Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

The Angel of Disease

In this exclusive excerpt from his new book of essays, What the Furies Bring, Toronto poet Ken Sherman probes the creative relationship between poetry and physical suffering.

“It seems impossible to be an artist without being sick,” wrote Nietzsche. We accept this and think of the writer – I want to limit my discussion to those in the literary arts – as the exemplary sufferer. Suffering, we sense, spurs creativity. Indeed, any writer who claims good health arouses our suspicion, and we search the biography for hints of affliction.

What exactly are the biochemical links between the body’s health and the workings of the imagination? Science has yet to uncover them. To understand the connection between sickness and creativity we return to shamanic cultures, where dreams, ecstasies, and often, illness, transform the profane individual into a technician of the sacred. The “sickness-vocation,” as Mircea Eliade calls it, confers upon the ill person the religious status of “chosen.” In shamanic cultures, the initiation ceremony involves suffering, death, and resurrection. The ritual includes imagined dismemberment, then bodily renewal; the initiate ascends to the sky and talks with spirits, or descends to the underworld and converses with demons. The result is heightened consciousness, ecstasy, rebirth, and mastery over disease and death. The self-healed becomes a healer of others.

British poet Ted Hughes, took the poetic process to be a translation of this ritual. For him, poetry was “divine because it heals, and redeems the sufferings of life, and releases joy.” Hughes believed that poetry and other forms of imaginative writing were intuitive, emotional, and life-sustaining. “Artistic creation,” he stated, is “a component of the galvanized auto-immune system.” On the other hand, Hughes considered analytical prose, written under the stern gaze of the rational mind, to be a health-hazard. When Hughes’s terminal colon cancer was diagnosed, he was working on a lengthy critical study, Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being.  Fellow poet Andrew Motion reports that Hughes, in a moment of self-accusation, told him, “I wrote too much prose and my whole immune system went crash.”

“Poetry is a health,” declared Wallace Stevens. Like Hughes, he believed that poetry’s power was primal, residing in its “sounds,” which he called “a finality, a perfection, an unalterable vibration.” Writing, in its completion, in its artistic rightness, is “a finality” that counters the finality of dying. Yet writing differs from music, from dance, painting, and sculpture, for the inescapable reason that language is fated to have meaning. The “unalterable vibration” resonates in two realms: the physical and the metaphysical. It comes to us as a balm, a comfort, even as it awakens us to discomfiting truths.

But not all writers are smiling physicians. Yeats remarked, “The mind of man has two kinds of shepherds, the poets who rouse and trouble and the poets who hush and console.” The writer has the power to influence and if we take into account the word’s etymological proximity to influenza we can glimpse another sort of help.

The caustic philosopher and aphorist E.M. Cioran called the poet “an agent of destruction, a virus, a disguised disease, and the gravest danger… for our red corpuscles.” Cioran’s poet brings contagion, but it is contagion intended to inoculate the reader against a more serious disease brought on by naïveté or indifference. Cioran’s poet rouses us from our complacency by asking troubling questions, by making extreme demands. Rilke closed his poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” with the bald command, “You must change your life.” Such a poet – radical and restless, inculcating us with realities we would rather avoid – performs the role of immunologist. We can now apply a different interpretation to Nietzsche’s famous maxim, “We have Art in order that we may not perish from Truth.” In this reading, Art is not a beautiful illusion; it is a vaccine.

The Czech poet, essayist, and immunologist Miroslav Holub (1923-1998), questions the paradigm that views health and disease as opposing camps. According to Holub,

There wouldn’t be any people if there were no evolutionary pressures from disease and death, degeneration and loss of function. The multi-cellular organism is based on the capacity of some of its cells for self-sacrifice. We are just as much the result of diseases and tiny deaths as we are the result of the fundamental tendency to preserve the permanence of an organism’s inner environment…

Biologically, we are all poised on the shifting boundary between health and disease; we are all embroiled in the unceasing interplay between the viral and resistant cells that comprise our bodies. Referring to poets, Holub ironically asks,

What would they be without their disease?
The disease is their health.