Saturday, August 25, 2007

Illness as Metaphor

I have been reading The Magic Mountain on and off for the last few weeks. I had read it once a couple of years back but had to skip a few chapters and even though I managed to reach the end, my reading itself remained very shallow. It was for this reason that when I saw this book (in a very attractive hardcover edition) on the library shelf and started browsing I couldn't remember much of what was inside, except perhaps for a few speeches by Signor Settembrini.

This book in particular deals with a subject that alternately fascinates me and makes me deeply uncomfortable, the subject of physical illness. This is, of course, I think true for everybody. Much as we would like to deny, someday we will have to identify ourselves as the citizen of the kingdom of the sick, (to borrow the expression from Susan Sontag's classic essay on the subject). In almost every page of the book, there is this disease being used in a new way to point to some hitherto unseen and unnoticed aspect of human existence.

Susan Sontag in her essay rails against the uses of Illness as Metaphor, of all kinds, whether good or evil. In particular tuberculosis which was believed to be sickness of passion, afflicting only those who were hyper-sensitive and too passionate for their own good. It was sentimentalized and romanticized. Wan, pale, weary and consumptive look was thought to be "interesting", specially for people who believed they were gifted with some artistic temperament. She was herself diagnosed with cancer when she was writing it and she found a lot of parallelism in the way cancer was being used as a metaphor, even though most of the meanings associated with cancer are completely converse to those of tuberculosis.

Now as I was reading Magic Mountain I was repeatedly drawn to Susan Sontag's angry commentary on the subject. She actually herself says in her essay that Thomas Mann's fiction is a storehouse of the early-twentieth century metaphorical thinking about the disease (not exact words). I am also not surprised that she doesn't go into any detail into Magic Mountain's treatment of illness as a metaphor because then it would have weakened her thesis. The book makes one rethink and reevaluate one's own thinking about the disease in many different ways. One of the main threads in the book is this ironic self-conscious commentary on the subject of romantic and philosophical myths surrounding disease, or TB in particular. Whether it is romanticized illness or the literal, slow and steady physical humiliation associated with any wasting disease Mann has always a lot to say on the topic.

I had previously excerpted a few of my favourite passages from the "Research" chapter where the origin of life itself is compared to an outbreak of illness, this time infecting matter. The other common and related thread in the book is the idea of love, or rather erotic love (or just "Eros") as a sickness of the soul. As the inhouse psychologist at the sanatorium Dr. Krokowski says, "Any symptom of illness was a masked form of love in action, and illness was merely love transformed." In the same lecture Hans Castorp's thoughts drift towards the Russian woman Madam Chauchat's hand and her dress. He feels strongly attracted to her but she is a consumptive...

Granted, there was a very definite reason why women were allowed to dress in that exhilarating, magical way, without at the same time offending propriety. It all had to do with the next generation, the propagation of the human species, yes indeed. But what happened if the woman was sick deep inside, so that she was not at all suited for motherhood - what then? Was there any point in her wearing gossamer sleeves so that men would be curious about her body - about her diseased body?

He then compares this feeling to the similar feelings he had for a young boy when he was in school thus underscoring the essential "irrationality" (again the metaphor of illness) beneath all erotic relationship. I am not going any deeper into this subject now, may be some time later...

It is very interesting to read this book keeping in mind this whole debate about what kinds of metaphors should be permitted around illness because the book most of all is an examination of these myths surrounding the disease.


KUBLA KHAN said...

After reading your post, I bought Svevo's conscience and am reading it. i am not disappointed. however, the style and prose is meticulous, too much perhaps....however, the wit is caustic, the humour and irony alternating with sadness and reflective philosophy.
It is a great novel.

KUBLA KHAN said...

btw, any luck with Goytisolo?

Alok said...

I loved it, the way it mixes humour and irony with a deep sadness is just amazing. I love that cigarette smoking chapter too...

I couldn't find Marks of Identity but I got Count Julian. on the back page mario vargas llosa calls it "full of despair... this book is a crime of passion." Didnt have to think twice :) will start soon.