On Being Ill. “Is that a user’s guide?” This question, or a clever variation on it, became a familiar refrain when the elegant Paris Press edition’s cover, conspicuously abandoned on my bed table, caught the eye of one of the many nurses or phlebotomists who rotated through my ward over four weeks—weeks coinciding with what should have been my rereading of Woolf’s 1926 On Being Ill (OBI) as well as the impressive range of essays which you may now also read at your leisure in the second section of this double issue of the Miscellany, whether “in the army of the upright” or “lying recumbent” (OBI 12-13), and certainly with the reassurance that pants provide. The truth was (and “illness is the great confessional” [OBI 11]), although that was my intent, and its presence on the valuable real estate of the bed table certainly was an incentive, I didn’t quite get around to rereading Woolf’s essay while in hospital that first month. With the hubris of the ill and without “the cautious respectability [that] health conceals” (OBI 11), I felt at that point I could sing the thing. I had the unfortunate habit of quoting it at visitors and the rare hospitalist calls—sometimes drawing on Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor to consider the metaphor of citizenship that both authors explore—“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” (Sontag 3).
This document was originally published by Virginia Woolf Miscellany in Virginia Woolf Miscellany. Copyright restrictions may apply.
Hindrichs, Cheryl. (Fall 2016). "Virginia Woolf and Illness." Virginia Woolf Miscellany, 90, pp. 1, 44-48.