Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill” and Cicero’s “Tusculan Disputations”

Vanessa Bell cover design of Woolf’s On Being Ill (c. 1930)

As I’ve been making my way through my personal reading list for this year, I found myself with Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill, an essay that has been published and reprinted in multiple different forms and contexts since its first appearance in T.S. Eliot’s The Criterion in 1926. The essay begins with the premise that illness should be, but isn’t, the subject of great literature (pp6-7):


The merest schoolgirl, when she falls in love, has Shakespeare or Keats to speak her mind for her; but let a sufferer try to describe a pain in his head to a doctor and language at once runs dry. There is nothing ready made for him. He is forced to coin words himself, and, taking his pain in one hand, and a lump of pure sound in the other (as perhaps the people of Babel did in the beginning), so to crush them together that a brand new word in the end drops out. Probably it will be something laughable.

I read this short essay (in my edition only 26 pages) at the same time as I was working on Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations (45 BCE), examining his quotations of cantica, songs, from the Roman tragic stage. Cicero has been telling me a lot, lately, about physical and psychic pain. Pain and illness may be distinct things, according to their origins, their pathologies. But both Woolf and Cicero place their respective illness and pain in a position which stands in opposition to the regular, expected, and functional life of a human being. For Woolf, who suffered from mental and physical illness throughout her life, sickness was intimately connected to literary production. In her essay, she describes illness as gateway towards “rashness” (pp22-23):

Rashness is one of the properties of illness – outlaws that we are – and it is rashness that we need in reading Shakespeare. It is not that we should doze in reading him, but that, fully conscious and aware, his fame intimidates and bores, and all the views of all the critics dull in us that thunder clap of conviction….with all this buzz of criticism about, one may hazard one’s conjectures privately, make one’s notes in the margin; but knowing that someone has said it before, or said it better, the zest is gone. Illness, in its kingly sublimity, sweeps all that aside and leaves nothing but Shakespeare and oneself.

We’re faced with the implication that trying to say something new about Shakespeare is – essentially – madness. (I think about myself here, trying to say something new about Cicero). Shrinking away from literary bravado is the sign of a healthy mind and body. According to Woolf, illness allows transgressive freedom – to engage with the taboo, to speak the unspeakable: there is, “a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals” (p11). The sick mind is elevated, mantic – its language is poetry, not prose: “Illness makes us disinclined for the long campaigns that prose exacts” (p19). One of the prose works which Woolf rejects is Gibbon (“The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is not the book for influenza…”) – the sick mind rejects tales of empire, of statecraft, of teleology. The extra-liminal, sensory state of illness allows for deeper intellectual perception (p21):

In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality. We grasp what is beyond their surface meaning, gather instinctively this, that, and the other…Incomprehensibility has enormous power over us in illness, more legitimately perhaps than the upright will allow. In health meaning has encroached upon sound. Our intelligence domineers over our senses. But in illness, with the police off duty, we creep beneath some obscure poem by Mallarmé or Donne, some phrase in Latin or Greek, and the words give out their scent and distill their flavour…

We start to get the sense that the truth of literature – both reading and writing – takes place in the oppositional space which “illness” allows us to see. But all of this is put into a different focus if we ask ourself what kind of “illness” Woolf thought herself to have – or, more importantly, was thought by others to have – at the beginning of the 20th century. At stake is a narrative of aristocracy, and of gender. In Woolf’s celebrated Orlando, the titular figure’s fanaticism for reading and writing is thought to be beneath his aristocratic dignity: “Let him leave books, they said, to the palsied or the dying” (p72).

Lat. 6332 Bibliotheque Nationale, 160r, left col. .png
Manuscript of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations 2.19, containing poetic quotations from Accius’ Philocteta. Lat. 5802, Bibliothèque Nationale, 160r.

Turning to Cicero’s discussion of pain in the Tusculan Disputations, we find that he, like Woolf, is preoccupied by the social implications of illness. In February of the year in which the Tusculans were written (45 BCE), his daughter, Tullia, died from complications of childbirth. Cicero, grieving her death, wrote to his friend Atticus that he was making an effort to bring his face, if not his heart, back to composure. Cicero adds that trying to maintain his outward composure is a struggle for him; the conflict stems from a desire to save face and the desire to properly mourn his daughter (Att. 12.14.3, 8th March 45 BCE). Nature becomes the retreat for the ill, as Woolf writes: “Wonderful to relate, poets have found religion in nature; people live in the country to learn virtue from plants. It is in their indifference that they are comforting” (p15). During his grief, hidden away at Astura, Cicero writes (Att. 12.15):

In this lonely place I do not talk to a soul. Early in the day I hide myself in a thick, thorny wood, and don’t emerge till evening (cumque mane me in silvam abstrusi densam et asperam). Next to yourself, solitude is my best friend. When I am alone, all my conversation is with books, but it is interrupted by fits of weeping, against which I struggle as best I can. But so far it is an unequal fight…

In response, Atticus urges Cicero to disguise his grief – his other aristocratic friends have also noted and disapproved of Cicero’s indulgence (Att. 12.20.1, 15th March 45 BCE). For Woolf, the irrational and unbalanced state of illness gave access to a literary knowledge that surpassed the waking intellect. By the time the Tusculan Disputations arrived in the summer of 45 BCE, Cicero’s literary persona had become realigned with the aristocratic standard to which he was held by his friends and peers. We read in the Tusculans (2.31) that is beneath a man’s dignity to express his pain – physical or mental – with groans and shrieks (nec dignum viro videbitur gemere, eiulare, lamentari, frangi, debilitari dolore). Cicero quotes from Roman tragedies, evoking the most pitiful and wretched figures – Ennius’ Andromacha and Thyestes, Accius’ Philocteta, Pacuvius’ Ulixes (Niptra) – in order to denounce the vocal expression of grief. Woolf’s feeling – that the love-struck can quote sonnets, but the bedridden did not have their own literature to invoke – was not the case for Cicero. The Roman tragic stage was replete with the maimed, the abandoned, the enslaved – and it was through these characters that he attempted to expunge his grief.

But although they eventually find positions at different ends of the spectrum – with Cicero publicly using poetic texts as enticements towards self-control, and Woolf embracing illness as a practice of reading – both Cicero and Woolf find poetic expression to be the fertile ground for the distorted mind. And both also perform their aristocratic positions while they draw attention to their own transgression. Neither will enmire their reader in the Thucydidean details of illness or injury – we read illness sanitized of its gore or its stench, there is no descriptive realism of grief or mania, no categorizing of symptoms. Both texts stand as a reflection of the sick mind once it has passed out of that state.

Further reading: I used the 2012 edition of Woolf’s On Being Ill, with Notes from Sick Rooms by Julia Stephen, and intro by Hermione Lee; the Oxford World Classics 1998 edition of Orlando. For detailed narratives of Cicero’s grief, see Cicero, Shackleton-Bailey (1971), and Cicero – A political biography, Stockton (1971). For some reason, writing biographies of Cicero was really fashionable in the 1970s…