The Sick and the Unexpected

How to Cite

Simons, I. (2001). The Sick and the Unexpected. M/C Journal, 4(3).
Vol. 4 No. 3 (2001): Sick
Published 2001-06-01

In "On Being Ill" Virginia Woolf asks why novelists have routinely preferred certain emotions over illness for driving plot. They have canonized passions as much as plotlines: love motivates protagonists; jealousy sustains entire trilogies; loneliness wins our sympathy, but illness almost never drives an epic. Illness does, in fact, have thematic potential: the ill could be catalysts for climax because they are direct. "A childish outspokenness [exists] in illness; things are said, truths blurted out" (13). Because the sick already foresee their deaths, they invest less in the future but want more from the moment. They would find strong antagonists in their already-canonical opposites, the Vigorous. Why couldn't "The Good and the Bad" give way to "The Healthy and the Diseased"? Woolf wants to direct our attention, at least, to this possibility.

She does also admit to the impracticality of reinventing our methods of interpretation. We inhabit ideologies, as Slavoj Zizek later tells us in different words. Woolf herself avoids the technical, impersonal term "ideology" but, I will argue, she develops a model of the rules that circumscribe her culture. She argues that interpretive strategies for literary and daily events motivate each other: we have come to expect a rise and fall, a tragedy and dénouement, in our lives and our books. I suggest not only that she describes ideology but that she also prefigures what could be called a modern strategy of escape: she suggests we can only figure the boundaries of ideology by performing our victimization to them.

Woolf begins by offering exaggerated versions of the existing categories of the "healthy" and "sick." She positions herself - as an author of a sane, or comprehensible, text - on the side of the healthy. She finally performs a seemingly self-conscious failure by slipping onto the side of the diseased. Here she enacts the martyrdom that Slavoj Zizek has elsewhere argued is the sole way to gesture outside of symbolic systems we inhabit.

Woolf and Zizek's models diverge in argumentative style but converge in an emphasis on the sick. Both suggest the sick have sole, limited access to pre-symbolic instincts, if not to pre-symbolic thinking. Both suggest communities sustain ideology through a refusal to incorporate moments of disjunction or trauma into the public stories they create. Healthy subjects refuse the destruction of extreme surprise; only the sick lack the energy necessary for the same sustained self-preservation.

Woolf especially credits biology for the difference. The ill have unique access to unconventional ideas not because of intelligence or a passionate decision, but because they lack the physical resources for sustaining a public story. Of course this biological binary also partially restricts Woolf to one side of the divide: as long as she sustains a literary dialogue, she contributes to the very literary conventions that model public myth. All acts of communication (literary and other) help sustain ideology, which is simply the story that can elicit understanding between healthy members of a community. "The army of the upright marches to battle," Woolf writes (16): bakers, shoemakers, politicians, and even allegedly racial philosophers play the roles needed to allow a joint drama to run fluidly. "In health [a constant] pretence [is] kept up" (14); ultimately only when we radically, biologically change - when "the bed is called for [and we] cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright [- can] we become deserters" (14), which is also precisely why Woolf's "we" here is performative. She voices transgression while surrendering her claims to it. With "we" she recovers pre-symbolic instinct: "…still we must wriggle. We can not stiffen peaceably into glassy mounds" (17). She sometimes suggests ideology is less universal than contingently psychological: We simply want our life stories, like some long book we have started to read, to keep making the sense we have invested in.

Zizek in turn consistently insists on an impermeable division between ideology and what lies beyond it. He would agree with Woolf that by merely partaking in language games, we confirm and sustain a dominant symbolic order. But Zizek harbors less hope for "escape." He argues that linguistic systems necessarily commit their inhabitants to boundaries. Language is the structure of ideology, which always successfully hides its secret, Lacan's objet petit a, within it. Symbolic systems, and the political systems that use them to instate their control, avoid the central lack, even though efforts at "avoidance" are actually unnecessary. The objet petit a is defined precisely as that surplus that escapes signification. To mention the unmentionable is already impossible.

Zizek's subjects sustain public myth merely by acting sane: "Our belief is already materialized in the external ritual; in other words, we already believe unconsciously" (Object 43). Even political revolutionaries who attempt resistance contribute to a public story by weighing in on one side of an existing dichotomy. Zizek explains that the Jacobites failed because they failed to rethink the system they inhabited. They severed the head of a King instead of convincing themselves that the king was a mere human being. Admitting to the terms of monarchy meant preserving the system; and ultimately, whoever fights or argues within a system preserves some of its foundations. Zizek's model does echo Woolf's when he states that only the sick escape the cycle of perpetuity: "The subject who thinks he can avoid this paradox and really have a free choice is a psychotic subject….who is not really caught up in the signifying network" (Object 166). Those who can 'think new' are those who misread language altogether.

Having established the division common to both theorists, Woolf finds herself in an impasse. She leaves herself no room for intellectual reinvention. In the end of her essay, she drops her own voice to point to someone else's work. She offers us Augustus Hare and titles him a second life-model alongside the Sick, as the Untalented. The untalented and sick relate because both fail through biological limitation; both escape genre by a natural inability to produce it. So Woolf makes a strange rhetorical move, devoting an unbalanced last fourth of her essay to summarizing Hare's bad novel, The Story of Two Noble Lives. She ends her own work with a book she says "flounders" (20); Hare's story is sick in temper, or poorly edited; he describes insignificancies when he needs clarity. She finishes on her own descriptive word, "agony," describing Hare's own suffering heroine.

This final imbalance marks Woolf's refusal to finish, and it finds an important companion strategy in her choice of words. Woolf's rhetorical move here recurs often in her speeches, which benefit from the verbal play. She picks a central term that falls short of its alleged duty (here, "Illness"; in "Craftsmanship," it was "words"). She positions the refrain as if it fully encompassed the central subject of her work and positions herself as the narrator who wants to speak merely about "illness." Of course, as said, Woolf is actually talking about more than the status of the sick in literature in "On Being Ill." She is trying to suggest several possible avenues to the unexpected. She nonetheless launches the essay pretending to be talking about the ill, and throughout continues to enact her own satisfaction with the subject. Zizek clarifies again: Woolf shows some complicity in ideology by performing a game she knows to be flawed but "proceeds as if [she] did not know" (For 53). Zizek characterizes the members of any ideology by that schizophrenia: subjects know that prevailing assumptions are flawed but proceed as if they did not know. A subject would never be able to claim that 'the objet petit a lies here' or that, 'the emperor is wearing no clothes,' because the nudity or lack at the center of a symbolic system is actually defined by its inaccessibility. Efforts to name the objet petit a might, at best, shift its location.

This division inherent to ideology - between knowledge and the inability to change - is also our only potential insight into its failures. We cannot unravel a story while we partake in it; we can only reinvest in its existing terms. But Zizek suggests we might be able to signify a flaw by becoming martyrs to the system we inhabit. A martyr like Socrates performs his complicity within a system but then falls victim to it, silently revealing the flaw at the center of the system that condemns him. Both Zizek and Henry Sussman mention Socrates as a subject who performs an ironic martyrdom: He refuses to fight or take sides in Athenian law but allows the performance of his failure to explain what he can not fully say, himself. Woolf becomes a similar sort of martyr when she silently surrenders to the failure of her central term. She sets the scene for her own failure, which Zizek calls the "'dramatization' [which] gives the lie to the theoretical position by bringing out its implicit presuppositions" (For 42).

Woolf's refusal to note the limitations of her central term also strengthens the effect of her failure by allowing the reader to work for her own discoveries. The reader feels more allegiance to what she uncovers herself than to the issues Woolf directly develops (like the status of the sick in the canon; our forced sympathies, etc..). The reader who privately interprets also encounters a certain subtlety in the text that strengthens her relationship to her discoveries. Woolf's central term, "illness," is - however incomplete - actually not so distant from the central idea of the essay. Woolf does not use the term overtly ironically or even as a metaphor to speak of a distinct second topic. "Illness" is in fact almost sufficient for Woolf's central idea. And even though we are left to note the gap between that term in the title and the developing ideas, Woolf's emphatic embrace of the word does not entail overt acting on her part. She performs and does not perform. She, even more importantly, refuses to acknowledge her performance, leaving us to trust our own instincts in a new interpretation. The decision to trust our own interpretation is hard: with even a slight shift in our ideas about the history of reading (imagining Woolf's Victorian residue, her faith in the very language she struggles to rework), her intent looms impossibly distant. We might imagine Woolf's own complicity with her central term. Like this, she becomes Zizek's "master," a self-satisfied leader who looks away from us. We are attracted by her distraction but are suspended in our desire to know what she keeps from us. On the one hand we can guess that Woolf is satisfied with her terms. On the other hand, we note her failure and are excited by a search for her unspoken frustration.

Woolf's final silence excites us to independent imagination (why doesn't she criticize her terms?). We experience a free-falling freedom that would not have come through a direct explanation of language. Woolf can find no perfect central term; she motions towards the flaws in all central terms, and somehow comments on the impossibility of health.

Author Biography

Ilana Simons