July 21, 2011
While this very essay is being typed in a rather chic café (formerly a public redoubt of intellectualism), one overhears at least two distinct conversations concerning illness whose details are so wretched they will not be here detailed.
It was not always thus.
There was a time, and not nearly so long ago as some may think, when it was considered the summit of impropriety to make public one’s private distress. A time when a person may seem to suddenly pass away, only for friends and even family to learn that the deceased had nobly kept the condition secret for months or years. A time when even to breathe a word of personal malady in a restaurant would have been thought outrageous, and more than one patron would have demanded the offender silence himself or promptly depart the premises.
This seems quaint today when society and art are nearly unanimous in deference to the diseased. Sickness is now the basis of at least half of all films, television, literature, dramatics, and song. People no longer aspire to greatness, they expire to it.
Worse, exceedingly few among the spectators seem to realize that dying is not life’s seminal aspect.
As for those who consider it an achievement to “overcome” their condition, there is some very bad news for you—even if you “beat” your (insert malady of the moment here), then you will absolutely die of something else. Sad, but true. If your goal is to simply live, it is guaranteed you will ultimately fail every time.
The object is to do something of consequence with whatever life you are given, not to congratulate yourself for mindlessly waking to greet another dawn. The challenge is not to overcome your physicality but your own insignificance. It is a mighty charge.
Though this was once understood, it is no more. Suffering was once the consequence of celebrated great deeds. It is now the suffering that is celebrated. One admires Whistler not because he kept watch bedside for weeks near his stricken wife, but because he sketched “Waterloo Bridge” from her window while doing so. Beethoven was totally deaf, his nephew shot himself in the head, and likely he had no more than six teeth in his mouth, yet he wrote his Ninth Symphony without once adding lyrics about his personal misfortunes. Keats lived unto his dying day either unknown or ridiculed when recognized, had two predeceased brothers and a father who passed away when he was but eight, and himself died in agony of consumption as he literally begged for opium to quell his pain, yet he still managed to create not one but three of the greatest literary works known to mankind. But these men and their ilk are long gone.
If all of discretion, privacy, and exceptional endeavor makes one aged or “old-fashioned,” then so be it. The New West can wallow in its endless elegiacs of weakness and whimpering.
The author shall be found wandering the grand halls built of a finer age than this one’s crippled ambitions seem able to yield, solemnly gazing at the Venus de Milo in the Louvre, admiring Psyche in the Hermitage, or quietly alone with the magnificent Anticipation in Cologne—any of whose silent lips provide singularly greater solace and comfort than the endless parade of illness which the Western World evidently now relishes.
Nay, which it so disgustingly fetishizes.
The West is dying, and it is because it loves to be sick.