Sunday Stories: “Frontier Psychiatrist”

"Frontier Psychiatrist"

Frontier Psychiatrist
by Chris Molnar

There is a disorder that arises from the reading of a certain medical text. This text describes a disorder, most common in the unorganized territories of mid-19th century North America, in which a patient experiences transient global amnesia, in conjunction with an obsessive, persistent compulsion to organize an expedition to the North Pole, creating polar amnesia. An account from the 1890s tells of a young gold miner walking north from Dawson. Months later pale bones and a pickax are discovered by incredulous Inuit near the Arctic coast, his remains scattered along gravel shores and pingos.

The sudden, fantastical drive to organize a polar expedition was not uncommon in the unorganized territories of mid-19th century North America, begins the text. Often the sufferers would be sharecroppers or nightsoilmen, who had worked in indentured servitude, marching alone with ragged dogs or ponies. If read straight through, the text activates a secondary disorder, which shares all symptoms with the primary. The only difference is that this polar amnesia originates from the text.

This text, and all descriptions thereof, have been made illegal, and the ruling itself has been classified to avoid accidental causation of the secondary disorder. I discovered the legend surrounding the text while lying on my cold bed after work at the Styrofoam factory in Novi, Michigan, unable to sleep, recently split up with my wild eyed girlfriend, who had been disappearing one step at a time into some other life. Empty like the aftermath of fever, I knew this was my chance to set myself free from this place. Clicking through obscure articles about isolation and disappearance, I listened to Glenn Gould’s The Idea of North, the radio documentary about mild cases of polar amnesia, regular people stopping short of the Pole and making lives for themselves in the North.

Days earlier a video had surfaced of an unidentified young woman disappeared from the northernmost rest stop in Canada, near Chan Lake. Her arms in the security footage, moving wildly – not long before the dogs found her in a nearby snowdrift – showed her determined, arguing with herself or another. Her solo trip to the Upper Northwest had caused one Internet commenter to suggest polar amnesia. The only Wikipedia mention of the North Pole text was in a longer list of travelling compulsions, followed by “[citation needed]”. Searches brought nothing on either the text or the disorder. I walked to the corner store, bought some forties, and went back to my room, in the basement of a condemned house in the North End of Detroit. Upstairs the roommates’ band played suspended chords, drums an aggravating constant fill. There were no jobs but those in factories, wild eyed girl long gone, to Chicago maybe, she said, or a cooperative farm up North. After some time, I descended into the Deep Web to see if the text was real.

There are forums and protected IRCs devoted to apocryphal disorders and the texts that surround them. Morgellons disease is not recognized by any medical body, and yet has attracted enough sufferers and believers through social media to warrant conferences and academic texts. In support groups or via the Internet, hypochondriacs unite. Some disorders consider themselves, or are considered too dangerous to rise to the level of conference or journal. These tend to be more grounded in reality; avant-garde psychologists simply restrict their texts to the Tor network, to be reviewed by true peers.

Polar amnesia appears to have resulted from a lack of stimuli and strong exploratory impulse among nineteenth century Americans, continues the text. The original text is posted as a series of embedded jpgs on an avant-disorder forum, as if transcribing would dilute its power, or be too dangerous to host. After the initial post are a few scattered responses, typed years apart, testimonials and theories. One response from 2005 reads: The industrial chickens are coming home to roost. Post-capital, post- hope. In 2006: I’m reading it, I don’t care, there’s nothing else for me. See you on the other side. In 2009: How does Global warming affect this?? Any information on previous posters? In 2016: Ultimate black pill. McCandless read it. In 2017: Four deaths in Nunavut, it’s a Trudeau cover-up, they’re using the text to train zombie warriors…

The case studies and primary texts offered in underground disorder networks typically revolve around persons such as myself. I should have contented myself to read only the responses. But I decided I had nothing in particular to look forward to, and so I sat down, after preparing myself tea, and read the whole thing. I woke up the week after. When I came to I was sleeping in the back of an old van, with four huskies curled up at my feet, credit cards maxed out, in a Yellowknife parking lot. In front of me, a gas station and a strip mall, new-built, surrounded by dirt and snow. To one side distant subdivisions, to the other a gas station among truck parts and rubble. Familiar, but with the uncanny presence of nearby desolation.

It came back as if in a dream, the drooping dog-dealer going out of business in Fort Simpson, van stolen from my roommate, still full of drum detritus and guitars. I could go back, I thought, touching the head of the leader-dog, watching me warily on behalf of his cohort, taking stock of my ability to feed and guide them. But our house was scheduled to be demolished anyway, Value World closed (though not before I bought their stock of stale-reeking winter wear), nothing left but empty lots and new speculation, Shinola factory pumping out watches for some richer world.

Attributed to Swinburne, on obsessive polar mania: If you find no pleasure in a thing you must find something else. And if there is no pleasure permitted anywhere you must search the world until it becomes pleasure. Even if the pleasure becomes madness. He wrote one poem on the subject, during a phase of fascination with America after the end of the Civil War. I’ve written the last stanza on the dashboard:

Out toward the ice beyond icefall,

From the evening whence morning shall be,

With the rollers in measureless onset,

With the van of the storming sea,

With the world-wide wind, with the breath

That breaks ships driven upon death,

With the passion of all things free.

I sell the van and buy a used sledge with supplies. The dogs are all serious, middle-aged, smelling of horses, with steely far-away looks. Ten miles out from Déline, with distant muddy lights through the filter of low, roiling clouds, I collapse. With my last bit of strength, I release the dogs, who run instinctively towards the hearth of town. I feel myself growing warmer, so close to the pole. The leader-dog waits at a distance, husky breath rough and even. The quiet is harmonious, nothing but our lungs and the trees, small and swaying in the distance. Though I miss the touch even of someone wild and unloving. I’ll push on, I think, and not stop until I reach the ice sea. I’ll build a hut and live off the land with this unnamed noble dog. A kind of solitude that is beholden to no one. I’m becoming warmer and I take off the old Value World parka. I lie with my skin in the snow and stare at the stars. The constellations hover in the still air, sure and watching. The dog is silent. I can see some possibility up there, another world. Although this one is so warm.


Chris Molnar lives in lower Manhattan and has written for The Shadow, among other publications. He co-founded the Writer’s Block, the first independent bookstore in Las Vegas, in 2014; the Unpublishable reading series in 2018; and recently completed a novel entitled Hellscape.

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