To Read Evil

Bodies deformed by Leprosy - Tahiti 1898

Leprosy Victims, Tahiti, 1898. Source.

In general terms, there is repetition and there is exception. Despite the fact of living in—and even being—the very margins of the exception, according to science, it is not difficult to detect all around the domain of what is constant. Having nothing but repetition, reading would be impossible. If a text is anything susceptible of being read—that is, everything before a will—the very definition of «text» demands something exceptional out of the text: the reader, which always implies the presence of an Other. To read is to extract sense from that balanced exchange of presences. In the words of Severo Sarduy: «Si la libertad es total o nula, el sentido no existe» («Poetry under a program»,1991), «If freedom is either total or null, sense does not exist».

Even though repetition is immensely vaster than exception, it is not the constant darkness of the cosmos what holds our human babbling, but the other way around. The exception we are—while adding meaning into the rest, merely factual—gives voice and truth to the cosmos. Hence repetition sustains reality while exception detonates truth. Under this premise, the reading of the human body will gain when it shows symptoms of exception, of illness, of evil. A man reads little in the quotidian image of his healthy face—repetition—, as opposed to his ill features—exception.

«Escansión de vanidades y corrupciones, la vida es tránsito», Sarduy reminds us (Written on a body, 1969): «A flow of vanities and corruptions, life is transition». But among all stages of bodily development and aging towards death, sickness shows up abruptly and its visible marks stimulate new meanings. So Michel Foucault has understood it, as he warns the reader at the beginning of Birth of the clinic (1963): the themes of his book are space, language, and death. The history of clinic is a history of reading: before, the reading of myths and superstitions based on the argument of authority; later, the reading of vital organs and members, the immersion into the human body. The tradition that governed medicine up until the end of the XVII Century consisted in observing repeated symptoms to establish the norm; on the contrary, by reading new sources the modern medic must acknowledge exclusive symptoms, modify the code and spread it among colleagues. Foucault insists on the idea that the first task of the medic is political and, right after, pedagogical, thus the first hospitals—and at some extent also the current ones—worked in principle as schools. Samuel-Auguste Tissot explains in his «Memoir to Build a Clinical Hospital » (1785) that, since each clinic carried quantitative restrictions, the admitted patients were to be chosen on the grounds of the teaching value of their pathology. Foucault: «different sicknesses work as texts: the patient is only the one through which the text can be read». In this scenario (the work in the classroom is always a performance of sorts) the sick suffer twice: their illnesses have triggered their dehumanization: page-men, text-men, palimpsests. If their extraordinary circumstance would have made of the sick sinners, devils, cursed ones in the middle ages, after the origin of the modern clinic they have simply become objects: every exception is violence and the ill are entities who vibrate between several sorts of violence.

But medicine is changing already: it has turned dehumanization by performance into dehumanization by marketing—the patient is today, as everybody else, a costumer. The text of the human body has multiplied immeasurably thanks to the accumulated tradition—the perfection of the code—and to the now possible observation of materials at microscopic levels—the extension of the text. This knowledge and control over reality disrupts the stimulus of truth. But current science ignores still, it has not yet observed everything and neither knows how. That dark area to microscopes remains heritage for imagination. This is why our contemporary TV viewers find dramatic stimulus in shows about infallible medics: even among these detectives, experts in the code of the human body, some mystery still fits, some exception, some disruption of meaning.

There is a body that despite modern medicine remains igniting people’s imagination: that of the leper. If other diseases, malfunctions and even mere open wounds could produce disgust, the notion of the leper projects this disgust toward mistrust, paranoia and horror. The leper has always been subject of a kind of violence beyond clinic exhibition, because his presence inflicts violence on others. Nonetheless, the leper is not there: it’s just a true idea in stubborn opposition to reality—that of the Hansen’s bacillus. Despite knowing now that leprosy—moral disease, divine punishment—was wrongly identified with innumerable skin maladies, and that the «leper» tag was put on people with syphilis, tuberculosis, several kinds of dermatitis and lupus, among many other ailments (according to Chapman Binford’s Transmittable and Infectious diseases, 1960), all the myths around leprosy remain untouched behind our reason. To read the atrophied and mutilated bodies of the lepers is also to read their almost hiding, their timidity and mistrust, their uncomfortable awareness of the fear they produce. And, sense over sense, it is also to interpret the boundaries of the gaze Foucault attributes to the origin of clinic: the certainty of the healthy subject who knows things that do not exist in reality, but only in the truth of their fears. To read those ill bodies is to read back our gaze: to turn the eyes towards the language we are all made of, towards our Western tradition from the Bible through Hartmann von Aue to Gabriel Miró, towards our suspicion before the disruption of the divine chorus of repetition, of stability, of certainty.

January, 2011