A friend of mine gave me a book a few years ago called A Novel Cure, which prescribes stories for all your ailments. It was extremely apropos, as I do treat my bookshelves like a medicine cabinet for my woes. My theory is that if you have proof before you that someone has suffered what you're suffering and survived it, that is comforting.
What have I suffered from lately? Migraines. Lots of migraines. Months of migraines, including some of the worst, longest, pukiest migraines I've ever had, that left me wobbly-legged for days after. How does one cope? One commiserates with accounts of illness and pain, of which there are many. Because what use is there in experiencing something, thinks the writer, if it is not then expressed?
Let's start with Julio Cortázar's short story "Headache." He depicts the sheer work involved in being a migraineur metaphorically with the narrator's preoccupation with the care and feeding of his mancuspias. But since the narrator expresses dissatisfaction with metaphors ("Like this, like that; but the truth is never like anything"), I will quote one of his literal descriptions:
We seem to hear cries, so near to us that we look under the straw chairs on the veranda; Dr. Harbin has prepared us for brute assaults in the morning, but we didn’t imagine it could have taken the form of a headache like this. Occipital pain, so much that there is, now and again, an explosion of crying: Apis, pains like bee stings. We throw our heads back, or press them against the pillow (somehow we’ve managed to get into bed). Without thirst, but sweating; scanty urine, piercing cries. As if bruised, sensitive to the touch; once we shook hands, and it was terrible. Until that fades, little by little, and we are left with the fear of a repetition with a different animal, since we have already had the bee, maybe next time it will be the serpent’s image. It’s two thirty.
It's two thirty. Sometimes the pain seems like the worst thing; sometimes it's the waste of time.
One finds the best things browsing, which is how I came across Poetry in Medicine: An Anthology of Poems About Doctors, Patients, Ilness, and Healing. It contains this perfect poem by Emily Dickinson:
Pain-- has an Element of Blank--
It cannot recollect
When it begun-- or if there were
A day when it was not--
It has no Future-- but itself--
Its Infinite contain
Its Past-- enlightened to perceive
New Periods-- of Pain.
Ladies and gentlemen, Emily Dickinson: the greatest.
One of the things I admire most about Dorothy Dunnett is what she is willing to do to her characters. Halfway through The Lymond Chronicles, she gives Francis Crawford of Lymond staggering migraines. Or maybe they're just regular migraines, but he's so dramatic about everything that they seem staggering. Anyway. In six books, I think we see Lymond on his own, unobserved, maybe ten times, and those are the only times we're anywhere near inside his head. This migraine from Checkmate, triggered by what else but drama, is one of those rare times. Dunnett gives us an excellent sensory depiction of what it's like when a migraine is coming on: slow and subtle until you realize you're in real trouble. You don't know at first what exactly the problem is.
The mare they had lent him was playful. Before she had travelled ten yards, she had called into play, inevitably, all his already overtaxed sinews.
Lymond is always tired, so we think not much of it. But . . .
Further on, it was more than a matter of extreme discomfort.
Oh . . . oh dear.
The crowds along the Grand' Rue were much thicker, with a good deal of pushing and jostling. . . . The odour of shellfish clung in the air, with the reek of warm oil and resin and the fumes, sunk into clay and timber and grey, salty stone, of the herring slung, russet-shot, over their beech smoke. It lay thick in his throat as the mare heaved, and sidled beneath him.
There's the nausea. Here's the pain:
His name reverberated. The overhanging storeys, closing off the free air, gave back the squeals and the shouting, the clack of sticks and the beating of hands, the carillons of bell-truss and the hiccoughing roar, over and over, of iron rods raked up and down the shutters.
What follows, of course, is indignity. After enduring another page of sensory overload, he is rescued by the Scottish queen's half-brother. But to be rescued in the throes of illness is, for Francis Crawford of Lymond, M. le Comte de Sevigny, Grand Marshal of France, Voevoda of all Russia, a humiliation. His resignation to it proves the severity of his pain.
If he was going to be ill, as he was, almost immediately, it might as well be under royal auspices. He left the saddle with what appeared to be a great deal of expert assistance. "I should be obliged," said Lymond, "if you would take that horse off and shoot it."
And, embarrassingly, he faints.
As a person who has sat through meetings holding an ice pack to my head like a fool, I really sympathize with Lymond in this scene. And I also take heart from it. We all have bodies; we all have to cope when they let us down, whether we are writers, poets, romantic heroes, or marketing assistants. It is not wasted time if something helpful can be done with it. As Sarah Manguso says, "The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair," and that is what the literature of pain has done for me many times.
Image: A "zodiac man" from the manuscript Arundel 251, a fifteenth-century German medical miscellany. It was once believed, into the early nineteenth century, that the different zodiac signs ruled different parts of the body. From this I can only conclude that I am being plagued by a ram of motiveless evil.