On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf

I so rarely read essays, but a good essay is a wonderful thing and Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill makes me want to change my ways. The essay is all her, structurally, which is to say it appears to flow like a stream but is always under her complete control. She begins by asking why illness hasn’t been a more important subject for literature, on the level of “love and battle and jealousy,” as certainly it takes up such an important place in life.

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 civilised the universe. They show it ignoring the body in the philospher’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, are 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 phliosophy; a reason rooted in the bowels of the earth. Short of these, this monster, the body, this miracle, its pain, will soon make us taper into mysticism, or rise, with rapid beats of the wings, into the raptures of transcendentalism.

Hermione Lee notes in her introduction to the Paris Press edition that Woolf suffered not only psychological illness in her lifetime, but also physical illness, and that the two were often fundamentally connected for her. So throughout the essay, there is a close relationship between physical symptoms and melancholy—and why not? Woolf is right that even “a little rise of temperature reveals” a darker side of the mind. She does a good job of staring things squarely in the face in this essay, as well as her other work, and I do think illness has its place in literature—though perhaps not as prominent as love or war. I quite like reading about it myself, but often it can be the opposite of what she’s looking for: stories of the still-strong mind frustrated with the weakened body, when for her the mental is pulled under along with the physical.

She goes on to discuss the impossibility of sympathy. Anyone waiting on an ill person simply speaks of his own past illnesses, and can’t connect with the current suffering of the invalid. Facing this reality can bring some dark thoughts of its own.

That illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears that a twitch at one wrist jerks another, where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you—is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way.

In health, however, we put up a pretense of sympathy. In illness we can shed it, and be freer in our solitude, happier alienated from each other than feigning understanding when healthy. It’s especially interesting to read of Woolf’s view of sympathy after being so taken with issues of sympathy in To the Lighthouse.

Thus illness frees us of some of the rules of civilization. We don’t have to be quite as friendly to each other when we’re ill, and we can blurt out the truth about things we might otherwise conceal. Invalids—and, for a time, people who are simply sick—have dropped out of the normal run of society and its duties. They’re also freer with respect to literature, and “words seem to possess a mystic quality” when ill.

In health meaning has encroached upon sound. Our intelligence domineers over our senses. But in illness, with the police off duty…the words give out their scent and distil their flavour, and then, if at least 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 odour.

Here, as in the first passage above, is at least a hint of Romanticism. Intelligence versus the senses; the mind civilizing the universe. In some ways at least, the lack of a healthy body, and therefore a healthy mind, is a positive experience. The alienation is authentic, where civilization is artificial. The sensuous pleasure of sound is the real heart of words, where their meaning is just a veil. And illness is the reality of flawed mortal life—being ill, on some level, is the “daily drama of the body.” At the same time, those pulled into chronic illness, chronic melancholy, can end up quite far out to sea.

Oh, and that bit about getting the scent of things from words, rather than through domineering reason and meaning? Woolf is all about that, of course, and with this essay as with her fiction it feels good to just let things wash over you and end up all the richer for it. So now I’m looking forward not only to the rest of Woolf in Winter, but also to more of Woolf’s essays—especially on literature.

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