April 8, 2020

During her cancer treatment, the theorist Susan Sontag rejected everything but the tumorous facticity of her condition. It was 1975. She had breast cancer. And this, she reasoned, was all that she had.

She was told that she would die. Instead, she produced Illness as Metaphor, a polemic that argued against viewing the sick body as an incubator of significance. Sontag hated how illness was attended by the language of war and battle. She wanted to render it meaningless. She wanted to purify it of symbolism. And yet, she began her essay with one of the most memorable metaphors in American literature. “Everyone who is born,” she wrote, “holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.” Illness, for her, was a country of the night. Even if we rarely visit, we all enjoy its “onerous citizenship”.

This week, Covid-19 obliged the British Prime Minister to take up residence in that country. It was a migration that shocked and troubled the nation with its speed. The virus is present in Boris Johnson’s body, his body is present in the national discourse, and the language that Sontag so despised is now attached to him like hospital wires and tubes. His designated sub, Dominic Raab, declared his boss “a fighter”, as if he could fell a virus with a strong right hook. The Prime Minister’s father said his son was “optimistic” and “determined”, as if viruses took these attitudes into account as they deform the proteins in the cells of their hosts. “A lot of my son’s character,” Stanley Johnson told the Mail Online, “was formed here and in the local village of Winsford.” (Viruses know about Somerset, too.)

Boris Johnson is the most corporeal of Prime Ministers. We know his appetites and frailties. He drinks, and sometimes ruins sofas when he drinks. He fucks. He touches himself. He’s always touching himself. It is his most visible form of promiscuity. His fingers thresh at his hair. His belly resists the restraint of the trouser belt and the tucked shirt. His torso struggles inside his suit, like the Rhinoceros in Kipling’s Just So stories who can’t rid his itchy skin of cake crumbs and burned currants. This discomfort may be confected: it is mysteriously undetectable in that young man in the Bullingdon Club photo, lounging on the steps in Peckwater Quad.

The bulletins from his colleagues insist on the idea of his comfort, but we know this is a medical euphemism for the absence of any immediate mortal crisis. The Prime Ministerial body we now picture is in a state of genuine discomfort. We are not his family — we are, particularly, not his pregnant fiancée — and cannot know the painful intensity of their experience, but we are thinking about the temperature of his skin, the depth of his breathing, the condition of his lungs and throat. We all know the symptoms, because we’ve been checking ourselves for them for weeks.

There’s a difference, however, between our bodies and his. The Prime Minister’s body has a metaphorical dimension. He is in intensive care, and through mechanisms that are hard to imagine in any detail, he is also running the country. If Dominic Raab sounds hesitant and uncertain when discussing this process — he has sometimes resembled John Cleese in that episode of Fawlty Towers in which Basil cannot admit to his friends that Sibyl has left him — then it’s understandable. He is trying to explain an idea that is, in essence, mystical.

Johnson is an elected statesman with an interest in the classical past. (His great hero is Pericles, killed by plague in 429BC.) The doubled nature of his position has its origins in the political culture of the ancient world, but it’s also present in a concept from English law that was codified during the Early Modern period. The classic study on the subject was written by the German-American academic Ernst Kantorowicz, a refugee from the Nazis who also suffered in his adopted country when he refused to sign a loyalty oath disavowing any association with Communism. In The King’s Two Bodies (1957), Kantorowicz traced the theological and legal traditions that identified the monarch as simultaneously a person and an embodiment of the realm.

The ruler possessed a Natural Body — one made of flesh and bone and sinew — and a Body Politic, a more mysterious entity that linked him with the power of the state. It is a relationship registered in the strangeness of the declaration, “the king is dead, long live the king,” and in the discussion between Macbeth and his physician, in which the ruthless, blood-slaked usurper of the Scottish throne dreams away the difference between his own health and that of the nation.

“If thou couldst, doctor, cast
The water of my land, find her disease,
And purge it to a sound and pristine health,
I would applaud thee to the very echo,
That should applaud again.”

The chief theorist of this political theology was Sir Edmund Plowden (1518-1585), a lawyer who used the idea to serve a somewhat ignoble cause — securing the rights of Edward VI to the Duchy of Lancaster, which the king had leased before reaching legal age. Plowden asserted that the king’s two bodies were “annexed” together, but that this was not an equal relationship. The body politic was more “ample and large”. It could also correct the weaknesses of its fleshy companion. “The Body politic wipes away every Imperfection of the other Body,” argued Plowden, citing earlier cases on the record. “[It] takes away the Imbecility of his Body natural.” He also proposed an alternative definition of the body politic, under which the monarch was the head of a collective entity composed of all subjects of the crown.

To modern ears, these concepts may have a faintly disgusting, Human Centipede quality. But they have persisted. They played their part in the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and they continue to echo in our own times. Boris Johnson deployed them last November, when he characterised an uncooperative Parliament as “a blocked artery at the heart of the British body politic”. Last March, when he was best known as the head of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings argued that Jacob Rees-Mogg and his colleagues in the European Research Group “should be treated like a metastasising tumour and excised from the UK body politic”.

How archaic these exchanges now seem. Parliament is suspended. Cummings is ill. Rees-Mogg has vanished from public view, as if removed by some unseen scalpel. Did someone at Conservative Central Office diagnose him as something malignant? Or are such figures now simply too decadent and unserious for the present moment, as the wartime generation concluded of the Bright Young Things?

Susan Sontag wanted to purge our sick flesh of metaphor. She recognised the sometimes lethal danger of viewing the body as a moral space. But freedom from symbolism is a privilege that cannot always be extended to our leaders. It is one of the duties they discharge for us, and in this historical moment, it is one that the Prime Minister might be wise to embrace. The language of combat and character need not be invoked. They are inappropriate and absurd. But if he declares his body a site of crisis, it might prove one of the most valuable and public-spirited acts of his career.

It would require the relinquishment of the power he has pursued with a sometimes unseemly hunger. It would require the acknowledgement of a disarray more genuine than the one he assumes when he messes up his hair before going on camera.

It would require a humility and seriousness that he has often lacked — particularly at the beginning of last month, when he was boasting about shaking hands in a Corona-struck hospital, and spreading the message of business as usual.

Does Boris Johnson possess the courage to be ill? We wait by his bedside for news.