Reading List: Tuberculosis

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“La Miseria” (1886) by Cristobal Rojas.

Remember how Victorians thought tuberculosis was the ultimate Romantic disease?

In the 1800s, TB (or “consumption” as it was known then) was considered to be a desirable way to die because it was the sign of a delicate, sophisticated soul. Looking like a TB patient even became the height of Victorian fashion; women would paint little veins on the side of their face and drink vinegar in an attempt to bleach their skin and become as pale as possible (as immortalised in this Horrible Histories sketch). In her book Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag argues that our current obsession with skinny models is a trend rooted in this consumption craze.

TB was a particularly popular way to kill off characters in nineteenth-century literature. Authors delighted in glorified descriptions of trembling men and women with gigantic dark eyes who had somehow become wiser and even saint-like through their condition (usually glossing over the less attractive aspects like the excruciating pain and the smell).

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Reading List: Doppelgänger

Original illustration by Chuck Groenink.

One of my favourite tropes: the doppelgänger! The word is borrowed from the German language and translates as “double walker.” It is a figure that is physically nearly identical (either a twin or of supernatural origin) to someone else, usually the protagonist. These stories tend to center around the double creating conflict and the protagonist trying to contain the damage while suffering the consequences (“that wasn’t me, it was my evil twin!“). The doppelgänger often functions as a dark double, the embodiment of things the protagonist has tried to suppress in himself.

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