The Tangled History of Illness and Idiocy

The Tangled History of Illness and Idiocy

The Tangled History of Illness and Idiocy

The pandemic is stress-testing two concepts Americans have historically gotten wrong.


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A few weeks ago, at the time of writing, a significant proportion of Americans joined ranks behind a ludicrous assumption: that they were exempt from the rules of contagion. The rest of us, at least those not yet ill, took it upon ourselves to police the streets. New Yorkers leaned out apartment windows to yell at pedestrians, “Go home!” Passing a group of tourists walking six astride, a pack of picnickers in a nearby park, I thought to myself, “What idiots.” The festive atmosphere recalled the sanatorium from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, where bourgeois consumptives, held in luxury quarantine, obsessively check their temperatures, adopt hobbies, attend lectures, gorge on gourmet cuisine (Champagne, velouté). They gossip and flirt like unsupervised children. For a Swiss tuberculosis clinic on the eve of WWI, the mood is deceptively gay.

If we still clung to the myth of exceptionalism then—as if a virus could grant clemency (it will disappear “like a miracle,” Trump said)—perhaps it’s because this country has made it so easy, at least for some, to take safety as a given. Physical suffering is, for many comfortable Americans, a virtual experience—something that happens elsewhere, on a screen.

A pandemic, however, throws bodies into relief.

It seems a warning that two of the greatest novels on illness, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924) and Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1869), are also novels about ignorance, written in eras preceding national crisis. Mann, once a conservative, underwent a political transformation in the Weimar years; The Magic Mountain reflects a cautious liberalism in the face of Germany’s incipient fascism. Dostoevsky, monarchist, Slavophile, and moralist, diagnosed the early symptoms of the Russian Revolution. (However conservative his leanings, he identified the instigating tension: the push for modernization against an anachronistic Tsarist regime.) Both novels explore nascent national calamity through the eyes of invalids who often pass for ignoramuses.

In the era of Covid-19, one wonders: What kind of idiots are we?

The protagonist of Mann’s bildungsroman is the young engineer Hans Castorp, the German Everyman. His first impressions of the sanatorium leave him curiously stunned. He arrives with the belief that illness carries a kind of nobility and “intelligence,” but at Berghof finds that many patients manage to be both sick and fatuous. He muses, postprandially, that it seems “very peculiar for someone to be stupid and sick besides…. One assumes stupid people must be healthy and vulgar, and that illness must ennoble people and make them wise and special.” His interlocutor, an Italian humanist and long-term patient cum pedagogue named Settembrini, rejects Hans’s theory. “I, too, prefer a clever invalid to a consumptive idiot,” Settembrini says. “But my protest begins at the point where you regard the conjunction of illness and stupidity as a kind of stylistic blunder…. Illness is definitely not elegant, and certainly not venerable.”

Settembrini’s objection borrows from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. By elevating suffering to a noble state, Nietzsche says, Christianity weaponizes the anguish of the weak against the strong: Suffering is “good,” while strength and health are “evil,” establishing a moral order based in ressentiment. Nietzsche’s sister, after his death, perverted his defense of vigor to justify Hitler and Mussolini—the manipulated manuscripts she compiled would damn her brother to decades of misreadings—but his critique of ressentiment just as soon discredits far-right populism. It exposes the ways in which the powerful prey on self-pity and resentment, leveraging it for their own purposes.

In a sense, both Settembrini and Hans are wrong. It is dangerous, if not fascist, to venerate either the weak or the strong, as readings and misreadings of Nietzsche have shown. The attempt to divide humankind into these categories is itself an on-ramp to extremist politics. Hans may not be so far afield, however, if we take him to mean simply that there is some knowledge to be gained from first-hand suffering that the healthy can only approximate. This association of idiocy with health, and intelligence with illness, seems less spurious in a nation that was so slow to recognize the seriousness of its Covid-19 situation—as if many of us, having felt healthy and safe for so long, lack an imagination for mass illness.

Of course, the true culprits of this crisis are those who had the power to communicate to Americans how serious the situation was, but didn’t. In particular, the president, who displays a morbid fascination with his own “good genes,” who spent weeks downplaying the mortal severity of the pandemic, who continues to downplay it, who threatened to reopen the economy by Easter, and who has lately taken to forging a new stock of xenophobic narratives to explain the virus’s advance. The attempt to peg Covid-19 as an import—a “Chinese virus,” Trump insists, though it has since become clear that the origins of the US outbreak can be traced to tourism in Europe—frames the virus not so much as an illness as an invasion, as if untimely death were itself foreign. Rapid contamination, devastating supply shortages, premature deaths: These things don’t happen here; America is an exception.

If The Magic Mountain revolves around the axes of illness/health and intelligence/stupidity, then in The Idiot, the poles are ordinary/extraordinary. Dostoevsky conceived of the novel with the ambition of writing “a purely beautiful” person, an answer to the thought experiment, What if Jesus were merely human?

Prince Myshkin, Dostoevsky’s divine-in-the-flesh, is childlike, frank, ignorant to the point of cruelty. Raised in yet another sanatorium in Switzerland, where he was treated for “idiocy,” he returns to St. Petersburg at the beginning of the novel as naive about Russian customs as any foreigner. On the train, his future romantic rival, Rozoghin, mocks the prince’s “faded foulard” and “thick-soled shoes with gaiters—all not the Russian way.” In Petersburg, his ignorance of social cues drives those around him to distraction. He is forgiven in part for his “simplicity of spirit,” and in part because he is sick; he suffers, as Dostoevsky did, from epileptic fits. His companions compare him to Don Quixote; Dostoevsky aligns him with Christ. Everyone refers to him as “the idiot.”

One of the prince’s unwitting talents, upon arrival, is to expose the ordinariness of his romantic competition. (The object of his affection, femme fatale Nastasya Filippovna, has many other suitors.) Toward the end of the novel, the narrator divides these ordinary men into two categories, those who falsely imagine themselves to be “unusual and original,” and those who, though “infected” with the desire to be extraordinary, know in their hearts that they are average. None of these men are ever as original as they aspire to be—only the idiot is. The true savant is original man with no desire to be original at all.

The prince’s genius is inextricable from his naïveté. He is forever out of step with consensus logic, doomed to wear “thick-soled shoes with gaiters” in the heart of a Russian winter. How eccentric! Most people, with their proper footwear and petty feelings, are doomed to be “like everybody else.” He gleefully tells a roomful of socialites that they are “ridiculous,” mistaking this frank pronouncement for a compliment. The idiot, with a child’s shamelessness, is brilliant at pointing out what others won’t, or can’t. The implication is that all true idiots possess a kind of brilliance. (Shakespeare’s fools would all agree, whether or not they were, as Twitter seems to believe, conceived of under quarantine.)

If genius is achieved by tempering the lust for exceptionalism, and stupidity by the denial of one’s own ordinariness, then America faces a significant handicap. Its economic system is greased by the promise that everyone can be extraordinary. But the virus reminds us we are nothing more than biovectors. No one is special in a pandemic. We must all act as if we are invalids.

Americans aren’t used to playing the invalid, however. This is a country that has participated in most of the major wars of the last century, yet which has experienced only two acts of war on home soil. As a result, the American imagination for international calamity has been developed largely vicariously. It has also allowed the politically dominant demographic—white suburbanites—to grow up so physically safe it is almost as if we’ve lived our whole lives in a virtual space. That this relative comfort might bear on the general public’s ability to imagine disaster is captured by what behavioral psychologists call the “white male effect.” Asked to rate the “perceived threat” to individuals and the public of a number of social and environmental hazards (handguns, ozone depletion, drugs), researchers found that white males consistently and categorically reported perceiving lower risk than every other group. Attempts to explain the underlying cause of this discrepancy point to the importance of “identity protective cognition,” or in other words, individual experience. Hans Castorp was on to something: There is, perhaps, a strain of stupidity—a blind spot—begotten by uninterrupted well-being.

This naïveté about suffering is especially egregious when there has always been suffering at the heart of American life, physical, bodily, immediate disasters that the comfortable ignore or under-report: the AIDS epidemic, mass incarceration, the genocide of Native Americans, slavery’s barbarism, the thousands of black men and women murdered by police violence and white terrorism, the abuse of asylum seekers and their children, the overt criminalization of poverty, a nonexistent social safety net that forces the sick to choose between their lives and their livelihoods. These waves of mass death and anguish have failed to accrue material reality for spectators who have never felt personally threatened by them. On the subject of suffering, most white or middle-class Americans can choose ignorance.

Opining in public on things you don’t really understand is a form of idiocy in which Americans, in particular, are known to indulge. In early March, after suggesting that Covid-19 is milder than the flu, Trump told the CDC that he was as knowledgeable about the virus as any medical professional. “Every one of these doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability,” he reported. “Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.” Indeed! Maybe Kushner should have joined him.

On an individual level, the hubris of asserting our opinions over experts’ makes us ignoramuses. On a national level, it may be our sole stroke of genius. To incorporate the opinions of those who exist outside the establishment is a fundamentally democratic impulse. When everyone is given the right to claim expertise, anyone can punch up the social hierarchy.

Ralph Ellison personified this inherent “orneriness” of the American public in his essay “The Little Man at Chehaw Station.” He attributes the idea of the Little Man to a music instructor he once had at the Tuskegee Institute. There is something “more involved,” that teacher told him, in performing classical music in this country than there is elsewhere. In America, she says, “you must always play your best, even if it’s only in the waiting room at Chehaw Station, because in this country there’ll always be a little man hidden behind the stove…and he’ll know the music, and the tradition, and the standards of musicianship.” He’ll criticize you, and in that critique there will be some authority and truth—an unlikely connoisseurship; he understands the cultural landscape so well because he isn’t reflected in it. This Little Man is, Ellison argues, at once a product of our lack of “serious cultural introspection” and an agent of progressivism, urging us “toward a perfection of our revolutionary ideals.” He insists that those at the margins have a right to speak, making good on the (often false) promises of meritocracy and keeping the powerful in check. It is the antiauthoritarian spirit of the Little Man that disrupts established social order. He is too iconoclastic for 24-karat fascism, too individualistic for solidarity or effective mass action. This is to say that whatever might spur us to extraordinariness also makes us idiots, especially in the time of Covid-19.

As a young intellectual involved in anti-imperialist circles, Dostoevsky was arrested and sentenced to death by firing squad—a notorious fake-out, never intended to be carried out. After receiving a pardon just as he and his comrades were lining up to be shot, he served four years in a Siberian labor camp instead. But his narrow escape reverberates throughout The Idiot, rendering it one of the more autobiographical of his works: “Murder by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than murder by brigands,” the prince says, in one of the novel’s many discussions of capital punishment. While the victim of the robbery may hope for rescue even after his throat is slit, when facing penalty of death, “that last hope, which makes dying ten times as easy, is taken away for certain…. The whole awful torture lies in the fact that there is certainly no escape.”

There is no question that with the pandemic we too have been consigned to disaster. Three-quarters of the nation is now under lockdown, 16 million are out of work, and, while more Americans are beginning to follow epidem iologists’ advice to keep apart and stay at home, the economic damage, still accruing, is sure to be protracted. Without hope of escape, there is only anticipation and dread—and dread has political consequences. A paranoid nation is vulnerable to the seduction of extremes and the erosion of social norms; Wisconsin has already staged a sham election.   

One wonders how our ornery individualism, combined with a historical (even willful) ignorance about the manifest suffering that’s always been central to the American experience, will position us to handle a future like this. On the far side of the pandemic lie recession and resentment, and history is no guide as to whether we will swing right or left. The Great Depression led to the New Deal—but also to fascism.

One predictive measure, however, might be a nation’s relationship to death, its willingness to confront the physical reality of suffering versus its eagerness to sublimate it. Democratic socialism is predicated on the recognition that suffering is real and ought to be addressed; fascism promises a salvation scrubbed of it. As Mussolini wrote in “The Doctrine of Fascism,” historically, “Fascists knew how to die.” What he means is that fascists know how to eliminate the fear of ordinary death, by elevating it to martyrdom, a contribution to the national afterlife. As Rush Limbaugh told his listeners, he would rather die of Covid-19 than saddle “our children and our grandchildren” with the costs of a prolonged shutdown. “I’m not afraid to die,” he proclaimed. “I am afraid that our nation might die.” The other way to read this pledge, of course, is that he’s willing to let other people perish.

The current White House has cynics, not fascists; there is no established national program for which paranoid Americans are invited to sacrifice their lives, at least not yet—though some of the more extreme calls to reopen the economy come close. For the most part, however, instead of being leveraged, death was simply ignored, until the optics grew so gruesome as to require presidential comment. And your average idiot, we should recall, will do anything at all to stave off the fear, the humiliation, the loneliness, of an ordinary death. No wonder Dostoevsky wanted Russians to continue to believe in God; it’s a godless people who would make deities of men. One has the feeling that, years from now, we’ll look back on those minor idols and say, “What idiots.” But a lot of people will have died by then.

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