Temperature normal – sometimes

Borogroves-toves-raths

(Sir John Tenniel, ‘Borogroves, toves, raths’)

‘Delirium would seem to be the fate of all societies which become content in secured wealth and gradually forget the conditions of labour and service upon which alone that security can be maintained.’[1]

 
Writing to Eudora Welty in 1996, William Maxwell told her that he was sending ‘a lifetime of correspondence’ to the University of Illinois Library but couldn’t bear to dispose of his letters from Charles and Susan Shattuck without rereading them.

‘Reading the letters has plunged me into such a fit of remembering, not only of them but of almost everything else, that I couldn’t sleep because my mind was racing so. It made me realize that remembering can be a kind of illness, and perhaps I have it.’[2]

It can be; I may have it too. But if it’s the other way around, I’ve had a touch of that too lately, encountering people I’ve not seen for years, some of them dead, of course, but also with the tendency to turn into others or, indeed, into narrow staircases or resistant thickets or animals—among them, white rabbits, though not, to my recollection, Grace Slick.

Even though I’ve been luckier than a great many other people in the matter of general health, I’ve still had far more serious medical conditions than this in my life—‘I want you to go to hospital’, my doctor said once, years ago and, when I mumbled vaguely about dates and appointments, he said, ‘I mean now. Immediately.’ So peritonitis was happily avoided—but I can’t remember feeling so generally ill. And yes, the nights have been the worst but I’m still frustrated by the sheer physical effort involved in such major undertakings as putting on clothes or lifting a dropped spoon from the floor. (For the most part, the Librarian, visibly puzzled by the circumstances which have landed her with this most unnatural role, buckles to and tends.)

‘Space the doses evenly throughout the day.’

We all experience illness; some are never free of it; a part of ordinary life, it also offers the means of luring or urging the poet, the painter, the storyteller into strange and often arresting terrain. Illness is so various, involves its own related places, its own rituals, its own company. If we are not ill now, we have been and we will be.

The Centurion's Servant 1914 by Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959

Stanley Spencer, The Centurion’s Servant: Tate Gallery
© Estate of Stanley Spencer

Discussing Stanley Spencer’s The Centurion’s Servant —‘a person walking only it is lying down’, the painter remarked— Kenneth Pople notes that, in Spencer’s childhood Cookham, it was the custom to pray round the sickbed. Family recollections included an episode in which one of the older Spencer boys developed pneumonia. The illness reached a stage at which the anxiously watching women dispatched young Sydney Spencer to run to his father, then working across the Thames at Hedsor, ‘to tell him that “the crisis has come”; a message which reached Pa’s ears as ‘“Christ has come.”’[3]

Alethea Hayter quotes Coleridge—‘“I appear to myself like a sick physician, feeling the pang acutely, yet deriving a wonted pleasure from examining its process and developing its causes”’—and comments that, ‘He was speaking metaphorically, but illness, like anything else for him, could become an allegory and was interesting for that reason. Anything, however intrinsically repugnant, could be used as a symbol which would make a poem.’[4]

The warring elements of my recent nights have been the sleeplessness for hours at a time but, on the other hand, a seething and feverish onslaught of images tap-dancing on the insides of my eyelids. Lying still can, of course, be a quite exhausting business.

‘This medicine may colour your urine. This is harmless.’

Kipling-via-BBC

Edmund Wilson’s assertion that ‘[t]he theme of inescapable illness dominates the whole later Kipling’ is a reminder of just how many impressive stories this applies to, when postwar trauma is included, as it must be.[5] Yet, as J. M. S. Tompkins points out, the theme of healing predates the war, emerging in Actions and Reactions (1909), with its opening story ‘An Habitation Enforced’ and its concluding one, ‘The House Surgeon’.[6] In later stories, it is sometimes the ritual and fellowship of the masonic lodge that is the healing power: ‘In the Interests of the Brethren’, ’Fairy-Kist’, ‘The Janeites’.

‘Ah!’ Conrad’s Marlow says, ‘but it was something to have at least a choice of nightmares.’ (I think we can all wholeheartedly second that.) And: ‘I admit my behaviour was inexcusable, but then my temperature was seldom normal in these days.’[7]

My own temperature promises to be—and, importantly, to stay—normal, any day now. Yes. I think so. Any day now.

 

References

[1] C. F. G. Masterman, The Condition of England (London: Methuen, 1911), 34.

[2] Suzanne Marrs, editor, What There Is to Say, We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 441.

[3] Kenneth Pople. Stanley Spencer: A Biography (London: Harper Collins, 1991), 63.

[4] Alethea Hayter, Voyage in Vain: Coleridge’s Journey to Malta in 1804 (1973; London: Robin Clark, 1993), 152.

[5] Edmund Wilson, ‘The Kipling That Nobody Read’, in Andrew Rutherford, editor, Kipling’s Mind and Art (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964), 67.

[6] J. M. S. Tompkins, The Art of Rudyard Kipling, second edition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965), Chapter Six, ‘Healing’.

[7] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness with The Congo Diary, edited by Robert Hampson (London: Penguin Books, 1995), 103, 114.

 

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