Friday, June 15, 2012

On Being Ill

"Literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible and non-existent.  On the contrary, the very opposite is true.  All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February.  The creature within can only gaze through the pane--smudged or rosy; it cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife or the pod of a pea for a single instant; it must go through the whole unending procession of changes, heat and cold, comfort and discomfort, hunger and satisfaction, health and illness, until there comes the inevitable catastrophe; the body smashes itself to smithereens, and soul (it is said) escapes.  But of all this daily drama of the body there is no record.  People write always of the doings of the mind; the thoughts that come to it; its noble plans; how the mind has civilized the universe.  They show it ignoring the body in the philosopher’s turret; or kicking the body, like an old leather football, across leagues of snow and desert in the pursuit of conquest or discovery.  Those great wars which the body wages with the mind a slave to it, in the solitude of the bedroom against the assault of fever or the oncome of melancholia, ore neglected.  Nor is the reason far to seek.  To look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer; a robust philosophy; a reason rooted on the bowels of the earth."

So wrote Virginia Woolf in her daring, iconoclastic essay "On Being Ill," published in 1926 in T. S. Eliot's high-minded quarterly, The New Criterion in 1926 after a bout of illness that interrupted an otherwise calm and fruitful period in her life.  Mrs Dalloway and The Common Reader were out and had received a positive response, and she  was full of ideas for To the Lighthouse.  She was also in what her biographer Hermione Lee calls "the most imtinate stage of her absorbing, seductive relationship with Vita Sackville-West."   What began as a fainting spell at Vanessa's home in Charleston turned into several months of illness which ended with a bout of German measles.  The essay is only in part about illness; it also considers (as the quotation above would suggest) the relationship of mind and body, the kind of Zen observation that illness prompts in us, the kind of reading we do when we're ill, and ends rather abruptly with a kind of plot summary of Augustus Hare's The Story of Two Noble Lives, with Lady Waterford crushing in her hands the heavy Victorian curtain on the morning  when she watches the hearse that holds her husband, who died falling from his horse, not from some protracted illness, leave for the churchyard.  Presumably this is exactly the kind of plot we wish to read when our brains are too muddled by the body's insurrection to think clearly for oneself.  Woolf does not say, but simply closes this complex, associative, revealing essay with the image of the crushed brocade.  "On Being Ill" was reprinted by the Hogarth Press, with Woolf herself setting the type and her sister Vanessa providing the covers.  You see a Paris Editions reprint of that volume above.

Late on the afternoon when I returned from the Woolf conference, I felt that almost negligible tickle in the back of my throat that always makes me suspect a cold is coming.  By Monday morning, I knew I was not mistaken.  My first task was to cancel breakfast with Katherine, who was going shortly to visit young grandchildren who didn't need my cold.  Then, my one responsibility discharged, the cats relieved to have my home and so quite cuddly, I settled down to enjoy being sick.  Bill was away at a conference in Edmonton, so I had no one else to think about.  I was certainly too muddle-brained to start right in putting everything I'd learned at the Woolf conference to use in finishing the To the Lighthouse chapter, which would have been in any event a daunting, if not impossible task.  Better to knit lace of red silk, to finish David Bergen's The Time in Between and begin Ann Enright's The Gathering, to lie in bed simply thinking about the kinds of stories we need to tell as a culture and the way those stories comfort us or sharpen our critique--sometimes both at the same time.  Also better was to read the proceedings of last year's conference in Glasgow, to take some desultory notes and lists of bibliography to follow up on, not to worry about writing for a few days and to let the sharp, bright notes of the conference mix and mingle--to get the larger impression of what we were all saying and feeling about Woolf rather than to attempt to extract nuggets and wrap them up in our notebooks--an impossible task, as Woolf well knew when she used that image in A Room of One's Own.

Changes in my neighbourhood conspired to make this an enjoyable convalescence.  College Avenue is to be under construction, so it was closed off early this week, though none of the noisy work has begun.  As a result, I don't have the sound of cars tethering me to the busy world; rather, the birds seem to be more noisily confident about their place in the universe, like the clouds in Woolf's essay: 

"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.

"The first impression of that extraordinary spectacle is strangely overcoming.  Ordinarily to look at the sky for any length of time is impossible.  Pedestrians would be impeded and disconcerted by a public skygazer.  What snatches we get of it are mutilated by chimneys and churches, serve as a background for man, signify wet weather or fine, daub windows gold, and, filling in the branches, complete the pathos of dishevelled autumnal plane trees in autumnal squares.  Now,  lying recumbent, staring straight up, the sky id discovered to be something so different from this that really it is a little shocking.  This then has been going on all the time without our knowing it! --this incessant making up of shapes and casting them down, this buffeting of clouds together, and drawing vast trains of ships and waggons from North to South, this incessant ringing up and down of curtains of light and shade, this interminable experiment with gold shafts and blue shadows, with veiling the sun and unveiling it, with making rock ramparts and wafting them away--this endless activity, with the waste of Heaven knows how many million horse power of energy, has been left to work its will year in year out."

Then this morning, the various tradesmen who have been working on my kitchen and bathroom for nearly the last three nonths decided that it was time to finish a thing or two.  Richard arrived at 8:30 to move the bathroom door a few inches to the left so we could have a reasonably-sized vanity in that tiny, ill-planned room.  Bob (who can turn 'mud' into velvet) arrived at 11 to see whether he really was finished painting, and put another coat on the lovely windows that swing open.  (I used to have to get right up on the kitchen counter to open the window onto the back yard.)  Also at 11, the plumber came to install the new bathroom sink.  He was followed by the carpenter, who is here to put on the crown moulding and the kickplate, to adjust the cupboard doors and install the microwave and do a million other things that are making the room (if crowded at the moment) look rather lovely.  My front door has been open to the weather for most of the day, luring a neighbourhood cat in during one of the many showers that decked out our undecided weather.  This doesn't feel exactly like being well;  I am a passive observer in most of this, merely attempting to placate the bored cats who are confined to the bedroom.  It feels like a convalescent way station; and I am waiting for the train to take me to some more real destination.  Tomorrow Bill will be back from his conferences in Saskatoon and Edmonton (with a side trip in there to see his sister in Calgary) and he can deal with the mundane.

The way station has made me hungry again for ideas, hungry for Woolf's intellectual complexity after the simplicity of lonely illness and the physical chaos of renovations on a rainy day.  But at least I have a beautiful kitchen.

1 comment:

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