As the bizarre statements about giving more “choice” to the sick come floating in from the anti-choice party hell bent on destroying Obamacare, I just happen to find myself easing out my evenings by reading two works about sickness: John Donne’s twenty-three meditations titled Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and severall steps in my Sicknes and Dodie Bellamy’s When the Sick Rule the World. They are speaking to each other in fascinating ways.
Enthralled by the Renaissance trope of the body as a microcosmic copy of the larger world, Donne’s Devotions often draw parallels between the sick body and the sick polis. His brilliant record of the perspective-altering powers of illness transforms his fever and spots into a faith emergency, an alchemy Frank O’Hara would later translate into “Meditations in an Emergency,” in which the threat is the “sicknes” called heterosexuality. Donne is greatly consternated by his state. When the physician comes to apply dead pigeons to his feet to “draw the vapors” from his head, he threads his fume to Virgil’s rumor: “That which is fume in us, is in a State, Rumor, and these vapours in us, which wee consider here pestilent and infectious fumes, are in a State infectious rumors, detracting and dishonourable Calumnies, Libels.” In empathy I feel a weight of dry grey feathers scratching at my tender arches. As Donne’s vapors drain he dutifully exercises an incredulous self-rebuke: “did I drinke in Melancholly into my selfe? It is my thoughtfulnesse; was I not made to thinke?” Donne believes he is the cause of his own suffering for not having dumbed it down.
We “assist the sicknes” and “make the sickness the more irremediable” not by bad habits, but by “sad apprehensions.” Sinfulness, melancholy, too much thinking, a triumvirate missing from those who are suffering in “When the Sick Rule the World.” “There is no such thing as a hypochondriac;” writes Bellamy, “there are only doctors who cannot figure out what is wrong with you.”
The narrator of her sly satire is just sympathetic enough with the weird world of the “sick” she portrays that we aren’t quite convinced that she’d be altogether unhappy that “perfume will be outlawed” when the sick rule the world. “When a student comes to class wearing perfume,” she writes, “my nose runs, my eyes tear, I start sneezing; there’s nowhere to move to and I don’t know what to do.” What do you mean there’s nowhere to move? Aren’t you free? Just move to another state! Or so says the congressman to those who cannot get coverage for pre-existing medical conditions in their home states.
My disbelief at the callousness of “right to be sick and go without insurance” arguments notwithstanding, as I dip into the world of Bellamy’s allergen-beset bourgeois I feel a kind of petulant libertarianism, my human empathy replaced by a Miss Piggy-like insistence on my need to wear perfume. I’m naked without it. It is true that I, a “well” person, blithely defy the oddly verbose sign outside of a certain building where I work: PLEASE BE ADVISED THAT THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO WORK IN THIS BUILDING THAT ARE ADVERSELY AFFECTED BY FRAGRANCE AND REFRAIN FROM WEARING PERFUMES. Who are these people? Why don’t they come forward and identify themselves? Am I the reason they are sick?
Pre-modern medicine’s apprehension about vapors, foul air, and effluvium was responsible for years of blindness to other channels for the spread of illness. The so-called “miasma theory” that 19th-century British physician John Snow contested, proving that polluted water not foul air was spreading cholera in the Broad Street neighborhood of London. The sick in Bellamy’s story have a pre-modern aversion to vapors and air. Their scripture might be the Talking Heads’ “Air,” with its repeated line, “Air can hurt you too.” They cannot abide smells of any kind. Preparing to attend a meeting of the sick, the narrator spends $30 on fragrance-free products, but her ritual cleansing fails. A TSA-style sniffing by the gate-keepers of the sick community reveals an odor that gives one of them “brain fog” and the narrator is forced to swathe her head in comic bandanas. “What will not kill a man if a vapor will?” writes Donne, “so neere nothing is that that reduces us to nothing.” He fears that it is “halfe Atheisme to murmure against Nature, who is Gods immediate commissioner,” yet he marvels that the “Ayre that nourishes us, should destroy us.”
As someone who grew up in a region that had “smog days” instead of “snow days”—a free day off from school, but don’t leave the house!—I understand the fear of poisonous air. Yet a world cleansed of all smells would flatten time and destroy Eros. The nose is the organ of memory and curiosity and hunger. “With what deep thirst / we quicken our desires / to that rank odor of a passing springtime!” exclaims William Carlos Williams in his Rabelaisian paean to his boney nose, “Smell!” What would such a “tactless” ass of acquisitive greediness do when the sick rule the world and “roses, gardenias, freesias, and other fragrant flowers will no longer be grown,” and the “sick will travel in packs commandeering porcelain-lined fragrance-free buses.” Despite their myriad aversions and sensitivities the “sick” in Bellamy’s story are a surprisingly vigorous, social bunch. None of them have actual diagnoses, they bear no resemblance to people who are, by conventional definition, sick. Rather, they have an identity based around the things in the world that they must avoid. Sickness as a vocation.
Bellamy’s community of the sick seems unfamiliar with the extreme isolation Donne’s fever creates. “No man is an island,” the Devotions most famous assertion, was written by a man islanded by illness. “As Sicknes is the greatest misery, so the greatest misery of sickness, is solitude; when the infectiousness of the disease deters them who should assist, from coming; even the Phisician dares scarse come.” I think of those stories we all read about Ebola victims being denied company even in death. Their corpses were toxic.
Sickbed literature tends to be a literature of solitude. The Death and Letters of Alice James, Keats’s Letters, or Ernst Pawel’s beautiful meditation on Heinrich Heine’s wretched last years, The Poet Dying. The communality and mobility of the sick in Bellamy’s story marks the phenomenon she’s satirizing as something new: her sick no longer must hide in the shadows like sexual deviants, or be locked away in sanitariums. They have been liberated. They have their own community, and when they rule the world “[p]retending to be sick will be a capital offense.”
Because Donne’s illness occasioned his meditations, I am thankful to it, and to the fact that he defied the physician’s orders not to read or write. Though penned in solitude, Donne’s metaphorical parallels between the human body and the body of the state populate his sickbed. Man is a little world with “inough in himself, not only to destroy, and execute himself, but to presage that execution upon himself.” I think of Bellamy’s sick bonding over the dangers of cellphone towers and electromagnetic fields. Yet for Donne “home bred” vapours—those we conjure with our “sad apprehensions”—are far worse than any foreign poison: “What Fugitive, what Almes-man of any forraine State, can doe so much harme as a Detracter, a Libeller, a scornfull Jester at home?” How very prescient and wise are the poets.