Book Review: Alien Landscapes?

BookReviewLogoReview by Rachel Warner.

Alien Landscapes?: Interpreting Disordered Minds (Harvard University Press, 2014) reflects author Jonathan Glover’s longstanding interest in the intersection of philosophy and psychiatry. As his most recent monograph, Alien Landscapes represents the culmination of over forty years of research and interest in the issues surrounding mental illness and human interpretation, identity, values, and responsibility. Glover holds an academic appointment in the Centre of Medical Law and Ethics at King’s College in London and should be considered an expert philosopher and ethicist in matters related to disordered minds.

21878130From the titular question mark used to signal his inquiry, Glover adopts a probing stance towards his intellectual pursuits. Combining qualitative information derived from patients incarcerated at Broadmoor Hospital, expressive portrayals of mental illness, and classical Greek philosophy, Glover foregrounds the importance of going to the source of his investigation. He continually uses the descriptions (whether autobiographical, literary, or artistic) provided by people who have actually suffered from mental illnesses to focus and expand his study. This “view from inside” thus constitutes the central theme and methodology in Glover’s work and supports his primary argument that we must disregard the notion of people suffering from major mental illnesses as being “impenetrably alien” (1).

The conclusions Glover offers regarding his research questions are as manifold as the subjects he describes. Divided into six sections, Glover’s work deconstructs the socio-historical framework surrounding psychiatric diagnoses and offers humanistic analysis as a potentially ameliorating intervention. He proposes the concept of a “binocular vision in psychiatry” needed to resolve the inherent paradoxes present in the human condition (391). Such contradictions may take the form of an individual’s identity versus their illness, the extent to which they may be held legally accountable for crimes committed during extremely agitated states, and what the defining difference between “normal” or healthy functioning and disordered minds really is. Over the course of the book Glover repeatedly returns to the question of what constitutes an Aristotelian sense of human flourishing, or that which “sees a condition as harmful when it is an impediment to the person’s being able to live a good human life,” and how this concept should inform the diagnoses and treatment of mental disorders (223). He therefore adopts deliberately “unscientific categories” in order to offer a more humanistic overview of the state of mental illness today (5).

Ever the philosopher, Glover certainly asks more questions than he does provide concrete answers. Although this form of inquiry may be best suited to tackling the endless ontological complexities of mental illness, the organization of the work feels random at times. For example, the chapter “What is Autism” seems arbitrarily sandwiched between analyses of the controversial concept of harm in psychiatry and the ethics of pharmacological interventions. Glover’s confusing organizational style thus obfuscates some of his finer points as it becomes difficult to determine why certain concepts have been juxtaposed in such a way. Despite these formal inconsistencies, Glover maintains a clear argument regarding the social construction of mental illness as an alien landscape throughout the work and offers ethical, philosophical, and humanistic methods as much-needed supplements to the current psychiatric models.

Overall, Alien Landsapes is a highly accessible and magnificently varied meditation on the phenomenology of mental illness. Because Glover appeals to poetic renditions of mental illness ranging from W.H. Auden to Ted Hughes, literary scholars wishing to explore figurative language and illness would be well served by reading the text. Additionally, students and practitioners in psychology wishing to gain an exhaustive yet highly nuanced and philosophical understanding of the range of psychopathologies in existence today would benefit exponentially. Finally, parents, partners, and friends of loved ones suffering from mental illnesses may also find subtle comfort in Glover’s overall message and rejoice in the delicate yet decisive manner in which he analyzes disordered mental states.

rachel-warner-300x228Rachel Warner is currently pursuing her PhD in English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She works in 20th century and contemporary American fiction, health humanities, feminism, gender, and sexuality studies, and posthumanism. Out of class she enjoys practicing yoga, vegetarian and vegan cooking, and the outdoors.

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