This post is in direct response to Leslie Jamison’s essay from The Atlantic, “‘We Sweat, Crave and Itch All Day’: Why Writing about Bodies Is Vital.” If you haven’t read it yet, I highly suggest you do. You can find it here.
Many credible artists suffered from debilitating illness or chronic pain or injury: Frida Kahlo, Virginia Woolf, Ingmar Bergman, Rainer Maria Rilke, John Milton, Vassar Miller, John Keats, Ludwig van Beethoven, Pierre-Auguste Renoir – just to name a few. This is due in part to the nature of growing medical knowledge and accessibility of treatment (millions of people in centuries past suffered from untreated, poorly treated, or misdiagnosed illnesses), but there’s certainly a stereotype of the tortured artist. This torture can be psychological (depression or addiction), emotional (heartbreak), or physical. For Beethoven and Renoir, their afflictions were particularly cruel. Beethoven, a composer and musician, had already begun to lose his hearing by age 31, and went almost completely deaf by age 44. Renoir, a painter, suffered from extreme rheumatoid arthritis and, late in his life, required someone’s placing the brush in between his paralyzed fingers in order for him to continue painting.
What is interesting to me is that so few of these artists really lent credence to their afflictions. Those who did so publicly are known for it. Frida Kahlo addressed her broken and healing body strikingly in many of her self-portraits; and Vassar Miller, who suffered lifelong from cerebral palsy, wrote about the difficulty in reconciling her sexuality with her severely disabled body.
For centuries, writing about the physical experience of being in one’s body was considered beneath art. Art was to appeal to the mind and soul, which were valued above the sinful and unclean physical body. Physical pleasures like eating, resting, and sex were each associated with their own special (“cardinal”) sins – gluttony, sloth, and lust. As Virginia Woolf puts it in her essay “On Being Ill,” “…literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and… is null, and negligible and non-existent.”
Leslie Jamison mentions another downside to writing about your body – that it can be considered self-centered “navel gazing,” pun intended. Does writing about your own experiences, even zooming in to what’s happening inside your body, imply a fundamental lack of creativity? That you’re incapable of coming up with anything else? Of course not! But this is how it’s sometimes viewed. Jamison argues it should be enough to describe what’s happening to you. To say, “This is how I feel.” Acknowledging that, good or bad, is empowering. And writing about your physical afflictions can even help bring healing to others who suffer similarly. During her cancer and others’, my mom has found great help in counseling cancer-specific chatrooms and websites.
This is all particularly poignant to me because I know the power of acknowledging the body and its suffering. One of the first good poems I wrote, which was published in the UNC undergraduate literary magazine Cellar Door and won third place in their annual poetry contest, dealt squarely with physical pain and suffering. My boyfriend at the time had required emergency surgery resulting in the removal of feet of his intestines. He recovered in the hospital for two months, during which time I stayed nearby for a long weekend to visit him (he was living in another state to attend college).
That weekend was painful, awkward, and deeply sad. I tied his shoes because he couldn’t bend over to reach them. I watched a nurse wiggle a needle around under the skin of his hand for what seemed like five minutes, searching for a vein for the IV.
I struggled in writing several lines of the poem in particular, which are as follows:
“Sunday morning, while your mom was away,
you gently pressed my hand to your crotch
and closed your eyes for a languid moment.
With morphine-tinged speech, you said
it was good to feel pleasure, not pain.”
Keep in mind that I was 18 and the word “crotch” made me cringe. I mean, it still kind of does. But I remember the exact feeling I got after writing it down, a release. A flood of peace. I still felt nervous when reading the poem aloud to my class, and later when I submitted it for publication, but it is precisely the physicality of that moment that needs to present in the poem for it to be at all representative of how I felt that weekend, and what happened, and how young we were. The honesty of these lines scared me, but also invigorated me, which I needed in order to bring healing to myself.
Illness and healing are such huge parts of our lives! They’re right up there with love, heartbreak, loss, war, identity, and all other topics that make for great literature. As much as we’d sometimes like to, we can’t ignore the fact that we exist, thrive, and interact with others on this planet as a body.
I hold to the idea that we’d all be better off by simply acknowledging the existence of our bodies. Then maybe we can progress to acknowledging how our bodies make us feel, and maybe, finally, loving and embracing them. Until then, writing about the physical experience of living will do!
Love to all.