Decadence is a Chronic Illness

On the affinities between my last two books.

This Substack exists, in part, to give me a place to talk about the ideas in my books (and hopefully sell a few extra copies) with a little more self-indulgence than the dignity and obligations of a newspaper column permit. So in that spirit I want to talk about the relationship between my new book, The Deep Places, and its predecessor, The Decadent Society — the latter having been conceived a long time ago in health, but mostly written while I was still going through the rather intense and gothic experiences detailed in the new memoir.

The easy joke is that they’re the same book: One is about an apparently-incurable condition that slowly steals your vigor and happiness but doesn’t kill you, that’s particularly endemic to the Acela Corridor region, and that a sclerotic and blinkered establishment pretends doesn’t exist at all; the other is about having Chronic Lyme Disease.

I can’t lean too hard on the joke, however, because in The Decadent Society I argue that decadence can be somewhat comfortable, inducing a pleasant numbing feeling or offering a cascade of illusions that make you think you’re reliving the intense, dramatic, historically-significant experiences of your civilization’s more dynamic past. Whereas one of the things I’m trying to illuminate about chronic illness is that it’s often not like that — not remotely comfortable, not the fainting couch or the slightly-worse-than-average pain or tiredness that skeptics imagine, but something terrible and all-consuming, a fatigue or fog that makes ordinary work or thought impossible, or else (more so in my case) a comprehensive feeling of pain or dissolution that steals your every waking hour and then robs you of your sleep.

As such, I feel about one rather obvious skeptical reading of The Deep Places, which treats it as portrait of a chronic illness that’s actually an extreme physicalization, expressed via subconscious currents by a decadence-obsessed newspaper columnist, of the general experience of a spiritually-sickened modernity — T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, basically, but somehow written by my psyche on my flesh — a bit the way that J.R.R. Tolkien felt about readings of The Lord of The Rings as an overt allegory for World War II. If his were simply an allegory, he wrote, his story and world-building would have had a different structure, different themes, and definitely a different ending. Likewise if my own chronic illness were simply a case of my subconscious doing some storytelling, generating a physical “allegory” of my conscious mind’s analysis of decadence, the sickness should have felt more like a fog or a miasma or a weighted blanket on my life, a heavy ennui or an ache that just wouldn’t heal — and much less like torture, invasion and catastrophe.

But then it’s also true that Tolkien perhaps protested a little bit too much. Yes, Lord of the Rings is not a simple allegory for World War II, but it’s still a novel of the world-war era, whose themes and ideas and imagery would not have taken shape the way they did without the world in which its author lived and thought and fought. And in a somewhat similar way chronic illness is clearly somehow a disease of modernity even if the afflicted aren’t all just somehow our era’s Fisher Kings, physical martyrs to a spiritual disease.

For instance, even if we don’t fully understand all the connections, it seems very likely that in some way modern environments and diets (and maybe all those microplastics) do effectively soften up people’s bodies and weaken their defenses, so that it becomes harder for the immune system to clear an invader or suppress a pathogen. In the many cases where chronic pain doesn’t have a pathogenic cause, presumably the unnatural ways that so many of us sit and work and stand and hang around, combined with the not-adequately-explained rise of obesity rates, forge some link between the lifestyles of late modernity and the suffering of so many of its denizens. And then finally the fact that some forms of chronic pain do seem to yield to a kind of psychotherapeutic treatment means that the Fisher King theory has to be given its due as well.

I promise more thoughts on why I don’t think that theory is a particularly useful lens for my own experience, or the larger chronic Lyme question, in a future post. For now I would just stress that even the seemingly obvious and material kind of connections between modern folkways and chronic suffering are by no means neat and tidy. Certain forms of chronic pain and illness are concentrated among people who seem generally unhealthy in a distinctive modern way, or among the late-middle-aged and sedentary — but others conspicuously aren’t. Long-haul Covid, for instance, whatever you think causes it, seems to strike younger and healthier people. (A number of people I know who have struggled with it were supremely fit beforehand.) And though I was personally pretty sedentary when I fell sick, for obvious reasons chronic Lyme is a generally a disease of the outdoors-y types, hikers and woods-goers, rather than screen-starers and couch-sitters. Calling an illness that disproportionately afflicts crunchy would-be Thoreauvian backpackers a “disease of modernity” may be true in some sense — but not in any simple one.

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With all that complexifying as a backdrop, then, here are three clear affinities that I see between the problem of societal decadence and the problem of chronic illness. The first has to do with duration and imagination: Both decadence and chronic ailments cut against the human tendency to imagine a crisis as something that either leads to some kind of fatal endgame quickly or else resolves itself and goes away. Being sick for a long period of time has a baffling effect on friends and family and acquaintances, not because they’re unsympathetic or unwilling to help, but because our primary image of sickness is something that comes and quickly leaves, or comes and threatens your life and needs to be treated intensely with the highest stakes — and it’s harder to know how to respond to having something that apparently isn’t life-threatening but also doesn’t go away.

In the same way people analyzing cultural and political conditions are drawn, very naturally, to the sharp alternatives of progress or decline, full cultural health or late-imperial collapse. Indeed they tend to swing back and forth between the two poles, so that often the same people most confident in the arc of history bending inexorably toward liberal progress turn into the deepest here-comes-Hitler pessimists when the arc seems to bend instead in some dark or unexpected direction. So to suggest that there’s actually another category of civilizational condition, one defined by stagnation and repetition over a potentially extended horizon — saying, for instance, that the American republic is decaying and gridlocked and sclerotic but also not yet particularly like Weimar Germany or 1990s Russia, let alone 5th century Rome — is a way of conveying the same kind of truth that’s conveyed by living through a chronic illness, or loving someone who’s living with one: That the drama of human existence is replete with long unhappy interludes that feature neither an immediate Nemesis nor a simple cure, and those interludes require a distinctive response from their inhabitants, neither complacent nor hysterical, but constructive in ways that are intended to bear fruit across a longer haul — years for the individual, decades for society — than the response to an immediate all-or-nothing crisis.

Then the second, related affinity is that if you do try to generate those kind of constructive responses to decadence, you will quickly run into the same kind of resistance and obstacles as someone trying to generate a constructive response to a chronic illness that the medical system can’t figure out how to treat. In both cases, the specifically medical as well as the general political-cultural, you see the same pattern where a system that has achieved great successes in the not-so-distant past can’t seem to adapt to the rather different challenges of the present, the same sense of bureaucratic incentives throttling curiosity and defeating attempts at innovation, the same feeling that to make progress you somehow have to leave those systems behind — and then the same temptation, which I wrote about one of the columns I drew out of my memoir, to become so fully outside the system that you begin to lose touch with reality itself.

If Western decadence is, in part, distinguished by a stalemate between a blinkered ruling meritocracy and a paranoid populist alternative, then the controversy over chronic illnessses and how to treat them often feels like a neat synecdoche for that larger kind of gridlock. And the kind of balance that the experimenting patient needs to strike in trying to get better — the migrations back and forth between the center and the fringe, the attempt to entertain critiques and speculations without getting captured a simple anti-all-authority worldview, the search for a synthesis between what the outsiders are discerning and the establishment still gets right — probably has something in common with the balance that a regenerative political movement or a transformative statesman would need to someday find, if Western politics isn’t just going to be Trump vs. the Deep State, or Macron vs. the Gilets Jaunes, now and forever, world without end, amen.

Then finally the third affinity is that in the search for this kind of solution or response, an increase in crisis-like symptomology can also be an opportunity. Meaning, in the case of my own illness, that I was actually fortunate in certain ways in the scale and intensity of my symptoms, and the fact that I fell into the depths more quickly than some people with long-term Lyme, experiencing in months a descent that other sufferers transcribe over years. This meant that as much as I pinballed back and forth between different theories of what was wrong with me in the early going, physical and psychological and everywhere in between, I was never seriously tempted to believe that nothing was wrong, that I was really in the pink of health and no treatment of any sort was necessary. And later, when I was pretty sure what was wrong with me but unsure how to treat it, the pain itself was always the spur to experiment, to alteration, to trying something new.

In a somewhat similar way, if you think of decadence as a reassuringly-slow, often-pleasant-seeming glide toward some sort of dystopia, then the occasional lurches, the downward jolts that happen occasionally before the slower glide resumes, are also the moments of maximal opportunity to actually redirect your course. That doesn’t make them desirable, exactly, since if the opportunity isn’t seized you’ve just ended up in someplace worse, and for that reason it definitely doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to try to to push the decadent society downhill. But when the jolts come along they do offer a kind of hope as well as a sense of greater crisis, a shock to the complacency that otherwise prevails, an illumination of reality that might — might! — show a different path.

That’s how I sometimes felt about the Trump years, at least. I started working on the writing that became The Decadent Society in the wake of the empty Romney-Obama election of 2012 and amid a feeling of general listlessness and intellectual torpor, when it felt like decadence was simultaneously unshakable and also invisible to many people. That is not how the last five years have felt, and while that shift probably robbed my book of some of its novelty, it also has been usefully revelatory — we see all kinds of social and economic and technological problems more clearly now, I think, than we did in 2010 or 2015 — and a spur to new thinking, at least, about our ideological cul-de-sacs and technological stagnation.

I would not say that I’m optimistic, exactly, about the lessons of this more chaotic period being internalized in some immediate and fruitful way — by either political coalition, by our cultural institutions and tech companies, by my own Roman Catholic Church.

But for us there is only the trying, the rest is not our business, as the poet says, and as I ended The Deep Places with an appeal for more doctors and researchers to simply try to understand and treat chronic illnesses like mine, I will end this post with an expression of mild hopefulness that many more people in 2021 than in 2011 seem to recognize that decadence is a real illness, and are actively looking for a cure.