On Being Ill, by Virginia Woolf, introduction by Hermione Lee. Ashfield, MA: Paris Press. 64 pages. $20. BUY NOW


Like many writers, I've come to believe that my time in hell will be spent teaching an eternal section of freshman composition. If so, at least I've finally figured out how to begin the class. I'd assign my students to read, ten times daily, the first sentence of Virginia's Woolf's brilliant and beautiful essay "On Being Ill"ˇuntil they learned to appreciate the full potential, the dazzling glory, and the clarity of the complex sentence. There's no way, really, to summarize what Woolf accomplishes in the expanse she boldly carves out between the capital letter and the period, so here is that breathtaking beginning:

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 view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by 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 armchair and confuse his "Rinse the mouthˇrinse the mouth" with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome usˇwhen we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

Woolf's questionsˇWhy is there not a rich literature of illness? Why are we eager to write and read about the mind but reluctant to discuss the imperatives of the body?ˇare rhetorical ones that she will answer in the essay's opening pages. Illness is impossible to communicate. The invalid's desire and need for sympathy can never be satisfied. As soon as we begin complaining about our pains, our listeners lose interest and counter with recitals of their own sufferings. Moreover, illness consigns one to solitude, a remove from which it is difficult to signal the world of the healthy. Most importantˇand Woolf returns to this theme throughout the essayˇwe lack the language in which to express the sensations, the emotions, the experience of illness; our vocabulary is neither capacious nor elastic enough to describe the new territories we are doomed to enter and explore when we fall ill.

First published in 1926 by T.S. Eliot in the New Criterion, and later, in 1930, as a separate book by the Woolfs' own Hogarth Press, "On Being Ill" has been reissued by Paris Press in a handsome edition that reproduces Vanessa Bell's cover art. It also includes an informative, illuminating introduction by Woolf's biographer Hermione Lee, who explicates the events that precipitated the writing of the essay (Woolf had just fainted at a party at her sister's house), describes the circumstances that influenced its composition (Woolf's amorous friendship with Vita Sackville˝West was growing more intense), and recounts the history of its publicationˇa history reflective of and influenced by the Woolfs' troubled relationship with Eliot. Lee also does a marvelous job of tracking the essay's central themes and its recurring patterns of imagery.


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