Disease, Desire and Communicability in "Niels Lyhne" and "Ved Vejen"

By Cokal, Susann | Scandinavian Studies, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Disease, Desire and Communicability in "Niels Lyhne" and "Ved Vejen"


Cokal, Susann, Scandinavian Studies


Disease, Desire, and Communicability in Niels Lyhne and Ved Vejen

LOVE MAKES THE BODY SPEAK. In quivers from erotic anticipation fulfillment, it communicates with its owner, affirming desire and a contingent sense of burgeoning life forces. Perhaps paradoxically, then, the body in love just as frequently speaks in terms of pain, decay, and other less romantic effluvial eruptions of heart and mind. A love-struck Romeo, for example, muses, "He jests at scars that never felt a wound" (Shakespeare II.ii.I): via the language of disease and pain, he understands love. The discourses of love and disease thus share a common focus--the body--and even a common vocabulary. In countless novels, poems, and popular songs, love is configured as a disease causing somatic woes when the course does not run smoothly, and even when it does. One critic has found that in the novel, love and disease share a number of "emotional and physical similarities: the physiological changes in the body (and orgasm as the `little death'); the painful progress and desperate yearning for a satisfactory resolution; the connection between frustration or consummation in love, crisis or cure in disease" (Meyers 15). Love, then, is an itching in the heart bringing on heartache and assorted other pains, and in the end, it is responsible for innumerable fatalities.

If a clinical equivalent to love's disease--particularly to the old-fashioned, nineteenth-century variety--could be identified, it would be tuberculosis. In nineteenth-century Europe and America, no disease was more prominent, none more feared or even perhaps more common.(1) In 1815, London medical writer Thomas Young summed up his findings on infectious disease: "Of all hectic affections, by far the most important is pulmonary consumption, a disease so frequent as to carry off prematurely about one-fourth part of the inhabitants of Europe, and so fatal as often to deter the practitioner even from attempting a cure" (qtd. in Dubos 9). Its very commonness seems to have inspired what might at first look like love: tuberculosis, or consumption as its extreme form was more often called, appears again and again in literature suggesting that authors fetishized it, longed for it, or at least felt it was as inevitable as the love affairs that structured their plots. The disease features prominently in novels by J. P. Jacobsen and Herman Bang, the former of whom suffered from it himself; both authors link it to the erotic. In Jacobsen's Niels Lyhne, consumption claims the object of the protagonist's first erotic interest, and in Bang's Ved Vejen, a housewife dies of it after resigning herself to a loveless life.

If eros is life-affirming, it is most so at the moment it stares death in the face. When Georges Bataille begins his L'erotisme with the assertion, "De l'erotisme, il est possible de dire qu'il est l'approbation de la vie jusque dans la mort" (17) ["Eroticism, it may be said, is assenting to life up to the point of death' (11)], he is reinforcing the common conception that life is most intense when nearing its end. In a certain sense, any sickness (the body's decay) affirms life (the body's wholeness). As disease propels the body toward death, it emphasizes the boundary between living and nonliving asking its victim to assume a place on one side or the other. A somatic sickness shows the body becoming visible asking to be seen, to be read.(2) Patients, for example, are notoriously fascinated with their own symptoms, and doctors make their living studying unwell bodies. The sick body is in a sense the supreme body, the corpus at its most corporeal, even though disease is usually considered an atypical moment in the body's life. Each of these novels in its own way constitutes a manual describing tuberculosis and how to behave once it is contracted, just as each describes and thus prescribes behavior during a love affair. The final effects love and disease have on the body are quite similar: both seem bent on reducing it to chaos, i. …

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