Violence of body: violence of body politic

October 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

It is a despairing, infected sentence that opens Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill”:

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes & deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices & lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient & obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death & feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads & wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels & the harpers when we have a tooth out & come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair & confuse his “Rinse the mouth — rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us — when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love & battle & jealousy among the prime themes of literature. (9)

The sentence reads untrue.

Over the course of the brief essay — experienced as a spell or flush of something — Woolf shows the well-matched pair that are the character tropes of writer & patient. Especially, it is the distance from life that the ill are granted which gives them both the perspective & time to contemplate life. The patient is either hospitalised or bed-ridden, as extracted from the everyday as any criminal or the dead. I echo Woolf, “we cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters” (14); the banished & exiled are assumed enemies of the state, traitors. The laws of the world, & “the law is on the side of the normal” (20), are dethroned to second place beneath those of the body.

“The wave of life flings itself out indefatigably. It is only the recumbent who know what, after all, Nature is at no pains to conceal — that she in the end will conquer” (16). This is the law that survives ours, our human politics & morality, & will one day survive us. Death will conquer in the end.

We may speak of souls & immortality, of salvation & intellectual surmount but the body will always be [in] the way. Health is the condition of our freedom to speak of these things — let alone to enact them. Health is abiding to life under the memento mori law of nature.

Susan Sontag approaches the subject of patient & author more methodically. Cancer is opposed to Tuberculosis in Illness as Metaphor, & against literature first & most comprehensively. TB has a Romantic literary presence; after all, its fictional employment “was a way of affirming the value of being more conscious, more complex psychologically” (26) — the very requirements of a writer. Cancer is the reverse: instead of seeding desire [cf. Socrates on literature, desire, & the birth of philosophy], the malady wizens existence. “The dying tubercular is pictured as made more beautiful & more soulful; the person dying of cancer is portrayed as robbed of all capacities of self-transcendence, humiliated by fear & agony” (17). Such is the comparison.

The modernist hero, inert & impotent, is a perfect candidate for cancer, Sontag argues. Cancer has become a metaphor for repression & subversion of one’s natural social position, associating it with all that is unnatural even though it “could be considered as much a part of nature as is health” (74). Why? “Illness comes from imbalance. Treatment is aimed at restoring the right balance — in political terms, the right hierarchy” (77). The imagery of disease, then, has become an easy metaphor in political rhetoric for the wrongs in the world, even as the great “sign of evil” (82) in secular society. Cancer has become a tool to describe any mutation, private or social (68). “The use of cancer in political discourse encourages fatalism & justifies severe measures — as well as strongly reinforcing the widespread notion that the disease is necessarily fatal” (84). In the name of treatment & preservation, genocide & politicide are able to be openly practiced. [Today still, opposition is not approached at all differently. The possibility of dialogue continues to be stamped out by fear & rash eradication.] The counter-attack against disease is two-faced & politically militaristic; it has successfully held off the threat of protest & revolution.

But it is a myth.

To be ill is not to be a traitor. To share a bed or a bread roll is not to infect. To have cancer is not a death-sentence. We must stop employing — & permitting the employment of — comparisons between illness & political upheaval. Yes — both are temporary cessations to everyday life, though their similarity extends no further. To perpetuate the metaphor is dangerous: it plants the seed of guilt, the onus of infliction weighs heavy, a sense of responsibility for the suffering of others follows, the strain on social services & funds are not far behind, & it encourages withdrawal, sometimes even from treatment & primal survival instincts.

The apocalyptic fears of our age, shaped by atomic bombs & subversion, need to be faced directly & purged on their own grounds. They will one day appear from behind their scapegoat, & “the scapegoat is not so easily separated from the patient” (71). That we practice blame where chance is lord suggests that it is not death that we fear but the possibility of a world that cannot be turned somehow into something comprehensible. The myth & metaphor will change.

Sontag ends happily for patients: “The cancer metaphor will be made obsolete, I would predict, long before the problems it has reflected so persuasively will be resolved” (88). That day, the inaptitude of the world will have to pack up & house itself in another dangerous metaphor or stand on its own & be dealt with directly.


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