On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf
Paris Press, 2002
“…this monster, the body, this miracle, its pain, will soon make us taper into mysticism, or rise, with rapid beats of the wings…”
In my last post, I reviewed Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Clothing of Books. One of the many things I loved about that little volume was the tidbit Lahiri included about Vanessa Bell’s covers for the early Hogarth editions of Virginia Woolf’s books. Googling that led me to this lovely little LitHub collection of Virginia Woolf covers through the ages, which in turn showed me the title On Being Ill.
I’ve been thinking a lot about illness lately. About what it means to be ill, and what it means to be healthy. For such common concepts, their definitions are obtuse. They defy easy categorization as soon as one starts thinking about them.
I’ve dealt with a lot of medical stuff over the last year and a half. My body has suffered, and not coincidentally, so has my mind. Having never heard of this work from Virginia Woolf, which I believe is out of print, I knew based purely on the title that I needed to read it. I headed to the Powell’s website and a used copy was on its way to me that same day.
The tiny book I received a few days later is a 2002 reprint from Paris Press, using a slightly tweaked redesign of Vanessa Bell’s original cover and including an introduction by Virginia Woolf biographer Hermione Lee that is just as long (actually I think longer) than the essay itself. But it’s just as much of a delight to read, and provides some very interesting context to Woolf’s writing.
“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… but of all this daily drama of the body there is no record. People write always of the doings of the mind… 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, are neglected.”
The essay itself is wonderful, brimming with Woolf’s embellished sentences, her beautiful prose and witty observations, with a good dose of both melancholy and wonder. The idea that in health, the body can be controlled by the mind, but in illness they collapse into each other, feels very real to me. Woolf also argues that illness strengthens the senses, which is a really interesting idea since illness is so often associated with weakness. In being removed from the ‘army’ of society, she writes, one becomes enlightened in a way.
“We cease to become soldiers in the army of the upright; we become the 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 in years, to look round, to look up — to look, for example, at the sky.”
She also includes the most vaginal description of flowers I’ve ever read in literature, as a perfect illustration of how micro-focused the ill mind can be on a single thing:
“Now perhaps one [petal] deliberately falls; now all the flowers, the voluptuous purple, the creamy, in whose waxen flesh the spoon has left a swirl of cherry juice…”
This passage alone makes the entire essay worth reading, but it would be more than worth it anyway. I love the way Woolf writes about the solitude of illness, which is forced upon “the recumbent,” but is nonetheless simultaneously welcome.
“There is a virgin forest… a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown. Here we go alone, and like it better so.”
Later, she writes:
“That snowfield of the mind… is visited by the cloud, kissed by the falling petal…”
“In health meaning has encroached upon sound. Our intelligence domineers over our senses. But in illness, the police off duty…”
Woolf refers to the “kingly sublimity” of illness, which “sweeps all that aside” and leaves oneself alone with art and nature.
All of this resonates with me and my experience of my own illness(es). But still, pain is no friend. Inability to concentrate on longer prose, isolation, and the fear of being a burden pulse underneath Woolf’s poetic characterization of illness. Her suicidal ideation is less than veiled in parts of this essay, and she uses words like “crushed” as both imagery and metaphor, which lends a sense of despair and hopelessness.
The complexity of illness, then, is very well portrayed.
If it’s not clear, I *love* this book. I read it in an hour and wrote on every page (adding to the marks left by the previous owner; books are magic y’all). I will be returning to this again and again.