I’m also a fledgling academic, by the way (sorry)
Little Pandemic Reading Rec: ‘On Being Ill’ by Virginia Woolf
I got to read some of Virginia Woolf’s work in the middle of a global pandemic. Here’s my meager contribution to the century-old advice that is “Read Woolf’s work! What are you waiting for?!”
Reading Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill” in COVID times is a split-screen exercise. On one side, roughly a century ago, a few years after the Spanish flu pandemic, there is very little literature on the subject of illness; but on the other side, today amid the Covid-19 pandemic, illness is all we talk, read and write about. Her essay becomes a transitional point between then and now, as we realize that her work spearheaded the popularization of illness narratives in both fiction and nonfiction.
In her 1926 essay, Woolf laments the dearth of literature that tackles illness: “English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache.” After the tragedy that the Spanish flu created, “Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia; lyrics to toothache.” While poems and songs and epic novels were dedicated to the war effort, the literary world almost entirely disregarded the contagious calamity that very closely followed it. This can be explained by the fact that illness, notably the strain of influenza that caused the pandemic, is difficult to cast as an antagonist, as an enemy that can be fought, because the best way to fight the flu is isolation. Illness — the villain — has no motive other than survival in perhaps the purest sense of the word, and its very nature makes it impossible to either understand or empathize with.
Ultimately, it is believed that illness simply lacks the means to make a story beautiful, which is an idea that Woolf fiercely rejects. As much as a mind in a healthy body can move any story forward, the stillness that illness brings to the body leads one’s mind to consider beautiful stories in places that a healthy body and mind wouldn’t necessarily be wired to wander: the deep brevity of poetry, the sky with its “blues and golds”, or the roses on a deathbed, reminders that even in the most tragic of events like death or illness, you will always find beauty, one that is unhinged from “the cautious respectability [that] health conceals,” and that can only be appreciated through the lens of decay.
The second explanation for the lack of focus on illness in literature, one that frustrated Woolf (especially since she might have caught the strain of influenza that caused the pandemic), is that many literary circles of her time despised writing about everyday life. Illness was considered low-hanging fruit compared to the wonders of the mind that could only be captured at their utmost potential by straying away from the everyday. Woolf resented this snobbery, and under the banner of literary modernism, decades ahead of her feminist peers, she made the personal political. Her keen eye for beauty and complexity in everyday life allowed her to elevate the mundane to the highest art form, which is why her case for illness narratives is so compelling.