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Unhome: illness, reading & not ending well

THE LIBRARY in my secondary school in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, founded in the 1930s by the De La Salle order of teaching brothers, comprised the usual set texts related to the curriculum but also an eclectic assembly of elderly books, refugee tracts from various Catholic devotional crazes to genuinely esoteric literature such as St John of the Cross, Huysmans’s Against Nature, C S Lewis’s The Abolition of Pain, Martin Buber’s I and Thou, and a small enigmatic collection of French literature, including Anouilh’s L’Alouette, Le Grands Meaulnes, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, a title I’ve forgotten by Jacques Maritain and, most remarkably, a copy of La Doulou (1931) by Alphonse Daudet.

The study of illness, or, more accurately, suffering, was and is a preoccupation among core adherents and freelances alike in the Catholic rite. Some strange admittances are allowed in pursuit of wisdom about, and management of, disease, disorder, mortification; in short, agony.

Thanks to much, much better French then than I have enjoyed since, the Daudet was an eye-opener of enduring impact.

It is a personal history of contagion - specifically tabes dorsalis, an inevitable consequence of syphilis, endured by the novelist in the last 12 years of his life.

Should Daudet have written nothing else, this book will sustain readers for ever, though it remains little known, even after its 2002 English translation by Julian Barnes.

Forensic, vivid, frightening, chatty, fearless, microscopic, ‘writerly’, nauseating, charming by turns, it is a work completely devoted without hesitation or diversion to bodily trauma.

Together with Severn’s notes on the death of Keats -‘I could hear the phlegm boiling and tearing his chest’ - the text remained for me at one pole of feeling and understanding - the local circumstance of syphilitic debility, in fact, utterly irrelevant in the face of pain and futility.

Yet there was another pole: what Seamus Heaney - surely the great surgeon of optimism, endurance, persistence and recovery - described in his poem 'Fosterling', as "waiting until I was nearly fifty/to credit marvels". “Believe,” he says elsewhere “in miracle/and cures and healing wells./Call miracle self-healing:/The utter, self-revealing/Double-take of feeling.”

What moral urgency there is in our day to be positive, to give two fingers to cancer, to ‘fight’ disease, to ‘battle’ bravely, to access the only heroism open to us, that of surviving the mutiny of our own organs. We may even resort to the rituals and ceremonies of old flawed knowledge, the gullible truisms of ancestors local or foreign, in invocations to the natural world, its immortalities of seed and flower, in a kind of secular appeal to pseudo-religious sites and pilgrimages, positivities, which, in the end, prove emptier than an empty thing, utterly useless at deflection or amelioration.

And yet, there remains underfoot a grassy tundish pounding the earth with a radical flood, some sort of cleansing and freezing and some bitter meeting of elements which the ages have understood however imperfectly.

Literally two miles from that school library lay the medieval ‘holy wells’ of Struell - themselves raising intricate corbelled roofs over springs the faith in which ran back centuries earlier. Eye well, ear well, drinking well, whole bath-houses for male and female stripped in what might as well have been open air. Swinging in the beech trees, old mossy crutches; hammered into the bark, coins and holy medals as testaments to astounding interventions in this temporal world.

Draw your own conclusions - gullible paupers, credulous superstitious illiterates, traders in delusions and hallucinations, bad whiskey ...

Nonetheless, side-stepping penicillin, the spruce wards of the new infirmary which employed so many, the pioneering Mental Hospital the envy of Europe, the GP with his Lloyd George moustaches on his rounds with a crinkled leather bag, there was the intimate proximity of the wells, their stories and apparitions and cures and, in so many words, the miraculous, for real.

Thirty years ago, I managed to hear a most rare broadcast on BBC R3 of a production of Sean O’Casey’s Cock-a-Doodle Dandy (1949).

Rampant anti-clericalism, fertile atheism, paganism - a serious moment in Irish theatre. The potency of the giant Chanticleer rooster is only recovered much later in Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) in the harvest rituals of Father Jack.

But what attracted me those decades ago, and still enthrals, is the little event whereby Julia, the paralysed sister of the heroine, departs the stifled village, amid great celebration in the company of the appropriately-named Father Domineer, for Lourdes, to be cured.

In bawdy Greek mayhem, this little episode is wrought with all of O’Casey’s classic quiet pathos; partly because he is aware of the mighty power the promise of Marian miracle the Lourdes motif exercised in Ireland - this was six years after the global success of Hollywood’s The Song of Bernadette; partly because of his own sickly childhood, detailed so vividly in his multi-volume Autobiographies; but partly too because he understood the desperation of the poor, physically and psychically, in clinging to whatever vestige of communal hope might, they think, save their lives.

Physical paralysis as an emblem of other suffocations, of course, is well worn and certainly less appropriate now even than it would have been to people and their families so affected then.

But the poignancy brings into relief that remark of Virginia Woolf in her 1925 essay ‘On Being Ill’ that “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 ... it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”

While there is a vast literature engaging injury, wounding, illness and delirium as devices, they rarely impinge as themes in themselves, in a way that would expose our conventional relationships to our world - ‘unwounded’, as it were, ‘well’, ‘healthy’, ‘balanced’, ‘unsick’.

Woolf emerges from a childhood every bit as fraught as that of her (much less fashionable) odd friend and writerly colleague Edith Sitwell. Both were subject to bizarre treatments.

As one instance in a long litany of crimes and misdemeanours, Woolf struggled in the 1920s under a theory that her bipolar illness was caused by dental problems. Her doctor extracted three teeth to ease her depression and bring down a fever, which other doctors had misdiagnosed as fatal disease.

As she noted to a friend: “Three teeth pulled out that might have lasted a lifetime, and temperature still up. Next they’ll cut out my tonsils, and then I suppose adenoids, and then appendix, and then - what comes next?”

Sitwell’s parents thought her too tall with weak ankles - she was hoisted like Falstaff into iron underwear and rococo metal orthopaedic braces; the ‘cartilaginous deformity’ of her long nose encased in a truss, with prongs fixed to her face fastened by a leather strap round her forehead. She was subject to vigorous massages and treatments for ‘neurasthenia’ - a gatherup of symptoms - basically aimed at correcting the extraordinary features, posture and demeanour of this most distinctive of 20th-Century humans.

It would be absurd to reduce the creative works of these writers to the various anguishes of their physical lives or their psychic accommodations with those, and yet: “My nerves were completely broken and my nervous system ruined for life before I was ten years old. This was perfectly well known to the doctors who attended me then and to the doctors who have attended me since,” wrote Sitwell in 1944. A chilling perspective and, profoundly, a matter of the facts of corporeality.

The most insistent example I think of a fictional work which derives its force and direction from the exigencies of illness is Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest (1936) - a text book of Catholic stoicism. A new young priest arrives at his first parish, makes error after error in pastoral care, quickly becomes unpopular with both rich and poor, survives on a diet of bread soaked in cheap wine, due to increasing discomfort with his digestion - which the reader correctly diagnoses as stomach cancer - and eventually, sadly, dispiritingly, almost anonymously, as reported by a letter appended as afterword, dies in pain, disarray and confusion.

“My death is here. A death like any other, and I shall enter into it with the feelings of a very commonplace, very ordinary man. It is even certain that I shall be no better at dying than I am at controlling my life. I shall be just as clumsy and awkward. So often have I been told to be ‘simple’. I do my best. It is so hard to be simple. Worldly men talk of simple people as they do of ‘humble people’, with the same indulgent smile. But they should speak of them as of kings.”

It’s to be supposed that the whole point of poetry, or one of its points, is to attempt what is called the ‘thin air’, where the barriers between one world and another are frail; or, better, to get at the very thickness of the mortal world itself. Hence those tricks and ‘turns’ which wrongfoot us in our everyday cynicism into the naïvety that finds certain poems ‘moving’, certain others with sentiments true and of use, if only to fend off the most brutish, human pain that despair derived from hurting is.

It will come as no surprise that O’Casey’s Julia returns to the village secretly and uncured in a great failure of the transcendent to intervene in the life of her embittered home village.

As a 70s teenager, it bothered me I couldn’t understand the word ‘doulou’ in Daudet’s title. Beefer McKinney, the French master, struggled also.

It is, in fact, the Provençal dialect word for ‘pain’.

In turning to describe, in this little book, the very dramatic sojourn of agonising disease within his own self, the famous writer resorted to a word from his childhood which called him back to other days in Nimes. The actual destination and location of what his own son termed “a terrible and implacable breviary”.

In a word, if you can bear it: ‘home’.

This piece first appeared in issue xx of Iota magazine, xx 2018

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