Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Illness and Writing

As I was reading in Virginia Woolf's diary (vol 3) recently, I came upon an entry from February 27, 1926 in which Woolf is being chatted up at a dinner party by Lord Berner and he invites her to dine with him another night. Woolf agreed but when the time came she begged off with a headache and spent the evening at home working a little on her writing. I don't in any way wish to belittle her illness, but I got to wondering if she really had a headache or if she was using a headache as an excuse because she could and no one would ever question it? She didn't confess it in her diary so there is no way of knowing for certain. However, that entry, coupled with my reading of Proust who suffered miserably from asthma, prompted me to start thinking about the role of illness in the life of a writer like Woolf or Proust. I went to the horse's mouth so to speak, and pulled Woolf's essay On Being Ill from my bookshelf. Woolf being who she is, manages to talk about so much more than illness. I am going to stick with the narrow focus, but I highly recommend the essay (especially the Paris Press edition because it also has a really good essay by Hermione Lee in it). Woolf begins the essay wondering why there are no great odes or novels about illness. With the exception of De Quincy's The Opium Eater and Proust--"there must be a volume or two about disease scattered through the pages of Proust"--Woolf insists literature does its best to concern itself only with the mind. This has changed in our time, but I think we still intellectualize it, remove the body from the body. And perhaps this is, as Woolf suggests, partially due to a poverty of language, we have not the words to impart the experience of illness and pain, and partially due to the courage needed to write about illness without lifting it into the realm of the mystical. What fascinates me most in the essay, at least for the moment, is Woolf's description of what it is like being ill when those around you are well. She says it is an illusion to think that the healthy are always sympathetic, that the ill always want sympathy, that we are not alone. On the contrary, we are most often alone, especially when ill, which isn't necessarily a bad thing:

Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable. But in health the genial pretense must be kept up and the effort renewed--to communicate, to civilise, to share, to cultivate the desert, educate the native, to work together by day and by night to sport. In illness this make-believe ceases. Directly the bed is called for, or, sunk deep among pillows in one chair, we raise out feet even an inch above the ground on another, we cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters. They march to battle. We float with the sticks on the stream; helter-skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time for years, to look round, to look up--to look, for example, at the sky.
The idea that the ill can approach the world in a more honest way makes me wonder what life would be like if those of us who were not ill had the same approach. But we are too busy keeping up appearances to even notice what we are missing. The ill, however don't have the energy. But they do have time, time to look carefully and truly see. Most writers have some kind of talent in observation. Writers who are well are also busy busy busy. Writers who are ill, like Woolf and Proust, have long periods where all they can do is look and think. Therefore Woolf, so concerned about language, gives us writing of exquisite precision. She also has an amazing ability to choose the most important detail that illuminates the scene with meaning and feeling. No doubt these are skills honed during days and weeks of illness. As for Proust, he does not spare the detail. He's had time to notice and think about them all. He gives to us the details we overlook, the things we wish we had seen but did not because we were in a hurry. In our more medically advanced age I wonder if Woolf or Proust would have developed the same writing styles and skills? Woolf would have been popping the pills and Proust using an inhaler. Illness these days seems to be almost a luxury. Any kind of leisure time is often viewed as frivolous. Tell your coworkers on Monday morning that you spent your weekend looking at the sky and they will not understand. You will be labeled boring or lazy or both. And if we really do have the flu or strep throat or bronchitis or pneumonia we still go to work, infect our coworkers and wheeze around the office until the boss forces us to go home or we can't keep ourselves upright any longer. No, Woolf and Proust would not be the same if they were born into our time. I hope to one day be able to look back at our late 20th and early 21st century writing in light of our views on illness. I want to see if we have gained anything. Or, by not allowing ourselves the time to be ill, if we have missed important details; revelations that would have shown us something important about ourselves.