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(from) On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf

Posted on Sep 15, 2008 by

An essay in which Ms. Woolf argues for illness as a topic for literature
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:

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 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 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.

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:

Finally, to hinder the description of illness in literature, there is the poverty of the language.  English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache.  It has all grown one way.  The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.  There is nothing ready made for him.  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.  Probably it will be something laughable.  For who of English birth can take liberties with the language?  To us it is a sacred thing and therefore doomed to die, unless the Americans, whose genius is so much happier in the making of new words than in the disposition of the old, will come to our help and set the springs aflow.

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.
Chronic pain.
All such poor words so much of the time.  Useful only up to a point.

But what about the black dog?
The beast?
The dragon?

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:

But suddenly his colour changed, and he tried to raise himself, crying, ‘Where’s Black Dog?’‘There is no Black Dog here,’ said the doctor, ‘except what you have on
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:

This is me on a good day. The pain is always there, but the dragon is asleep. I can still be me. The dragon and I peacefully coexist.

I wonder if this is the kind of new language that Virginia Woolf was beginning to imagine nearly a hundred years ago.
See also:

The black dog essay, Histography and Meaning of the Depressed Black Dog