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What About Foghat? (Part 2 of 3)

I wonder what poems, stories and novels you are thinking of now? As I have read and re-read Woolf’s essay, I have gotten up, thinking I’ve remembered where to find a poem on sickness, but I can’t. Or I can, but it’s not the “right kind,” meaning somehow I’ve (or we’ve?) categorized mental health as something else, something brewing (or not) in the mind and not the body. And here, suddenly, Woolf has my number (and boy, I wish she’d call). “Literature does it’s 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…. 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.” So, this is in part a question of perspective. Are our days a monologue of the mind, or a conversation with the body? Ask this same question in relation to depression, bipolar disorder, addiction; if it is a conversation, where is the other voice?

Among the challenges of writing on/about illness, Woolf suggests, is fear (or maybe it’s peace). “To look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer; a robust philosophy; a reason rooted in the bowels of the earth.” A meditation on illness is a meditation on suffering, yet literature is not so averse to discomfort that it ignores death or heartache. Quite the opposite is true. Why then does illness go relatively unexplored? I wonder what Woolf would say to the following; that death and the heartbreak in literature tend to reward the reader (and writer) with great swells of energy and revelation, that in battle and romance, we can easily identify the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s) and are satisfied by their dynamic. These comfortable designations are less obvious (or necessary) as we consider the flu or a migraine. So we need the courage of Siegfried and Roy and don’t get the sequins? Great.

We must also consider that perhaps we don’t always feel sympathetic or kindly toward the sick. When someone comes to work coughing, we don’t generally cuddle up to them. We pass them hand sanitizer. We grit our teeth to the beat of their percussive lung clearing. Among our healthy comrades, we swear revenge if tomorrow we wake up sniffling (there’s this thing we want to do). And what about when the person calls out sick? They “cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright.” They become “deserters,” making our jobs more difficult. They had better be really sick, but not be contagious, n’est-ce pas? To summarize: sickness in others is both suspect and inconvenient; it is an unwelcome reminder of our own pains. Eeesh.

If you’re hearing “blamey,” I’m just talking to myself (I’ve passed the sanitizer). Any stones cast in the essay glow in the sun before kerplunking into some quiet, glittering pond—the mirror of a mind traveling freely, thoughtfully. Even the harshest words feel hypothetical as if the mind is exploring its full potential. This mode of exploration (and the inherent invitation to the reader to join) is one my favorite features of the essay. It is achieved by rendering great swells of the imagination in a steady, meditative tone. We go easily from King Arthur to Mrs. Jones catching her train, from the sea to a city block, and in one of my fondest moments, from England to China: “Incomprehensibility has an enormous power over us in illness, more legitimately perhaps than the upright will allow. In health meaning has encroached upon sound….The Chinese must know the sound of Antony and Cleopatra better than we do.” Anyone who has experimented with translitics knows how true this is, how mystical and fruitful simply listening to a foreign language can be. Have you tried it? These pirouettes to and fro, in and out of time and space are exhilarating and still totally appropriate; in this way, the universality of illness is emphasized.

[Continued in Part 3–coming shortly!]