When I became chronically ill and left my job as an academic, I looked to writers and artists—and especially women—who had also dealt with significant illness. I was, frankly, shocked to find how frequent the experience of chronic and recurring illness was (and is) among writers and artists, and how rarely this common human experience is discussed in scholarship. Yes, I knew that Ezra Pound and Virginia Woolf dealt with mental illness, but I had never heard about Woolf’s frequent headaches and influenza (whatever she meant by that), or that Lewis Carroll was a migraineur, or that Georgia O’Keeffe dealt with significant periods of illness that took her away from painting. I had read briefly of W. B. Yeats’s lingering experience of influenza as a reason for leaving Ireland for Spain and Italy, but how might his writings about that experience help us understand illness in that time, or post-viral syndromes, or lung congestion? Did we assume that no one was interested? Or that these periods of debilitation are sources of shame? Could we envision no relationship between the working of an ill body and how a person makes? Or were the limitations of my own ableism to blame?
But being ill, my focus changed. I suppose it is no surprise that as a longtime scholar of modernism I began with writers and artists of that era. I quickly discovered Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill,” where she most famously asserts, “English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache.” How affirming to find that one of the greatest writers of the modernist era—indeed, in the English language of any era—not only shared symptoms with me, but addressed them so acutely. I read all the way through the published volumes of Woolf’s diaries, fiercely underlining, and then copying in my journal, passages where she describes a period when she had “been a little clouded with headache, had a touch of influenza.” Where she mentions “that odd amphibious life of headache” and “Three weeks wiped out by headache” and “my own queer difficult nervous system.” Yes, Virginia, how amphibious, how prone to erase time, and how difficult to live in this world of isolation, only really understood by others who share our very queer experience of our bodies’ deviation from the normative expectations of the world around us. “What I dislike,” she writes, “is feeling that I’m always taking care, or always being taken care of.” Oh yes.
She describes the losses that illness brings, and particularly the way being frequently sick steals our time and energy, and the working of our minds:
I cannot read; my mind is all tight like a ball of string. A most unpleasant variety of headache; but I think, soon over. Only a little change needed. Not a real bad headache. Why make this note? Because reading is beyond me, & writing is like humming a song. But what a worthless song!
Setting aside this too recognizable tendency to minimize the effects of a given episode of illness—“not a real bad headache”—for me, this loss of mental functioning, of the ability to read, has been one of the most cruel aspects of being sick. Things I previously took for granted, my neurologist again and again reminds me, bring fatigue to my already wiped-out brain. For people like Woolf, and for me, the loss or even just the diminution of a life of the mind and of literature is cruel indeed.
I was struck, too, that while illness could be a horrible hindrance to writing and other work, for Woolf it could also be generative. She records in her diary that “these curious intervals in life—I’ve had many—are the most fruitful artistically—one becomes fertilised—think of my madness at Hogarth—& all the little illnesses—that before I wrote To The Lighthouse for instance. Six weeks in bed now would make a masterpiece of Moths.” And then some months later, she adds:
I believe these illnesses are in my case—how shall I express it?—partly mystical. Something happens in my mind. It refuses to go on registering impressions. It shuts itself up. It becomes chrysalis. I lie quite torpid, often with acute physical pain—as last year; only discomfort this. Then suddenly something springs. . . . I then begin to make up my story whatever it is; ideas rush into me; often though this is before I can control my mind or pen. It is no use trying to write at this stage. And I doubt if I can fill this white monster. . . . But as I was saying my mind works in idleness. To do nothing is often my most profitable way.
How counterintuitive, and yes queer, and right this is. There are times when one is confined to bed (or wherever one reclines) when in pain, or fatigued, or otherwise overwhelmed by illness, that one can achieve this mystical state—when our insights seem beyond us, coming from something else, somewhere else. The dexterity of the mind when productivity is not the aim frees creativity from obligation. A different kind of muse?
Illness, whether chronic or recurring, is both these things: an impediment to the things one most wants to accomplish, achieve, or just enjoy, and an entrance into a different world, where other understandings are possible. This access, these understandings, require a stepping away from the expectations and goals of the well world.
My quilt series Hysteria considers the intersection of women’s illness (however mis/diagnosed) and creativity. For centuries, hysteria has offered a catch-all “diagnosis” to explain such symptoms as fainting, indigestion, insomnia, heart palpitations, ticklishness, headaches, fidgetiness, claustrophobia, depression, fears of contamination, belching, forgetfulness, mental confusion, yawning, itching, and fatigue. In short, hysteria gave doctors (male) a way to explain pretty much anything they could not understand about women’s bodies and minds. Many women writers and thinkers of the turn of the century—including not just Woolf and O’Keeffe but also Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and so many others—were diagnosed with hysteria. And it is not as though “hysteria” is purely a thing of the past. Today, women reporting unrecognized symptoms are often dismissed by doctors with a diagnosis of depression or anxiety, only to get a real diagnosis sometimes years later. Indeed, in the last year, patients dealing with what we now know as “long Covid” had their symptoms dismissed as “purely psychological.”
My quilt inspired by “On Being Ill” is the second in my Hysteria series, and titled Deserters from the Army of the Upright. In her essay, Woolf describes the “cautious respectability of health” and the way that in illness, we can step away from this respectability to different and perhaps deeper insights:
In illness this make-believe ceases. Directly the bed is called for, or, sunk deep among pillows in one chair, we raise our feet even an inch above the ground on another, we cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters. They march to battle. We float with the sticks on the stream; helter skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn; irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time for years, to look round, to look up—to look, for example, at the sky.
How freeing this relief from marching to battle! Floating in a stream, blown about by the wind, we the sick can drift in this mystical realm, let our minds become chrysalis. This experience isn’t always a consolation for the losses we bear, but sometimes it is.
Quilts, often relegated to the realm of women’s “craft” (frequently a denigrating alternative to “high art”), seem a particularly appropriate medium for exploring women’s creativity and making in the face of illness. What better than an array of grays for patchwork evoking Woolf’s “army of the upright,” while bright horizontal sections suggest the “gold shafts and blue shadows” revealed to the deserters:
Ordinarily to look at the sky for any length of time is impossible. Pedestrians would be impeded and disconcerted by a public sky-gazer. What snatches we get of it are mutilated by chimneys and churches, serve as a background for man, signify wet weather or fine, daub windows gold, and, filling in the branches, complete the pathos of disheveled autumnal plane trees in autumnal squares. Now, lying recumbent, staring straight up, the sky is discovered to be something so different from this that really it is a little shocking. This then has been going on all the time without our knowing it!—this incessant making up of shapes and casting them down, this buffeting of clouds together, and drawing vast trains of ships and wagons from North to South, this incessant ringing up and down of curtains of light and shade, this interminable experiment with gold shafts and blue shadows, with veiling the sun and unveiling it, with making rock ramparts and wafting them away—this endless activity. . . .
I wanted the quilting—the stitching used to hold the quilt’s layers together, but also an element of the artwork—to add to the vertical confinement of the upright army, and to open up the spaces of the ill. (While these patterns can be easily seen in person, in photographs they are better seen from the quilt’s back.) The quilt’s rough, unbound edges likewise envision escape.
The quilt is small, more a wall-hanging than a blanket under which one could snuggle in a sick bed, but I hope that Woolf would approve of how I have found comfort in her words for the shiver, and the headache.