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Illness and the indescribable

  • 03 April 2020
When I was a mere toddler, I was diagnosed with diphtheria — a deadly infectious disease at that time but treatable by vaccine. I was rushed to Melbourne’s Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital in an ambulance. I think my attempts to anchor myself in my father’s cradling arms and my cries of ‘Don’t let them take me away’ might be among my earliest memories, though undoubtedly embellished by subsequent lore and anecdote. But I’m certain I remember being in a bed surrounded by a sort of wire cage which kept visitors — parents only — at a distance: the rough equivalent of today’s stipulated four square metres.

As far as I can tell, that was my first experience of illness but it exists as memory only; it doesn’t recall and reimagine the, so to speak, actual business of being ill, of experiencing it personally or with vicarious vividness. In Illness as Metaphor Susan Sontag bleakly does just that:

‘Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.’

When we do make such identification, it is because we are racked with pain or haunted by a diagnosis or helpless before a dying baby’s ‘sighing respiration’ or are witnessing a loved one’s great strength and resolve wilting as illness implacably flowers.

Illness, so apparently explicit and ever more obvious as it progresses, in fact defies definition: submitting apparently to scientific and medical description, it escapes into a quality of pain, exquisite loss or appalled helplessness that is often most clearly captured at the heart of great works of art.

Illness appears and reappears in literature (as well as in paintings and song) and plays a role in which metaphor gradually gives way to a kind of profoundly disturbing edge of realism, as in Sontag’s ‘more onerous citizenship’ or to an otherworld of loss and retribution as in Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’: ‘O Rose thou art sick/The invisible worm/That flies in the night/In the howling storm/Has found out thy bed of crimson joy/And his dark secret love/Does they life destroy’.


'Sontag knows and soon concedes "that illness is not a metaphor, and