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Books, Journals, New Media
March 5, 2003

Medicine, Art

Author Affiliations

Books, Journals, New Media Section Editor: Harriet S. Meyer, MD, Contributing Editor, JAMA; David H. Morse, MS, University of Southern California, Norris Medical Library, Journal Review Editor; adviser for new media, Robert Hogan, MD, San Diego.

JAMA. 2003;289(9):1169-1170. doi:10.1001/jama.289.9.1169

In her 1926 essay "On Being Ill" (see accompanying review), Virginia Woolf wrote of the complete absence of literature about illness. Woolf (who spent much of her life in bed with a series of undiagnosed ailments) concluded that the experience of being sick was self-absorbing and artless, and thus unsuitable for a writer. "There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional)," she wrote, "a childish outspokenness in illness." Great art and literature throughout history had always depended upon experiences that ennoble the human spirit. War, politics, romance—these were themes that had always inspired great writing. Woolf felt that illness did just the opposite, exempting the sufferer from society and isolating him or her within a private domain of uncanny sensory impressions. Still, if illness would not do as a subject, it did at least suggest a certain method for the writer: "We float with the sticks on the stream; helter-skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time for years, to look round, to look up." Thus we learn none of the details of Woolf's illness from her essay, but rather are treated to a series of images that it apparently dislodged from her subconscious.

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