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Illness and the indescribable



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.

The Doctor by Luke Fildes (Wikimedia commons)

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 that the most truthful way of regarding illness — and the healthiest way of being ill — is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking"'.


In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Friar John, deputed to deliver the crucial note to Romeo assuring him the drugged and apparently dead Juliet will recover, explains how he is turned back from his journey by plague: authorities, suspecting that Friar John had entered a house ‘Where the infectious pestilence did reign/Seal'd up the doors, and would not let us forth/So that my speed to Mantua there was stay'd.’ When Friar Laurence asks who therefore had taken his letter to Romeo, John has to reveal, ‘I could not send it…/Nor get a messenger to bring it thee/So fearful were they of infection’. And so the grief stricken Romeo kills himself in despair.

But it is in Albert Camus’ version of plague fiction — the famous, powerful and complex The Plague (La Peste) — that the depiction of actual pervasive personal illness/plague and the possibility of metaphoric meaning, the plague as Third Reich invasion, are so indissolubly woven together that neither the one nor the other can be confidently given final emphasis. Camus scholar Ed Vulliamy endorses both the ‘literal — as well as [the] allegorical — reading’ but takes the discussion further. ‘Like every good metaphorical or allegorical work, [La Peste] can represent beyond its intentions; including pestilences both moral and metaphorical that have happened after Camus’ own lifetime.’

Camus described the human condition as ‘absurd’ by which he meant not silly or nonsensical but without apparent meaning or purpose. He found assurance and constancy only in the natural world which, however, he sensed with some prescience might itself be in danger from human kind’s failure to perceive and understand the absurdity of its own behaviour, its illusions, prejudices and corruptions.

For all her magnificent, metaphoric introduction, Sontag knows and soon concedes ‘that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness — and the healthiest way of being ill — is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking’.

Shakespeare agrees: actual illness, the reality of the ‘reign’ of ‘infectious pestilence’, easily throws aside Friar Laurence’s well intentioned plans to safeguard young love and youthful innocence. And notwithstanding the brilliantly managed metaphoric ambiguity of The Plague (its kaleidoscopic shifting between rampaging illness and equally insidious fascism), Camus predicted in 1947, with victory still being celebrated, that a new plague ‘would rouse up its rats again’, turning his own metaphor into documentary.

Yesterday, returning at dawn from a long, solitary walk, I saw a massive flock of birds, so many they were like a low, dipping, coiling cloud. In that first vague light they were just silhouettes, their plumage darkened, their calls and cries muted. It was as if something in nature had shifted a notch and familiar landscapes, and skies had changed mysteriously: as if we’d become citizens of that other place.



Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Image credit: The Doctor by Luke Fildes (Wikimedia commons)

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, COVID-19, illness, literature



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Existing comments

You always write beautifully about any subject but this one also is strangely comforting. Every day I check the figures: how many new infections, how many have died. The painting is poignant; great art allows us to enter the space and examine every detail. I'm noticing everything I can on my daily walks. Many thanks.

Pam | 03 April 2020  

Christian faith presents a conundrum. Is the dismal poetic imagination idolatrous? The authority of Scripture declares that there is nothing new under the sun, in effect, that nothing changes. All ebbs are temporary, and overly to dramatise a current ebb is to ignore that all ebbs of the past have become anachronisms. If neither the Medieval Plague nor the Spanish Flu mean anything today, why should COVID-19 mean anything tomorrow? Moroseness is an affectation and it would seem that while the poet’s professionalism obliges him to work on the dismal poetic imagination in hard light while sober, the morose savouring of it by the client can only be excused in the dim while drunk. He came to bring us life to the full. Which part of ‘full’ is morose?

roy chen yee | 04 April 2020  

The horror of diphtheria, which killed a quarter of the world's recorded population in the C19th, was thought to have 'visited' my family in the 1960s. My brother, Jeremy, about to sit for his GCEs in Calcutta, woke one morning to a burning temperature, accompanied by the usual terrifying symptoms. No private hospital would admit him so my father drove him to the Infectious Diseases Hospital, took one look at it and decided that he would be quarantined and treated at home. Jeremy recovered within the day - he had been misdiagnosed - took his exams and topped the results in India. It turned out that his mock examination results could have been forwarded to Cambridge but our college had not informed my parents of this. Imagine the plight of those thousands of coronaviral victims, many in supposedly 'developed' countries, like the United States, Italy and Spain, but manifestly without the resources available to us, and who, with their medical assistants, have been forcibly corralled off to die a certain excruciating death because of the parsimony of the ideologues that ordain and fund their health-care policies. Its justice, not mercy, that cries out to heaven for revenge on their behalf!

Michael Furtado | 15 April 2020  

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