For the first time in a few years, I’ve been ill enough (just a chest infection) to spend several days in and out of bed, feeling too groggy to do much. I’d forgotten what a mind-changing, even mind-opening experience being ill, or allowing yourself to be ill, can be.
Being ill turns you in on yourself – not an entirely pleasant thing, when your throat is as raw as an Aberdeen January morning. Your circle of existence is suddenly and dramatically narrowed, to a few rooms or, in the worst case, a single room, rather than a whole city, a world.
When the city or the world beckon, being confined to a room is likely to feel limited and constraining. But illness removes the itch to escape, forces you to make do with what’s at hand.
I suddenly found myself enjoying the simplest things: the relative comfort of our not-so-glorious Ikea sofa, the warmth that central heating brings even in weather of unspeakable filthiness, the absence of infuriating noise and bustle. The enjoyment was not untinged by darker thoughts; being ill, you realise your vulnerability to cold and wet, how just this thin layer of civilisation protects you from the true misery of unprotected frailty, the state of the “poor naked wretches” whom Lear pities on the heath.
Being ill also gives you an excuse to relax mentally, to let the high brow sag a little. I found myself, the Sunday before last, spending most of the afternoon watching sport and old films on TV. I was dimly aware that the rugby I was watching – England versus Ireland – suffered from a dearth of rugby (no tries) and the film Chocolat lacked the dark and bitter essence of chocolate, consisting almost entirely of sugar (surely it should have fallen foul of some EU certification standard?). But my critical senses were pleasantly dulled; for once, I allowed myself to be lightly entertained.
There is a connection between the enforced inactivity brought on by illness and the old idea of fallowness. I say old because no sane contemporary agriculturalist would contemplate leaving a field fallow for one year in every seven, as recommended in the Book of Leviticus. We now believe in forcing productivity through a constant cycle, using synthetic fertilisers. There are signs of that method overreaching itself in the little reported problem of excessive nitrogen, leading through eutrophication (the excessive growth of algae, sucking up oxygen) to dead zones in the oceans, for example in the Gulf of Mexico near the mouth of the Mississippi, which channels fertiliser run-off from the Midwest.
In the fields of the mind, I believe, the idea of non-stop productivity is both unattractive and impossible. There, the adage of that sage Roman Pliny the Elder still holds good: “Fields left fallow recover their fertility.” When fields are left unseeded, the apparent inactivity or slothfulness is an illusion. Below the surface, at the microbiotic level, fallow fields are a hive of activity.
The same thing I believe happens with the mind in illness; the surface level may seem pretty chaotic or meaningless but below the surface plenty is going in. Ideas and even vocabulary may be regenerating, or revivifying, to use Pliny’s lovely word. One of the disadvantages of forced constant productivity, at least at the mental level, is the constant recycling of clichés; there isn’t time, or the right time, for anything new to grow. Perhaps all politicians, and other public figures who drone on in the same dreary manager-speak uncontaminated by any sense of delight in words (Boris Johnson is an exception), should be regularly inoculated with harmless doses of flu, to force them to lie fallow for the odd week.
Once you begin to venture out, slowly and gingerly at first, you find that the world, to the convalescent, looks ever so slightly different. You notice odd architectural features – that incongruous art-deco block on the corner of a busy street, the handsome Roman inscription above the doorway of the local telephone exchange – you’d had too little time to see before.
Our attitude to illness these days seems exceptionally intolerant. Employees fearful of the sack drag themselves into work, spreading contagion, when they would do far better to stay at home recuperating and regathering their energies. Illness is regarded as something to be “battled” using hard technology, rather than something to be patiently endured, or even welcomed as an enigmatic guest.
For the Victorians, especially for Victorian women, it was very different, as a certain tolerance was accorded to mysterious conditions, often, it must be said, misdiagnosed as “hysteria”. Alice James, sister of Henry and William, lived much of her life in the shadow of what Henry called “tragic health”; but he also intuited that her life as an invalid was a kind of solution to “the extraordinary intensity of her will and personality”, which would have made “the equal, the reciprocal life of a ‘well’ person – in the usual world – almost impossible to her.”