I think I might be dead – it would explain a lot about the past seven years

A friend comes round with some old copies of the New Scientist and I read a piece about Cotard’s syndrome, whose symptoms present as the conviction that you are dead.

Dead man walking: a man dressed as a zombie in Hyde Park, London, August 2013. Photo: Getty
Dead man walking: a man dressed as a zombie in Hyde Park, London, August 2013. Photo: Getty

An email arrives from a friend I haven’t seen in a while. “I’ve been reading about that s***hole you infest for so long now I’m minded to come and take a look at the gaff. You around at the moment?”

I read this while lying on the bed, around lunchtime, in my underpants. Around me, the scholar’s mistress – the various reading matter that accumulates in the bed of the solitary writer – has been putting on weight. Downstairs, the living room is a heap of old plates and the usual piles and piles of books.

For the past week or so I have been the Hovel’s sole occupant. The Woman Who Scoured the Teapot has finished her stint of working in London and returned to the family home; the man who crashes here from Monday to Thursday to save himself a commute has gone on holiday with his family. My children are on holiday. My girlfriend is in Sweden. My cat . . . I don’t have a cat.

Esse est percipi, Berkeley tells us: to be is to be perceived. Well, no one is perceiving me at the moment. So, do I exist? I’ve let things slide a little, and the prospect of someone rocking up to the front door – someone who I happen to know is a man of tidy habits – puts me into a bit of a flap. Also, I have two deadlines, including the one for this column. I cannot shower, shave, get dressed, tidy up and write the number of words I am contracted to write as well as entertain someone, however desirable it would be to see him.

Solitude has strange side effects. The loneliness is a given. What’s surprising is the way you don’t want to see anyone despite being lonely – it’s as if one is no longer confident in one’s ability to project a persona. One is also acutely aware of the gulf that exists between the figure shambling around in his undercrackers all day long making endless cups of tea, and the suave, witty and dapper raconteur, which is how the world sees you. To clean oneself up and talk as if one were a self-assured and functioning member of society who can make other people laugh would, in some way, feel like an imposture; and so you become like the tree in the Berkeleyan forest which falls without anyone being around to confirm it.

Still, you can’t become completely isolated, however convincing the philosophical case; so, when I get a call from my friend Toby, who is normally, after six o’clock, as hard to shift from the Uxbridge Arms as a limpet is to shift from its rock, doing me the signal honour of proposing a meeting at the Barley Mow, my own local, for a pint, I accept.

Toby brings with him, as has become most welcome custom, a plastic bag full of the past dozen or so New Scientists. (I find that it is a magazine best enjoyed when gorged upon, rather than bought weekly.) And in the first issue I open when I get back to the Hovel, 19 October 2013, I read a piece about Cotard’s syndrome, whose symptoms present as the conviction that you are dead. Or, as one sufferer cited put it, more carefully, the “strong feeling” that she was dead. These may not have been her exact words but I do like the nuance.

I vaguely recall hearing about this at the time of publication and thinking: that’s a delusion? The train of thought tentatively set off last October judders into motion again. Is it possible, I wonder, as someone who first tentatively thought these things after reading “The Waste Land”, specifically the lines about the Dantescan crowds flowing over London Bridge, that it is not realising that you are dead that is the true pathology?

After some days, the idea still grips me. It would account for a great deal I’ve been pondering on for the past seven years. In fact, as an explanation for what is going on, as the TLS’s review of The Matrix said at the time, it makes a great deal of sense. And I have to admit that, as an excuse for late delivery of copy, “I can’t file right now – I’m dead” packs a certain punch. I am also reminded of Will Self’s excellent joke, in his story “The North London Book of the Dead”, that when you die, you just move to another part of London; and what have I done, since being ejected to the Hovel, but move to another part of London?

QED. The problem with most sufferers of Cotard’s on record is that they are distressed at their condition; this, I would venture, is where they are going wrong.