There are some distinctive passages in Dostoyevsky’s great novella, Notes from Underground where the Underground Man, its antihero narrator, elaborates upon one of his perceptions. He is a kind of existentialist crank, a man who philosophically and literally chooses to look upon the sour side, to defend its subtleties, and even to revel in it. Here are his sensibilities:
‘Well, even in toothache there is enjoyment,’ I answer. I had toothache for a whole month and I know there is. In that case, of course, people are not spiteful in silence, but moan; but they are not candid moans, they are malignant moans, and the malignancy is the whole point. The enjoyment of the sufferer finds expression in those moans; if he did not feel enjoyment in them he would not moan.
I’m provoked by the notion that there’s a kind of voluptuousness, a seemingly contradictory languor, in feeling sick. That absorption is more of a subtext in the novel, but it came to mind to me today, because for the past few days I’ve been recuperating from arthroscopic hip surgery, and I’ve been in an unsettled twilight state of narcotic pain killers, antibiotics, pain and sleeplessness. Getting up to crutch myself around the house has been a symphony of grunts and moans that would have made the Underground Man proud. And they are vocalized as much for my own satisfaction as to continually remind my mate that I’m in a tortured state. “I’m sick, I can’t be bothered being human!”
There’s a weird sensuality to having your standard bodily state altered, and it reminds me of how as writers it’s helpful, almost necessary to be able to change perspective, to put your snout in the grey areas, to dig in the dirt underneath the flowers. Drilling your bones with sharp instruments and filling your gut with brain-torquing substances is an effective vehicle for perspective change.
A Moment Caught in a Glass
I had a moment, lying in bed with my cotton head and splayed limbs, drug-dulled and addled, where I realized that for minutes I’d been listening—though not consciously hearing—a sweet, piping songbird repeating a trilling little enchantment. When I tilted my brain to actually process that song at a higher level, I also noticed that a ruby/violet colored light was dancing over my face, a reflection from a colored crystal that was hanging off the bedroom door. This was one of those weirdly transporting moments, timeless, in the universe’s endless shuffle of moments, that was richly satisfying—and could have only occurred with the strange cocktail of pain and pills that knocked my perspective. A songbird’s tune, a luscious crimson light, a held moment.
My diminished (or expanded) state is only temporary, but it brought to mind what a writer might do with illness. I wonder what effect that lupus, which eventually killed Flannery O’ Connor at 39, had on her astonishingly original, arrestingly grotesque and redemptive story writing. Would she have been less of a writer without it? Would Faulkner been a finer writer (imagine!) if he didn’t have such a taste for whiskey? I don’t know, but I do know Percosets really aren’t at the top of the healthy vegetable pyramid, so I’m dispensing with them for now.
Writing with Surgical Instruments
Surgical episodes can make for interesting writing forays. I worked some amusement into the tale of my vasectomy, yet for all the fun of the writing, I’d rather have been at the nail salon. And there were some light moments in a piece I published some years ago about a day with my father at the emergency room, but darkness was the prevailing tone. All in all, I think I’m happy my maladies are mostly on the temporary side of time’s dial.
Let’s end with a piece from T. S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton that has a flavor of that arrested state of illness (or of distortion) discussed here:
“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered.”