As I sit here, riding the wave of a low fever and choking back the occasional cough, I contemplate modern culture's great masterworks on being sick. There are three.
Why shouldn't there be? Why shouldn't someone try to capture the essence of illness, that thing that so quickly makes you feel like notyou...? Sure, there are different kinds of being sick, and I should say what I mean. But the fact that I can't say what I mean leads to the needs for ruminations like this one.
I can say what I don't mean. I don't mean mental illness, schizophrenia and the like. I don't mean identifiable conditions like leprosy or jaundice. I mean that big dysfunctional family of I-don't-quite-feel-right feelings, the place where it doesn't matter what the name of the thing is, because it feels the same no matter what you call it. Bad cold. Mild flu. 24-hour bug. Whatever. Maybe you have a fever, maybe you don't. There's a cough, but it could be allergies, and it doesn't really bother you that much except every now and again you pitch a slight fit. Your nose is maybe too runny or maybe too stuffed, or both, and either way you don't like it. You have to wonder whether or not you should go to work, because there isn't a clear-cut argument either way. You're just sort of, you know, floaty.
My words don't capture it. But I've found three sets of words, three masterworks, that do. One is a song, another an essay, one a poem.
The poem is maybe the least familiar but the most "great," as it was written by someone dead, and that always helps, especially if the death was tragic. And it was. Sylvia Plath, she of "Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I'm through" and "Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air" wrote about fever. I've tried to do this and it never works. It can't be captured or described... by me. Plath did a fine job. In "Fever 103°" she captures the feeling a fever gives you of being disconnected, of watching everything float past without being affected by any of it. And also the ache. The general, nonspecific, insidious ache.
I am too pure for you or anyone.
Hurts me as the world hurts God. I am a lantern-
My head a moon
Of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin
Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.
Does not my heat astound you. And my light.
All by myself I am a huge camellia
Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush.
I think I am going up,
I think I may rise--
The beads of hot metal fly, and I, love, I...
Both pleasant and unpleasant, and more of the latter as the poem goes on. And she takes something considered mundane and elevates it into something extraordinary. This is why poetry is a wonderful thing.
The essay may not sound familiar, although it appears in a collection with a catchy title: The Trouble With Testosterone: And Other Essays on the Biology of the Human Predicament. Robert Sapolsky. I forgot the title of the essay, but it's about how being "sick," having these general feelings of woozy and feverish and can't-stand-up, is good for you. These things exist for a reason. The whole collection of essays focuses on the link between the physiological and the psychological, so he makes reference to experiments where lizards with infections were allowed to roam in a small enclosure that was hot at one end and cold at the other. They roamed to the hot side and the infection cleared up. If they were prevented from heating up, they died. A little too pointed, perhaps, but it bears out my innate conviction that if you just let the sickness run its course, you're better off in the end. I don't believe in sick days and I'm loath to go anywhere near doctors of the medical kind. Part of this may have to do with how much I like the husky voice I get when I fall ill. Part of it, too, may connect to the fact that whenever I sit in a doctor's office I invariably end up in tears. But both of these are topics for another day.
The third of the three masterworks on sickness is the song. This song is new to me but probably not to most people. In some areas of pop culture I fall sadly short, and music is one of these. During the '80s I was caught up in Duran Duran and the Bangles, and the only reason I'd ever heard of The Clash was, of course, "Rock the Casbah." During college I was so busy purchasing The Eagles' Greatest Hits and Billy Joel's Greatest Hits and The Best of the Steve Miller Band from BMG that I missed out on college rock entirely. Ska? What is this "ska" of which you speak? So I was oblivious to Phish up until about three months ago, when a guy from work (who is me, but with a few obvious differences, like he's a he and I'm not) lent me Hoist. And I discovered the third great masterwork on illness in modern culture.
"Down with Disease."
And just as Plath does in her poetic way, and Sapolsky does in his biological-behavioral-scientific-analytical way, Phish captures what it's like to be sick.
Down with disease and I'm up before the dawn
A thousand barefoot children outside dancing on my lawn
Dancing on my lawn, and I keep
Waiting for the time that I can finally say
That this has all been wonderful but now I'm on my way
But when I think it's time to leave it all behind
Try to find a way to, but there's nothing I can say to make it stop
It's a catchy tune, bouncy, with the occasional emphatic twang. The music underlines the words, the end of the chorus fading into a happy-but-relentless echo of stop, stop, stop, stop stop stop stop...
The whole song, words and music together, captures the idea that, being feverish, you're not quite sure what the world is up to. Weird images float in and out. The exhaustion puts you in bed but not to sleep. And, at first, there's something not entirely unpleasant about the feeling of fever, this sort of wavy filter between you and the outside... but later on you decide you're done with that feeling, and unpleasantness is all there is, but it does you no good to say to a feeling, Go away. You're stuck. You try to find a way to get out of it, but you can't...
Welcome to the Hotel California.
Such a lovely place.