'It is in sickness that we are compelled to recognise that we do not live alone but are chained to a being from a different realm, from whom we are worlds apart, who has no knowledge of us and by whom it is impossible to make ourselves understood: our body'
I wonder to what extent this sense of the body as something foreign, and almost inhuman, is a relatively modern one.
Of course, there is something superficially similar in other literatures, the Jacobeans for example. But John Webster’s perception that “continually we bear about us A rotten and dead body” is something different. It carries with it not just disgust (in itself lacking from Proust or Rilke) but repugnance, a moral category. It seems to presuppose the body/ soul separation. It seems to be connected to the decay of the old Order, as if the sinful, mechanical, ‘box of wormseed’ that is the body stands revealed in its horror just as the ‘Elizabethan World Picture’ recedes.
Indeed, Webster’s ‘skull beneath the skin’, the body as death’s machine - Is this body even really a foreign presence? Isn’t it rather a reminder of a Death all to familiar to the Elizabethans and Jacobeans?
The body ‘discovered’ by Proust is something else. I am not at home in my body, I do not coincide with my body, but this isn’t simply because my body is matter rather than soul. Rather, the body is a foreign form of life.
The substratum of our conscious existence, our familiar and chosen world, is this Thing with its own silent, imperturbable drives, imperatives. In sickness we feel subject to it, that it is bubbling away in spite of, or at a level indifferent to our conscious life with its acquired meanings and projects . Its motions are not human motions; they are not steered by intention.
Its my feeling that there are certain modern writers who feed off this corporeal foreignness. They feel its proximity - the Other lodged inside, with whom dialogue is impossible. These writers are: Proust. Kafka. Rilke.
Are these not writers who see, even, a certain pay-off in sickness and somehow engineer this condition of sickness for themselves, so that they might live in proximity to this Other, live in symbiosis with it?
But what possible advantage is to be gained from such proximity?
‘… one day, noticing a swelling in his stomach, he felt genuinely happy at the thought that he had, perhaps, a tumour which would prove fatal, that he need no longer concern himself with anything, that illness was going to govern his life, to make a play thing of him, until the non-distant end.’ (Proust)Is it that sickness removes them from the duties of everyday life, so that one is excused from certain symbolic obligations. And this place of excuse and exclusion is the ideal place in which to write. It is a place outside the human community. To make the foreignness of the body your home is to make the human home foreign.
‘At night, when I withdrew into my lungs, into my intestines, into the last bare chamber of my heart’ (Rilke)
Proust in his corklined carapace, Kafka in his burrow, Rilke secure in the hut of his sickness: these writers have removed themselves from the human community, watching now from the opposite shore.
The phrase ‘human community’ is Kafka’s, as are the following quotations:
‘Accept your symptoms, don’t complain of them; immerse yourself in your suffering.’
‘It was as though, through all these years, I had done everything demanded of me mechanically, and in reality only waited for a voice to call me, until finally the illness called me from the adjoining room and I ran towards it and gave myelf to it more and more.’
‘For about ten years I have had this evergrowing feeling of not being in perfect health, the sense of well-being that comes with good health, the sense of well-being created by a body that responds in every way, a body that functions without constant attention and care, this sense of well being is for most people the source of constant cheerfulness – this sense of well being I lack.. Just as this condition prevents me from talking naturally, eating naturally, sleeping naturally, so it prevents me from being natural in any way.’
The retreat into the body is a movement from the world (The Human community) into an inhuman solitude which Kafka insisted was the precondition of his writing (‘I need solitude for my writing; not like a hermit, that wouldn’t be enough – but like a dead man’.)
The ‘human community’ I have always thought an extraordinary phrase, because it so casually implies that K. himself is the adoptee of this ‘community’, not a genuine offspring. And perhaps this is why, in a strange way, he allies himself with that inhuman saboteur, his body – the being from a different realm.
“I strive to know the entire human and animal community, to recognise their fundamental preferences, desires, and moral ideals, to reduce them to simple rules, and as quickly as possible to adopt these rules so as to be pleasing to everyone. In short, my only concern is the human tribuneral,” Letters to Felice (1/10/1917)