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The Sick Bed & Dr. Donne

By Anne Boyer

john-donne

Sometimes I think there is no more tragic piece of furniture than a bed, how quickly it falls from the place you fuck to the place you waste away in.

or

Sometimes I think there is no more tragic piece of furniture than a bed, how quickly it falls from the place you fuck to the place, if you are lucky, you die in.

or

Sometimes I think there is no more tragic piece of furniture than a bed, how quickly it falls from the place you fuck to the place you think yourself mad in — the site of sex and the site of dying is the bed is the body is then also the site of macro- and micro-projecting. Virginia Woolf’s mother, Julia Stephens, wrote a treatise on sick rooms, in it instructing caregivers that while the patient may appear to have “absurd fancies,” these are heightened perceptions of the real, a result of the “delicately organized” minds of the very ill, “whose senses have become so acute through suffering.”

I have a magic theory for the kind of thinking that happens when you are sick in your bed. In vertical life, when you are well or mostly or walking around, pretending to be, the top of your head is the space that the sky (or skyish air) touches. The total area of the top of you is pretty small. You are only moderately airy, then, and your eyes, rather than gazing up, gaze outward at the active world, and it is to this you are mostly reacting. And it is mostly during the night, during dreams, that imagining becomes temporarily expansive and the ceiling air spreads over you.

When you are sick, though, and horizontal, the sky or skyish air of what is above you spreads all over your body, the increased area of airy intersection leads to a crisis of giant imagining, sensing, a massive projecting cognitive of forms. When you are so often lying down, you are also so often looking up.

And John Donne understood, among other things, the unchartedness of the sick person’s thinking: his 1623 sickbed work, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, is the literary enactment of this kind of heightening, an instruction manual from the libratory platform of feeling like hell. A well-person’s astral projection remains mostly atmospheric, but the deeply ill person in pain, in order to escape it, can sprint away from the pain-husk of the failing body and think themselves into a range beyond range. When pain is so vast it makes it hard to remember history or miles-per-hour, which should make the sickbed the incubator for almost all genius and nearly most revolution.

Illness vivified the magnitude of the body’s parts and systems. In my sickbed, I was disassembled and this disassembly crowded a cosmos, organs and nerves and parts and aspects announcing themselves as unfurling particulars: a malfunctioning left tear duct—a new universe; a dying hair follicle—a solar system; that nerve ending in the fourth toe of the right foot—now eviscerating under chemotherapy drugs—a star about to collapse.

Illness can bring thought to the mega-cosmos, which is also to the delicate jungle of the body and its parts felt acutely. Donne wrote:

Man consists of more pieces, more parts, than the world; than the world, doth, nay than the world is. And if those pieces were extended, and stretched out in man as they are in the world, man would be the giant, and the world the dwarf; the world but the map, and the man the world. If all the veins in our bodies were extended to rivers, and all the sinews to veins of mines, and all the muscles that lie upon one another, to hills, and all the bones to quarries of stones, and all the other pieces to the proportion of those which correspond to them in the world, the air would be too little for this orb of man to move in, the firmament would be but enough for this star; for, as the whole world hath nothing, to which something in man doth not answer, so hath man many pieces of which the whole world hath no representation.

All that time lying down can also bring about the microscopic practice of worry. In the sickbed illness also illuminates the smallness, shabbiness, self-absorption, inconsequence, personal finance, home economics, the social order.

Mortality’s nearness vivified stupidity—sometimes everyone else’s, but most often my own— and everyone who came to visit learned the ugliness of my apartment, the bleach stains on the carpet, the charmlessness of my lifestyle, about which I would so often worry. Virginia Woolf’s mother understood how the small was the great agonist to the sick bed: “Among the number of small evils which haunt illness, the greatest, in the misery which it can cause, though the smallest in size, is crumbs. The origin of most things has been decided on, but the origin of crumbs in bed has never excited sufficient attention among the scientific world.” And if it isn’t clear, I am thinking temporarily of the smallness as what is awful—beyond the obviously awful, of thinking you might die and feeling like hell.

Being sick made excessive space for thinking, and excessive thinking made room for thoughts of death. There are certain mantras of cancer treatment, mostly repeated from doctors and nurses, mantras like “take a xanax”—or as a friend called it, “the xanax asana”—or “stop thinking so much.” Maybe this would be so our thoughts would not veer toward death, how it is better for the carers if the sick remain tame and regulated, that they do not enter the unmedicalized wildland of peering into the after. But I was always starving for experience, not its cessation, and if the experience of thought was the only experience my body could foster, than opening myself to wild, deathy-y thinking was it. Don’t try to make me, I warned my caregivers in a set of instructions, stop thinking about death.

I was interested in all the dead from Ghostbusters to Alice Notley’s Alma to Ancient Egypt: even, kind of, a fan of them. Just because I thought the dead were interesting, though, didn’t mean I was okay with death: I would cry for death as an end of memory, as an erasure of the archive, too, cry for crumbs in the bed, that they had lost oneness with the substance they fell from, and cry for everyone who had died and their possibilities had died along with them, be so glad when the holiday season was over, too, that I didn’t have to weep for the fragile life of Frosty the Snowman, how it so inevitably had to end.

But John Donne was long dead, yet his work stuck around for centuries, and that’s how we can still read his work on the horizontal:

A sickbed is a grave, and all that the patient says there is but a varying of his own epitaph. Every night’s bed is a type of the grave; at night we tell our servants at what hour we will rise, here we cannot tell ourselves at what day, what week, what month. Here the head lies low as the foot; the head of the people as low as they whom those feet trop upon; and that hand that signed pardons is too weak to beg his own, if he might have it for lifting up that hand. Strange fetters to the feet, strange manacles to the hands, when the feet and hands are bound so much the faster, by how much the cords are slacker; so much the ligaments are the looser. In the grave I may speak through the stones, in the voice of my friends, and in the accents of those words which their love may afford my memory; here I am mine own ghost, and rather affright my beholders than instruct them; they conceive the worst of me now, and yet fear worse; they give me for dead now, and yet wonder how I do when they wake at midnight, and ask how I do tomorrow. Miserable, and (though common to all) inhuman posture, where I must practise lying in the grave by lying still, and not practice my resurrection by rising any more.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Monday, January 18th, 2016 by Anne Boyer.