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'We find it hard to focus on anything,' writes Charles Merrett, approximately halfway through The Origin of Anxieties, 'without deciding whether we like it or not; whether it is good or bad, attractive or unattractive; right or wrong. We constantly compare one thing with another and set standards about how things should be.'
Inadvertently Merrett has provided the reviewer with a template for a swift evaluation, and with this paragraph in mind one is tempted to state of the book in question: undeniably bad, attractively produced, and wrong in a multitude of ways that I will hope to cover in this review. As for a comparison with previous work on the subject, this is more problematic, in the sense that I know of no book quite like it, and the author has not left us any clues about what he might have read on the subject (there is not even a reference to Freud). One is tempted, then, to infer that this is a book that will stand on its own merits, and with this criterion in mind it must be judged.
To disagree with a book is not necessarily to dislike it: indeed the pleasures are many in wrestling with a text with which one disagrees but which one respects, perhaps for its style, its panache, for its energy and persuasive grappling. In this category I would place texts by Lacan and Zizek. The problem early on, however, with The Origin of Anxieties is that while the sources of disagreement offered to us are plenty (we'll come to these shortly), the reader finds it impossible to like it for the thrill of the scrimmage alone - the prose style is basic and mostly flat, it certainly does not inspire in the way that Lacan's or Zizek's styles inspire - but more pertinently, the book is confused and confusing, and badly in need of an autonomous edit - or at the very least a review of the punctuation and a tiptoe through the typos. And yet... perversely perhaps, the reviewer reads on, not in the tow of any fondness or distaste exactly, but more in a state of almost-stunned amazement: amazement that anyone would have put his name proudly to such a weird mix of homebrewed theories, reference-free, evidence-free noodling, semantic suppositions and dreamy guesswork. For if Merrett has built on any 'common' stock of knowledge, this reviewer is not aware of it, and it is certainly not cited anywhere in the book's 178 pages. For these and more reasons, it is easy to admit to oneself that The Origin of Anxieties is a rather heady, intoxicating fug.
The author writes: 'The Origin of Anxieties takes the view that diagnosing different types of anxiety problems as different conditions misses the point. By focusing on fairly superficial differences between people's problems it overlooks what they have in common. In this way it is misleading and unhelpful.' So we know where we stand; or do we? If this is the author's view, why not the title of 'The Origin of Anxiety'? Ignoring the puzzling use of the plural anxieties in the title (the anxiety explored throughout is more or less of a singular root), we should cut to the etiological chase: the very origin of anxiety itself. And who would have thought that the crux would be so simple? It has been on the tips of our tongues - quite literally on the tips of our tongues - all along. Forget any symptomology of which you might have read; forget the acres of literature that have spent their currency on solving the problem, or at least illuminating it; and forget childhood trauma, residua or lapsus. The answer, insists Merrett, lies with our use of inappropriate language to describe anxiety.
The culprit is what Merrett calls EverydaySpeak, a set of linguistic tropes that unfortunately and ironically goes undefined, although examples are given ('I get anxious', 'I suffer from anxiety', for example). But what exactly is EverydaySpeak? If Merrett had not coined this neologism and had instead used a routine construction such as 'everyday language' (for example) then the reader might not be so deep in the darkness: anyone could have taken a stab at what is covered by 'everyday language', without dwelling on the Orwellian tones of 'EverydaySpeak' (again, the source is not referenced - if indeed it was ever contemplated). However, if I've understood the matter correctly (and despite the routine simplicity of the prose style, this is not something that I'd be willing to take for granted: some of the argument is vague at best), we are agents with active minds, and as such we can transform some of the habits of psychological distress that rely on assumptions about our current condition (psychologically speaking) being the result of what has happened to us in the past.
As the author of this piece of work, Merrett is of course entitled to this opinion; one is inclined to repeat that an opinion not shared is no good reason, in and of itself, to think ill of a book. It is totally the author's prerogative to believe that the way we think about anxiety and how it works is actually part of the reason that we are obliged to endure it; that our perception of anxiety - that it is something that happens to us, that this means that there is something wrong with us, that our worrying about how bad anxiety can get - is essentially the hurdle over which we must leap if we are ever to gain the right attitude of mind to combat it. To this end we are asked to consider a move away from what he calls a 'passive' stance with regards to anxiety. He argues (incorrectly in my view) that to have anxiety and - importantly - to use the words 'have anxiety' - constitute a passivity, a slackening of our taut moral fibre, perhaps... Well, perhaps. But it seems to me that passivity has nothing to do with it. I can follow the author's argument that anxiety is something that we DO and not something that we HAVE, but why does 'having' something mean that I am not thinking the right way about my condition? Why does 'having' something put me squarely (in the author's view) in a position of passivity?
The author does not go so far as to say that we can easily think our way back to full health - not exactly - but he believes in an idea of recontextualising what are normally regarded as negative thoughts. To use an example given, two people are on a plane; one of them is anxious, one of them is not. Merrett advises us that the difference between them (fundamentally) is that they are thinking of the experience in a different way. For anyone with any grounding in the field, this might seem like an over-simplistic rationale, which would in turn make me think that the book had been intended for a younger, maybe teenaged, audience. (Or is this being too charitable? If the book is intended for teens, why not say so explicitly?) Given that Merrett does not claim that the leap to a more productive, more beneficial frame of mind will be easy, it is even possible to think of The Origin of Anxieties as a self-help book. And fair enough. But the question now becomes: a self-help book for whom exactly? If the book is intended for someone - let's say - who is facing his or her anxiety for the first time - a beginner's guide, if you like - wouldn't it have at least a cursory mention of the literature that preceded it, and a clue as to where the 'student' might go next to read on further for more assistance? On the other hand, if Merrett is assuming a stock of common knowledge in the heads of his readership (as I posit above), the phrase becomes oxymoronic if it's not common enough for people to know about it. And if the intended audience is the teenaged market, we face the issue of the dozens of one- or two-lined epigraphs that are sprinkled throughout the text. How would a teenage audience know most of the speakers of these bon mots, or care who they were? Come to think of it, why are these bon mots there in the first place?
None of these questions is solved. However, it is the lack of a definition of the book's core subject - anxiety - that remains the most bewildering and problematic omission throughout, with the author using the word in situations in which 'fear' (inter alia) would seem more appropriate. Indeed, 'anxiety' has such control in the pages of this book that even when one is faced with the prospect of being mown down by a speeding car (the author argues), it is not only the prevailing emotional state, it is the sole emotional state. Personally, given this hypothetical nightmare, I think I would be far more scared than anxious... even if I had been mown down by a speeding car in my childhood and now had the time to let my unconscious inform me of a 'fight or flight' instinct or a reminder of infantile trauma. This is one more example of how the author's use of sloppy language, or sloppy use of language - which is not even rigid within the book's pages - is a cause for concern.
At the end of this book we must evaluate the reading experience, which is weighted decisively on the side of the cons rather than the pros. Giving credit where credit is due, the book was sufficiently unusual - in tone, in construction, in the weird gravitational pull-through caused by what would seem to be a total absence, a black hole, of evidence-based research or even nods towards other texts or examples of new media on the subject. Endeavouring to grin wryly, trying to tell myself that I was in on the irony, I acknowledged the satire: an über-spoof of the self-help literature that grew like weeds in the 80s and 90s. Yes, I got it, I told myself, closing the nice shiny cover for the last time: I can take a joke. But I'm wrong, and with a heavy heart I must acknowledge this. The ride might have been fun, but The Origin of Anxieties is no laughing matter. It was not a gag; it was not meant as a ridiculing of the mental health industry; it was given entirely on the level. (If I'm wrong and it's a joke, it's a masterpiece; it fooled me.) As such it fails as a piece of academic writing and as a piece of therapeutic writing to boot. With its frankly bizarre construction, weaving and gliding back and forth over the same points, time and again, I am not even certain that it qualifies as a piece of pragmatic writing; or if it does, it is of limited value as the same.
What we have here, sadly, is a book with a central theory that cannot stand the weight or pressure of even 178 pages. It neither benefits from this length nor justifies it: although the book is far from long, it need not be a quarter of this duration. At the heart of this book, perhaps, is a magazine article or a journal paper dying to be set free. The tragic thing is that many of these mistakes, omissions and faux pas would have been avoided via the appointment of a good editor and proofreader. Someone needed to structure the book, to harness its limited, but nonetheless theoretical, potential. Instead we have a curious text - which I repeat was odd enough to draw me to the conclusion - lacking anything like an authorial focus, or even an audience in mind. If the occasional bursts of energy in the prose, and the frankly kitsch appeal of reading on to the end in a mood of stupefied disbelief (the 'so bad it must be good' consideration), is sufficient to you as a reader, it's your money.
My own view is that this book is not even close to the standard that one should expect of a first draft, let alone a published work, and that it does not really matter if I agree or don't agree with the author's central theories. For the record, I think that Merrett makes some interesting observations; the problem is that they have not been written up sufficiently, and the book is jumbled. Although I don't doubt the author's credentials, an aptitude for mental health issues does not make one a writer. Nor do I doubt the author's intentions or the effort required for the author to have typed up his thoughts. Nevertheless The Origins of Anxieties remains a wasted opportunity.
© 2017 David Mathew
David Mathew works in the Centre for Learning Excellence at the University of Bedfordshire, UK, and as an independent researcher and writer. His wide areas of interest include psychoanalysis, language, linguistics, distance learning, prisons, applications of care and anti-care, anxiety and online anxiety. He is the author of Fragile Learning: The Influence of Anxiety (Karnac Books) and The Care Factory(Cambridge Scholars). A third academic volume, on the subject of lifelong learning, has been commissioned and will be submitted in December 208. He is the author of four full-length works of fiction (three novels and a volume of short stories) and three further books (two novels and a volume of short stories) have been commissioned. In addition to his writing, he edits the Journal of Pedagogic Development, teaches academic writing, and he particularly enjoys lecturing in foreign countries. For leisure, he enjoys time with his wife and dog and listening to music (particularly post-bop, fusion and post-rock). For more information, please select any of the following links:: Fragile Learning; David Mathew’s Books and Amazon Pages; Journal of Pedagogic Development; Centre for Learning Excellence; ResearchGate Profile here.