The Sickness unto Death

Random notes on illness, death — and moving to Samoa

Calm down, the title of this column is just a quote of the title of one of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s most famous books (which I haven’t read). I am not a hypochondriac. In fact, quite the opposite: I may be slightly iatrophobic. I avoid doctors like the plague, and go only when I really need them. Luckily, I didn’t need very many times for the last two or three years. But I don’t tend to get worried by every little illness or health problem I have. 

And yet, lately I have been annoyed by a persistent cold and cough for almost two weeks now, only today finally receding. It’s not Covid — Covid was milder, if anything. This is mild too, just more persistent. One morning I think I am finally fine, then at night the cough returns again. And so on and so forth.  

Since I am getting older — alas, we all are, even newborn babies — this type of problem is probably going to become more common. Then there are other small issues that come and go like back ache, muscle pain, etc. I just ordered new eyeglasses too, since my sight also seems to have deteriorated slightly and I can’t read small print anymore. “I grow old … I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” (This one is from T. S, Eliot, and it’s about rolling up the bottom of the trousers to take a walk in the seashore and hear the mermaids sing — which may or may not be an allegory of death, too.)  

A disease, even if mild, is always a reminder of death. Well, perhaps not. I had a great-aunt who was always sick with either real or imaginary diseases, and lived up to 95 years. But, in general, I think we tend to think more about death when we are sick than when we are healthy. And yet, death can come any time, to the ill or to the healthy alike.  

In a nice but little seen short documentary called “For the Children of the Donbass” — this was shot before the current war over there, when the conflict was mostly a local issue, not yet the calamity it is now — one of the character muses that, with war, your perspective on live changes. The idea that you can die any time, maybe in the next minute, becomes a normal part of your daily routine, and this makes you appreciate life more. 

War kills mostly the young, sickness kills the old. For the ancient Germanic and Scandinavian tribes, dying in battle was a glory, dying in your bed was a shame. Those who died in battle went to Valhalla, those who died of illness went to Hel (just one l), an underground location reminiscent of the Greek Hades and which evolved into our word Hell (two ls). Today, dying in battle doesn’t appear to be so great. We care too much about living and too little about the afterlife, so most people would rather die old than young. 

Of course, most people today are also terribly afraid of sickness and death, and that was one of the reasons that the Covid operation was so successful, in comparison, say, to the “climate change” agenda. In practice, most folks are not very afraid of “climate change” or “global warming”, because it’s not clear what its real consequences are, and it remains a somewhat abstract fear, but everybody is afraid of strange, new, unfamiliar diseases. If Covid had just been branded as a slightly different type of flu, and not something completely new, there might not have been all that panic and social change. But then again, social change was part of the agenda. 

Now most people are no longer afraid of Covid, and the media has replaced its hysteria with other topics. Unfortunately, no one paid any price for all the lies and exaggerations, so it might happen again. Wait, what am I saying? Lies, panic and exaggerations are the daily bread of the media, so it never really stopped happening, the tone was just reduced in intensity, at least for the time being.  

In the meantime, however, economic crash and poverty are the new worries of the day — they are also have a more concrete feel than “climate change”, and are a distinct fear for millions of people. 

Being ill while rich is bad enough, but being ill and poor is of course much worse. 

Many writers in the 19th century (poor or rich, it affected both) suffered from tuberculosis — it was a disease that especially afflicted Romantic writers for a reason — and, in the lack of a more definitive cure, one of the medical advices of the time was to move to a milder climate zone. Go South, young man, they said. Keats moved from London to Rome, even if it was too late to really save him and he just died there. And Stevenson moved from London to California and then to the island of Samoa in the Pacific, where he died, although at least after having lived there for many years. 

(Another writer, the French Marcel Schwob, also suffered from some kind of respiratory illness, and in 1901 he traveled to Samoa in order to improve his health and to find Stevenson’s grave — but he never got to it, because apparently his health got worse on the island and he decided to go back immediately to Paris. I guess warm weather is not good for everyone?) 

Anyway, I wish I had something more profound or interesting to say about all this, but all I can think is that, whenever I have a  cough or a cold, living in a drab, icy Central European town, I, who grew up in a subtropical region, sometimes miss and would like to move South to a warmer climate zone — Southern Italy, Spain, or even Samoa.