Mad on Metrics


As the Indo-European languages tell us, medicine and religion have much in common, not least in offering a measure of salvation to the sinful. In her ambitious novel Corpus Delicti (English title: The Method), the socially committed German novelist Julie Zeh considers how much personal liberty we would be prepared to forego in a future “consensus” society in which human beings are “normed” for the greater good of public healthiness.

The cleverest thing about Juli Zeh’s novel of dystopia The Method, translated from the German by Sophie-Ann Spencer, is the way it tries to hoodwink the reader. It begins with an exhortatory opening from a book purportedly called Health as the Principle of State Legitimacy, Berlin/Munich/Stuttgart, 25th edition, by one Heinrich Kramer. One passage runs as follows: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, not merely the absence of infirmity or disease.”

This bold bit of wishful thinking is nothing other than the World Health Organization’s famous formal definition of health from 1948, which has been criticised over the years for being trite, euphoric and—well—self-interested, insofar as it is likely to keep the organisation handing down phrases like that for a very long time to come. By attributing it instead to a man called Kramer, Zeh associates it with what is generally considered a period of gross irrationality in Europe’s progress towards reason: the real Heinrich Kramer was a fifteenth-century Dominican monk from Alsace who became notorious in the German-speaking lands as an inquisitor of witches and sorcerers, stirring up the Reformation craze for witchhunting with his manual Malleus Maleficarum. Her novel, in other words, ventures into the disturbing history unearthed by Norman Cohn in his brilliant and influential study Europe’s Inner Demons (1975).

The Heinrich Kramer of Zeh’s novel is the mind behind a social order fifty years in the future. It is a consensus society where health is the ultimate good; Kramer’s intellectual work is its blueprint. The Method ensures that every individual enjoys maximum longevity and minimal biological dysfunction. “Do you know how dreadfully people suffered in the past? They watched themselves die by degrees and they called it living… fear was life for these people. For humans to have risen above this condition is a blessing, don’t you think?” Kramer’s agenda has ensured that the German fondness for keeping things spick and span has become an antibacterial mania where apartments and bodies alike are constantly monitored for microbial colony counts. Private and public goods are melded in a regime that has turned healthiness into righteousness. Failure to take all reasonable precautions against diseases is a crime. “Santé” is the universal greeting. People drink hot water instead of tea or coffee. Food comes in protein tubes containing essential nutrients. Everybody is electronically chipped “for their own good”, and immunological compatibility is a by-word for getting hitched to a partner. The Method has superseded democracy: people police each other and themselves constantly. It is a world mad on metrics, and not entirely unfamiliar.

Mia Holl, the novel’s heroine, stirs it all up. When we meet her, she has just lost her brother Moritz, who, it appears, has killed himself in prison with a cord supplied to him by his sister. Mia is a laboratory scientist who, initially, had fully accepted the Method: “The Method is reason; the Method is good sense.” Moritz had been arrested on a wrongful charge of rape and murder, and moreover was suspected of being an activist for a group called the People’s Right to Illness. When his avowal of innocence is taken up by Mia it becomes the grain of sand that threatens to disrupt the Method. Her very resistance is the proof of its fallibility. But to get that far, Mia has to learn civil disobedience, and her first act is refusing to submit her daily body parameters for higher control by the authorities: little by little she realises that her own body is going to have to become the corpus delicti (the novel’s original title). Categorised as a “terrorist,” she is summonsed to court at regular intervals. Mia’s only real confidante is the ideal inamorata, an “imaginary” character who has been conjured up by Moritz in prison and bequeathed to her. The ideal inamorata’s weightlessness provides a foil for Mia’s development: in spite of the gravity of the novel’s basic premise its short chapters turn on fast-paced dialogue, and the few sketchy settings are mere struts and props—like the minimalist scenery of Lars von Trier’s film Dogville. Zeh, who has also written plays, nicely conveys the comedy and tedium of courtroom scenes by relying on her own professional experience as a lawyer.

The Method might be futuristic but it is not SF; indeed, the self-assured and handsome Kramer, about whom Mia is openly ambivalent, is a character whose eloquence in defence of the aseptic society of the Method seems all too contemporary, as he glides between posts in the law, journalism, administration and the media (including a talk-show called “What We All Think”). In fact, the novel’s fictionalisation of science themes calls to mind Samuel Butler’s classic novel Erewhon (1896), which imagined a dystopia where it is a crime to be “unfortunate”—in other words, to fall ill. Butler was impressed by the biosocial implications of Darwinism; Zeh is obsessed by a kind of wraparound cultural determinism, in which a positivist law-making society is able to induce total conformism by making everyday life follow bodily “norms”. That would be to attribute something like the doctrine of infallibility to empirical data: an elementary appraisal of statistics could have warned the author that while the axiomatic systems generating metrics may be airtight we will always be capable of error when interpreting and working with them. Every technology harbours a shadow-side, technical medicine included.

A deeper structural flaw attaches to the trick she plays on the reader when she conflates early modern period witchhunts and the WHO’s shiny definition of health. It is surely most unlikely that a future dystopia that shared anything with “the Middle Ages… of human nature” would be so benign. It would be in deadly earnest; and Zeh, who is a cool and distanced writer, can’t quite bring herself to credit how relentlessly her alienated protagonist would be scapegoated in the future present of corporate-driven, safety-first Enlightenment. (It is estimated by historians that the sixteenth-century prosecutors who went out with the Malleus Maleficarum in hand exterminated at least 50,000 victims, nearly all women.) The same snag attaches to the post-religious logic of the soul “given up for adoption”: what her characters get for their living healthily is more healthy living. Her future society has a futility at its heart. At least those witch-hunting inquisitors of five hundred years ago (not that one would necessarily want to defend their actions) thought they were doing it all for that highest thing—eternal life.

And there is more. Medicine, as a secular stand-in for salvation, now faces a crisis of representation much like that which faced the Church five hundred years ago when Luther’s edicts caused Christendom to splinter into competing factions. Something analogous is happening today with so many patients opting to receive their “sacraments” from the scores of practitioners of complementary and alternative medicines while the “true Church” of conventional medicine ever more defensively guards its orthodoxy (“evidence-based medicine”): that is another sociological phenomenon that saps the Orwellian idea of a unique “method” and suggests that Juli Zeh, for all her cleverness, hasn’t quite worked through all the implications of her assumptions about health and holiness.

© Iain Bamforth, 2012

Expanded review of The Method by Juli Zeh, Harvill Secker, London, 2012, first published in the British Journal of General Practice, September 2012.