Magazine minds seem focused on Prozac and the evils thereof

MAGAZINES

February 06, 1994|By Jan Freeman | Jan Freeman,The Boston Globe

Let's see now, where were we before Lorena, Tonya and the earthquake struck? Oh, right -- Prozac and the end of Western Civilization as We Know It. And the story's as current as ever, with Peter Kramer's best seller about the user-friendly anti-depressant due soon in paperback, Eli Lilly still piling up profits and a gaggle of me-too mood enhancers leapfrogging across the synaptic gaps of the R&D process.

Newsweek's cover package (Feb. 7) takes the typical bipolar newsweekly approach -- one moment glibly giddy at the prospect of "made-to-order, off-the-shelf personalities," next moment soberly warning that "a society that uses drugs to induce conformity does so at its peril." Luckily, Newsweek also ,, has Jerry Adler to remind us that we're still a funny bunch, with our assorted neuroses, mid-life crises and miracle cures: His report on his response to Virtual Prozac -- "the paradigm shift in a bottle -- only without the bottle!" -- is medicine for stuffy social criticism.

But the New Republic's not having any. David J. Rothman's Prozac cover story (Feb. 14), a review of Mr. Kramer's "Listening to Prozac," starts off gloomy and ends up despondent. Mr. Rothman's alarmed about the spread of "cosmetic pharmacology" in general, and especially wary of Prozac, the striver's little helper, which "does not enhance pleasure or bring happiness, but promotes adroit competitiveness. . . . It is an office drug that enhances the social skills necessary in a postindustrial, service-oriented economy." Mr. Rothman sees no way out of the dilemma, given our social acceptance of self-improvement in all forms, and he is profoundly gloomy about our drug-enhanced future, which he pictures as the steroids issue writ large: If we can "raise height or IQ medians, then those who fail to use the technology, whether for reasons of principle or economic status, will become the shorter and slower members of their communities."

Well, maybe. Maybe we'll all become tall, bland, smiley-faced automatons, not a van Gogh or a Beethoven among us, and march off the edge of the technofuture like cheerful lemmings. Or maybe we'll poison the planet first, or blow ourselves up -- who knows? But people have searched for feel-good substances since the roots-and-berries stage of civilization -- it's no surprise that they'd welcome dope that doesn't cause lung cancer or car crashes. And besides, insisting that society needs its agoraphobic artists seems a bit unfair, if you don't happen to be one of them: When Big Brother comes around with the personality pills, is Mr. Rothman willing to sign up for the Tortured Genius regimen? Or will he remain an Anxious Achiever and let someone else write the great music of the 21st century?

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Speaking of tortured geniuses, the New Yorker (Feb. 7) has Harold Brodkey's report of his first year living with AIDS -- or, as he prefers to call it, "Dying: An Update." Disease is less the subject, though, than the writer's pretext for doing what he does best: exploring his endlessly fascinating self. In this monstrous seething compost heap of malice, narcissism, insight and eloquence, there's one long passage, a sort of eulogy for himself, where Mr. Brodkey dilates on his lifelong irresistibility as a personality: "I was in fashion in New York in terms of this irresistibility off and on for the last forty years. . . . Other people won literary prizes or academic honors. I discriminated among emotions and suitors -- and judged their quality as people, their odors, their intelligence."

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What's new? Well, there's Plus Voice, a Chicago-based bimonthly covering issues of interest to HIV-positive people -- perhaps the first magazine ever whose business plan is "to go monthly and then be forced out of business by a cure for AIDS." And Escape, an adventure-travel quarterly that seeks to go where no magazine has gone before, somewhere on the narrow mountain path between the straight travel magazines and the more sports-oriented ones like Backpacker and Outside.

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