From Behind the Harper’s Paywall: L.J. Davis on the DSM-IV

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02/11/2010 11:12 AM |


Yesterday, Jonny noted that the forthcoming updated edition of the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-V) will include “hypersexuality” and “binge” eating as psychiatric disorders presumably curable via expensive pills sold to you by the same people who classified the disorder.

If you’re sympathetic to the point of view that personality is essentially the sum total of a given person’s chemical imbalances, the consensus that there is or could be a pill for everything is a little bit rational and worldview-affirming, and a little bit frightening.

Reviewing the DSM-IV for Harper’s in 1997, Brooklyn writer (and one-time L guest essayist) L.J. Davis came down rather loudly on the latter side. The piece, available to nonsubscribers on, begins:

Has there ever been a task more futile than the attempt to encompass, in the work of a single lifetime, let alone in a single work, the whole of human experience? For roughly five thousand years, poets, playwrights, philosophers, and cranks have incinerated untold quantities of olive oil, beeswax, and fossil fuel in pursuit of this maddeningly elusive goal; all have failed, sometimes heroically. Not even Shakespeare could manage it; closer to our own times, Dickens, a sentimental Englishman, the son of a clerk, perhaps came closest, though he believed in spontaneous human combustion and managed to miss the entirety of the twentieth century. Despite the best efforts of minds great, small, and sometimes insane, the riddle of the human condition has remained utterly impervious to solution. Until now. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (popularly known as the DSM-IV), human life is a form of mental illness.

There’s a danger, of course, in taking this skepticism too far, into a place of crankish self-glorifying mythopoetic secular mysticism loudly disavowing the very real scientific foundations of human consciousness, and rather offensively demeaning those that suffer from authentic and correctable psychiatric afflictions—and this is a side on which Harper’s has more recently erred. Davis’s piece, however, does well at following the DSM-IV‘s premise to the logical, absurd conclusions found within its own pages.

Along similar lines, arguably, is Marco Roth’s recent n+1 piece, “The Rise of the Neuronovel,” which argues against novels (by Rivka Galchen, John Wray, Jonathan Lethem, Richard Powers, Ian McEwan, etc.) which treat narratorial perspective as a matter of neurological misfirings, a (he feels) reductive variation on the humanist-modernist tradition of perception and voice.