(from) On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf
and makes a case for creating a new language for illness
I’d been looking for this essay, couldn’t find it in any of my libraries, and was just considering perhaps a purchase, when I came across the essay in a book on my very own bookshelf. The book is titled The Moment and Other Essays. It’s a posthumous collection, much easier to find than the single essay.
This is how the essay begins:
And that’s just the first sentence. 171 words if anyone’s counting. I’m drawn in by the image of those ancient and obdurate oaks. Uprooted. I feel like I’ve seen illness do that. I’m also drawn in by Woolf’s humor—the dentist as heavenly being. But is this essay a bit dated now that so much has been written and so much is now being written about illness? Maybe. Maybe not.
According to Judith Shulevitz, writing in the New York Times several years ago, this essay by Woolf came about when T.S. Eliot commissioned the piece for his literary review, The New Criterion. Eliot, apparently, ended up not liking it much. But here’s the interesting part. A few years before this essay, in 1925, T.S. Eliot’s wife had “gone mad”. And, again according to Ms. Shulevitz, Eliot had consulted Virginia Woolf’s husband on the matter, and he, Leonard, had advised Eliot to keep his wife from writing. Hmmm. Shulevitz argues that the subtext of this essay is an argument by Woolf for the act of writing in the face of illness—or, say, in the face of “madness”. She concludes her review: “Woolf didn’t want sympathy; she wanted not to be silenced, and to prove to Eliot, and to us, that vulnerability has its own kind of genius.”
Now that I like—vulnerability with its own kind of genius.
For me, this essay by Woolf does have a kernel of genius. And it comes on the third page of fifteen, a passage in which she laments the poverty of our illness language:
I think she’s onto something.
He is forced to coin words himself, and, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other (as perhaps the people of Babel did in the beginning), so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out.
Headache is such a bland generic word.
All such poor words so much of the time. Useful only up to a point.
But what about the black dog?
Maybe it doesn’t have to be a new word altogether? But a familiar word used in a new way?
It’s been my own observation that when a person finds a new word for an illness or problem something electric happens. Some kind of new energy is released. The word becomes, in almost every case, a catalyst for healing. New language itself becomes a catalyst for healing. Pain and suffering become more visible—more tangible. And somehow it’s easier to deal with the visible than with the invisible. As if pain has been required to show its face. And in the wake of this, something different happens.
I went looking for some concrete examples of new language and I found a quite wonderful essay about the origins of the term “black dog” for depression. Churchill is most famous for using the term (a Brit and not an American coining new language?) but this essay traces the black dog back much further. A multiplicity of sources. Including Celtic folkore. A blues song from the early twentieth century called The Black Dog Blues. And two sources—one in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and one in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island—which might well have served as inspirations for Churchill’s own black dog. I especially like the one from Treasure Island:
your own back.’
A creature riding on one’s back. Now, that’s a familiar place—one where problems so often seem to like to hang out. And this leads me to one of my new favorite examples of a person finding new language for pain—-
A drawing by Susan Hill, featured in the Pain Exhibit.
Oh, how I love this drawing.
The dragon sleeping on her back.
And her artist’s statement:
I wonder if this is the kind of new language that Virginia Woolf was beginning to imagine nearly a hundred years ago.
The black dog essay, Histography and Meaning of the Depressed Black Dog