Illness: A Judgement

What is the meaning of illness?I awoke up this morning with a runny nose, a sore throat and an ear ache. My thought processes were numbed yet strangely delirious. I started thinking about illness and how I was going to get better. I reminded myself that the delicate modernist classics of Kafka, Proust and (early) Nabokov were written in bed and in pain, so picked up my notebook and composed the above. Is it not a judgement, a sentence, passed down for crimes committed earlier? Everyday we get new reports about the dangers or benefits of lifestyle choices. Foods are encouraged one day and outlawed the next. A new morality is emerging that says: these days, no one is truly sick: they just need to live better.

The psoriasis on your left shin may be genetic, but it is aggravated by dairy products. And those inflamed tonsils may well owe their infection to the dirty air on the Ryanair flight to Prestwick, but the immune system had been systematically weakended by three nights of red wine. It is not difficult to trace illness back to a likely cause, to assign guilt on the basis of the available evidence.

Thus, as religion declines (in Britain at least), morality has been turned on its head, away from God and onto the supermarket shelves. Food has become moralized, labelled red for evil and green for good. Last night both Gillian McKeith and those policing Celebrity Fat Club revelled in pruritanism. Accusing, judging, converting: the language they use is explicitly religious, internalising good and evil. And still obesity levels keep rising. The fire and brimstone isn’t working.

Perhaps the trouble is with health itself. True health overflows its measure and cannot be bound by sustainable diets. The desire for a good debauch is a healthy one. The problem is with the cleverness of modern ways of satisfying those desires cheaply and dangerously. Henry VIII may have grown fat on suckling pig and sweetmeat, but imagine him now with Krispy Kreme donuts and Big Macs! The human animal, programmed to enjoy sweets and fatty food to make up for the deprivations of winter, suffers obesity when winter is enjoyed in warm houses with shops close by.