In Defense of Illness

by on Jul.15, 2011

I’ve been spending most mornings with The Magic Mountain. Thomas Mann makes illness a very attractive thing. This morning I was reading a conversation in which the characters (all of whom consider themselves ill in some way) debate the humanity of illness.

Herr Setembrini, the Italian humanist, suggests illness is inhuman. He argues it focuses us on the body at the cost of all else.

Naphta, who the book’s protagonist Hans Castorp describes as a “caustic little Jesuit and terrorist,” compellingly suggests that “Illness was supremely human.” He asserts that it is illness exactly that sets “man apart from nature.” Creative genius, humanity, nobility, even Spirit lie in nature. For those who espouse “progress,” even they have to admit that it is illness which brings this about. Even the healthy can be so because of the accomplishments of the ill.

Naphta is most practical when he states that to “win knowledge for mankind,” people must be willing to give themselves over to illness. This is a voluntary and even a conscious act. Some might describe it as an act of heroism.

I wonder in what ways you’ve given yourself over to illness. Can the pursuit of health be problematic or even socially irresponsible?

4 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    One thing that made that whole scene (the sick people in their chairs, in Switzerland, recuperating) so interesting was the way so many ideas were exchanged since people came from all over. Someone like Nietzsche was all the rage (curiously), and I know of one Swedish scholar at least who thinks that Edith Södergran read Emily Dickinson when she travelled from St Petersburg to Switzerland to recover from her illness. Cosmopolitanism as illness and contagion…


  2. Nick K

    It’s an interesting idea, but not one that really rings true to me. If there is value in ‘giving one’s self over’ to illness, it is more of the ‘I’m willing to suffer for this higher cause’ order. Stress the word ‘willing.’

    I tend to think of writing and art-making as a holistic activity, i.e. writing one’s best requires spiritual maturity, physical health, etc. There’s a Cartesian assumption behind this idea of illness that makes me uncomfortable–the body is forfeited for the sake of the mind–which assumes, of course, that the two are distinct and not interdependent. Physical health is not only a personal responsibility, but a social one, I think; at least if you value things like art and the connection it creates between people.

  3. kristen s

    i thought first of conspicious consumption and material excess that can come with exercise/wellness culture (driving yr SUV across town to run on a treadmill indoors, for instance; of the monolithic healing narratives that treat addiction and trauma as illnesses (leaving sometimes little room for one to craft a counter-narrative: GO TO 12 STEPS, and/or, you act that way because you have PTSD, said to a rape survivor who’s working to re-integrate sex into her sense of the world) i for one have “given in” to illness is the sense of rejecting a psychiatric diagnosis and the prozac/xanax that went along with it. (this is the experimental writer in me. the social worker in me wants people who “need” them to take their goddamn meds, which is another question, the “privilege” to “choose”)

    the question you raised for me, is, where does illness as metaphor fail or break down? interested in the relationship between giving in to illness and refusing a normative treatment. very provocative post/sorry for the vomit of half-formed thoughts.

  4. Michael Leong

    Hi John,

    I quoted from Bloom’s ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE when commenting on one of Johannes’ posts about influence, but this certainly relates to your question:

    “If influence were health, who could write a poem? Health is stasis.”