100 Words #370 - Virginia Woolf On Being Ill

Having a little cold, and romanticizing it the way I do, I discovered Virginia Woolf's essay, "On Being Ill". It first appeared in January 1926 in T.S. Eliot's The Criteriona British literary magazine. It has since been republished in book form. The essay opens:

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Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist's arm-chair and confuse his "Rinse the mouth--rinse the mouth" with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us--when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature. Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia; lyrics to toothache.

One can't help chuckle at the apparent mockery, while nodding at the truth. Only a touch of illness is required for large, albeit temporary, shifts in perception. Woolf continues to cheerfully lament a lack of literature, and what's more, a lack of language to describe the experience of the common illnesses the whole of humanity is afflicted with at one time or another. She scolds ignorance of the body in its influence over the mind, and waxes poetic on the notion of sympathy. Then she describes the relief from the daily grind of civil humanity: 

Here we go alone, and like it better so. 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 the make-believe ceases. Directly the bed is called for, or, sunk deep among pillows in one chair, we raise our 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.

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Woolf's subsequent description of the activities of the sky is so exuberant you want to rush out and look at the sky that instant, yet without a virus slowing down the cogs of the mind, it cannot be experienced so innocently and steadfastly. This is the very point Woolf is making throughout the essay. 

"Directly the bed is called for," when sick is so very different from the bed being called for in fatigue, or routine, or laziness, or any other reason. The accompaniment of a virus or other minor plague slows the body and mind in just that peculiar way so that things seem innocent and new and simultaneously out of our reach from our purgatory of illness, making them all the more precious.

Woolf then moves on to contemplate proper reading material for the sick bed, and again describes the romantic peculiarity of the "ill" experience: 

In health meaning has encroached upon sound. Our intelligence domineers over our senses. But in illness, with the police off duty, we creep beneath some obscure poems by Mallarmé or Donne, some phrase in Latin or Greek, and the words give out their scent and distill their flavour, and then, if at last we grasp the meaning, it is all the richer for having come to us sensually first, by way of the palate and the nostrils, like some queer odor.

And of Shakespeare: 

With all this buzz of criticism about, one may hazard one's conjectures privately, make one's notes in the margin; but knowing that someone has said it before, or said it better, the zest is gone. Illness, in its kingly sublimity, sweeps all that aside and leaves nothing but Shakespeare and oneself. What with his overweening power and our overweening arrogance, the barriers go down, the knots run smooth, the brain rings and resounds with Lear or Macbeth, and even Coleridge himself squeaks like a distant mouse.



Your prompt this week, Velveteers, is: