Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Undiscovered Countries

"Woman Lying on a Bench"  Carl Larsson

Having been felled by a nasty bronchial cough for the last week or so, I have been thinking about the no-man’s-land that separates the sick from the well. I am fortunate because I have every expectation and hope of being healthy again in a few more days, but others with more serious conditions face the prospect of never crossing back over to that chasm to the land of the heedless well. Conscious of this and of my own good fortune, I try not to mind the symptoms that sap my energy and cause me to lose valuable time. I try to see it as an experience that is as legitimate and valuable a state of being as any other and, as such, just as worthy a subject to be written about.
In her 1926 essay, On Being Ill, Virginia Woolf marveled that illness had not become a popular theme in literature.  

“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 light...it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature. Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia; lyrics to toothache. But no; ... 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."
But it is true that illness does produce “undiscovered countries” in our feverish dreams and in our long strange bedridden hours where the world goes on without us. Even as our body lies fallow and weak, our subconscious is a riot of fertility, a tangled rainforest of images and ideas for us to use when we finally get enough strength back to sit at our desks. It is a writer’s great consolation for these lost days marooned on the island of the ill.


  1. Love the phrase, "the heedless well." Perfect. There is a chasm between the ill and the well, and often those who have good health forget -- or are heedless -- of what a specific state of living it is. Love Virginia Woolf's observation on literature ignoring flu as a ripe topic - particularly right now, as flu hits every corner of the United States. Feel better soon, Fiona! Beth

  2. I'm going to remember your phrase, too. I was one of the heedless well until I was in my forties, and now I am ashamed at how long I took health completely for granted. Illness is an eye opener in more ways than one.