FEBRUARY 14, 2019
ELAINE SCARRY DESCRIBES pain as an adversary to community. “Whatever pain achieves,” she writes, “it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language.” As metaphor, the pain of disease marks an alienation from otherwise “healthy” standards of expression. But one disease in particular has been said to produce the opposite effect. Earning the reputation of “the author’s disease,” it struck literary minds as diverse as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Franz Kafka, and Molière. So ubiquitous was it at some point among the lettered that it might have been a requisite for writerly fame. And to a number of modern Jewish writers it was, arguably, just that — a disease that proved professionally, financially, and literarily lucrative.
The story of how this one disease became a source of creativity for Jewish writers is at the heart of Tubercular Capital: Illness and the Conditions of Modern Jewish Writing. There, Sunny S. Yudkoff surveys the life of three members of the Jewish canon — Solomon Rabinovich (a.k.a. Sholem Aleichem), Raḥel Bluvshtein, and David Vogel — to highlight the integral role tuberculosis played in their work, personas, and religious agendas. Symptoms of the disease were, to say the least, grim (bloody coughs and aching hemorrhages), but its public face was pruned, softened, even made glamorous.
To be sure, tuberculosis didn’t always foretell success. Industrialization degenerated the disease into a symbol of poverty from its idealized place in the Romantic literary imagination. “How pale I look,” Lord Byron reportedly rejoiced. “I should like, I think, to die of consumption.” Such fanciful dreams of death weren’t on the mind of the laboring Jew, and for good reason. Poor working conditions spread the disease throughout their communities, and churned out fodder for the project to pathologize the Semitic body. The period’s proliferation of both Hebrew and Jewish names for tuberculosis reflected the growing health concerns of Jews: optserung (emaciation), schvindsukht (consumption), die gute krank (the good sickness), and tuberkulozah were all used to describe the disease, in addition to the stubbornly romantic “author’s disease.”
With enough money, some nonlaboring Jews took on the view of the Romantics who saw affliction as an occasion for travel. Rabinovich, Bluvshtein, and Vogel were among them, lured to the health resorts of Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and British-mandate Palestine by their thermal baths and fresh mountain air. Rabinovich, whose stories served the basis for Fiddler on the Roof, went to Italy, though his financial constraints demanded a public performance of disease that garnered sympathy (and funds) from his devout readers. Bluvshtein sought the cure in Palestine, where her sickroom afforded the poetic vista that carried her to celebrity. Vogel, also drawn to Italy, forayed his memories of the monotony of treatment life into his celebrated Hebrew novel In the Sanatorium (1927). At every turn of these writers’ careers, tuberculosis was channeled into a condition of possibility, though one removed from its melancholy association with the idle, gaunt, and lovesick Romantic.
While Yudkoff’s cultural lens is intriguing, it is her close readings of literary works that enliven Tubercular Capital. She turns, for instance, to the sonorous qualities of Bluvshtein’s poetry to say that it “coughs out rather than sings.” One poem is shown to reflect the author’s conflicted relationship to the Promised Land. “Her poetry, like the colonized land, has been implanted with the germ of an incurable illness.” In another poem, this time about love, the word maga (touch) is suggested as fraught with pathological weight. At times, it seems like Yudkoff is on the verge of her own theory about the body in pain, the rhetoric of illness, or the inextricability of physiology from poetics. And though she is cautious to keep close to the task at hand, her interpretive liberties offer dauntless detours of resistance to a one-dimensional view of one malady’s effects on the creative imagination.
Unsurprisingly, the question of Zionism is unavoidable in a book about disease and diaspora. To the tubercular Jewish writer, medical advisory paralleled spiritual calling and health tourism resembled a sort of pilgrimage. Rabinovich, for one, appealed to his readers by interpreting his doctor’s counsel that he seek treatment in Palestine as a divine summon: “I must go to ‘where the citrons blossom,’” he announced, evoking the yellow citron used during the Sukkot. For Bluvshtein, as suggested, the incorporation of illness into her practice was not a neutral act, and nor was it for Vogel, who chose to abandon his native Yiddish for Hebrew in his work, a sacrifice tethered to the Zionist dream of a Holy Land free from the sickly Yiddish masses — a dual dream of cultural and physical sanitation: “We want Israeli breathing to be completely Hebrew, with two lungs,” wrote poet Avraham Shlonsky.
Yudkoff’s exploration seamlessly merges speculation with concrete history. Turning away from the symbolics of tubercular suffering, her sights are set on detaching illness from metaphor. Though she can’t resist glorifying these writers by comparing them to historic legends (Charles Dickens, Molière, and Florence Nightingale among them), she highlights the unique role that community played in their success. This is the main subject of the book’s fourth chapter, which celebrates the medicoliterary projects of Denver’s Jewish Consumptives’ Relief Society, an organization that offered tubercular Jews not just treatment, but resources for literary publication. The point of such emphasis seems to be that for the Jewish writer, the association of illness with creativity wasn’t as divinely intrinsic as it may have been for the Romantics. It was, rather, manufactured, transformed, and, unlike the disease itself, consciously spread.
The stress on action over idealization suffuses Yudkoff’s eclectic and detailed analysis. Tempting as it may be to imbue illness with its own transcendental power, she chooses to depict its force with a more material and pragmatic truth, warning of the dangerous contortions of pain that come with romanticization. In this she echoes Susan Sontag’s message in Illness as Metaphor (1978), recognizing that sometimes the best way to represent illness is one most purified of, and resistant to, metaphoric thinking.