Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship.” Susan Sontag.
The idea that health and illness are different states, sometimes to the point of being completely different territories or countries has proved to be an enduring and powerful metaphor. Virginia Woolf, for example, in her 1930 essay “On Being Ill”, wrote of the distance between the worlds of the well and the ill, and of how different those two worlds feel to their inhabitants. She described the ‘daylight’ quality of health, which is a place of community, purpose, business and busy-ness. But, she noted, in the same way that daylight obliterates the ever-present skyful of stars, so when “the lights of health go down” the “undiscovered countries” of illness are revealed. We all have another homeland, that strange and disconnected place where nothing seems to go to plan:
Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” Susan Sontag.
When well, the connections between our selves, our compliant bodies, and the world are pretty much seamless. The desire to move or speak in a particular way is fluidly aligned with our ability to do so; we feel we are in charge (within certain limits, of course) of our lives. With illness, wrote Woolf, “this make-believe ceases”.
Unwell, we suddenly find ourselves inhabiting a strangely different country, a place where we can’t rely on the body to obediently do what we want it to do. Nor can we necessarily rely on that ‘daylight’ language to say what we want it to mean:
English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache … let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.” – Virginia Woolf.
The “great experience” of being ill, noted Woolf, can’t be fully described using the language of health, because the ill person lives in a world that “has changed its shape”. The laws of physics seem to distort. Distances may stretch: it’s a long way, for example, from a couch to the toilet if it’s painful to move or you have a high fever. At the same time, space can shrink: one room can become the whole world. The state of illness can have a quality of banishment about it, your place in the world of the well swiftly closing over as if never been. Woolf describes this sense with an image that captures something of the weirdness of finding oneself abroad in the state of illness:
… the tools of business grown remote; the sounds of festival become romantic like a merry-go-round heard across far fields; and friends have changed, some putting on a strange beauty, others deformed to the squatness of toads, while the whole landscape of life lies remote and fair, like the shore seen from a ship far out at sea…”
“Human beings,” wrote Woolf, “do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown. Here we go alone … ”
In “On Being Ill” she called for writers to find ways to word this experience and report back from the night side of life. She imagined creating a language sufficient to validate the invalid world and reconnect it to the “whole landscape of life”. Such a language might need to be wrung, beaten, mashed or coaxed into being, but the crucial thing would be the mesh of suffering and voice:
[by] 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.”
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus. Her PhD thesis at the University of Otago is looking at the ways that literature can improve connections between the worlds of the well and the ill.
- Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978.
- Woolf, Virginia. “On Being Ill.” Selected Essays. Ed. David Bradshaw. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.