The Qualia Problem, Part 2

I’m out of the United States right now, which is partly why I haven’t written anything here for a while. But I want, very briefly, to look at a short essay published in the Times this week. It’s called “What Bipolar II Feels Like”, and its adapted from “I’m Telling The Truth But I’m Lying”, a new book by Bassey Ikpi. I haven’t read the book yet, so I don’t know what the rest of it is like. I don’t even know what the original version of this essay is like—”adapted” is a vague word, and in a case like this usually means “cut together from parts of a larger essay.” But this short version, as it appears in the Times, is worth looking at for what it is in this form.

What it is, I think, is another good example of the wall we’re running up against writing about mental illness. It’s the qualia problem I wrote about before, and will write about again: If one goal of literature is to get a reader to understand and even feel the what-it's-like-ness of an experience, what do we do with experiences that are alien to ordinary life? Extreme mood episodes and psychotic states are not like anything you’ll feel if you’ve never felt those things precisely. They strain the utility of metaphors. It’s difficult to build a bridge from something you may be familiar with to something so unfamiliar: the ordinary “imagine X Y and Z experience, but with P, Q, and R adjustments” rarely suffices. And that challenge only addresses the descriptive problem of writing mental illness. What about mimesis? Is there a way to simulate the subjective state on the page?

Ikpi’s essay doesn’t do a bad job trying. This is a deft essay, and worth reading. But I’ve read it before. I think I’ve even written it before. Its descriptive content is a mix of metaphors, hypotheticals, and hypotheticals (or metaphors) which are actually the incredibly particular experiences of its author. Like this:

You know how you can get a song stuck in your head? Imagine hearing that song even in your sleep — waking you up in the middle of the night to ensure you’re aware of the lap it’s running in your head. Then imagine you have to find out everything you can about that song and its singer. Where it started? Who wrote it? What inspired it? Why? You have to do all of this before there can be quiet in your head, before you can rest, before you can sleep.

Now imagine you do this with clothes. You can only wear 7 for All Mankind jeans or Citizens of Humanity because they were both created by the same people until one of them left because of a falling-out and started C.O.H. You know this because you researched and Googled and Wikipedia-ed everything there is to know about them and those are the only jeans you can wear now so who cares if they’re two hundred dollars?

For mimesis—for qualia—Ikpi turns to form. The essay builds in a satisfying way. It gets more and more manic (it is talking about hypomania, mainly, although it doesn’t say so explicitly) in fits between crashes. The pace flows until it leaps, in a way that’s meant to imitate the sudden irrational leaps in a mood episode. As the content turns from hyped to exhausting, the essay tries to exhaust you. “And then the packages come because of course you did overnight express and you feel crazy and stupid and silly and irresponsible and you’re exhausted because you know this isn’t normal,” Ikpi writes. It says ‘exhausted’, but the point is the and and and and and. The syntax wants to get you running full speed and then say, Look, you’re running on fumes. Something is wrong here.

Again, this is all very well done, and again, I’ve read it before, over and over; I’ve written it before, over and over, this form and content trick for trying to recreate mania, right down to the way the very last line— “Imagine you don’t fit anywhere, not even in your own head”—manages to to sum it all up neatly, while also giving a sense of the constant agitated difficulty of these illnesses, while also slyly suggesting something interesting, something worth-writing-about about it (don’t fit is not fitting is not fitting in, the classic tragic-to-cool literary subjectivity). I don’t think there’s anything wrong with what’s happening here, except perhaps wondering if this is really an essay about “Bipolar II” except in point-of-fact (you could say this was about classic mania in BP1, or even about a particularly severe kind of anxiety disorder, and it would be approximate enough to ring intentional and true). This is, I think, one of the best examples I’ve ever read of the current state of mental illness lit. It’s better than my own versions of precisely this essay; as good, at least, as some of the better installments which predate both Ikpi and me. But it’s still the current state of mental illness lit. And I want to see what the next step is. I want something that uses different tricks; that doesn’t rely on bizarre specific content deployed in mood-mimetic form. I’d like to write the next step, obviously, but I’d just be relieved to see it written by somebody else. Maybe the full book has what I’m looking for here. I’ll order it. And in the meantime, keep trying to think of something new.