I’ve just finished reading Virginia Woolf’s essay On Being Ill (Paris Press, 2002), with an introduction by Hermione Lee (Oh I love her). I left the essay sort of confused—part of the intended effect, I think. I was trying to pinpoint exactly what Woolf was trying to say about the state of being ill. Illness is sometimes pain, and it has no existing language to express it (something Woolf says explicitly, early on). It is also a state that allows the privileged ill person to perceive something like the inexorable prehistory of Between the Acts (Woolf’s posthumously published novel). The latter state, for Woolf, seems to imply or accompany the ability of the ill person to find in words their “sensual[ ]” significance (22), their poetry, before and privileged above their grounding in meanings associated with reality and the healthy, the “army of the upright” (12).
Woolf’s notion of sympathy is connected with this army. I think Woolf is implying that sympathy is reducible to a tool of evolutionary self-preservation*: in encouraging the forging of social relations, it is linked to civilizing and productivity. Outside sympathy—or opposed to it—is the absoluteness of the metaphorical frozen landscape that abides before, during, and after all life, a landscape that is described as both within the ill person (a “snowfield” (12)) and recognized by the ill person as something that exists, absolutely, truly, outside the daily wash of so-called healthy normality. So there is an idea of things as they are, ultimately and absolutely; there is the state of illness, which allows one to recognize this; and then there is illness as it allows one to access in oneself a mirror of the above idea of things, that “virgin forest” in each of us (11).
The ending of the essay, centred around the Lady Waterford, makes of the Lady a type of ill person; she goes through the pain of the loss of her husband, for which there is no language, we are reminded. But Woolf’s presentation of the lady’s day-to-day life as a matter of (literally) sketching people from the margins suggests that women (throughout history, and in Woolf’s day) are metaphorically ill people, free to imagine and observe from outside the rush of life. The Lady sits, seemingly devoted to her Lord, sketching him in the private and figuratively exposed position of his head half-hidden in a soup bowl. Another potentially devoted picture of wifely contemplation gives us a glimpse of the lady’s internal snowfield, a thought to the world after life and death: “Off he would ride again, stately as a crusader, to hunt the fox, and she would wave to him and think each time, what if this should be his last?” (27-8). Woolf here elaborates on something she mentions earlier, that “in [women] the obsolete exists so strangely side by side with anarchy and newness” (10); devotion lies side by side with the anarchy and snowfields of the ill (and, Woolf implies elsewhere, of the poets).
Woolf’s configuration of poetic imagination can seem sometimes almost nihilistic in its association with death, suicide, and things beyond death, evident in this work and in others. But I think it is ultimately oriented toward transformation rather than nihilism, toward the kinds of transformations that take place when imagination—the “anarchy” of the ill—has free range. I’m thinking here of the strange carnivalesque element in Orlando, motivated by the suspended flux of the period in which the Thames is frozen over (ice! Snow!), and correspondingly characterized by Orlando’s shifting figurations of Sasha as a fox, a pineapple, an emerald, etc.
Orlando thinks of Sasha as a fox, and pursues her—wishes to possess her—as the Lord Waterford goes to hunt his fox before he is killed. There is a tension here between the poet as some kind of hunter, someone who ‘captures,’ and the poet as someone who participates in an anarchy of symbolism (the fox, the pineapple, the emerald). In a similar and somehow related way, there’s a tension between Woolf’s imperative to live—to “wriggle”—and her idea that we live for a “Heaven” that can be produced only by the poets and the ill, those people of ice and indifference to life:
The cows are driven home to be milked. Men thatch the roof. The dogs bark. The rooks, rising in a net, fall in a net upon the elm trees. The wave of life flings itself out indefatigably. It is only the recumbent [the ill] who know what, after all, nature is at no pains to conceal—that she in the end will conquer; heat will leave the world; stiff with frost we shall cease to drag ourselves about the fields; ice will lie thick upon the factory and engine; the sun will go out. Even so, when the whole earth is sheeted and slippery, some undulation, some irregularity of surface will mark the boundary of an ancient garden, and there, thrusting its head up undaunted in the starlight, the rose will flower, the crocus will burn.[**] But with the hook of life still in us we must wriggle. We cannot stiffen peaceably into glassy mounds. Even the recumbent spring up at the mere imagination of frost about the toes and stretch out to avail themselves of the universal hope—Heaven, Immortality. . . Heaven-making must be left to the imagination of the poets. (16-8)
My reading of this passage is, however, confused by "frost about the toes." Why do the ill spring to life at the thought of frost about their toes? Why do they want to live? This could all be cleared up, I think, by looking more closely at Woolf's concept of the artistic process. (For instance, frost might be at the root of the poetic process, but one must live in order to execute it . . . ). But I won't do that now.
*This statement on Woolf's idea of sympathy may itself be somewhat reductive, I think. But she does seem pretty down on sympathy in this essay.
**Flowers are elsewhere associated with nature’s indifference; the flower bursting through the ice is not the imperative to live I’m talking about.