Against Health

Illness is not romantic. Therefore this eulogy for Lawrence Saez is not lyrical.

For Lawrence Saez

(I refuse here to be lyrical. I put all my lyricism away. The suffering of illness refuses romance. It refuses compromise. It is dirty, messy, and ferocious.)

On 11 September 2018, my friend Professor Lawrence Saez died. It’s not accurate to say that Lawrence died after a long battle against cancer. He died after a blazing engagement with life; a fully present, here-and-now, molecules trembling, seizing of both the rich corporeality of his own body and the fireworks of a brilliant mind. When doctors told Lawrence it was no longer safe to fly, he continued to travel, refusing constraint and digging himself into the vitality of the moment. His illness made eating traumatic, and yet in every place and with each group of friends he wallowed in the pleasures of food, in the complex intricacies of conscious experiences of taste and smell. Taking photographs everywhere he went, Lawrence walked unafraid amongst strangers, attempting to capture the technicolour poetry of an international tapestry of lives – Hindu fishermen, Caribbean street children, and even the cats which frequent the steps and street corners of Eastern European cities.

Lawrence affirmed the possibility to rage not only against the dying of the light, but also despite the dying of the light. For many who are chronically ill, honesty and survival are brutal antagonists. The cruel art of self-deception is essential to push against the limits of a weakened, broken body. At the same time the loneliness of suffering pleads for recognition. Lawrence spoke with brutal honesty about his illness and its violent indignities, including writing a series of articles for the Huffington Post. He recognised that speaking his own experience was also a speaking for those trapped in the silence of their suffering.

The power of Lawrence’s words is magnified because, in the 21st century, illness has become the silenced other to a pervasive discourse on health. Centred upon the power of individual agency, health is insidiously interwoven with a late capitalist ideology of production and a post-1960s discourse of individual freedom. Deeply entrenched in this discourse is the responsibility of the sick to become well, not in the interests of themselves, but in order to protect the productivity, freedom, and wellness of others. In this Brave New World, the sick are no longer seen – denied material visibility by their physical limitations, and living out their lives instead in technological enclaves. While the general pages of Facebook roll as a stream of yoga, muscle building, cycling expeditions and new running records, closed Facebook groups, each with thousands of members, overflow with the detritus and abjection of illness. Such spaces provide a crucial outlet for the expression of the relentless hum of physical and emotional pain. But they also contain and quarantine: allowing the well a comforting bubble in which they need confront neither the terror of their own bodily fragility nor their responsibility to those for whom such illusion is impossible to maintain.

Such cultural invisibility is in stark contrast to what historically can be seen as the centrality of ill-health to the cultural world. Mimi’s consumptive lament in La Boehme, Beth’s slow fading in Little Women, the broken back of the eponymous heroine of What Katy Did, the mysterious presence of Colin in The Secret Garden or the figure of Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol are iconic examples of a broader cultural imaginary of illness as everyday life. That many of these texts are children’s fictions speaks to a cultural recognition of illness as an essential part of the quotidian into which all needed to be educated.

Yet far from being divorced from 19th century imaginaries, the current discourse surrounding health is rather a monster born from earlier representations. While 19th century texts acknowledge illness, their discourse is directed predominantly at preparing the reader to manage their own suffering, rather than to construct empathy. The unwell subject’s fate serves the well reader, who is never forced to fully live the disjunctive temporality of illness. Unwell subjects must – like Tim, Colin and Katy – recover. Or otherwise – like Beth and Mimi – they must die tragically, so as to provide relief from the stifling repetition and perpetual torment of chronic suffering. Grossly romanticised, such texts eschew the bodily indignities, dirt, and squalor of ill-health in favour of a metaphorical representation of suffering as the path to Christian self-improvement. Unwell subjects suffer quietly and with dignity; problematically feminised, their heroism is intrinsically linked to their capacity to accept hardship without destabilising those around them, and by extension the social order they represent. In this regard, there is little difference between the exoticisation of the racial or gendered other and the unwell subject – an object of imagined curiosity whose reality is disavowed in fiction’s idealised manipulations.

To write against the discourse of health requires bold words, and unflinching artistic bravery.

Nowhere is this boldness more evident that in the beautiful, haunting lyricism of Hana Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Set in contemporary New York, the novel begins as the story of four young college friends. But it increasingly becomes the story of just one of them – a young man called Jude who is horrifically and irrevocably scarred, both physically and mentally.

For 200 pages, A Little Life is beautiful and haunting and profound, as the tragedy of Jude’s life unfolds. You find yourself declaring that it is a work of genius. You call friends at 1am in tears and tell them they have to read it. You underline passages, and dog-ear pages, and close your eyes to swim in the gloriousness of your immersion.

And then the novel keeps going. It goes on, and on, and on.

It goes on for over 700 pages.

Jude’s trauma goes on. Or, more accurately, it goes round and round. Jude says the same things over and over again. His despair is unrelenting. His pity is all-consuming. He self-harms over and over again. He destroys relationships with wonderful people and instead creates relationships that hurt him. He is incapable of happiness.

And his suffering never shuts up.

And you feel worn into the ground. You stop reading because you can’t take any more. You stop rooting for Jude and wish for him to go away – perhaps even for him to die. You call the same friends back and tell them to hold off, embarrassed about your recommendation. You stop thinking genius, and you start thinking flawed.

If you read A Little Life through the discourse of health, then this is where you find yourself. If, however, you read the novel against health then what is supposedly flawed about the novel is the most essential part of its unique brilliance. I think Yanagihara knows that her reader will feel this way. And I think she knows that when the reader is relieved when Jude finally commits suicide that they must also confront the self-serving privilege of health: The knowledge that they wish such an outcome, not for Jude but for themselves, for their own desire to be relieved from his continual, unbroken lament. There is no lyricism or respite from Jude’s predicament, and no softening of his hardship because this is what it means, in truth rather than fiction, to be incurably unwell. If we are alienated from Jude, then we only repeat the alienation of his fictional world; our ability as readers to close the book and walk away from Jude is equally the healthy subject’s ability to close the door on the unwell.

In this operation, A Little Life is a powerful exercise in ethical reading. Pushing us to the edges of what is imaginable, Yanagihara shows us the limits of our compassion in the wake of horror, and challenges us with our compulsion to turn away from lives which we are willing to encounter, but unwilling to inhabit. That Jude does not get a happy ending, or die beautifully, forces the reader to enter into a space in which the voice of suffering does not fade or spare those it touches. To stay with Jude until the end, A Little Life demands that its readers enter a unique becoming – a becoming ill that does justice to the slow, ceaseless violence of physical suffering and that cannot be silenced by wellness.

My friend Lawrence spoke loudly against the contemporary noise of wellness, offering a provocation to both resist illness, and yet become ill. As both reader and a writer, and in spite of the weight of the cultural imaginary, I try to remember his lesson.