Virginia Woolf begins her 1926 essay, ‘On Being Ill,’ with a doozy of a sentence.
So begins an essay by my San Diego writing colleague, Tom Larson, “Writing While Ill: Pathography, Then & Now” in Shenandoah, the literary journal of Washington & Lee University. He then quotes Woolf’s lengthy sentence, the first of a three-page, 21-sentence paragraph, so that readers can “behold Woolf’s lapidary craftsmanship . . . a stunningly stylized lead, rich in Proustian intricacies of phrasal singing and delayed cadence.”
He draws on Woolf’s essay, noting the likelihood that she wrote it after she had recovered from that particular bout of illness and the fact that it doesn’t discuss her ailments themselves. Woolf remarks that, “Illness makes us disinclined for the long campaigns that prose exacts;” in other words, writers in the throes of illness don’t feel well enough to write. Larson contrasts the illuminating vision of “On Being Ill” with Woolf’s more immediate but less-poetic responses to her daily condition in her diaries, and moves into his thesis by asking: “How do we make sense of language’s expression of the body (Woolf’s diary) and literature’s avoidance of the body (Woolf’s essay)?”
While neither Woolf nor Susan Sontag, in Illness as Metaphor, write about their own illness–significant as it was–in exploringthe topic, now we find ourselves in “the age of pathography, a virulent subset of memoir,” a term first used in 1988 by Joyce Carol Oates when describing biographies whose authors overemphasize the seedier aspects of their subjects’ lives, and now applied to the present plethora of illness and tragedy memoirs.
Tom Larson is not new to Virginia Woolf or the topic of memoir, which has made him both a resource and a stumbling block for me. His 2007 book, The Memoir and the Memoirist, explores the genre both past and present. He differentiates between autobiography and memoir, citing Woolf’s “I now and I then” perspective from “A Sketch of the Past.”
I was considering a paper on Woolf and memoir for a Woolf conference until I read Tom’s book and realized that I couldn’t add much to what he had already said. Now, in this eloquent essay, he develops his ideas further.