‘The Impositions of the Body’

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A paper cut, a sore throat, a sprained ankle – these are the little reminders that the body is fortress that is all too easily breached. I’ve just thrown away my crutches after a minor foot injury and I’m so relieved to be back to normal, defence walls mended – until the next time.

A while back I wrote of review of Still Alice by Lisa Genova, a beautiful portrayal of a woman going through the onset of Alzheimer’s – a wonderful novel which has won a place in my top ten forever. In the same blog post I mentioned So Much for That by Lionel Shriver, which also has illness as one of its main subjects. In this story Glynis, the rather unsympathetic wife of the main character Shephard, is going through aggressive and debilitating treatments for cancer. There is a passage in the book where we get an insight into what Glynis has learned from her difficult experience. I find it bleak but fascinating.

“Before Glynis had become something of a mystery to After Glynis. … This Before Glynis was a woman, she gathered, who had enjoyed the luxury of vast tracts of time unfettered not only by the need to make money, as Shephard was forever harping on about, but – all that really matters, it turned out – by the impositions of the body. This was a woman who was “well”. (Perhaps more than any other quality, this theoretical state eluded the After-Glynis grasp. But only as an experience. As a concept, she understood being “well” better than anyone else on the planet.) For After Glynis had discovered a terrible secret: There is only the body. There was never anything but the body. “Wellness” is the illusion of not having one. Wellness is escape from the body. But there is no escape. So wellness is delay. What had Before Glynis – Well Glynis, Pre-Inorexably-Going-To-Be-Sick-Any-Minute-Now Glynis, done with her free ride, her gift of the soon-to-be-revoked illusion that she was not, after all, a body – a body and only a body?”

Another passage about illness that made a big impression on me comes from The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. This unforgettable memoir was dictated by Bauby who suffered a massive stroke and was left paralysed and unable to speak with Locked-In Syndrome. It must be the only book which was dictated by blinking one eyelid (he describes the technique in the book).

“In fact it is in my respiratory passages that I can hope for improvement. In the long term, I can hope to eat more normally: that is without the help of a gastric tube. Eventually, perhaps I could breathe naturally, without a respirator, and muster enough breath to make my vocal chords vibrate.

But for now, I would be the happiest of men if I could just swallow the overflow of saliva endlessly flooding my mouth.”

Although Bauby laments all that he has lost, the book is not an exercise in self-pity but a record of what is beautiful and precious in life.

Has anyone else come across interesting books that deal with the subject of illness? Or is it something you have written about yourself?

(Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

4 thoughts on “‘The Impositions of the Body’

  1. Lovely post, Clare. I haven’t read Still Alice, but will look out for it. At the moment I’m very excited about Emma Healey’s novel Elizabeth Is Missing about a woman with dementia which is due out in June. (Emma has just done a Q&A for my website http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/emma-healey.html)
    I enjoyed Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That and the extract you’ve chosen is exquisite. I like the idea of wellness being a state in which you forget about the body; however, I wonder now how much that’s the author’s point of view rather than Shepherd’s. I guess that’s how it is for those of us who live in our heads a lot but dancers, say, and people who work with their hands must be very aware of their bodies.
    As for me, I do have an interest in writing about damaged bodies and have recently republished flash fiction piece: http://www.redfez.net/fiction/573
    Hope your own body is recovering well.

    1. Just read your interviw with Emma Healy. It’s very interesting how she works, all the planning and colour-coding and time lines. I can see how that would be helpful and it gives her the freedom to write whatever scene she is drawn to regardless of when it happens chronologically. But you need a very disciplined and organised mind!

  2. A beautiful post! You caught my attention with the truth of the first sentence: “A paper cut, a sore throat, a sprained ankle – these are the little reminders that the body is fortress that is all too easily breached.” How true! I must have fragile bones, because over the past fifteen years, I’ve broken one ankle and two wrists. It’s made me cautious. You should have seen how gingerly I walked down the icy paths on our recent winter vacation in the mountains.

    I don’t have the courage to read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Just thinking about his situation makes my claustrophobic. I loved the quote from So Much for That.

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