Monday, March 4, 2019

Serotonin Nations

As Theodore Dalrymple aptly suggests, French novelist Michel Houllebecq has both hands firmly wrapped around the Zeitgeist. Using withering satire and unapologetic ridicule Houllebecq has focused his many novels on our declining civilization. He is our very own Cassandra. 

Dalrymple is correct to say that Houllebecq might also have focused some attention on the ways that our civilization has improved. Yet, when we have serious Harvard professors proposing theories that seem to have come straight from the Beatles—as in, "I’ve got to admit it’s getting better/ A little better all the time”—and pretending that they have discovered an ultimate truth, the triumph of progress—perhaps it’s not so bad that we have a Houllebecq around to disabuse us of our wide-eyed bushy-tailed optimism.

Dalrymple closes his meditation on Houllebecq’s latest novel, in French entitled Serotonine, on this note:

More importantly, it might be sad that he concentrates only on the worst aspects of modernity, its spiritual emptiness for example, without acknowledgement of the ways in which life has improved. But this is like objecting to Gulliver’s Travels on the same grounds.   

His work, not least Sérotonine, is filled with disgust, as was Swift’s: but it is the kind of disgust that can only emerge from deep disappointment, and one is not disappointed by what one does not care about. There is gallows humour on every page: the personage hanged being Western civilisation.

There is no need to translate the title. The French word is close enough to its English root. And you might guess that the novel shows a character who believes that it’s all in the biochemistry. That is, science can solve our problems, can regulate our moods so that we never feel sad again, and that it can even allow us to design new personalities… because if there’s one thing you really, really want to do… it’s to design yourself a new personality. Why would you want to do so? Perhaps because you would then no longer have your problems. You would have someone else’s. Better yet, you would become completely unrecognizable.

To be fair, and we always want to be fair, our great civilization has already found ways for you to become unrecognizable: it’s called cosmetic surgery, including Botox. What better than to distort your features, to lie about your age, to look like someone else. Better yet, since facial muscles conspire to communicate your emotions, numbing them with Botox will make you unable to express feelings. And since your ability to understand what other people are feeling depends on  your ability to mimic their facial expressions, Botox injections will make you an insensible and insensitive.

It almost sounds as though we have the makings of another Houllebecq novel. But, for now we have the novelist’s take on serotonin, on SSRIs. And we have Dalrymple’s take:

Even the ironic title of his latest novel, Sérotonine, is testimony to the brilliance of his diagnostic powers and his capacity to capture in a single word the civilizational malaise which is his unique subject. Serotonin, as by now every self-obsessed member of the middle classes must know, is a chemical in the brain that acts as a neurotransmitter to which is ascribed powers formerly ascribed to the Holy Ghost. All forms of undesired conduct or feeling are caused a deficit or surplus or malalignment of this chemical, so that in essence all human problems become ones of neurochemistry.  

We no longer have the Holy Ghost. We certainly do not have the Eucharist. We do not have spiritually uplifting religious services. We have a drug… one that presumably will do everything that religion can do without anyone suffering the indignity of having to attend services.

In Prozac Nation—apt title we owe to Elizabeth Wurtzel—there is no such thing as unhappiness. Those who seem to be unhappy are really depressed. They are suffering from an illness, or better, from a chemical imbalance, and can be treated with the right medication.

Dalrymple continues:

In this view, unhappiness is a technical problem for the doctor to solve rather than a cause for reflection and perhaps even for adjustment to the way one lives. I don’t know whether in France the word malheureux has been almost completely replaced by the word déprimée, but in English unhappy has almost been replaced by depressed. In my last years of medical practice, I must have encountered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of depressed people, or those who called themselves such, but the only unhappy person I met was a prisoner who wanted to be moved to another prison, no doubt for reasons of safety.

If you care to know about the plot, Dalrymple summarizes it here:

The protagonist and narrator of Sérotonine, an early-middle aged agronomist whose jobs, though rewarding enough financially, have always seemed to him unsatisfactory or pointless. He suffers from the unhappiness that results from his inability to form a long-lasting relationship with a woman, instead having a series of relationships which he sabotages by his impulsive sensation-seeking behaviour. This man goes to a doctor to obtain more of his Captorix, a fictional new serotonergic anti-depressant. The doctor, without enquiring into the circumstances of his life, says to him:

What’s important is to maintain the serotonin at the correct level–then you’ll be all right–but to lower the cortisol and perhaps raise the dopamine and the endorphins would be the ideal.

Satire, but satire that rings true. Because real physicians talk this way.


Ares Olympus said...

Understanding the dopamine/serotonin systems in the body surely can help us better know what we're experiencing, how we slide into addictive behavior, and why it feels so bad when the sources are withdrawn after extended use, or how dopamine receptors shut down and even "die" making feeling good harder later. If you want to escape slavery to your irrational feelings, you have to have a part of yourself that doesn't identify with these feelings of the moment. If you can remember how feelings change, you can moderate false perceptions under the influence of strong emotions.

It does make sense that religious experiences arise in part by these chemicals, and some people are more vulnerable than others. So cults can use positive "love bombing" falling into the negative projective emotions of a mob acting towards violence are also related to these neurotransmitters, so if you know this, you can resist being manipulated. Of course our ancestors in part survived because of these manipulations kept us dependent upon our social rituals, and probably better than anything we can do as isolated individuals.

We can see also why doctors want to "cure" us of these natural systems when they fail, and it'll even make sense for a minority of people who have failed to moderate their own behavior. But it seems wiser to say "exercise everyday" and behavior that is free and keeps us masters of ourselves, than "take our drugs everyday" if the first works better for most people.

trigger warning said...

Thanks for the heads up! I've mentioned his novel Submission here before. An English translation of Serotonin isn't yet available for Kindle. My impatience may force me to buy a dead tree edition. :-(

Sam L. said...

"To be fair, and we always want to be fair," The LEFT doesn't.