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on being ill (book review)

The latest on-line edition of The Yale Journal of Humanities in Medicine features this book review. (Excerpt only; the full review by Lisa Kerr, click here).
In her 1926 essay On Being Ill, Virginia Woolf ponders why illness has been denied a place alongside “love and battle and jealousy” as one of the main themes of literature. She argues that, as a consequence of this denial, illness has never gathered its own vocabulary, leaving the ill without language to express their experiences: “The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love,” argues Woolf, “has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry.”
Examining her own familiarity with illness, Woolf undertakes a rigorous, compassionate, and droll investigation of how illness shapes the identity of a sick patient, particularly the invalid, not only affecting his or her perceptions of the world but also awakening the helplessness of being unable to convey those perceptions, or the effects of illness, to others.
For the sick to communicate their experiences, Woolf suggests, they “would need the courage of a lion tamer,”since finding words to express “this monster, this body” is a daunting task. Ruled by their bodies, the sick become “outlaws” to convention. As soon as “we raise our feet even an inch above the ground,” Woolf argues, “we float with the sticks on the stream; helter-skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested.”
Perceived as deserters, the sick find themselves without a receptive and sympathetic audience or the words to explain adequately their dilemmas. Unable to engage the rest of society with stories of their suffering, the sick might find solace, Woolf suggests, in having the time to read poetry with a new sensibility and richness, to approach Shakespeare with a “rashness” that “leaves nothing but Shakespeare and oneself,” or “perhaps for the first time for years, to look round, to look up—to look, for example, at the sky.”
painting by Roger Fry (1866-1934).

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