Virginia Woolf on Sickness

Painting of Virginia Woolf by her sister Vanessa Bell.

As I sit home from work today sick, I’m feeling a little useless. But the congestion in my chest, which, this morning, caused a sharp pain unlike any I’ve ever felt with this type of sickness, in all my years of sinus and congestion type infections (I’m good for at least two of these illnesses a year, and lately it’s been more, probably because of kids)–this pain and congestion demanded I stay home and rest. So in my forced uselessness, at some point in the morning, I remembered the Virginia Woolf essay, “On Being Ill,” which I read not so long ago in grad school. Though healthy when I read it, nonetheless, her take on the mental state we assume in sickness resonated. She addresses the sort-of limbo we find ourselves in when given permission to do nothing all day. We remove ourselves from society for a day or two, which is an odd situation for a working, fairly responsible adult and parent. We’re not sure how we’re supposed to feel. Well, rather than try and wrest from my virus-addled brain a substantial blog post, I decided to have Virginia Woolf speak for me. The following is an excerpt from that essay. Enjoy one of the greatest writers ever (and my personal favorite!):

“There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional) a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals. . . . [The] illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears . . . 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. There is a virgin forest, tangled, pathless, in each. . . . Here we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable. But in health the genial pretense must be kept up and the effort renewed–to communicate, to civilise, to share, to cultivate the desert, educate the native, to work by day together and by night to sport. In illness this make-believe ceases. Directly the bed is called for, or, sunk deep among pillows in one chair, we raise our feet even an inch above the ground on another, we cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become 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.” (1925)

Virginia Woolf knew much more about illness than I, suffering as she did with extended bouts of depression, but isn’t there something in that passage that anyone who’s ever stayed home sick from work can recognize? I loved it immediately, because I’d never seen anyone write about this type of thing. You’d be doing yourself a favor to read the entire essay, and while you’re at it, read a few more. You simply can’t read too much Virginia Woolf.

Alan D. Tucker, MA
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist

Invisible Man, Part 2: Clarifications

Photograph from Liu Bolin’s Invisible Man series.

Self-delusion came up in Monday’s post on being invisible. For clarification’s sake, I don’t believe anyone, except maybe the clinically insane, thinks they’re actually invisible, as in no one can see them standing there. Our bodies are the ever-present vessels of us–without them, we are not. What I mean by invisible, rather, as was probably obvious, is that one’s genuine self never breaks the surface. Glimpses are caught now and again, as when a would-be leviathan rises close enough to the water’s surface that a massive dark form is detected, but then it retreats back into the depths so suddenly it leaves the observer wondering whether he saw anything at all.

Then there are those moments that remind the invisible of their state–those moments that startle them into the awareness that they’re largely unknown by others. Again, for clarification, I’m not speaking of mere anonymity. The overwhelming majority of us are anonymous with respect to the wide world in which we live. The moments I’m referring to, the ones that startle us, do so because they occur in the presence of those we assume really know us: parents, siblings, lifelong friends, et cetera. Sure, they know us superficially–they know our relation to them, major life events we’ve undergone, and perhaps a few of our general interests. But a view to the inner workings is translucent at best, like stained glass, permitting only a dulled (but colorful) light, and allowing only the most basic evidence of forms.

Something else I mentioned Monday was that the artist is obligated to believe in his inner world. To elaborate, he can’t dismiss it as being less important, or less concrete, metaphysically speaking, than the outer world, where commerce happens. Since art is forever valid to the artist and the art lover, it’s not a dismissible commodity to be abandoned in the face of budget cuts, or to be relegated to the status of prettification; it shares in the essence of anything and everything that makes life worthwhile. Even what doesn’t reveal itself in the physical world–that which is pure imagination–is valid if it can be included in art, because art does reveal itself in the physical world. It is the physical manifestation of the inner world, and is therefore indispensable. (Forgive my tendency to lump the artist in with the invisible. The ranks of the invisible are not limited to artists, but I have no doubt the artist is intimate with this invisibility, revealing herself or himself almost exclusively in what s/he creates.)

None of this would matter if we weren’t born with a longing to be known. Yet it falls on some to never fully arrive, who are blessed if even one person understands them. Invisibility can be lived with, however, often contentedly, particularly if the one invisible is a born observer rather than a participator. But no matter how practiced at solitude the invisible man is, loneliness might still sneak in through a crack in the glass.

Alan D. Tucker, MA
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist

 

Invisible Man: Notes, Part 1

Detail from Salvador Dali’s Invisible Man

A landmark and lonely moment is when you realize you’re invisible. The cliche, “hidden in plain sight,” implies a conscious decision to remain hidden (or at least that’s how it’s mostly used), so it’s not that. By contrast, the invisibility of which I speak is the necessary symptom of an introspective and artistic life. Here’s what I’ve come to believe: the more a person moves about in the interior shadowland of his own mind–a space resembling, but not replicating, the physical world–the more that person feels a disconnect between what resonates as reality for him and what those around him seem to accept as the same. The invisible man’s reality is mostly within and is, therefore, closer to the heart. A general understanding of the world, like what close-knit communities often share, becomes nearly impossible for the primarily inward-living person. In the gap between inner and outer, values misalign. In fact, values originate altogether differently.

Probably the disconnect happens for everyone to varying degrees, maybe more for the introvert than for the extrovert. Yet it happens even more for the artist, and here’s a theory why: the artist is obligated to believe in his inner world. There’s no dismissing his most secret thoughts, writing them off as daydreaming or zoning out. Dreams, desires, memories, fantasies, imagination–all are raw materials; all are source material for origins.

I fear I’m viewing this conviction of invisibility solipsistically, though. Because I’m a  writer, maybe I’ve accepted things about myself I’ve merely made up–a functioning self-delusion, in which I’m guilty of believing a problem unique to a few that is really the existential dilemma of many.

Regardless what’s true or imagined, the feeling of being invisible occurs at distinct moments–moments which I could list, if time permitted. That’s why this post is a “Part 1,” because I might return to this idea and try to work through it. That is, unless I decide to just keep it all inside–to keep it invisible.

Alan D. Tucker, MA
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist