REFLECTIONS ON ILLNESS
Sometimes Lenz looks at illness and sees a chance encounter with a passerby who, after knocking into us abruptly, leaves in our hands—distractedly—a black flower. But when we try to return it, the passerby, in haste, has vanished. We begin to run with the black flower in our hand—it doesn’t belong to us, the person who lost it might need it—but there’s nothing, no trace: the strange passerby has disappeared, evaporated. And in our hands, the black flower. The decision that follows might seem more like a non-decision—a vacillation—but soon our discomfort will stop being a minor detail and become the essential point: ridding ourselves of that repellent flower becomes an urgent necessity. Well then, we’re just a few centimeters from a public trash bin, we lift the lid and open our right hand to drop the flower. But something happens: the black flower doesn’t leave our hand, it’s stuck there, it can’t be expelled, not unless you let your arm go too. The following days will see countless attempts to—in the first instance—get rid of the black flower, and then to forget about it. At a certain point, however, over the course of a single instant, there will be a change in the organism, similar to changes in a country’s currency, in combat with other values, other points of reference; and the man resigns himself to it. No longer is there a black flower; and doctors have a sensible, ancient name for this conjunction of unrealistic facts: illness.
a strategy of evil
And what Lenz found most amazing in his trajectory as a doctor was his rapid realization that every illness establishes its own particular science, with its own methodology, its own particular instruments—its unmistakable period of growth and maturation, and its own results, which are always amazing, always new. It seemed obvious to Lenz that there was someone carrying out experiments on humanity; just like a chemist manipulates substances on his workbench, there was someone combining elements, testing out reactions, introducing slight variations. Illnesses—and that one illness in particular—seek out the best paths, like any living animal, the ones most inclined to movement; and this illness has a logic of infiltration to it. It isn’t an abrupt, black, brutal mass that makes something collapse—it isn’t a bomb. On the contrary, it seems to take pleasure in not knocking us down right away, allowing us a sinister freedom of movement, a rhythm of suffering per minute or square centimeter, which at first it tries not to exceed, as though its own pleasure increases the more its host organism resists. It is an illness whose trajectory takes it along little alleyways; it might begin from a single central point, but quickly scatters to other, insignificant places around the organism. This illness only begins to demand the organism’s attention precisely when the latter is about to forfeit the battle. There isn’t, then, a body-to-body confrontation; the illness isn’t a body, it’s a substance that is barely visible, almost transparent; the illness cannot be thrown to the floor as one might throw down a man.
Having escaped such a duel, insisting on a subtle guerrilla war, the illness acts through a strategy of successively conquering the organism’s allies, and what was demonstrated by the various analyses performed over time was that various healthy parts of the organism would change sides—month by month—passing over to the other team, to the enemy camp: a yielding that was a combination of surrender and betrayal.
Looking—stunned—at the speed with which the illness progressed in certain individuals, at the incredible surrender of weapons on the part of organs that months earlier had seemed vigorous and unconquerable, Lenz felt that these organs, now tamed by the evil, weren’t merely prisoners—because prisoners don’t shoot at their old barracks. They were more than this, by now, they were a part of the enemy army; hence the speed with which, after a certain point, death would come to take you. So there was no balance between the world of the living and the world of death. On the one hand there was nothing that could be done, there was no capacity for construction, and on the other, things were indeed done: there was, obviously, a substance to annihilation, to extinction, to destruction.
two sides, and not one
Nonetheless, the substance in question was—deep down—the same: illness kills by using the same cells that contained all one’s great wishes, decisions, and actions of the past: it’s all the same matter, but organized differently, now carrying a negative charge.
Man tries to resist, to survive, finding allies in other men and in centuries of medical and technical development, while on the other hand there is illness, likewise strengthened by centuries of its own particular history, a history to which men have no access, but which undoubtedly has its own course, its own highs and lows, its own reversals, revolts, ruins, grandeurs. Illnesses—the emissaries of death—have not stayed still.
There are two organized systems in the world, then, not just one. There is the system of the living, dominated by the great men of the most evolved cities; and then the system of death, perfectly unknown, whose pulleys are of a quite different nature, with its own specific objectives and methods.
The system of death—or, to put it more concretely, the will to death—advanced by a number of means, some of them surprising, but illnesses, and that one illness in particular, were its best trump cards. Precisely because they were born from what we would characterize as accidental, unintentional, random. Yet illness isn’t the consequence of nature’s being distracted. Quite the contrary—nature, thought Lenz (taking this to be everything that is not man, or that is not completely dominated by man) exercises, through illness, a will for combat; an ill will, if considered from a human point of view, or simply a strong will, if the point of view is a neutral, extra-human one.
And it was at this very point, from up high, as high as the mountains, that Lenz would sometimes try to see things: an extra-human looking at the struggle between two forces and two wills, and in the role of spectator marveling at the aesthetics of those sparks, the injured men; refusing to take sides, neither an affective side nor a moral one.
As a doctor, he did of course have an obligation—a professional one, and also on a practical, instrumental level—to position himself and to act on behalf of one side, the human side. But he was merely a soldier in the army that had founded the cities, no more than that: no one would ever hear him cry out for the cause of humanity, he would never suffer for his species just as he would never suffer for his scalpel if it broke accidentally. His way of approaching suffering was as an individual; he did not accept suffering that had been borrowed from others; compassion was an unnecessary feeling, or—as Lenz himself referred to it—a tool that serves no useful purpose in one’s existence: resolving nothing at all, in technical terms: like somebody taking up a hammer to suture two tissues together.
coming to the mountain
As a master of that language which never raises its head, that minuscule language situated between his two hands and the sick cells, Lenz was—above all—someone who loved fresh air, air far removed from the smell and the temperature of the protective machines that a hospital contained in such profusion.
In contact with those silent elements in the world that were not yet controlled by man, Lenz felt close to the real instruments of attack, not those of defense, as in the hospital. In the mountains, in the forests, beside the disordered fields of earth, Lenz felt the thrill of a closeness to something that does not merely want to sustain itself, and whose fight for survival does not require the support of any medical technology.
The earth’s disorder was not a scalpel, but a dagger. Alone, wandering through strange places with no trace of metal anywhere near, Lenz truly felt like a soldier from another land, who, having got lost, finds himself in the middle of an army that speaks another language and that is advancing in attack formation toward his city. And, as this soldier, Lenz knew that the most sensible thing was to do exactly as this foreign army is doing, to try to remain there in the middle of that current of excitement: he doesn’t know if he’s among the winners, but he is certain that he’s with those who are on the attack. And it’s there that Lenz Buchmann wants to be.