The Word: Relapse

Affliction: Last semester I overdosed on German writers.
By Wendy K.X. Chen

“Trees and lawns become more distinct.Philosophies one after another go out.Everything is lighter yet not less odd.” — Czeslaw Milosz

Affliction: Last semester I overdosed on German writers. My descent began innocently with Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” and hit existential rock bottom with Nietzsche’s “Human, All Too Human.” Forays into Camus and Kierkegaard, rather than slowing my fall, accelerated the process.

It had begun innocuously enough. Attempting to negotiate my feelings, I initially turned to Rilke, who prescribed me a retreat into solitude and the self. Following this course of action, I found my enabler in Herman Hesse—the author of “Steppenwolf”—a man who felt himself profoundly incapable of being in and conforming to the world. A long period of Nietzsche ensued. I have to warn you, embroiling yourself in the thoughts of a man who describes his own writings as “melancholy-valiant”—who dedicates his words to readers he fervently believes to be non-existent and imaginary—is a rather fraught experience.

By summer, I was well in the throes of solipsism, taking the hardline view that nothing existed outside of the mind—thus denying as valid the reality of other minds, other people, and the world at large. At better moments, I allowed that the world was probably real, but remained a skeptic regarding the possibility of true human connection. I was running out of options—there was no more philosophy to turn to—and I lacked the ability to digest any more Nietzschean aphorisms. More importantly, while I was profoundly introspecting, my friends and family were profoundly sick and tired of my introspection. These were dire times. An intervention was called, a confrontation conducted. The outcome was a recognition of my unacceptable state of affairs. The solution was the problem. Too much of a certain medicine could be poisonous. It was time to get a second opinion.

Recovery:Help from on high came from a rather unlikely source. You would think that an author known for his philosophical background, his meta-fictional digressions, and “Infinite Jest,” a thousand-plus-page novel on modern-day addiction, couldn’t possibly be a solipsist’s saving grace. David Foster Wallace’s characters are themselves frequently afflicted by medical and metaphorical addictions. They too, are often detached from the world or at least at deep unease. In the worlds of Wallace’s fiction, thinking often leads to paralysis: a character’s recursive collapse into his own interiority. And the more hyper-intellectualized and abstracted the thinking, the more problematic this is shown to be. I guess reading Wallace didn’t seem to bode all that well for my prognosis.

I was quite wrong. Indeed, my summer period of recovery was almost entirely due to D.F.W. You see, the more I read of Wallace, the more I came to understand that, for him, solipsism was the enemy. His characters were flawed and difficult precisely because Wallace wanted to puncture the walls of the solipsistic mind and urge readers to aim to go beyond the self, beyond one’s own thoughts, toward empathy and morality and being in and of the world.

Relapse:This semester I relapsed. The word “relapse” is often used in reference to medical pathology: my inability to shrug off solipsism can be considered in those terms. Moments of Sartrean nausea struck me unbidden: by the Charles River, sitting in a busy dining hall, sometimes even while talking to someone else. Last week, in the middle of an argument with a friend I jumped on his use of the word “dialectic” and turned the conversation into a not-so-clever consideration of Hegelian dialectics. Terrible idea. We haven’t spoken since. I really needed to kick this German writer-habit.

One More Try:The word “relapse” has its British origins in the denouncement of heresy with the Latin word relapsus, which refers to relapsed heretics. I, I confess, have been heretical. There is nothing wrong with German philosophy, or philosophizing in general. The writers I have overdosed on are good writers, whose ideas deserve much careful and dedicated thought. But it is misguided and in bad faith—mauvaise foi—to consider theory and abstraction solipsistically, or in a manner detached from the world.

The etymology of “relapse” also suggests, in part, its antidote. A little known usage of the word “relapse” is relapse as renouncement. Not that I’m renouncing the world of ideas—it would be difficult to, given that I major in the history of ideas. But I’ve come to recognize that world as one I cannot always reside in, and that living fully and presently in the extra-mental world is what I should aim towards. It comes down to being human, all too human perhaps, but I’ve found that what it’s all about is not “the self,”—other selves—my family and friends whose goodness, love, and wisdom are the things most real to me.

In The MeantimeLiteratureGermanic Languages