And because a sick person is always deserted – to say anything else would be a gross lie.

2006 © Bostan Alexander

The healthy have never had patience with the sick, nor, of course, have the sick ever had patience with the healthy. This fact must not be forgotten. For naturally the sick make far greater demands than the healthy, who, being healthy, have no need to make such demands. The sick do not understand the healthy and the healthy do not understand the sick. This conflict often proves fatal, because ultimately the sick cannot cope with it, and the healthy naturally cannot cope with it either, with the result that they often become sick themselves. It is not easy to deal with a sick person who suddenly returns to the place from which he was wrenched by sickness, and the healthy usually lack the will to help him: they constantly play at being good Samaritans, without actually being good Samaritans or wanting to be, and because it is only a feint, it merely harms the sick person and does not benefit him. In reality, a sick person is always alone, and whatever help he gets from outside nearly always proves merely vexatious. A sick person needs the most unobtrusive help, the kind of help the healthy cannot give. Through their essentially selfish pretense of helping him they succeed only in harming him and making everything harder for him, not easier. Most of the time the sick are not helped, but merely vexed, by their helpers. When a sick person returns home, however, he cannot afford any vexation. Should he point out that he is being vexed rather than helped, he will at once be rebuffed by those who are ostensibly helping him; he will be accused of arrogance and boundless selfishness when in fact he is only resorting to the ultimate self-defense. When a sick person returns hom, the healthy world receives him with ostensible kindness, ostensible helpfulness, ostensible self-sacrifice, but its kindness, helpfulness, and self-sacrifice, when put to the text, turn out to be a sham, and one does well to forgo them. (…)

The hypocrisy practiced by the healthy toward the sick is extremely common. Basically the healthy want no more to do with the sick, and they are put out if a sick person – one who is gravely sick – suddenly reasserts his claim to health. The healthy always make it particularly difficult for the sick to regain their health, or at least to normalize themselves, to improve their state of health. A healthy person, if he is honest, wants nothing to do with the sick; he does not wish to be reminded of sickness and thereby, inevitably, of death. He wants to stay with his own kind and is basically intolerant of the sick. It has always been made difficult for me to return from the world of the sick to the world of the healthy. While a person is sick, the healthy shun him and cast him off, in obedience to their instinct for self-preservation. Then suddenly this person who has been shed and has meanwhile ceased to matter reappers and claims his rights. Naturally he is at once given to understand that basically he has no rights. As the healthy see it, the sick have forfeited whatever rights they once had. Their sickness has robbed them of their rights and thrown them upon the charity of the healthy. When a sick person, having ceded the place that he once occupied by right, suddenly demands its restitutions, the healthy regard this as an act of monstrous presumption. (…) A gravely sick person who returns home must be treated with gentleness and consideration. But this is difficult, and therefore rare. The healthy immediately make him feel he is an outsider and no longer one of them, and while pretending that this is not so, they do all in their power to repulse him.

— Thomas Bernhard, Wittgenstein’s Nephew

6 thoughts on “And because a sick person is always deserted – to say anything else would be a gross lie.

  1. epistemysics says:

    While I agree with parts of this, I can’t help but wonder whether Bernhard included doctors and nurses in his definition of ‘healthy people’, though perhaps it’s a moot point.

  2. Jana says:

    Doctors and nurses, like social workers and counsellors and gravediggers, are the people in between, tainted with a kind of knowledge that makes them of both worlds, and that makes them of neither fully. Theirs is always a tragic position.

  3. Ian says:

    Sometimes. This might work better as a polemic if the word ‘poor’ replaced the word ‘sick’ and the word ‘wealthy’ replaced the word ‘healthy’. Otherwise, it has the bitter tang of jaundiced frustration totalised into paranoia, borne of specific circumstances. Countering, not taking the grand overarching societal, categorical view (which is always, not sometimes a figment of imaginations, fevered or otherwise), there are many, many examples of people devoted to sick friends, family members, for lifetimes, often. But when the distinction contains a wealth gap, then there is a distaste for encounter – and it works both ways as Bernhardt suggests. Poverty is a form if illness, then. (Aside: this is why parallel health systems exist, to maintain that distance) And when the poor become wealthy, as sometimes happens, they are then excluded, or patronised for having money that is too recently acquired. Well, sometimes at any rate – and sometimes this may also be true for the sick who become well. Sometimes. Not always. And so, not always a lie to say otherwise.

  4. Jana says:

    I wonder who the sick and the poor would agree with, Ian. There is a raw truthfulness to Bernhard’s paragraphs that can be applied to many other circumstances in which a power imbalance makes a dent in what we would like to consider a functioning social contract, a working civility. Povert is one, illness another, and I suspect it would also include old age, immigration, and both mental disability and high intelligence.

    I am not sure that a better polemic would improve on the text. The raw truthfulness seems to me to arise precisely from Bernhard’s intimate knowledge of the situation; it is the truth of fiction, truth coming out of a lie, or at least overt subjectivity. (A poor person writing these lines could also, easily, be accused of jaundiced frustration.)

  5. Ian says:

    The problem identified by Bernhardt is exacerbated by placing the definite article in front of labels (‘the’ poor, ‘the’ sick, ‘the’ mentally disabled, ‘the’ highly intelligent), as though that characteristic defined everything about its referents. One could add parents and children to the list, friends, lovers, employers and employees, and so on, and then what? There is always the potential for imbalances of power in human relationships, expectations not being met, betrayals, differences of taste in etiquette. But such betrayals are not tied to classes or categories necessarily, they occur within the context of specific relationships, between specific people, subjects both, in particular circumstances, places and times.

    I’m not questioning its emotional truth as a piece of autobiography. I can fully appreciate what he feels. But as an excerpt from a much longer text it can be read in many, many other ways – especially if one discounts the novel it comes from and its context. On its own like that, it becomes a polemic, dissociated from its broader narrative, and the labelling does the work.

    It is possible to experience those feelings, that betrayal of a social contract, without any of the labels of difference. Power imbalances are far more subtle and fluid than stereotypical classifications allow. Its the fixity of the categorisation, the denial of subjectivity that such labelling performs that bothers me. But other than that, it is, yes a powerful and affecting piece of writing. Its had me thinking for quite a while. Why, on the one hand, am I affected in such different ways by it? I recognise the kernel of truth (I have been there, as I am sure many have), I enjoy the repetition, but the labelling gets up my nose.

  6. Ian says:

    Upon further reflection, I think Bernhard’s ‘true lie’ works best for the lonely. And its one I’m happy to use the definitive article with. The lonely – of whatever class, gender, intelligence, citizenship status, ability, wellness or unwellness – are shunned and shamed. The lonely universally represent a state of being with which everyone fears contamination.

    Loneliness knows no borders, and there is no obvious incentive to offer care or cure: who would want to befriend a lonely person? Friendships are formed from mutuality of interest, not as a salve to loneliness. The talented lonely make themselves interesting as a foil. But it is not boredom that pushes people away – it is the scent of loneliness behind the facade, rather than the erzatz perfume of charm in front. The lonely are a collectivity that will never form a union to advocate their rights and interests – they have none. Only for the lonely are the social workers, counselors, shrinks and 3am helplines. Everyone else has friends and family, advocates and unions – yes, even the sick, the poor, the highly intelligent, the insane, the disabled, the super-intelligent. To help the lonely there must be no admission that loneliness is the issue – that sensitivity, civility that Bernhard calls for is most acute when dealing with the lonely. And then, the lonely have to be reserved with one another, prove they aren’t the pariah each other fears they have already become. For the lonely, the civil lie is their saving grace.

    And what is the difference between the lonely and the sick? The sick can blame exogenous agents – their sickness is not their natural state. This is why Bernhard can feel anger and frustration for his plight, he is like a refugee from wellness. But the lonely’s woes are endogenous, they have only themselves to blame. And so they do.

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