Sick Night Fever

Benjamin Gagnon Chainey // The Modern Man of ideal humanity is, as remarks French writer and philosopher of science Claire Marin, paradoxically insensitive due to his cult of superhuman health. He is culturally sterile, locked up as he is in the closet of medical scientific ‘progress.’ In her 2013 essay, justly entitled L’Homme sans fièvre, which literally translates from French as The Man Without Fever, Marin accuses current society’s cult of ‘perfect health’ of entrapping our bodies and languages in the sly utopia of “healing at all costs.” In doing so, the very pursuit of healing denies the potentially sick and feverish nature of the human condition; its single-minded objective overlooks the equivocal movements of every living body and language. It thus seems that, at times, an excessive will to heal can have the opposite effect, transforming itself in a pernicious – and painful – vector of exclusion, rather than relief. Dominant medical and scientific discourses against sickness and disease may be at risk of becoming what they pretend to fight and, in doing so, be in part responsible for the isolation of suffering bodies and languages, preventing them from coming out, from celebrating themselves and life as it comes to them, even in the unsightly tragedy and sorrow that they offer to read, see and hear. Marin’s thought regarding the insensitivity of “modern healthy man” is in fact older than her essay Man Without Fever. It emerged five years earlier, in 2008, directly from her personal experience of disease, which she shared at the time in a brilliant literary autopathography entitled Hors de moi. This ‘writing of a suffering self,’ whose title could be translated as Out of Me, is a clever testimony telling of Marin’s intimate encounter with an unknown chronic disease. Alienated in the tragic spacetime of an embodied experience of illness, she writes:

Tragedy seems displaced, disturbing. However, disease is a tragedy. It is sacrifice, demonstration of transcendence in the vulgarity of our earthly lives, a crushing power in front of which all efforts are ultimately vain. All the energy invested in resisting it only multiplies it[1].

Indeed, today’s suffering bodies and languages seem trapped in a double aporetic Closet. On one side, the Cult of  Perfect Health erects a first wall that isolate them, tries to convince them to be ashamed of their fragile imperfections, strives to lock them up in the failing prisons of their own bodies and languages, their own dying selves and subjectivities: “What is happening inside, the monstrosity of the vital process at work in the body contaminates the rest of the subject” (Marin, 13). Between the walls of this reductive moral of health, physical contamination of sickness becomes psychic contamination of the subject: the cultural deterioration of the Self. Wishing for a healthy subject at all costs ends up being costly for the body-language: paying his economic and productive failure at the expense of its vital energy. The social discourse promoting health as a one and only end is propelled, indeed, by a fierce capitalistic logic, making ill bodies fall or recover like sickly stock indexes, ultimately leaving no option but bankruptcy. The collapse is even more deleterious as it happens within the suffering bodies, even though it was introduced by outside forces, cruel and miser capitalist colonialist. “We don’t fall from our beds, it is an even more abyssal fall, a fall in our own bodies” (Marin, 32).

On the other side of the “perfect health closet,” another wall is being erected, a wall with a mask on its face: “the famous joker of science progress” (Marin, 12). In promising healing to the sick, the joker clears out all the complexity of human suffering that overflows and disturbs it. In the process, the “joker of science progress” makes even the Cult of Health ashamed of itself by pointing out its own failure to master the sickness for ‘good.’ In this spirit, it seems like the contemporary cult of Ideal Health is no stranger to the “science without conscience” that François Rabelais’s Gargantua, in 1532, warned his son Pantagruel about, preventing his body and mind from falling in its golden and utopic trap: “science without conscience is but the ruin of the soul[2],” the father Pantagruel wisely and famously wrote, as he approached his own death. If an uncertain truth could be told from this warning, one could say that disease and sickness, despite their tragic and painful character, at times unsightly and fatal, are not necessarily strangers to the exaltation of celebration, of a get-together exalted in human feverishness–because a long time before Saturday Night Fever hit pop culture, there was indeed the human fever bringing all kind of emotions onto the social scene, but also the painful and brutal sensations that necessarily come along with and in it. Coming out of the Ideal Health Closet, diving into the paradox of sickness as a festive social gathering, Marin writes:

[Disease] wakes up a sensitivity that had fallen asleep. Everything becomes more overwhelming. […] It imposes to our life the modus operandi of vivid pain: simplification of our sensations, precipitation of our relations with others. Don’t linger. […] There is also something fascinating in this power capable of countering the effect of habit that blunts, erodes, soften all perceptions. Disease exalts and excites. Everything becomes more violent. The hearth beats too hard (Marin, 9).

“The heart beats too hard,” as it does during a celebration, a festive get-together in emotions. According to Marin, contemporary medical scientific discourse, too eager to win against ills still stronger than it, takes the risk of sinking in the dark ocean of morality that drowns the life that attempts to remain afloat, even when the living are dying. The suffering living is not dead yet. Suffering and dying do not mean being already dead: they mean being still alive.  That is why Marin pleads for the pursuit of the celebration of life, even when it is suffering and dying. She writes that “disease plunges us in the vitality of life, in its immoderation” and adds that “this feature of the living is neglected by clinical discourse to the profit of the only goal of healing, that reduces the depth of the experience” (Marin, 10).

To put all hopes in the fragile and uncertain basket of healing, to erect Fever as the enemy to kill at all costs, causes medical scientific doxa to become indeed a moral doxa–a moral authority that ironically condemns, in the name of life, a suffering life that is not dead yet. Social discourses therefore need to learn how to read, see and listen to suffering lives in order to welcome them in the social get-together and global celebration of life. The key to relief is not always in the assessment of pain in an analog visual scale, or in the apparent success of yet another new pill. Instead, it is likely in the opening of minds that literature, arts and humanities can make happen, all while breaking down the walls that capitalist and colonialist narrow-minded Men Without Fever want to lock us up in. Suffering and dying bodies need to get out of their place, get out of exclusion, make their coming out to join the Sick Night Fever that belongs to them as much as to the healthy, the dominant dancing and gym queens.

Disease may not be a celebration where one bursts out in laughter. However, it must not be for that much a condemnation to silence and shame. “Without a doubt, [disease] is the experience of another fold of existence” (Marin, 10). In order to know how to properly live this experience – outside of the lure of “science without conscience,” and at arm’s length from an insensitive medical practice, blinded by its obsession with healing at all costs –, it is imperative that we, the literary bodies and languages that we are, continue to furbish our pens, to protest out and loud, proudly and free of shame: for our fundamental right to come out and join the celebration.

[1] Claire Marin. 2018/2013. Hors de moi [Out of Me], Paris : Éditions Allia. p. 11. My translation. (Hereafter Marin)

[2] François Rabelais. 1532/2008. Pantagruel. Paris : Éditions Pocket. p. 93. My translation.

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