Ill at Ease

I was lying down this afternoon, taking a restorative siesta of 20 minutes or so, when I began to think about writers’ and readers’ maladies. I suppose my upcoming physicals and various checkups at the end of this month probably contributed to these reflections. D. J. Enright--a wonderful poet and critic--once edited a thick Oxford anthology called “Ill at Ease: Writers on Ailments, Real and Imagined.” He clearly had plenty of material.

I suppose that melancholia must be the complaint most common to writers, scholars and many readers. Indeed, one of our greatest books is devoted to the subject: Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. After it, must come--to speak very generally--hypochondiria. People who spend too much time thinking often end up thinking about themselves and soon they’re thinking about their bodies and what is that dark spot, that sudden pain, that bump, that mote in one’s eye? Pianist Glenn Gould is, surely, one of the martyrs of hypochondria, though he certainly suffered from real disease too, given that he died suddenly at 50.

That fear of sudden death--before our pen has gleaned our teeming brain--haunts writers when they’re in the middle of a project. Just as old people, no matter how decrepit or disease-ridden, always figure they’re good for at least one more year, so writers tend to think: If I can only live long enough to finish this book and see it published, I’ll be content. Of course, at the back of our minds, there is always a list of what we’d like to accomplish before we make our final quietus. I, myself, modestly think, quite modestly: I just want to bring out one more big collection of essays, another volume of my memoirs, and A Great Masterpiece That Will Live Forever. Give me that, Lord, and I’ll be content.

In real life, writers sit around all day--except for Hemingway who stood up to write-- and so circulation becomes a problem, along with sagging bellies, hemorrhoids, headaches and eye-strain. Those who type fall prey to repetitive stress syndrome; those who read too long at a stretch find that they have fallen asleep in their armchair.

Writing and reading--who knew they were so bad for your health? I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised since the youthful readers, where I grew up, were the fat kids, who wore glasses, were inept at sports, and munched on candy bars and donuts while they devoured one Hardy Boys novel after another. I certainly was that kid and sometimes now wish I could have been more hardy myself. But, then, if I had had perfect vision and a great jumpshot, would I be writing this today? Hard to tell.

Can members of the Reading Room suggest other ailments that they associate with the bookish and scholarly life? Are there any countermeasures or cures? Is there a link between creativity and hypochondria as some have speculated? Does disease, as Thomas Mann explored in Dr. Faustus, give rise to art? Do we need to suffer to create? Please share some of your own thoughts about writing and illness, whether real or imagined.

- Michael Dirda

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