A Country Doctor’s Notebook, Anton Chekhov, Illness as Metaphor, Mikhail Bulgakov, Oliver Sack, On Being Ill, The Bell Jar, The Doctor Stories, Virginia Woolf, William Carlos Williams
Pensive Prowler #22 by Dmetri Kakmi
On Being Sick
In 1926 Virginia Woolf asked why illness was not one of the great literary subjects, alongside war and love. Of course, she was howled down by critics who accused her of being silly and trite. But Woolf has a point.
We all get sick. We are all laid low by cold, a broken leg or worse at some point. We know the wastes to which illness can take us, the deserts traversed. How isolating and debilitating pain can be. How terrifying, immobilising. How the spirits plunge to new depths. You really do drift off and feel as if you’ve stopped being part of human continuance. You feel as if you will never be well again and when you are well again you can hardly believe you had been to that far-off country. So close to death’s door.
So why not write about it?
Possibly because illness is perceived as passive and fiction (let’s stick to that for the time being) is an active progression from one point to the next. Even so, you’d think an innovative mind can turn the act of lying in bed, sick, into an active journey to the interior.
On the other hand we have to face the fact that when we are in rude health, we don’t want to think about illness. We want to forget it exists.
Things have moved on since Woolf wrote On Being Ill in 1926. In fact, they were on the right track all along and maybe Woolf was making a bigger point.
Anton Chekhov published his medical stories before the most famous member of the Bloomsbury group pioneered the modernist novel. Another Russian, Mikhail Bulgakov, wrote A Country Doctor’s Notebook the year before Woolf put in her two cents. Much later there was William Carlos Williams, the poet, with his The Doctor Stories, and John Berger with A Fortunate Man. For me, though, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is possibly the most famous offering to the genre, if I can call it that.
And we can’t go past Oliver Sacks’ important contributions to the field. Before all of them, however, there was Galen, the Greek physician and philosopher. I’m irritated by Susan Sontag so I’m not going to mention her book Illness as Metaphor. Damn, just did!
Still, Woolf is right. To this day if someone is asked to outline two or three enduring literary themes, they won’t put up their hand and go, “Illness!”
As you can tell, being sick has been on my mind lately. I’ve suffered from migraine most of my life. It’s been playing up lately and no amount of pill popping makes it go away. To add to my woes I have high cholesterol and now it seems I’m suffering side effects from the tablets I take to counteract its effects: nausea, unusual tiredness, itchy skin, memory loss, stiff and painful joints, unending thirst…
What gets me is this: how can pharmaceutical companies release medication knowing there are detrimental side effects? No one told me when I went on Crestor that my memory will go. Nor was I told that I will be shuffling around my home like an eighty-five year old because my joints seized up. I found out online.
What else are we putting in our bodies on a daily basis because we trust the manufacturer? Think of the chemicals in food, drink and water. We’re told chemicals are present in safe amounts and will cause no harm. But is this true? What are the long-term effects? What aren’t they telling us? How else can we account for cancers and the rise in food allergies in ‘developed nations’?
Why trust a faceless manufacturer whose one aim is profit? Government regulations mean nothing when politicians are in the pockets of corporations.
Let’s not forget in Victorian and Edwardian England, bakers adulterated bread with alum, which caused all sorts of gut problems, especially for children. Boracic acid was put in milk, with similar deadly results. Household cleaning products contained carbolic acid. Radium was put in toothpaste and chocolate. Of course people couldn’t understand why they were dropping off like bees. Now we look back and shake our heads. My bet is heads will shake over our folly in a hundred years’ time.
People will go, “What were they thinking?”
We didn’t think. We blindly trusted.
Illness strikes at the core because it’s a harbinger of mortality. It makes us vulnerable. It makes us question who we think we are and it reminds us that one day we will be dust. The body is not immortal. It’s a finite mechanism. Nor is it invulnerable, no matter how well we eat and how much we exercise. It will last however long it lasts. Why shorten its stay on earth by trusting multinational food and beverage companies that sure as hell ain’t gonna tell you the truth about their product?
If you don’t care either way, you will at least have plenty of books about illness to read as you drift off on your inflatable plastic mattress. And who knows? As you draw your last chemical intake, you might concede that illness is a vital literary topic.
Dmetri Kakmi (Episode 158) is a writer and editor based in Melbourne, Australia. The memoir Mother Land was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia; and is published in England and Turkey. His essays and short stories appear in anthologies and journals. You can find out more about him here.