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The Jet-Propelled Couch
September 21, 2009 12:15 AM   Subscribe

In 1954, Harper's Magazine ran a story called the Jet-Propelled Couch (Part 2) about a government scientist who was forced to go into to treatment. His problem? He lived half his life on another planet:
“As I read about the adventures of Kirk Allen in these books the conviction began to grow on me that the stories were not only true to the very last detail but that they were about me. In some weird and inexplicable way I knew that what I was reading was my biography. Nothing in these books was unfamiliar to me: I recognized everything–the scenes, the people, the furnishings of rooms, the events, even the words that were spoken. My everyday life began to recede at this point. In fact, it became fiction–and, as it did, the books became my reality.”
Ever since the story was published, sci-fi fans have attempted to discover who Kirk Allen really was. One theory is that it was cleverly disguised Cordwainer Smith, others think there may have been a government physicist named John Carter, and some think he might have been more than one patient. Either way, it's a great story. [via] posted by empath (28 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
It seems to me that Lindner's accounts were fictive.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 2:10 AM on September 21, 2009


Nothing in these books was unfamiliar to me: I recognized everything–the scenes, the people, the furnishings of rooms, the events, even the words that were spoken.

I have this experience all the time, but I usually just think to myself, "Oh Jesus people, will you stop looting Tolkien's grave?!?!

Ever since I first bumped into "Scanners Live in Vain" I've been a big fan of Cordwainer Smith (enough to buy several paperbacks in mylar bags, printed when I was mostly concerned with cell division). Scanning this, I'm not sure I can see this person going on to become much of a writer.

What this really reads like is some short stories I've read by Alfred Bestler, but Bestler would have added a zing where the guy in the couch is a slightly neurotic science fiction writer and the psychiatrist is the one who's completely disconnected from reality.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:12 AM on September 21, 2009


Did you mean: Alfred Bester ?
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 4:31 AM on September 21, 2009


Concerned with cell....oh. A fetus.
posted by DU at 4:50 AM on September 21, 2009


I'm assuming Robert Lindner was paid by Harpers in Joe Chip money.
posted by Smart Dalek at 5:13 AM on September 21, 2009


When I worked at the comics store, there were a few people like this, and Star Trek and Xena and Forever Knight fans seemed worst afflicted. Most of them were creepy or borderline dangerous, but a few cheerfully acknowledged "Yup. I'm crazy. But check out my Lando Calrisian cape! Woo!"

My favorite of these was a blind african-american guy who dressed up like Han Solo, every day, and bought comic books his wife would read to him at home, describing the action in the panels. One time someone asked him why he didn't dress up like Geordie LaForge, being a blind african-american and all, and he went on for a solid hour on how much Geordie sucked compared to Scotty, and how the Millennium Falcon could "take" the Enterprise. Crazy, but witty, erudite and fun.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:21 AM on September 21, 2009 [9 favorites]


Geordi does suck compared to Scotty and Kirk and Solo are probably pretty similar in terms of ability (not to mention willingness to go outside the rules to get things done). But Kirk also has an incredible support staff (in a firefight, mainly being Spock, Sulu and Scotty) whereas Solo just has a big hairy guy who can't even speak.
posted by DU at 5:37 AM on September 21, 2009


That doesn't sound crazy, Slap*Happy, that sounds enthusiastic about imaginary things. Many people have imaginary things they're enthusiastic about. Sadly, an awful lot of them aren't aware that they're imaginary.

I suspect he was probably saner than most.
posted by Malor at 5:41 AM on September 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


You can get the complete short fiction of Cordwainer Smith from NESFA. Highly recommended.
posted by sciurus at 6:34 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Are people generally aware that the good folks at NESFA have reprinted all (?) of Cordwainer Smith's short SF stories as well as Norstrilia? There's also a concordance, which I haven't bothered with - does anyone know if it's good?
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:38 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sure, possibly "Kirk Allen" was Smith, or rather, Linebarger. Something in the feel of Linder's story makes me not reject the notion out of hand, at least.

But it if was, so many of the facts had to be changed (his profession, his father's, the notion that the SF hero shared his name, and on and on) that one can't really trust any of Linder's narrative at all. It becomes merely a fiction, loosely inspired by something in Linder's career.
posted by tyllwin at 7:06 AM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


The principle of Occam's Razor suggests that Lindner's account is not true on its face and that all the theorists trying to determine the identity of the patient are on a wild goose chase.

Linder's story is full of questionable statements which undermine its credibility.

You cannot 'cure' someone with elaborate hallucinatory delusions or intrusive ideation with 'analysis' - not if it is a psychosis - according to modern views. The comparative ease with which Allen emerges from his delusion - apparently never to be bothered by it again - is not credible.

Difficult to imagine the patient returning to a normal life without a pharmaceutical buffer, if the symptoms described are accurate.

Lindner's diagnosis seems to reflect the psychiatric theories popular at the time he wrote his article, theories which have long been abandoned as obsolete. The cause of the psychosis according to Lindner seems frankly absurd.

Kirk Allen's illness sounds like schizophrenia or a form of it. If he had such an illness, he would certainly not be 'completely unaffected by it most of the time' and his disease would absolutely attract attention and make it impossible for him to function normally in his job and society, and would become progressively worse over time. And yet this is apparently not the case.

It's difficult to find descriptions of a psychosis which manifests in this way.

If it was not interfering with Allen's job or every day life in a serious manner, would it even be something to be treated, anyway? Aren't the criteria for treating mental illness based upon the impact it has on normal life function?

Perhaps Allen was an Asperger's Syndrome patient with an elaborate fantasy obsession, and treatment of it was a symptom of the Draconian mental health ideas of the era, the same sorts of approach which drove Alan Turing to suicide.

But all this is a waste of cognitive effort. Without any substantial evidence to back up the hypothesis, the simplest answer appears to be that Lindner cobbled together the entire story, perhaps using elements of several real patients, motivated to promote the effectiveness of the analytic method to which he subscribed. A 'pious fiction', if you will, as there seems no reason to believe he did not genuinely believe the process could help the mentally ill.

If this is so, then the meta-narrative is that Lindner's account is the true grandiose delusion, not the chimerical one of his fictive patient; the story within the story.


(Elm's theory is so overflowing with confirmation bias, willingness to ignore contradictory data, and stretched arguments that it appears not even worth deconstructing point by point. Add to this, his daughter states he was never treated by Lindner, so as fascinating as it is as a detective tale, I don't think it has any value in determining the identity of Allen.)
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 7:07 AM on September 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


Nthing the idea that Lindner took what was probably nothing more than the case of a creative fan who added some fanon to the canon of his favorite story, and turned it into a full-blown psychodrama. I don't think Lindner was particularly deluded, just another shrink who used this sort of thing as fodder for cocktail-party chat until he realized that there was a commercial market for this sort of thing.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:35 AM on September 21, 2009


but Bestler would have added a zing where the guy in the couch is a slightly neurotic science fiction writer and the psychiatrist is the one who's completely disconnected from reality.

If this is so, then the meta-narrative is that Lindner's account is the true grandiose delusion, not the chimerical one of his fictive patient; the story within the story.


You're not far off.

Quoted from Carl Sagan's discussion (in The Demon-Haunted World) of Lindler's book The Fifty-Minute Hour:
But then a strange thing happened: "The materials of Kirk's psychosis and the Achilles Heel of my personality met and meshed like gears of a clock." The psychoanalyst became a co-conspirator in his patient's delusion. He began to reject psychological explanations of Allen's story.

...

"Why?" the psychiatrist asked, "why did you pretend? Why did you keep on telling me...?"

"Because I felt I had to," the physicist replied. "Because I felt you wanted me to."
posted by Elsa at 8:05 AM on September 21, 2009


Huh, I had always thought it was generally accepted that the patient was Cordwainer Smith, but that's probably because I read it in Billion Year Spree. In any event, "The Jet-Propelled Couch" is one of the most gripping tales of psychiatry I've read, and I heartily recommend it.

> The principle of Occam's Razor suggests that Lindner's account is not true on its face and that all the theorists trying to determine the identity of the patient are on a wild goose chase.

You've said this twice, and yet you don't appear to know anything about it; you're just applying your own preconceptions. Without any substantial evidence to back up the hypothesis, the simplest answer appears to be that you're making shit up.
posted by languagehat at 11:20 AM on September 21, 2009


It may not be Occam's razor in action, but I think it's reasonable to point out that Lindner's account of the symptoms and cure paint a picture which a more contemporary understanding of psychiatry would suggest is a combination unlikely to be strictly true as written.
posted by tyllwin at 11:56 AM on September 21, 2009


Right, "a more contemporary understanding of psychiatry" (i.e., what experts now think, and will no longer think in a few years) overrides a respected author's account of what he personally experienced. Makes sense to me.
posted by languagehat at 12:18 PM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


For an example of what happens to dreamers like this without the intervention of well-meaning, if somewhat susceptible psychiatrists, I refer you to The Coronation of Mr. Thomas Shap.
posted by MrVisible at 12:22 PM on September 21, 2009


Kirk Allen's fictitious world as reported by Lindner was a lot less interesting than Smith's. And given Smith's resume, it's hard to imagine he had time for a complicated psychosis. (Neither of these are remotely conclusive, of course.)

A TV show called Playhouse 90 did an adaptation of The Jet-Propelled Couch with Peter Lorre (albeit not in the Allen or Lindner roles; I'd presume that whatever was left must have been a small role.) Want DVD.
posted by Zed at 3:08 PM on September 21, 2009


Kirk Allen's fictitious world as reported by Lindner was a lot less interesting than Smith's.

That's a really good point. Lindner describes a patient relating stories that were clichéd even back then. The stories that Smith/Linebarger wrote a few years later are so extraordinary that they're worth reading even today. Surely the patient's detailed fantasy life would have been reflected in Smith's stories, if they were the same person?

I suspect that someone claiming to be one of Smith's characters (living immensely far in the future, perhaps as one of the Lords of the Instrumentality surrounded by Underpeople, or condemned to undergo repeated mutilation for the benefit of others, or sealed off from human sensation except in rare bursts that might kill him) would have been diagnosed very differently from someone merely claiming to be a sort of SF hero like John Carter of Mars.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:39 PM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Right, "a more contemporary understanding of psychiatry" (i.e., what experts now think, and will no longer think in a few years) overrides a respected author's account of what he personally experienced. Makes sense to me.

Not generally, perhaps. But when we know that the author in question has fictionalized it to some degree, it may. We do't know exactly where that line is drawn. If Kirk Allen is either Linebarger, or a composite, it's very highly fictionalized indeed. I think it's quite reasonable to wonder if the details of the diagnosis and cure are also significantly altered.
posted by tyllwin at 7:02 PM on September 21, 2009


Wow. This is such absolute crap. Why pick C. Smith to be Kirk Allen? Why not Asimov? Or Harlan Ellison? Alan C. Elms is full of it (it being circumstantial conjecture).
posted by ovvl at 8:11 PM on September 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


"... "a more contemporary understanding of psychiatry" (i.e., what experts now think, and will no longer think in a few years) overrides a respected author's account of what he personally experienced. Makes sense to me."

This is an argument to authority and is therefore a fallacy.

Lindner's account does not accord with what we know about such illnesses. That's the bottom line. His account is not credible for this reason.

It is unlikely that modern neurophysiologic treatment methods will be turned on their head, since they are based on scientific studies and evaluated with controlled testing. The old analytical approach to dealing with organic mental illness has been almost completely thrown out, it is like shamanism compared to contemporary psychiatry.

Lindner appears to be a proponent of analysis, which is not considered a credible approach to treating mental illnesses now understood to be caused by organic problems in the brain.

The field of psychology has been completely undermined by neurological science; the key theories underlying psychological treatment have had to be revamped again and again since the 60s in the wake of such discoveries. Some even go so far as to say that Psychology is riddled with pseudo-science.

Analysis as a component of treating people with psychological problems is valuable, but in and of itself is utterly useless in dealing with people suffering from complex delusions of the schizophrenic type, as Kirk Allen's appear to be. I suggest you spend some time reading up on the current state of psychiatric research before you start blustering, languagehat.

It is amusing to me that languagehat says "I had always thought it was generally accepted that the patient was Cordwainer Smith... In any event, "The Jet-Propelled Couch" is one of the most gripping tales of psychiatry I've read, and I heartily recommend it." then goes on to accuse me of: "you're just applying your own preconceptions. Without any substantial evidence to back up the hypothesis, the simplest answer appears to be that you're making shit up."

You were wrong that it was 'generally accepted' that Smith was Allen, and the rest of your assumptions are just as wrong. His own daughter says he was never treated by Lindner, and even Elm admits there are great dissimilarities. This was *your* preconception. The only reason you think that the account is accurate is because you personally like it, and entertain confirmation bias toward supportive evidence.

Logic suggests that Lindner's account is fictive, for the reasons I outlined. He would not be the first 'respected author' to have been found to have fictionalized or altered data to support a hypothesis. The sole reason you consider it authoritative appears to be because he has been published, that you enjoyed his work, and his account was accepted by many for some period of time. I shouldn't have to point out exactly why this is a preposterous line of reasoning.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 8:15 PM on September 21, 2009


Lindner's account does not accord with what we know about such illnesses. That's the bottom line. His account is not credible for this reason.

For "what we know," substitute "what I think."

It is unlikely that modern neurophysiologic treatment methods will be turned on their head, since they are based on scientific studies and evaluated with controlled testing.

Which is exactly what they said back then, and what they will say in 50 years when the theories you have such confidence in are "proven" to be wrong.

Logic suggests that Lindner's account is fictive


For "logic," substitute "my personal prejudices."

Nice line in overheated rhetoric, though. "Preposterous," oh my! Are you by any chance a retired colonel in Tunbridge Wells?
posted by languagehat at 5:41 AM on September 22, 2009


"For 'what we know', substitute 'what I think.'"

This is in fact *your* argument for Lindner's veracity. Your reasoning for his account being accurate is, apparently, that it was published.

"Which is exactly what they said back then, and what they will say..."

Logical fallacy: wishful thinking. Amounts to a position of faith.

From there, you descend toward ad hominem. /golf clap
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 8:46 AM on September 22, 2009


Given that Freud was intensely sceptical of the efficacy of analysis in the treatment of psychosis — his 1911 reading of Schreber's memoirs, for example, he regarded as important to analytic theory rather than its practice — Mabuse probably has the edge here.

It is obviously, however, impossible to say what took place between analysand A and analyst B with certainty.
posted by Wolof at 4:47 PM on September 24, 2009


> Mabuse probably has the edge here.

Oh? I take it that you, like him, are convinced of the final and irrefutable perfection of our current understanding of psychology? I personally think Freudianism is utter bullshit, so I don't really care what Freud thought about the efficacy of analysis in the treatment of psychosis. However, I also think what Henry C. Mabuse thinks is utter bullshit, so I'm not seeing any edge.

> It is obviously, however, impossible to say what took place between analysand A and analyst B with certainty.

This is, as they say, the point, one which Henry C. Mabuse refuses to grasp.
posted by languagehat at 5:49 PM on September 24, 2009


I'm commenting on the likely practice of a Freudian analyst. There is no need to put words in my mouth, thanks very much.
posted by Wolof at 6:03 PM on September 24, 2009


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