What Can Literature Teach Us About Illness?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureThe coronavirus pandemic has shaken people of all ages out of their complacency to confront human frailty and the inevitability of mortality. It’s a lot to handle — the physical and emotional toll is overwhelming, especially when you’re isolated. No wonder psychologists have seen a dramatic increases in cases of depression and anxiety. Naturally, people have turned to many places to seek help in coping with such widespread illness and death. In a fascinating essay for Oxford University Press Blog, Lisa Mendelman, an assistant professor of English at Menlo College, suggests we turn to literature. In her essay, titled “What literature can tach us about living with illness,” Mendelman observes that some twentieth-century writers, like Willa Cather and Edith Wharton, focus on the challenges of being ill; she writes “These authors express a self-conscious skepticism about what we learn from being sick and highlight how readily we embrace the advantages of wellness, even when we judge ourselves harshly for doing so… [These] writers’ snapshots of illness capture the ambivalence inspired by physical vulnerability and offer some lessons in how psychic strategies for confronting disease at once protect and restrict our senses of self.” Mendelman shares six specific lessons that literature can teach us about illness.

The first lesson that literature teaches us about illness is that illness proves our vulnerability. Authors dismiss sentimentality in favor or rigorous objectivity to highlight the fact that illness is a function of biology and not a psychological weakness.

The second lesson is that illness, even in its disorientation and self-alienation, can be instructive. For example, Cather’s The Song of the Lark presents us with Thea who is suffering from pneumonia: “Thea had been moaning with every breath since the doctor came back, but she did not know it. She did not realize that she was suffering pain. When she was conscious at all, she seemed to be separated from her body; to be perched on top of the piano, or on the hanging lamp, watching the doctor sew her up. It was perplexing and unsatisfactory, like dreaming.” Mendelman notes: “Thea’s enigmatic distance from everyone, including herself, persists long after her feverish dissociation abates—and has valuable consequences. Her capacity for detached self-witness fuels her creative development and enables her success as an international opera star.”

The third lesson is that it is difficult to witness someone else’s pain. In the same novel, Thea sits next to a sick young woman and she feels empathetic toward her, but her thoughts turn to her own suffering: “[Thea] smiled—though she was ashamed of it—with the natural contempt of strength for weakness.” Mendelman adds “Cather’s point, I think, is that we have a tendency to deny our own mortality. This defense mechanism allows us to keep moving through the world, even as it can undermine intimate connection.”

The fourth lesson is that psychological suffering can be more isolating than physical illness, especially for people living in marginalized communities. We meet Angela, a Black-passing-as-white character in Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun: A Novel Without A Moral, who suffers from mumps and the additional anguish that is brought about by racism (i.e., the illness is not understood outside her community.

The fifth lesson is that we should not be afraid of pain. A grandmotherly character in Edith Wharton’s The Gods Arrive declares “Maybe we haven’t made enough of pain—been too afraid of it. Don’t be afraid of it.” Mendelman states “This line encapsulates Wharton’s career-long interest in modernity’s problematic attempts to obviate human suffering. From drugs and dancing to science and self-care, Wharton suggests that cultural innovations are often driven by the short-sighted desire to find a panacea for the human condition.”

The sixth lesson is that melancholic uncertainty can impact psychic wisdom and health. In Edith Wharton’s Twilight Sleep we see the impact that several life events have on the Nona Wyant. Nona finds that “the business of living [is] a tortured tangle.” Later while recovering from a gunshot wound, she experiences her father’s proximity to her as “[fleeting] comfort… as if the living warmth he imparted were something they shared indissolubly.

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Read related posts: World Literature Has the Power to Help Mankind in These Troubled Times
The Power of Literature
The Poems We Turn To

For further reading: https://blog.oup.com/2020/06/what-literature-can-teach-us-about-living-with-illness/

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