Convalescence: Sickness, Society, and Resignation
In a world that is itself sick—with the irascible demands of production that continuously propagate new forms of exploitation—and that in turn sickens its inhabitants, what kind of response is retreat? In Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, a young scion of the bourgeoisie undergoes an unexpectedly protracted rest cure in a cloistered Swiss sanitorium, while the outside world is igniting for war. In Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, nearly a century later, against a background of economic collapse, mass unemployment, and political upheaval, a forlornly underemployed daughter brings her inexplicably ailing mother for treatment at an isolated clinic in southern Spain. And in Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, set in a vacuous and narcissistic New York City at the end of history, a deeply dissociated and over-privileged young woman withdraws into a scrupulously planned, pharmaceutically-induced coma, in the hopes of emerging otherwise. How might fables of retreat like these—savage, parodic, melancholic, diagnostic—help us think through not just the ailing world but our individual ways of being and acting in it? Does turning away from the world nevertheless implicate us in it?
In this course, we will read these three novels as a way of exploring questions about the world and the individual’s responsibility towards it. What is civilizational sickness, and what kind of ailment does the psychosomatic symptom point to? What is the value and ostensible purpose of medical institutionalization—isolating the ill from the wider world? What is the relationship between privilege and retreat? And to what extent can we read these novels allegorically—as fables of the choices provided for women, either to “lean in” or go to sleep; as microcosms of larger social worlds, where types and attitudes are caricatured or concentrated; as crucibles where action and alternatives may be critically explored precisely because they are in a state of suspension? Secondary readings may include texts by Henry David Thoreau, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor Adorno.
Course ScheduleTuesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
July 11 — August 01, 2023