Illness as Metaphor & the most romantic girls are dead

TB is celebrated as the disease of born victims, of sensitive, passive people who are not quite life-loving enough to survive. (What is hinted at by the yearning but almost somnolent belles of Pre-Raphaelite art is made explicit in the emaciated, hollow-eyed, tubercular girls depicted by Edvard Munch.) And while the standard representation of a death from TB places the emphasis on the perfected sublimation of feeling, the recurrent figure of the tubercular courtesan indicates that TB was also thought to make the sufferer sexy.


It was both a way of describing sensuality and promoting the claims of passion and a way of describing repression and advertising the claims of sublimation, the disease inducing both a “numbness of spirit” (Robert Louis Stevenson’s words) and a suffusion of higher feelings. Above all, it was a way of affirming the value of being more conscious, more complex psychologically. Health becomes banal, even vulgar.

There is a disturbing and persistent trend  for desiring the dying woman, which I don’t know if I could really articulate before.  Illness as Metaphor helps me put into words that desire.

Gradually, the tubercular look, which symbolized an appealing vulnerability, a superior sensitivity, became more and more the ideal look for women—while great men of the mid- and late nineteenth century grew fat, founded industrial empires, wrote hundreds of novels, made wars, and plundered continents.

To be sick and dying means so many things, which Sontag lays out.  It means to waste away which results physical beauty: in thinness (think of all those Dostoyevsky heroines who are ‘too thin’ yet impossibly attractive to the narrator), the pale skin and blushing cheeks.  It creates an emotional or psychological attractiveness: the vulnerability and fragility, a slow sadness (let me save you!), but also the feverish mania, excitement, and self-destruction (wild and fun!); the emotional highs and lows of TB ensure the best of everything: the fever-highs mean you’re active, entertaining, and sexy, while the sickly lows mean you’re weak, controlled.  It’s a perpetual near-death, an act of dying.  Not dead yet, but not really living.  The dying-girl is fun and fragile, she’s passionately sensual but psychologically deep, she’s ‘not like other girls’ but she’s not strong enough to do anything but die.  She’s “interesting”:

Sadness made one “interesting.” It was a mark of refinement, of sensibility, to be sad. That is, to be powerless. In Stendhal’s Armance, the anxious mother is reassured by the doctor that Octave is not, after all, suffering from tuberculosis but only from that “dissatisfied and critical melancholy characteristic of young people of his generation and position.”

Sadness and tuberculosis became synonymous.


Not TB but insanity is the current vehicle of our secular myth of self-transcendence. The romantic view is that illness exacerbates consciousness. Once that illness was TB; now it is insanity that is thought to bring consciousness to a state of paroxysmic enlightenment.

While reading about the romanticization of illness I was thinking as well of the romanticization of depression (Sontag writes:”Depression is melancholy minus its charms–the animation, the fits.”)  The beauty of the dying woman, who is killing herself, seems too common.  This death can be the lungs attacking the self due to an excess of emotion, sensuality, passion, intelligence (as in the case of TB), or suicide due to an excess of emotion, sensuality, passion, intelligence (as in the case of melancholy).  Camille wasting away in luxury in La Dame aux Camélias (or La Traviata, or Camille), or Ophelia floating in a mass of flowers in Hamlet are the same: we remember them best as dying or dead.  Their appeal must be in their fleetingness: they will destroy themselves because they were too much for this world, too much for the men who loved them, but as they burn up it means no one else will have them and she is yours and yours alone for eternity.  You get everything: the wild party girl (whether that means the sexy Parisian lifestyle or insane plant-based condemnations, which are definitely “interesting”), but you also get to exert your masculine superiority: you are the stronger one here, you are the one with the potential to save and protect and aid, while she is all the more feminine because she is weak.  If you’re lucky, then her illness and death might even inspire you to be a better person, or even a better artist.  I am also reminded of the scene from Je, tu, il, elle where the truck driver discusses being turned on by a crying woman more than anything else in the world.

What could be better than a dying girl, a girl who is everything?  She is both sides of femininity: the frail and the exciting, the pure and the passionate, the innocent and the intelligent, the virgin and the whore.  All this in a body that’s pale, blushing, thin.  Physically and emotionally attractive with the added benefit of dying so that you don’t have to actually deal with her.  A fantasy girl (we couldn’t call her a woman) with a fantasy illness (Camille never has the the smell of rotting flesh on her breath).



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