Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: “Cactus” on Mental Dyspepsia

3.3.13 | | 2 comments

The term “mental dyspepsia” used in this article gave me pause. Dyspepsia is indigestion, but I’m not sure that what the author, “Cactus” describes can be called indigestion exactly, if for no other reason than it doesn’t have quite as immediate an effect as indigestion, nor is it as temporary.

Still, whatever we call this mental disorder arising from reading, I think I’ve felt it once or twice.

Unfortunately, I can’t say exactly who “Cactus” is. The nom-de-plume isn’t listed in the list of Pseudonyms and initials that the Church archives prepared years ago. My short research into the name doesn’t yield much insight. It first appeared in 1891 in The Contributor under a poem. Then, toward the end of that year it is listed as the author of a series of articles, “Plain Talks for Plain People,” of which the following, “Myself—Mentally” is one. If the references made in the article are to be believed, the author is a woman. Other than that, I don’t know who wrote this.

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Myself—Mentally

by “Cactus”

Possessed physically of at least average health and strength how shall I provide Myself with the proper variety and amount of mental pabulum necessary for the full development and nourishment of my mental being? Happy for me, if in my youth, some kind, gentle, yet firm hand has been over me to guide in its selection. If not, I fear Myself has been mentally starved, or has suffered all the horrors ot mental dyspepsia, superinduced by overdosing.

Ah ! these thoughts have called up an image, I thought long since annihilated, that of the Myself of my early youth. In vindication of the foregoing statements, we will hear what she has to say for herself and her experience.

“I think I was born a book-worm. At any rate, my earliest and most pleasant recollections are of books, all my relatives having been great readers. From a very small child, when other children were engaged in playing with their dolls, or making mud pies, that dear delight ol childhood, I sat apart, absorbed in interpreting some old picture-book, or deciphering words and ideas far beyond my years. As I grew older, the passion for books increased. Everything was “grist that came to my mill.” I was equally interested in a medical work, a scientific treatise, a poem or a novel ; so that I often surprised my relatives by my knowledge of certain subjects thought to be far beyond the ken of childhood.

“In the house, and around the garden were various corners where I hid myself for hours at a time, only issuing forth when threatened with dire punishment by some voice which I could hear enquiring “where that child had gone to!” and answered by some other, “Oh, she is in some of her corners, reading, as usual.”

“As time went on.and I approached the dangerous strait between girlhood and woman-hood, my tastes changed. I now only sought that kind of literature which stimulated the romantic side of my nature. I remember the New York Ledger played an important part, aided by magazines, and various ten cent novels, extremely doubtful in character, which I managed to borrow here and there, and smuggled surreptitiously into my hiding places.

“I also acquired about this time the pernicious habit of reading in bed. Midnight often found me poring over these mind and soul-destroyers, when all in the house were soundly sleeping, and I was supposed to be in the same blissful condition. This course I continued in for several years, not without its effect upon my mind and heart. My erst-while even and amiable temper became fevered and capricious; I was restless, dissatisfied with my life and surroundings, and longed for what were then impossibilities. I wove romances innumerable, always with Myself as the abused and self-sacrificing heroine. I began dozens of diaries, which, three month later I would burn in very disgust at my own vapidity, only to repeat the experiment. I even attempted the hard task of dramatizing my thoughts and feelings.

“At last I was providentially brought into contact with a talented,cultured man, who, though many years older than myself, readily conceived of and entered into the state of my mind, divined the danger I was in, and foresaw the possibilities of wisely directing my course. Of his own free will, he took this duty upon himself, and by his kind, wise, and fatherly teaching, I was gradually and unconsciously led away from the path I had been pursuing, and my energies directed into a more profitable as well as more pleasant channel. To this day I look upon that man as my benefactor; and should I ever attain to any literary prestige, shall, out of sheer gratitude, dedicate to him my first laudable effort, as the friend and director of youth and struggling effort.

“I look back upon the period of my lite previous to this rescue, with a certain degree of horror. Not for worlds would I again endure the dissatisfaction, longings, heartburnings, and what not, that were then mine; not to mention a splendid memory damaged almost beyond repair, and a mind from which it took years to clear out the literary lumber and rubbish which had accumulated during those years of indiscriminate though ignorant stuffing.”

This, dear reader, is the true tale of an enquiring mind, left to its own devices, without let or hindrance. From permitting such a course, I would warn parents, guardians, and last, not least, the subjects themselves, when old enough to take warning. Do not devour books; do not gormandize; it is as sure to lead to disaster as overloading of the stomach leads to pain and dyspepsia. He who reads most is seldom the best read; but he’ who selects as brain food such articles as tend to elevate the mind and morals, nourish nobility of soul, laudable ambition, manliness, self-respect and kindred qualities. Such regimen will keep in a state of semistarvation the tendency’ of the mind toward idleness, frivolity, discontent, and various other disturbers of our peace and usefulness. Such food, masticated slowly and thoroughly, partaken of in temperance and with regularity, will digest easily and in a few years, produce wonderful results in mental development.

The Contributor, v13 n4, February 1892, p,. 163-165

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After reading this, not only am I not sure what to call the disorder, I’m not even sure what the problem is. Yes, I think that as a youth the author read too much of poor quality—a problem of balance and of priorities, you might say. She attributes this merely to the idea that as a teenager “my tastes changed”—something that I think is common among teenagers. And she suffers a teenage obsession and unrealistic view of romance, something that is somewhat common among teenagers, especially women, from what I can tell.

The suggestion that “reading in bed” is a “pernicious habit” isn’t supported, and, is without foundation—but perhaps I say that because I still read in bed and imagine that many, if not most, heavy readers do the same. So if it is bad, I need more evidence than “Cactus” gives.

But the symptoms that she describes—”restless, dissatisfied with my life and surroundings” and a “fevered and capricious” temper—seem familiar. I would add perhaps an empty feeling, and eventually inability to identify with others—first with those around me, and then even with the characters win the books I’m reading. It might be even described as “past-feeling.”

In the end I’m not completely sure what the problem is. I suspect balance in what we read is close to the core issue. Variety in what you read is part of it, perhaps. And I have to agree that the quality of what is read has something to do with it. In my case it was the repetitive reading of a particular genre, where I encountered the same plots over and over again. At some point it loses all value.

But that may simply be my experience, and could be driven by other factors in my life. What do you think? Have you experienced something like this? What do you think the cause is?

2 comments: “Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: “Cactus” on Mental Dyspepsia

  1. Sarah Dunster

    I fully identify with her condition. Certain literature can be attractive because it’s not just an escape from reality (into something romantic, or something fantastic), it is an escape from thinking. I think we all know the difference. When I’m sick in bed, I want the escape from thinking in order to take my mind off phyiscal discomfort. So I’ll read fluffy, vapid (a good word) books that are well written enough that I can actually eke my way through the pages. But if I read enough of those books, I do have the same sort of feeling I have when I consume too much of something rich and sweat. Kind of blocked up, uncomfortable, and ravenous for more. I agree completely with what she has said. In that state, if I can get myself to read something more literary and intelligent and engaging, it’s kind of like that cool drink of refreshing water that your body really needs and that you are immediately glad you forced yourself to ingest.

    (very dramatic turn of phrase. Sorry about that.)

    … I will say, though. I chuckled a lot as I read the passages about her reformation at the hands of her (husband, I’m guessing.) I suppose it’s not a bad thing, being helped by a spouse to better things. But the overall feel to me was rather antifeminist. Oh well. We can’t all be feminists.

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