Thomas Mann, Illness as Metaphor, and Political Lingo

In Thomas Mann’s novel “The Magic Mountain” whenever his characters grow passionate they turn pink. Its a story about tuberculosis. But of course it’s about TB the way “The Grapes of Wrath” is about automobiles—the world is collapsing and the sanitarium is the mise en scene, the place where people ride out the proleptic storm—its on the way and will become “the war to end all wars” but it hasn’t happened yet. Mann’s characters are already dead—though of course they know it conditionally since they believe they’re merely fighting a disease. Mann wants us to see they are the lucky ones—they’re allowed to wrestle with conscience and soul just before the planet dies.

I’ve never been a true fan of the book because I distrust illness as metaphor but I’m in mind of “The Magic Mountain” these days for a number of reasons. Foremost among them is the floridness of our politicians who live in the magic sanitarium of DC and Wall Street and shout endlessly about ISIL as a cancer as President Obama did during his final State of the Union address—though he merely plucked the phrase from the ambient air. The rhetoric of foreigners as being or bearing a disease is everyplace. John Kerry has called ISIS a “cancer that must be stamped out.” Why not call them a group of hateful extremists?

Calling our enemies a cancer accomplishes three goals: it advantages the fear of every individual, as all people fear cancer in our time, just as they once feared tuberculosis, (Susan Sontag) By cancerizing your enemy you inculcate a wild terror in your listeners. Once the public is afraid they’ll do anything to stamp out the soulless, vicious enemy. Calling them extremists doesn’t accomplish this. After all the world is filled with extremists. But the Cancer-Muslims, they’re a demotic metaphor, easily grasped. Finally, metaphorizing them as illness makes it easy to carpet bomb them, as I believe Ted Cruz recently suggested we should do.

In “The Magic Mountain” the patients (who Mann is at pains to remind us are citizens) are aware that they’ve been reduced to helplessness by their doctors. “Joachim” who wants to be a soldier imagines the science behind his diagnosis may be fraudulent:

Yes, the good, the patient, the upright Joachim, so affected to discipline and the service, had been attacked by fits of rebellion, he even questioned the authority of the “Gaffky scale”: the method employed in the laboratory – the lab, as one called it – to ascertain the degree of a patient’s infection. Whether only a few isolated bacilli, or a whole host of them, were found in the sputum analysed, determined his “Gaffky number,” upon which everything depended. It infallibly reflected the chances of recovery with which the patient had to reckon; the number of months or years he must still remain could with ease be deduced from it, beginning with the six months that Hofrat Behrens called a “week-end,” and ending with the “life sentence,” which, taken literally, often enough meant very little indeed. Joachim, then, inveighed against the Gaffky scale, openly giving notice that he questioned its authority – or perhaps not quite openly, he did not say so to the authorities, but expressed his views to his cousin, and even in the dining-room. “I’m fed up with it, I won’t be made a fool of any longer,” he said, the blood mounting to his bronzed face. “Two weeks ago I had Gaffky two, a mere nothing, my prospects were the best. And to-day I am regularly infested – number nine, if you please. No talk of getting away. How the devil can a man know where he is?”

Would that we might have a few rebellious patients in our ruling classes.