Darkening Senses: John Donne, Byung-Chul Han, and the Palliative Society - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Darkening Senses: John Donne, Byung-Chul Han, and the Palliative Society

Tragedy is a gift from the gods to men. I am not talking about the tragedy of the tragic poets. I am talking about the tragedy that, from time to time, all men are condemned to undergo. But the gods must also have given you a soul that loves tragedy, a soul that, in somber joy, transforms it into one of the elements of your strength and your humanity. Let us not forget, moreover, that with every man being called to die, every man without exception will one day find himself facing tragedy.

– Henry de Montherlant, “La mort de Pompée”

Tell me your relation to pain, and I will tell you who you are.

– Ernst Jünger, “On Pain”

It was at some point in the middle of the month of November, in the year of our Lord 1623, that John Donne, metaphysical poet and dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, received a bite from a body louse. Such a mundane occurrence would hardly be worth mentioning nearly four centuries later, had it not been for the fact that this particular hematophagic ectoparasite was carrying within its transparent abdomen the bacterium Rickettsia prowazekii, having previously dined on the infected blood of a nearby person, or just as likely a nearby rat. As the louse explored the surface of Donne’s skin, navigating around soaring shafts of hair, hummocks of dead squamous cells, and sticky pools of sebaceous lipids with the aid of its sophisticated antennae and compound claws, it left behind a trail of minuscule, dark-red droppings teeming with bacilli. Five times a day or so the insect would sup, inserting its toothed proboscis into the dean’s flesh, producing minute but fantastically itchy welts. As Donne scratched his invisible wounds, he unwittingly rubbed the louse’s faeces into those open lesions, and thus introduced R. prowazekii, the microorganism that causes exanthematic typhus, into his bloodstream.

Should we briefly spare a thought for the louse, itself doomed to perish from that dreaded malady? Hans Zinsser, the American bacteriologist and author of the wonderfully erudite Rats, Lice and History (1935), certainly thought so. “If lice can dread,” Zinsser posited, “the nightmare of their lives is the fear of some day inhabiting an infected rat or human being. For the host may survive; but the ill-starred louse that sticks his haustellum through an infected skin, and imbibes the loathsome virus with his nourishment, is doomed beyond succor. In eight days he sickens, in ten days he is in extremis, on the eleventh or twelfth his tiny body turns red with blood extravasated from his bowel, and he gives up his little ghost.” The little creature was fundamentally blameless, having infected its host entirely “without guile, from the uncontrollable need for nourishment, with death already in his own entrails.” We are unfairly inclined, wrote Zinsser, “to look upon all nature through egocentric eyes. To the louse, we are the dreaded emissaries of death…. If only for his fellowship with us in suffering, he should command a degree of sympathetic consideration.” This was a sentiment altogether worthy of John Donne himself, that empathetic poet who declared in “A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day” that “I am every dead thing,” continuously “re-begot / Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.”

Assuming that Donne did not manage to crush his microscopic tormentor with his furious scratching, the poor, plagued Pediculus humanus humanus would be dead in one to two weeks, which is about how long it would take for its generous host to sicken, albeit on a grander biological scale. So by November 23 the insect would have given up his or her little ghost, and the poet was suffering from the early stages of exanthematic typhus, a disease that takes its name from the foggy stupor it typically provokes. Donne was laid prostrate, lapsing in and out of delirium, for some 20 days, but he survived and set about recording his experiences in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, and severall steps in my Sicknes. Through Donne’s Devotions the reader can vicariously experience the myriad symptoms of typhus, which in the poet’s case included a lingering fever that reached as high as 104 degrees, searing headaches, phosphenes (flashing lights), fine erythematous papules all over his tender skin, streams of red urine issuing from his bladder, and thundering tinnitus to top it all off. Donne was no stranger to illness, having previously survived outbreaks of the plague, battled dysentery while visiting Paris, and experienced episodic bouts of what was likely pharyngotonsillitis, but this contest with typhus was different. “Bath’d in a cold quicksilver sweat,” as he recorded in his poem “The Apparition,” Donne was reduced to the state of a “poor aspen wretch,” shivering like the delicate leaves of a poplar tree.

“This minute I was well, and am ill, this minute,” he wrote with a trembling hand, wracked as he was by “earthquakes in him selfe, sodaine shakings … lightnings, sodaine flashes … thunders, sodaine noises … Eclypses, sodain offuscations, and darknings of his senses.” It would have been enough to drive a lesser man stark staring mad; in Donne’s case, it prompted one of the greatest effluences of poetry and prose in the history of the English language, most notably his 17th meditation, which opens with the renowned line “No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe,” and ends even more famously with a bell tolling for the gentle reader. T. S. Eliot, in his 1919 poem “Whispers of Immortality,” summarized Donne’s harrowing encounter with typhus:

He knew the anguish of the marrow
The ague of the skeleton
No contact possible to flesh
Allayed the fever of the bone

This corporeal torment was what enabled Donne to, in Eliot’s words, “seize and clutch and penetrate” the human condition like few before or since.

In Donne’s day typhus was known as purple, spotted, or lenticular fever, and was treated by cupping, bleeding, purgatives, and, curiously enough, the application of pigeon carcasses to the bare feet of the afflicted. As the character Daniel de Bosola fulminated in John Webster’s Jacobean revenge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi, published the very year of Donne’s illness, “I would sooner eat a dead pigeon taken from the soles of the feet of one sick of the plague than kiss one of you fasting,” cynically adding that

Though we are eaten up of lice and worms,
And though continually we bear about us
A rotten and dead body, we delight
To hide it in rich tissue

We can, from our own contemporary vantage point, laugh at these preposterous pre-modern remedies. After all, we are blessed with innovations like asbestos-tainted baby powder, and infant formula laden with corn syrup solids and soybean oil, and modern miracle medicaments like, say, Vioxx, Pondimin, and Accutane, or Chantix, the FDA-approved, then voluntarily recalled, high-affinity partial agonist for the α4β2 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor subtype, which, aside from its limited effectiveness, also causes “incredibly dangerous side effects in many individuals, including suicide attempts and seizures, as well as psychosis, depression, and serious injuries resulting from dizziness, loss of consciousness, movement disorders, and visual disturbances” — and is apparently carcinogenic. There are times when it might be better to take one’s chances with the “dead pigeons” and “fat of serpents” described in Webster’s play.

Cut off from the outside world in his deanery bedroom, Donne could only patiently wait for the fever to fall, in his case by lysis rather than by crisis, his body temperature gradually returning to normal in regular, but agonizingly protracted, steps. As a 51-year-old, he was lucky to have survived at all, given that the mortality rate in his age group was around 50 percent, and typhus was generally fatal to anyone older. His convalescence would be fairly long, though, with his first appearance back in the pulpit coming only on March 28 of the following year, providing the metaphysical poet with plenty of time to contemplate the nature of human disease. In his 10th meditation, Donne touched on what he called “Natures nest of Boxes,” wherein “the Heavens containe the Earth, the Earth, Cities, Cities, Men. And all these are Concentrique; the common center to them all, is decay, ruine.” The individual symptoms of typhus might have departed, but overall the poet remained very much worse for wear, his bodily core somehow compromised:

The pulse, the urine, the sweat, all have sworn to say nothing, to give no Indication, of any dangerous sicknesse. My forces are not enfeebled, I find no decay in my strength; my provisions are not cut off, I find no abhorring in mine appetite; my counsels are not corrupted or infatuated, I find no false apprehensions, to work upon mine understanding; and yet they see, that invisibly, and I feele, that insensibly the disease prevailes. The disease hath established a Kingdome, an Empire in mee, and will have certaine Arcana Imperii, secrets of State, by which it will proceed, and not be bound to declare them.

Decay, ruin, conflict, and disease, in Donne’s conception, lay at the very heart of things, as evidenced by his recent personal experiences. Physical pain was omnipresent, and indeed

How ruinous a farm hath man taken, in taking himself! How ready is the house every day to fall down, and how is all the ground overspread with weeds, all the body with diseases; where not only every turf, but every stone bears weeds; not only every muscle of the flesh, but every bone of the body hath some infirmity; every little flint upon the face of this soil hath some infectious weed, every tooth in our head such a pain as a constant man is afraid of, and yet ashamed of that fear, of that sense of the pain.

Yet Donne had taken for an example “thy blessed and glorious Son, [who] being offered, in the way to his execution, a cup of stupefaction, to take away the sense of his pain (a charity afforded to condemned persons ordinarily in those places and times), refused that ease, and embraced the whole torment, I take not this cup, but this vessel of mine own sins into my contemplation.” The “cup of salvation” and the “cup of compunction” were thus contrasted favorably with the “cups of worldly confections,” the “cup of malediction,” and the “cup of stupefaction” so readily proffered by earthly principalities, authorities, powers, and dominions. Speaking to the congregation of St Dunstan’s-in-the-West on April 25, 1624, Donne held forth that the “love of God begins in fear, and the fear of God ends in love.” He had sickened, feared for his life, and then emerged wiser, and calmer. “If man knew the gaine of death, the ease of death, he would solicit, he would provoke death to assist him, by any hand, which he might use … when these hourely Bells tell me of so many funerals of men like me, it presents, if not a desire that it may, yet a comfort whensoever mine shall come.”

We have come a long way from John Donne’s time, and the result is, despite our relative health and plenty in historical terms, a mere “society of survival.”

David Morris, in his 1991 study The Culture of Pain, demonstrated how “pain is always historical — always reshaped by a particular time, place culture,” and “preanesthetic cultures responded to pain not with denial but with curious forms of affirmation.” Taking a cue from Morris, Karen Halttunnen, in her 1995 essay “Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain in Anglo-American Culture,” elaborated that the “eighteenth-century cult of sensibility redefined pain as unacceptable and indeed eradicable and thus opened the door to a new revulsion from pain, which, though later regarded as ‘instinctive’ or ‘natural,’ has in fact proved to be distinctly modern.” It is interesting to note that the development of anesthesia tracks the vertiginous onset of modernity rather closely, starting in earnest with the British chemist Humphry Davy’s discovery of the pain-relieving properties of nitrous oxide — laughing gas — in 1799. In the ensuing decades chloroform, cocaine, and various opioids, followed by isoflurane, sevoflurane, and desflurane, would be developed for use as intrathecal, inhalational, rectal, and intravenous anesthetics, forever changing the nature of medicine. The chasm separating pre-anesthetic and post-anesthetic cultures may fairly be said to be just as vast as the divide between geocentric and heliocentric worldviews, or between religious and secular societies. The humoralist system of medicine, concerned as it was with environment, diet, and individual temperament, was swiftly abandoned, as terrain theory gave way to germ theory, much as Lamarckism gave way to Darwinism. Pain and disease came to be viewed as eradicable, and the hunt was on for medical magic bullets, while doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists rapidly attained the status of secular clerics.

“What an extraordinary age is this,” wrote Joris-Karl Huysmans in his decadent 1884 novel A rebours, “which, in the interests of humanity, is attempting to perfect anesthetics so as to eliminate physical suffering, while at the same time devising such goads to moral suffering!” Of course it would not be long before the Western pharmacopoeia included drugs for moral suffering as well. In 1949 the French naval surgeon Henri Laborit discovered that promethazine, aside from being a potent antihistamine, induced in his patients a “euphoric quietude … Patients are calm and somnolent, with a relaxed and detached expression.” Chlorpromazine, meanwhile, could put his patients into a “twilight state” of “artificial hibernation,” a “veritable medicinal lobotomy.” Psychiatrists, it seemed, could now manipulate a human brain much as a car mechanic delves into an engine block. Naturally occurring and synthetic opioids became increasingly commonplace in cases of intractable non-malignant pain, and a veritable host of hypnotics, soporifics, psychotropics (legal or otherwise), mood stabilizers, dissociatives, benzos, and SSRIs flooded the market. While those like Robert Whitaker, author of Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America, warned that “psychiatry, eager to have its own magic pills and eager to take its place in mainstream medicine, turned the drugs into something they were not,” and that “it stands to reason that the long-term outcomes produced by the drugs might be problematic,” a firm foundation had definitively been laid for what might be called the “palliative society,” one that had been offered, and had readily accepted, the “cup of stupefaction” Donne pointedly rejected during his own harrowing illness.


The Palliative Society: Pain Today (2021) represents the most recent effort by Byung-Chul Han, the Korean-born, Berlin-based philosopher and tireless critic of modernity, to come to grips with the emptiness at the heart of contemporary existence. Han’s last book, Capitalism and the Death Drive, explored the ways in which we are “ruled by a necrophilia that turns living things into lifeless things,” as “life processes are turned into mechanical processes,” a position mirroring that of the psychologist Erich Fromm, who similarly maintained that under current conditions “the world becomes a sum of lifeless artifact; from synthetic food to synthetic organs, the whole man becomes part of the total machinery that he controls and is simultaneously controlled by.” Our culture and economy are geared to create what Han conceives of as “an undead life, death-in-life,” and most of us — unhesitatingly, unthinkingly, or reluctantly — accept the “total adaptation of human life to mere functionality,” thereby implicitly accepting this “culture of death.” While it was Sigmund Freud who popularized the (debatable) notion of an inherent death drive in individuals, what seems clear is that societies writ large, all throughout history, have exhibited a tendency towards self-destruction. As James Burnham observed in Suicide of the West, “suicide is probably more frequent than murder as the end phase of a civilization,” while more specifically “liberalism is the ideology of Western suicide. When once this initial and final sentence is understood, everything about liberalism — the beliefs, emotions and values associated with it, the nature of its enchantment, its practical record, its future — falls into place.” (READ MORE from Matthew Omolesky: A Flight Into Death: Sigmund Freud, Byung-Chul Han, and the Decadence of Late Liberalism)

It is only natural for individuals existing in a time of crushing spiritual poverty to seek solace in one fashion or another. The result, according to Han, is that

today, a universal algophobia rules: a generalized fear of pain. The ability to tolerate pain is rapidly diminishing. The consequence of this algophobia is a permanent anaesthesia. All painful conditions are avoided, Even the pain of love is treated as suspect. This algophobia extends into society. Less and less space is given to conflicts and controversies that might prompt painful discussions. Algophobia also takes hold of politics. The pressure to conform and to reach consensus intensifies. Politics accommodates itself to the demands of this palliative zone and loses all vitality. “There is no alternative”: this is a political analgesia. The vague “centre ground” has a palliative effect. Instead of argument and competition over the better ideas, there is a surrender to systematic compulsion.

In the medical sphere, notoriously, “the promise that one can live a life of permanent drug-induced well-being” fueled the opioid crisis, a phenomenon that is, to Han’s mind, “not just a matter of the greed of pharmaceutical companies,” but is also founded on a “fateful assumption regarding human existence. Only an ideology of permanent well-being could have brought it about that a medication originally for use in palliative medicine could have been administered on a mass scale to healthy individuals.”

In the heroic worldview, according to the Futurist novelist Aldo Palazzeschi, the body is subjugated to the higher order of the soul, which “presupposes a command center, which regards the body as a distant outpost that can be deployed and sacrificed in battle.” In our “post-industrial and post-heroic age,” Han suggests, “the body is neither an outpost nor means of production. Unlike the disciplinary body, the hedonistic body, which likes and enjoys itself without any relation to a higher purpose, develops a hostile spirit towards pain. To the hedonistic body, pain appears wholly senseless and without purpose.” We have come a long way from John Donne’s time, and the result is, despite our relative health and plenty in historical terms, a mere “society of survival.” This has become all the more evident during the ongoing and largely-botched response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. “We comply willingly with the state of exception that reduces life to bare life,” Han laments, while the “immunologically organized society” surrounds itself with “fences and walls,” leading to a “quarantine society,” and then inevitably to a “bio-political surveillance regime.”

As I write these words, Austria is going back into “lockdown” (a disagreeable phrase once limited to penal institutions) and is initiating Europe’s first population-wide vaccine mandate. As Martin Lichtmesz has noted, “Austrian police officers now demand Corona certificates from people walking in the backwoods of Upper Austria, and they patrol Viennese supermarkets to make sure that the unvaccinated pariahs are indeed buying only food, not toys (this is not a joke).” Cyprus, for its part, will “deny access to indoor areas such as shopping malls, restaurants and supermarkets to anyone who hasn’t received a third booster shot seven months after being vaccinated against COVID-19.” Other countries will no doubt follow suit as we approach the end-point Han has been warning us about in such works as The Expulsion of the Other, Saving Beauty, The Disappearance of Rituals, Capitalism and the Death Drive, and now The Palliative Society. We are rapidly becoming “too alive to die, and too dead to live,” and, most ironically of all, “our overriding concern with survival we have in common with the virus, this undead being which only proliferates, that is, survives without actually living.” The Japanese Christian reformer Kagawa Toyohiko cautioned that “without any aspirations, this living corpse obtrudes itself around the earth…. The window through which God would invade a life so superficial and so completely absorbed in the present has been closed.” Accept the cup of stupefaction, and this is the result. We will be living — if you can really call it that — with the consequences for the foreseeable future.


When John Donne came down with epidemic typhus in the dying months of 1623, he took to his bed, only to find that his “slack sinews are iron fetters, and those thin sheets iron doors.” Even the diaphanous feathers stuffed into in his mattress had, “in the sharpness of this sickness,” become like thorns, each one piercing the macular eruptions that pockmarked his diseased skin. Yet in the midst of all his suffering, Donne managed to compose a prayer to his creator, who, “though thou have taken me off of my feet, hast not taken me off of my foundation, which is thyself; who, though thou have removed me from that upright form in which I could stand and see thy throne, the heavens, yet hast not removed from me that light by which I can lie and see thyself.”

Before the emergence of the palliative society, to be stricken did not deprive you of your foundation, or your spiritual vision. Pain was seen, in the words of Byung-Chul Han, as necessary, as natural, as “the midwife of the new,” while now we are condemned to the “hell of the same,” a world of “permanent anesthesia” and “mental numbness,” effectively lobotomizing us and reducing us to a lingering “twilight state,” deprived of the light by which we might see beyond this mortal vale. Many now would prefer simply to “lie flat,” as the Chinese tǎng píng social protest movement would have it. All of this would have been risible to pre-palliative societies. After all, as Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed (and one doesn’t need to be a fully fledged Nietzschean to agree with a truth this self-evident):

The discipline of suffering, of great suffering — don’t you know that this discipline has been the sole cause of every enhancement in humanity so far? The tension that breeds strength into the unhappy soul, and its shudder at the sight of great destruction, its inventiveness and courage in enduring, surviving, interpreting, and exploiting unhappiness, and whatever depth, secrecy, whatever masks, spirit, cunning, greatness it has been given — weren’t these the gifts of suffering, of the disciple of great suffering?

Under the influence of this passage from Beyond Good and Evil, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin added that “of all the corporeal feelings, pain alone is like a navigable river which never dries up and which leads man down to the sea. Pleasure, in contracts, turns out to be a dead end, wherever man tries to follow its lead.” A life lived under the influence of permanent anesthetics is not a navigable river, but a stagnant quagmire.

Here at the dead end of hedonistic modern life — “after the orgy,” as Jean Baudrillard famously formulated it — we see what a palliative society can achieve. Not very much, as it happens. Certainly no art, no literature, no cultural achievements of any lasting consequence. Technological advancement, sure, but with an emphasis on novelties like that hypothesized new iteration of the internet, the Metaverse, which will only lead to further atomization and over-socialization, and even less emphasis on material, let alone spiritual or intellectual, conditions in the “meat space.” Then there is the paradoxically poor state of public health, as chronic “diseases of modernity” proliferate among a populace that, according to Brandon Hidaka, is “increasingly overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, and socially-isolated.” And no doubt further strengthening of the bio-political surveillance regime, with its present fixations on quarantines, mRNA injections, and face-mask mandates, and its recourse either to “nudge tyranny” or to actual tyranny, depending on the pliancy of the populace.

“The society of survival,” Byung-Chul Han concludes in The Palliative Society, “has no sense of the good life.” It has only the bare life, but the “more life becomes survival, the greater the fear of death. Aldophobia is ultimately thanatophobia.” A society that has no sense of a good life, however, does not deserve even the barest of lives, which is why the biomedical security state, and what Han calls the “viral state of exception,” must be resisted so strenuously. During the early days of the pandemic lockdowns, when wild boar and mountain goats and dolphins were wandering into deserted European downtowns and harbors, the “nature is healing, we are the virus” meme was often bandied about for a bit of levity. Yet here we have one of the leading philosophers of our era, Byung-Chul Han, asserting with good reason that humanity is actually following a dangerous path of convergent evolution with our microscopic nemesis, “this undead being which only proliferates, that is, survives without actually living.” I wish this were not so. Indeed, to borrow the earthy language of the playwright John Webster, I think I would sooner eat a dead pigeon taken from the soles of the feet of one sick of the plague than willingly partake in the inhuman farce of this palliative society.

We have seen how John Donne, in his diseased state, was tormented by “sodain offuscations, and darknings” of both the physical and spiritual varieties. Though we are separated from his time by the Enlightenment, we are faced with many of the same obfuscations and darkenings, the same excruciations and specters, even if we often experience them differently in the aftermath of the deluded cult of sensibility. The “hourly bells” toll for us just as they did for Donne and his contemporaries. And we have the same cups arrayed before us as those who lived in the pre-anesthetic era, the cups of salvation and compunction on the one hand, and the cups of worldly confections, malediction, and stupefaction on the other. Our choices, collectively and as individuals, will determine whether it is the good life or the bare, undead life of modernity’s twilight that ultimately prevails.

Matthew Omolesky
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Matthew Omolesky is a human rights lawyer and a researcher in the fields of cultural heritage preservation and law and anthropology. A Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, he has been contributing to The American Spectator since 2006, as well as to publications including Quadrant, Lehrhaus, Europe2020, the European Journal of Archaeology, and Democratiya.
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