WHAT is your personal recipe for well-being? Frozen pizza and whisky or yoga and kale smoothies? The wellness industry needs no more mockery: it is quite capable of looking ridiculous without the satirical gaze of commentators such as Simon Critchley, who was featured on Analysis: Radical self-care (Radio 4, Monday of last week), taking a savage swipe at the excesses of this $4.2-trillion business. But, as Shahidha Bari argued, the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and her wellness brand Goop distract us from the history of self-care, and its origins in the radical politics of the 1960s and ’70s.
Running alongside the counter-cultural approach to health taken by, for instance, the California-based Esalen Institute — hub of hippy self-realisation — was the feminist ambition to empower women in taking control of their own health and lifestyle choices. The Black Panthers put bodily well-being at the heart of the movement, establishing a national network of free health clinics, targeted specifically at conditions that disproportionately affect the black community, such as sickle-cell anaemia.
The Happiness Agenda became a popular talking-point in the post-crash years of austerity, and, after a temporary lull, has enjoyed a resurgence. But the research is consistent: what keeps us happy is having enough money, and being in reasonable physical health. In as much as these programmes of “radical self-care” promote these two ambitions, they might be regarded as effective.
And yet it seems to be a characteristic of our species that we assign moral significance to ill-health and disease. From a quite reasonable discussion of the lessons to be learned from the pandemic, we might shift all too easily to our moral failings before the pandemic, and even to the notion of the plague as judgement on those failings. As Jonathan Freedland revealed, in Rethink: The long view (Radio 4, weekdays last week), this declension is trans-historical.
In 1551, for instance, England was visited by “the Sweat”, which saw off its victims in a matter of hours. Sufferers were rarely around long enough to appreciate their condition. Since this was at the highpoint of Protestant reform, the affliction was naturally identified as a curse on Roman Catholics and Reformers alike.
From a numerical perspective, at least, the 1558 flu epidemic — one of the worst in British history, Freedland’s guest expert, the Revd Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, suggested — might be regarded as a curse visited on the Roman Catholic population; for it disproportionately affected the ruling class and clergy in Mary Tudor’s Counter-Reformation regime. The death, for instance, of Archbishop Reginald Pole enabled Elizabeth, at the outset of her reign, to fill with her supporters many positions vacated by flu victims. Plagues may not have a purpose, but they sure as hell have consequences.