Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Disease as life's lascivious form

From The Magic Mountain (translated by John E. Woods):

He learned pathological anatomy from a volume he was now holding to one side to catch the reddish glow of his table lamp; the text, with a series of illustrations, discussed parasitic cell fusion and infectious tumors. These were tissue formations—and very luxuriant formations they were—caused by foreign cells invading an organism that proved receptive to them and for some reason offered favorable conditions (although, one had to admit, rather dissolute conditions at that) for them to flourish. It was not so much that the parasite deprived the surrounding tissue of its nourishment, but rather, in exchanging materials with its host cell, it formed organic compounds that proved amazingly toxic, indeed ultimately destructive, to the cells of the host organism. Researchers had been able to isolate and concentrate the toxins from several such microorganisms and were amazed to find that, if injected into an animal’s bloodstream, even tiny doses of such materials, which could be classified as simple proteins, produced the most acute toxic effects, leading to rapid demise. The external form of this contamination was a rapid growth of tissue, a tumor, pathologically speaking, which was the cells’ reaction to the stimulus of bacilli having taken up residence among them. The cells of the mucuslike tissue between which or in which the bacilli resided formed millet-seed-size nodules, some of which were very large indeed and extraordinarily rich in protoplasm containing numerous nuclei. This riotous living, however, soon led to ruin, because the nuclei of these monster cells began to shrink and break down, their protoplasm began to congeal and decompose; other tissues in the vicinity were affected by the same foreign stimuli. Inflammation spread to adjacent blood vessels; lured to the scene of the accident, white corpuscles now arrived; death by congealing proceeded apace. Meanwhile the soluble toxins from the bacteria had long since intoxicated the nerve centers; the organism was already feverish, and with heaving bosom, so to speak, it reeled toward its disintegration.

 So much for pathology, the study of disease, with an emphasis on bodily pain, which at the same time was an emphasis on the body, an emphasis on its pleasures—disease was life’s lascivious form. And for its part, what was life? Was it perhaps only an infectious disease of matter—just as the so-called spontaneous generation of matter was perhaps only an illness, a cancerous stimulation of the immaterial? The first step toward evil, toward lust and death, was doubtless taken when, as the result of a tickle by some unknown incursion, spirit increased in density for the first time, creating a pathologically rank growth of tissue that formed, half in pleasure, half in defense, as the prelude to matter, the transition from the immaterial to the material. This was creation’s true Fall, its Original Sin. The second spontaneous generation, the birth of the organic from the inorganic, was only the sad progression of corporeality into consciousness, just as disease in an organism was the intoxicating enhancement and crude accentuation of its own corporeality. Life was only the next step along the reckless path of spirit turned disreputable, matter blushing in reflex, both sensitive and receptive to whatever had awakened it.

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