Saturday, 20 February 2021

Systemic dis-ease

One day disease will no longer exist.  Bodily dysfunctions will be treated by replacing the faulty part, and infections will be eradicated - either by destroying all harmful bacteria and viruses, or, safer and more likely, by rendering the population immune to them.  Those who live in these edenic times to come will look back at ours and its constant battle against sickness and ill-health with disbelief and a sense of superiority - just as we arrogantly regard with condescension the Middle Ages and its ineffectual medical technology.  

In one respect in particular, the spectacle today's civilisation will present to posterity is certainly extraordinary.  Leaving aside the terrible suffering born of serious diseases, there is a whole class of infections that are essentially trivial, and yet that cause great, cumulative wretchedness.  Despite this misery, people are strangely inured to them: every year, almost everyone accepts that they will catch a bout of debilitating flu once, perhaps twice, and that they will suffer from food poisoning several times.  They submit to them as they submit to the seasons, to the tides, to the sun's rising.

It is true that there is little that we can yet do about influenza, despite first attempts at inoculations.  But what is remarkable is the disease's invisibility in our culture; it is as if as a common factor to everyone's life it simply drops out of people's reckoning.  Remarkable because for the sufferers this simple, boring, tiny infection seems to strike at the very root of their being.  In the space of a day or two our body's subtle equilibrium is knocked violently out of kilter; we ache, we shake, we shiver with cold while our head burns; the whole world seems to have narrowed down to a body which itself feels crushed to a fragile sliver by the burden of its miserable existence.

Just as common and even more dramatic are the symptoms of what doctors annoyingly call mild food poisoning.  There the sense of systemic suffering - where every act is purgatory, where existence itself seems tainted with an ineradicable biliousness and bitterness - is overmastering.  It is at such moments that weakly we dare to form the beginnings of a desire for a quick death.  Not that we specifically want to die: we simply crave non-being, nirvana, an absence of this total body sensation of literal ill-ness and dis-ease.

In the case of such non-life-threatening attacks, it is a pity we cannot remain sufficiently objective to savour it all - for example, the act and mechanics of projectile vomiting, as our wracked frame reverts to pure, clenching musculature, and as we threaten to defy topology and turn ourselves inside out like a glove.  In doing so we would experience with a unique vividness the full corporeality of our flesh - a corporeality which normally remains invisible to us, cloaked by our health.

But of course no such notions occur to us, we merely groan and luxuriate in our suffering.  Nor, surprisingly enough, do we draw any comfort from the thought that all these fascinating experiences will be denied to those poor, infectionless future generations.

(1989)

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