Sunday, December 28, 2008

On Being Ill, Attempt #2

I found some brief quotations that will clear up what is meant by 'illness' in On Being Ill and in my last post, as well as how illness is connected to Woolf's idea of the poetic process. These are taken from Kate Flint's introduction to the 1992 Penguin edition of The Waves.

-"[T]he thought of death has the capacity . . . to remove distinctions between mental and physical sensations" (xxviii). Here, I think the "thought of death" is equivalent to the indifference to life Woolf describes in OBI. The loss of "distinction[ ] between mental and physical" is the state of illness Woolf describes--something with mental and physical symptoms that are indistinguishable from each other. This loss of distinction between seemingly distinct entities also has to do with Woolf's concept of identity and how the loss of self (depersonalization) is related to poetry and indifference to life.

-"Woolf makes analogies between the sense of one's body and the use of language. When one is most conscious of one's body's materiality, one is least likely to use words figuratively or speculatively" (xxx). So, when one is least conscious of one's materiality--one's physical body, when one senses its loss of distinctness from one's mental state, and from the physical bodies of others, one is in a liminal state of poetry. At the same time, Flint suggests that Woolf is conscious of the fact that, in order to give shape to such poetic liminality, one must assume a subjective position--one must insist on boundaries between oneself and others, even on boundaries within oneself. There is, then, a relationship between "creativity and possessiveneess" (xvii), of the kind of I spoke of below, in Orlando. Words can enter into the free play of poetry, rhythm, liminality, but in order for them to take on any communicable shape of thought or form they must inevitably reduce (they must choose a subject matter, then represent only one or a few aspects of it)--representation is always linked to reduction. I think this explains why the ill spring to life at the thought of "frost about their toes": they have to live, have to insist on breaking the liminal state of illness, in order to express.

-Flint says that in "The gestation of The Waves . . . [Woolf] documented her sense of its development and progress with the close, concerned attention of someone monitering a set of 'symptoms,' as she herself called them. 'I want to trace my own process,' she recorded" (xvii-xviii). The writing process is compared to illness, having symptoms; but this is just the process. In "A Sketch of the Past," Woolf talks about 'making things whole' through writing about them, about making sense out of traumatic experience through writing about it. I think perhaps the same can be said of illness and writing. The writing process is one in which things are brought to mind, like symbols, symptoms, particular markers of a painful memory. But the written product may be something more than this (it must be given shape, as I said above). So, I think illness is a state of fluid identity and therefore fluid thought--poetic imagination, and writing is something that comes out of this imagination. The Lady Waterford, sketching her husband, is engaging in something that comes out of rather than is constituted by "anarchy and newness."

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