Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Thomas Szasz

"That dreadful Hungarian, was he there?"  says Mrs. Pierce in My Fair Lady.  Higgins answers:  "Yes he was there allright and up to his old tricks."

Just for the record, I never thought Thomas Szasz a "blaggard" in the same category as the infamous Zoltan Karpathy of Broadway musical fame.   But look at that impish wisp of a grin in his New York Times obituary this morning and you can't help but suspect that he wouldn't have minded the "dreadful" part.  In any event, he certainly put his stamp on the world, as one of the leading critics of the psychiatric establishment. 

He built his career on his book, The Myth of Mental Illness (1961),    As the Times suggests, his timing was exquisite.  The cornices where just beginning to crumble on the Freudian edifice and Szasz found himself in the front line of a broad-based attack against the conventional psychiatric wisdom.  But he had his own spin.  Careless observers would bracket him with "left critics" like R. D. Laing whose view, in crude caricature, was that we're all crazy and that crazy people need to be taken more seriously.    Szasz' point was that nobody is crazy, so suck it  up.

Szasz' enthusiasm seems never to have flagged,  and he seems to have thrived on adversity.  He lost his principal teaching forum in the 60s, but continued to speak, write, see private patients--and argue--until the end of his life.  His zest for confrontation led him into some, ahem, memorable company.  At times he consorted with Scientologists, Misean libertarians and assorted nutcakes.    But you got the sense he didn't care: he was sure enough of his own rightness that he seemed to figure that he would enrich their world more than they would sully his.

It's an interesting question what, if anything, Szasz accomplished with all his muck-stirring. The Times quotes an historian of psychiatry saying that a Szaszian attack "had some merit in the 1950s ... but not later on, when the field began developing more scientific approaches."  Really? For the moment, let's just note that "more scientific" has done nothing to prevent psychiatric "mission creep," as the scope of psychiatry seems to get ever larger.

 I haven't kept up, but I suspect that Szasz took it all in stride. Self-pity was never part of his tool kit.  Much more fun to have a good scrap than to worry too much about winning.   For the momenet, here are some temperate insights into the Szaszian career:  go here and here.

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