From the collection “The Moment and Other Essays” by Virginia Woolf is the essay titled “On Being Ill.” I accidentally came across this essay while searching for the essay as a mode for a critique of an event. Virginia Woolf is the renowned essayist who has written many critical pieces on Essay as an appealing literary format. Since I was planning to write an essay about Radha Kalyanam that I had attended over the weekend and I was exploring critical essays for better representation of the program’s impact on me.
The program was a recital of Gita Govind by Jayadev, a 12th Century Poet but not in the originally written language. The poet’s original work was in Sanskrit; but the program was performed in Tamil, one of the South Indian languages. The performers used the translated text from Sanskrit to Tamil for the recital. The program was done with the musical rendition and had a lyrical quality to it.
The fact that various sublinks took me to this essay was rather interesting. I was recently recovering from a bout of body pain and cramped legs condition with a slight touch of fever. I was bed-ridden for a day and a half. The words that illness should have an equal place in literature along with love, jealousy, and other emotions, caught my interest. I decided to find the essay and read up.
Woolf seems to be dwelling on various aspects of illness seen from individual suffering from the ailment, visitor’s behavior, environment or space in which the individual is made to rest, the window, flowers from visitors and the view. All of these become a character, and eventually, the books lined up to read is dealt in greater detail.
A trip to heaven and back is done in the duration of having a tooth pulled out at the dentist’s chair was a dry humorous note to the essay. When the dentist becomes an angel surrounded by white cloud for the anesthesia fogged mind which is working hard to figure out dream from reality was confusing for me initially as I was swimming in the play of various description that sounded like a heavenly harp. The punchline was the fact it was a tooth pulling session at the dentist.
Surprisingly, I could relate to the thought that life’s physical ailment is not given as much importance as it should be given. I remember when I was bed-ridden for about eight months in a row, my sole companion was the books that I picked to read. Of course, I would look out of the window to watch the WoodApple Tree and Koel sitting inside the dense foliage for distraction.
The current view is the road and traffic clubbed with some green here and there. Otherwise, the entire room is a gloom. With the new Kindle device, books are no longer heavy to hold reclining. I found solace from the fact that a couple of days rest and some Crocin 650 should do the trick. After which I should be fit as a fiddle. Woolf even plays with the medicine consumed and makes it into a lyrical ballad.
But Woolf’s essay was another revelation by itself. She covers all the aspects of being ill. From the point where a sick person is someone who has quit the battlefield before the war got over. Being included in the members who ran away in fear or were brave but a fallen soldier whose valor now lay squabbled on the battlegrounds while rest of the battalion forward marches to carry on fighting erect on their feet.
She then recommends, that when a person falls sick, then they no longer are thinking of arguing or justifying deep prose. She recommends and says that poets are the best speakers of that natural causation that cheer up the mind. A healthy person who is ready to contest the theologies of the poet’s thought, would now rather hear him out without putting up an intellectual block.
Surprisingly, it reminded me of the time when I was sick for many months together, I read a collection of poems written by a girl who knew she will not last for long. She was hardly more than 13 years of age. Her aspiration, yearning and a singular desire for peace in the world were beautifully written in simple free verse form. I found the book so fascinating and so genuine, that I could take solace from the fact that my ailment was temporary, unlike her health trouble.
I totally agree that the best book to read while unwell is a collection of poems by known or unknown poets. Since the text is easy to take in, given all the stress levels. At the same time, there is an immense beauty in the lines that overpowers the sick person’s impressions of life.
Woolf chooses Shakespeare in her essay as the poet for the sick; though I would have preferred Keats. She also talks about other lesser known and popular books in circulating that were pulp fiction of the time. Her description almost equates to the regular soap serials of heroine who are unendingly facing hardship only to find momentary happiness at the end. Stories that are churned out in random order and on a regular base for light reading consumption.
I found the entire essay fascinating and relevant to my condition. Yet there are a few things, that I felt Woolf had left out, which made it seem so one-sided. There are moments in the sickness when the bodily energy is drained and the entire view is blood red with pain surrounding it. In those moments, when the outside view is just a blue pattern curtain shutting out light and there is no nature to divert, then, I believe, the mind goes in circles wallowing in thoughts that are clearly not helping the situation.
Woolf keeps to the text of cheering the sick person on the bed with things that would calm them down and give them the well-needed rest to recover. I believe the recovery achieved at the cost of gloom is one of the priceless achievement. When many days pass with no sign of hope and a healthy day in a sick person’s life seem a far cry, then I believe the victory of recovery should be talked about too. But then, her focus was on influenza and how the ailments turn the mind and perception.
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