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Diseases Incident to Literary and Sedentary Persons

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In his Essay on Diseases Incident to Literary and Sedentary Persons (1769), Samuel Tissot warned that ‘the devourers of books, who exhaust themselves only by reading, should desist as soon as they find their comprehension more than commonly slow, their sight moaty and dimmish, or their eyes hot and watery.’ Undeterred, I stayed in bed last Christmas Day until 4 p.m., reading Lost Illusions.

On every page, as he documents the misadventures of Lucien de Rubempré, the impoverished provincial poet out of his depth in Parisian society, Balzac seems to pose the questions: can you ever escape from the petty humiliations and injuries of social class? Can you overcome the uncontrollable geography of your birth? A hundred and seventy years later, it would seem not.

Dr Tissot describes a friend ‘lost to reading’:

He was employed day and night in reading, reflecting and making experiments; he first lost his sleep, then was seized with some transitory fits of lunacy, and at length became quite mad, so that even his life was preserved with difficulty.

I had certainly lost my sleep, though sleep is a fitful affair, but Lost Illusions helped with that. If I woke at 2 or 4 a.m., I read Balzac until I was no longer awake. During the day, however, I had a terrible sense that I would never finish the book if I moved. So for four days, I mostly didn’t move. Lucien’s fellow poets tell him he’ll be doomed if he writes a word of journalism. On day five I had to return to my doomed profession of writing the horse racing news.

At some point, my rib popped out. It hurt when I breathed. Dr Tissot hadn’t predicted that, but then he didn’t know about reading on an iPhone in bed. I had a fever too (‘irregular fevers are brought on, not to be traced to any other cause’), so New Year was cancelled. I ordered pizza and got back to Balzac.

‘In six months’ time you will be a great poet,’ Dauriat the publisher tells Lucien. ‘You will be written up; people are afraid of you.’ Six months on, I’m moaty sighted from a week reading versions of the Greek government’s proposal to its creditors and their forest fire revisions of it. A line about a gambling tax has appeared, disappeared and reappeared. It’s possible to read too much about bloviator banking bullies, who seek to push pensioners and the poor further under the bus. Tissot has a point. On Sunday I’ll return to Balzac, hard copy this time, with my ribs strapped up, and look forward to the bladder stones, obstructive perspiration, abscess in the lungs and dangerous constraint of abdominal viscera.

Comments on “Diseases Incident to Literary and Sedentary Persons”

  1. I’m sure you’re aware, but the full course of treatment requires that you move seamlessly to Splendeurs et Misères des Courtisanes. After that, you will not only find your constitution toughened, but your cynicism will be armour-plated. This will, of course, ruin your future enjoyment of Dickens, Dostoevsky and eejits like James. Whch is no bad deal, really.

  2. Anakana Schofield says:

    Excellent advice, thank you. I also did the tango with Cousin Bette. I’m still puzzled as to why Mme de Bargeton is not a verb. As in to Bargeton him or her. (to give the hoof miserably) Or adjective it’s a Bargeton situation. (doomed) Or I’ve been Bargeton’d (dumped). Or be careful that coat will Bargeton you!

    See moaty minded.

  3. Timothy Rogers says:

    At the risk of proposing a “cure” that might be automatically dismissed as insufficiently spiritual, I offer “mens sana in sano corpore” aa a means to temporarily (life being temporary) counteract your dire condition. Taking the interpretation that the goal of this adage is one that will actually improve the way your mind works, i.e., a little exercise and a minimum of physical fitness will sharpen your mental faculties, so that you will actually be able to think about Balzac et al. rather than be inundated by him/them, whoever their authorial selves may be. So, walking two miles a day, and then jumping up from you chair, couch, or bed every half-hour or so (interrupting your reading-induced train of thought – or, more likely, feeling! — but not derailing it) to pace around the room while waving your arms or curling your fingers, will allow you to return to cerebration with enough vigor to combat the sliding-down- the-entropic slope that continuous reading often entails. I wouldn’t recommend Kierkegaard as an antidote: too much the perpetually moody teenager baffled by his lack of success in loving God and a 12-year old girl at the same time, pretty counterproductive unless you’re determined to fortify your own existential desperation by relying on an authoritative and illustrious example thereof. Perhaps a dollop of Schopenhauer or Nietzsche to fire up your emotions (too much of them leads to surfeit or miasma too). Better yet, try Flann O’Brien’s “The Third Policeman” to see just how entertaining social satire mixed with linguistic craft and metaphysics can be (a tonic to your clonic). Don’t try this latter approach until your rib mends properly, since even a muffled laugh will aggravate it. Good luck.

  4. Neil Foxlee says:

    It’s good to see that somebody at the LRB is keeping an eye on the Greek crisis, even if they only refer to it in a couple of sentences. I can only hope that somebody will be writing more. I rather think it deserves it, don’t you?

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