Turgenev’s Banana

On Being Ill

by Virginia Woolf, with an introduction by Hermione Lee
Paris Press, 28 pp., $20.00

In the Land of Pain

by Alphonse Daudet, edited and translated from the Frenchby Julian Barnes
Knopf, 87 pp., $18.00

A Memorial of the Last Days on Earth of Emily Gosse by Her Husband Philip Henry Gosse, FRS

by Philip Henry Gosse
in Areté, Issue Seven, Winter 2001


Virginia Woolf begins her 1926 essay On Being Ill with a long sentence—“lavishly cumulative,” Hermione Lee calls it, and “highly De Quinceyan.” It runs thus:

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth—rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us—when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

Novels, she goes on to suggest, should have been devoted to influenza, odes to pneumonia, lyrics to toothache. But all she can think of is the attempt by De Quincey in The Opium Eater, and she speculates that “there must be a volume or two about disease scattered through the pages of Proust.”

Woolf was ill when she wrote On Being Ill, but not necessarily ill when T.S. Eliot printed it in the Criterion, or when, five years later, she typeset her own edition of it for the Hogarth Press. Yet no one seems to have asked, perhaps no one thought it quite idiomatic to ask, whether this notion of illness as a subject without a literature (“Illness: An Unexploited Mine” was the title given to the essay in an American reprint) really bore examination. De Quincey “attempted something of the sort.” Then Proust. But for the rest Woolf asserts that “literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear.” Whereas the truth of the matter is that “all day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolors, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February.”

Woolf might have liked this from Lichtenberg:

My body is that part of the world which my thoughts are able to change. Even imaginary illnesses can become real ones. In the rest of the world my hypotheses cannot disturb the order of things.1

And another from the same source:

During my nervous illness I very often found that that which usually offended only my moral feeling now overflowed into…

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