And as pale sickness does invade, Your frailer part, the breaches made, In that fair lodging still more clear, Make the bright guest, your soul, appear.
I had the opportunity to be sick recently. I know that that is an odd turn of phrase, but let me suffice to say that I am to some degree a sensualist, and while I may not enjoy all the things that happen to me I do try to understand them in context. In my family, my father is often incapacitated with migraines. He has had surgery on his sinuses, tried numerous medications, participated in a clinical trial, and more to try to get rid of them. In my family, being able to massage others has become a life skill, simply because at various times we need to care for on of us who under the weather, sometimes we are all under the weather. I and two of my brothers have also inherited the lovely sinus problems and migraines that are a part of our family legacy. We all live here in Utah. My brother John has had a migraine everyday for the last week and a half, a byproduct of the summer storms. My brother Scott and I both acquired migraines within hours of each other as a summer storm rolled through on the weekend. We both love spring and summer storm season, in fact I have very fond memories of living Tucson and watching storms during monsoon season, but it hurts sometimes. Hurting and sickness are simply part of the human condition.
Since sickness is such a universal condition, it makes sense that we explore it literature and entertainment. In fact in modern times, with the possibility of disease being engineered, or acquiring some new mutation, it becomes a force unto itself. In the nature of humankind, we take something and make it larger than life in order to understand it, we make it sublime.
This connection is particularly apparent in zombie movies. In many zombie movies, first of all, zombies are caused by some illness. And furthermore, they exhibit disease-like behavior, spreading the infection intentionally. In fact if you go look up zombies, you may go to a website like this one: http://www.zombiehub.com/zombie-virus.html. It is an article which discusses the possibility of a virus that actually causes zombies and uses rabies as an example of a disease that causes behavior. The Ebola virus does something similar, when the host is dying it causes them to flail around in order to spread the disease. However, even though a virus like Ebola has an extremely high mortality rate, it usually kills itself off simply because it is too effective. Truly well adapted viruses behave more like the common cold, rarely killing anyone, but always coming back. Zombies are an exaggeration, the embodiment of our fear of disease, for when we suffer from disease we are reminded of our own mortality and that instead of recovering we might have slipped over the edge. So you get videos like 28 days later, and this youtube clip (turn down your volume, because it is loud):
In Emily Dickinson's poetry you can also see sickness being elevated. For an example see:
As One does Sickness over
In convalescent Mind,
His scrutiny of Chances
By blessed Health obscured—
As One rewalks a Precipice
And whittles at the Twig
That held Him from Perdition
Sown sidewise in the Crag
A Custom of the Soul
Far after suffering
Identity to question
For evidence't has been—
In this poem, Dickinson examines sickness after having recovered. The sickness becomes a testing ground for the mind. It is a precipice that you can examine and say what if? It is an edge into death because you can always ask, how close was I, and as in the poem "whittles at the Twig | That held Him from Perdition." Sickness is sublime, not just because we lose control of our bodies, reminding us how very fragile we are, but also because they embody the human condition. And the human condition is constantly attempting to forget that we are as a person who has fallen over a cliff and is holding on by the barest thread, wondering when we will fall into the sublime arms of death (whatever that may turn out to mean). As my father likes to say: There is one human constant, no one gets out alive.
This article is part of a continuing theme on Emily Dickinson, modern media and the sublime, if you would like to know more read here.