Critical Conditions


In their class Critical Conditions: Writing About Health, Illness, Disability, and Identity, ME Milks, a new member of the first-year faculty, has opened the discussion with Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill.” The opening of the essay asks a troubling question that has, with much contemporary writing, found a partial answer, it seems to me. ME’s class will go a long way—as with Jen Hyde’s The Life of the Body—to show how illness and disability have, in some circles, joined love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

Have a look at Woolf’s incredible first sentence; it’s the kind that makes me think, Do Not Try This At Home:

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, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us in the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm chair and confuse his ‘Rinse the mouth—rinse the mouth’ with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us—when we think of this and infinitely more, as we are so frequently forced to  think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

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