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The Use of Language

Szasz is a captivating writer. His style is clear and his imagery lively. He is greatly talented in expressing complicated problems in a fairly simple and comprehensible way. His often unexpected points of view and perspectives are compelling. Although he usually writes about complicated matters his books read like novels. At the same time, his style of writing and approaching the problem is somewhat overwhelming. As a reader, one sometimes feels protestingly swept away. His evocative remarks stimulate resistance and opposition – but by the time these have taken shape he is already appealing for attention to something else. Not infrequently he evokes in me the feeling that something is not quite right though it is difficult to lay a finger on it, let alone come up with a compelling refutation. Perhaps this is partly caused by his erudition – Stone speaks of a façade of erudition – and his use of many and different types of sources.

Grenander, who calls Szasz’s aphorisms “audacious and startling, clever, charming and quotable,” relates that Ideology and Insanity is used in college classes of sociology, psychology, and law, but also in English classes. That is an exceptional compliment for someone who was introduced to the English language only at age 18.

Conspicuous in Szasz’s writings are the heavy tone and frequent use of emotionally loaded words. When he is criticized for that he defends himself by stating that his intention is not personal but to describe social processes. When he criticizes publications by others he asserts not to mean it personally as well. From the responses, however, it is clear that those criticized do take it personally. Stone writes, “He insults either by innuendo or directly nearly every important psychiatrist within recent history.” According to Guttmacher, Szasz enjoys running just about everybody into the ground, and he seems to see himself as the only American psychiatrist who cares about human dignity and freedom. Interestingly, Szasz himself, after having explained that it is not his intention to be personal, adds, “To the liberal, what matters is not intentions, but power.”

That raises the question whether the violence in Szasz’s language can serve the dissemination of his views. My hypothesis is that this is indeed the case. In addition to his insights and fire and brimstone style, the violence, accusations, and use of forceful terms, appeal to the readers’ thirst for the sensational. By shocking he commands attention. His oppugning of well-known and respected peers resembles a storm of imagery and, I believe, is attractive to many people. It is nonetheless clear that Szasz chooses his objects carefully. Although in his view patients and psychiatrists have complementary roles – the former abdicate responsibility, the latter take over that responsibility – he attacks psychiatrists much more often and severely than patients. He also advocates patients’ rights more frequently and clearly than the responsibilities which, according to him, they should shoulder.

It is therefore not surprising that Szasz’s work has gained less recognition and appreciation inside psychiatry than outside it. After all, psychiatrists are Szasz’s most important target. They are variously described as jailers, brutes and torturers, frauds and charlatans, abusers of power, slave drivers and slave traders, and people who earn money by humiliating, demoting, and dehumanizing fellow human beings. We can safely say that there is more here than controversy – it is rather a declaration of war. Many of his critics also perceive it that way. At least as noticeable as the verbal violence in Szasz’s writings is the verbal violence of his psychiatrist-opponents. Obviously many of them highly resent that Szasz writes what and how he writes. Practically unavoidably, Guttmacher notes that “A bird that fouls its nest courts criticism.”

Szasz himself justifies his use of verbal violence by stating, “I simply call a spade a spade.” He says that he wishes to avoid what George Orwell in 1984 called “newspeak,” concealing reality by using euphemisms and misplaced terms. As described above, Szasz frequently uses emotionally loaded words and expressions and his style is at times polemic to the extreme. Rare in his writings are texts that are characterized by the distancing intrinsic of scientific objectiveness, pure logical reasoning, and controlled elucidation of proof. Therefore Szasz’s works are perhaps comparable to political, literary, or polemic texts rather than scientific ones. The two anthologies of aphorisms also illustrate this.

It is exactly this emotional and polemic manner of expression, that imparts to Szasz his practically immediately recognizable style of writing. Although his use of language resembles that of the radical sociologists’ jargon described by Jones, which in my opinion is partly influenced by Szasz, there are several types of poeticisms, imagery, and allegory that would be expected in literary texts rather than scientific ones.

One poeticism that Szasz likes to use is alliteration. For example, in Ceremonial Chemistry the titles of almost all the chapters are alliterations; and in The Myth of Psychotherapy he writes that many psychiatric ideas and interventions are characterized by “an insidious and pervasive combination of disease with deviance, illness with immorality, cure with control, treatment with torture.” (p. XV)

In describing the roll of the psychoanalyst, Szasz provides us with an example of his poetic use of allegory. He writes, “His task, rather, is to illuminate and thus to help [the patient] to see the signs at the crossroads among which he got lost and confused in his march through life.” In other places the poetic allegory serves the argumentation by evoking a certain emotion, as in his discussion on combating drug abuse in The Theology of Medicine: “The government is now spending millions of dollars – the hard-earned wages of hard-working Americans – to support a vast and astronomically expensive bureaucracy...”(p. 36)

As well as the frequent use of quotation marks and alliteration Szasz typically uses neologisms which are usually derived from existing words. Bloch lists several: metaphorization, technicizing, therapeutizing, medicalize, jargonize.

Szasz’s writing is rich with imagery. He uses many metaphors and analogies. I am using the word metaphor as Perelman, following Aristotle, defines it: a poetic figure of speech whereby something is given the name of something else. In contrast, analogy is symmetric, determining a commonality between the two contexts, according to Perelman. Sometimes Szasz limits such imagery to one word or phrase, there being one point in common. For instance, he draws a parallel between the relation of science to society (religion) on the one hand, and the relation of parapsychology to science on the other. As science presents new explanations, undesired by society, so parapsychology presents new claims towards which science is hostile. At times Szasz elaborates on an analogy, naming several commonalties between the object of discussion and the phenomenon to which it is being compared. For example, he compares the increasing requirements made by psychoanalysts of the training of new candidates with the requirements made of immigrants to the United States. The more desirable the aspired status becomes the greater the sacrifice which must be made to attain it. Or, viewed from the perspective of power, the more valuable that which is on offer the higher the cost. His most elaborate analogy is the commonality between the Inquisition and institutional psychiatry as described in The Manufacture of Madness. This analogy is spread over 134 pages.

Often the analogies are effective in clarifying his meaning. Sometimes, however, they are less convincing and there is reason to doubt their applicability. (See example in Chapter III, 3.2) In Schizophrenia he elaborates on an analogy which at the same time he presents as a model for the total social situation of the “schizophrenic patient.” So there is a pretension that rises above the analogy, namely, that of the explicatory model. His analogy is the traditional marriage. The psychiatrist is the husband, the schizophrenic is his wife, and schizophrenia as a product is the child. His extraordinary talent and inventiveness in finding similar elements in these very differing social patterns are highlighted in his elaboration of the analogy which is spread over 43 pages. In how much Szasz is himself convinced that he has designed a valid theory explaining schizophrenia remains an open question for me. In other writings he scarcely returns to this theory. On page 161, after having triumphantly declared that “in many essential respects, hospital psychiatry … is a perfect replica of the ‘happy’ Victorian marriage,” the next remark he makes is, “We must keep in mind, however – and now I am quite serious – …” (my italics, -J.P.) Then he notes that each of the two systems serves a totally different purpose. My interpretation of this last phrase is that Szasz was swept away by his own enthralling imagination and inventiveness but realizing that he had ventured too far from base, returned to it by pointing out a difference.

Finally, I bring an example of a virtuoso combination of two analogies that exclude each other, commanding rather much willingness on the part of the reader to accept them. In The Myth of Mental Illness, pages 82-83, Szasz compares the triangular relationship government-physician-patient in Russia to the nuclear, patriarchal family, strict father-mother-child. First the father is the tyrant who oppresses mother and child. The mother (physician) makes life bearable for the children and is thereby necessary for homeostasis in the entire system. Not a page later he turns the analogy around 180 degrees. Now the patriarchal and tyrannical father is the physician, and the mother is the always well-meaning government. In both analogies the citizen as patient bears the cost. Of course, comparing anything with familial relationships offers unlimited possibilities to find commonality as there are endless variations of relationship patterns to be found within families. One would think – though Szasz does not clearly state so – that the system in Russia to a certain degree resembles the one analogy, and to a certain degree the other, or sometimes the one and other times the other. Such a double analogy can also illustrate the contention that someone who is sufficiently resourceful and masterful can “prove” just about anything he wishes using analogies.
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