a soda pop can at their head, yells "faggot" at them, or even blares a car stereo. The lacks of soul crushing architecture and other forms of aesthetic pollution combined with pedestrian friendliness and control over one's time made it an ideal place for creative neurotics to do something for the most part worthwhile. Those were good times, and those of us still clinging onto the remnants of that social arrangement are pretty lucky. We'll see how long it lasts. The sharks are circling and something tells me that the coming social arrangements are going to be even less kind to the neurotic and the comedian. Perhaps neurotics always think this kind of thing though.
*At some point I want to do a blog post about rearguard phenomenologists who characterize phenomenology as "radical openness." While I'm all in favor of radical openness, I think it's confused. Yes partaking well in a philosophical tradition requires creativity/openness, but so does partaking well in auto mechanics, mathematics, sculpture, and the presence of God.]