At war

Iain McGilchrist

  • The Faber Book of Fevers and Frets edited by D.J. Enright
    Faber, 364 pp, £12.99, November 1989, ISBN 0 574 15095 1

‘What, into this?’ It is the essential incongruity they capture which makes the words of Haile Selasse, Emperor of Ethiopia, Lion of Judah, as he was unceremoniously bundled by the revolutionary guards into the back of an orange Volkswagen van, so much more telling than other images of revolution – the lonely figure on the balcony of the Winter Palace, besieged by his hungry people, the voluptuary tyrant shot through his immaculate shirt-front at his own banqueting table and bleeding into the fish, the scurrying fugitive clutching the crown jewels as he escapes to Claridge’s in his private jet. All too single, the dramatic images miss their mark. ‘What, into this?’ The words are those of the king of infinite space up against his nutshell, the ‘etherial spirit of man’ as Carlyle put it, up against ‘two or three feet of sorry tripe full of–’, the voice of whatever it is in us which in love, in religion and in ill health, sees itself as emperor, betrayed by his own base subject, the body.

Mind and body have been at war in the literature of love and religion for millennia, and it has been the body that has come off worse. Marvell’s ‘A Dialogue between the Soul and Body’ is almost unique in allowing the body its say, in giving it in fact the last word. If Virginia Woolf is right that illness is one of the great neglected themes of literature – and the evidence from Enright’s literary anthology of illness suggests she is – it is probably because it is precisely in illness that the body gets to have its say. Love and battle and jealousy and the rest of the well-worn literary themes give the soliloquies to the soul. Only illness – not even death – is subversive in this way. Hence the fascination of illness: we live so close to the body that we literally cannot see it. Only when it steps out of line are we able to see what it is like – this enigmatic element whose form, substance and functioning we had and have no part in determining.

A headache: ‘memory, reason, every faculty of my intellectual part, is being whelmed in muddy oblivion ... Is the soul something other than the mind? If so, I have lost all consciousness of its existence.’ Gissing’s headache gives him enough space, however, to philosophise: ‘the very I, it is too plain, consists but with a certain balance of my physical elements, which we call health ... If I chance to become deranged in certain parts of my physical mechanism, I shall straightway be deranged in my wits; and behold that Something in me which “partakes of the eternal” prompting me to pranks which savour little of the infinite wisdom. Even in its normal condition (if I can determine what that is) my mind is obviously the slave of trivial accidents.’

At once trivial, and yet capable of enslaving the imperial soul – the indignity and perplexity is captured with good humour by Peter Reading:

I used to pepper my poetics with sophisticated allusions to dear Opera and divine Art (one was constantly reminded of A. du C. Dubreuil’s libretto for Piccinni’s Iphigenia in Tauris; one was constantly reminded of Niccolo di Bartolomeo da Foggia’s bust of a crowned woman, doubtless an allegory of the Church, from the pulpit of Ravello cathedral, ca 1272) but suddenly these are hopelessly inadequate. Where is the European cultural significance of tubes stuck up the nose, into the veins, up the arse? A tube is stuck up my prick, and a bladder carcinoma diagnosed. One does not recall Piccinni.

The mind rightly rebels against this rebellion. The ensuing counter-revolution is the substance of Enright’s collection.

Good humour is one of the mind’s most effective ploys when faced with the dereliction of the body – that and the stoical indifference exemplified by the ninth-century Chinese poet Po Chü-I, who, stricken with a paralysis, tells his friends: ‘there is no cause for so much sympathy ... All that matters is an active mind, what is the use of feet? By land we can ride in a carrying chair; by water be rowed in a boat.’ Imperial to the last, if the mind is usurped by its own body there are at least the bodies of others to rely on. In the whole collection it is only Kipling whose anti-intellectualism, populist inclinations and cult of endurance side with the body, in a ‘Hymn to Physical Pain’ for the relief Pain offers from ‘the Soul’s distress and memory of her sins’.

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