Thursday, November 5, 2015

John Donne and the Nature of Illness

John Donne and the Nature of Illness

By David Hartley Mark

Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness
Since I am coming to that holy room,
         Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy music; as I come
         I tune the instrument here at the door,
         And what I must do then, think here before.

Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
         Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
         That this is my south-west discovery,
      Per fretum febris, by these straits to die,

I joy, that in these straits I see my west;
         For, though their currents yield return to none,
What shall my west hurt me? As west and east
         In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
         So death doth touch the resurrection.

Is the Pacific Sea my home? Or are
         The eastern riches? Is Jerusalem?
Anyan, and Magellan, and Gibraltar,
         All straits, and none but straits, are ways to them,
         Whether where Japhet dwelt, or Cham, or Shem.

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
         Christ's cross, and Adam's tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
         As the first Adam's sweat surrounds my face,
         May the last Adam's blood my soul embrace.

So, in his purple wrapp'd, receive me, Lord;
         By these his thorns, give me his other crown;
And as to others' souls I preach'd thy word,
         Be this my text, my sermon to mine own:
"Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down."

Let me begin by stating clearly and unequivocally: my current illness, which, thankfully, I am getting over, is NOT life-threatening. It is bronchitis, and I am feeling better.

My wife brought home the germs from a colleague at the store where she works, and gave them to me. I had a cold, for—how long? Two, three days? That was it, at most, but then, trapped by our Floridian air-conditioning, the germs transmogrified into something so potent and powerful that, by last weekend, I was dragging my tail around. I barely made it through leading Shabbat services and my discussion group, and, by Sunday, crawled into the car and went to a nearby emergency health center (deemed preferable to a hospital emergency room by our health insurance plan), where the nurses and physician, by common consent, found that I had bacterial bronchitis. They armed me with four(!) prescriptions, which I duly filled at my pharmacy, and took myself home. I took no time off; an adjunct with a sense of responsibility and midterms and papers to assign and grade can afford no such luxury.

Since that day, I have been popping pills, and slowly getting better. I was angry at my body: I was angry over the loss of the mind-body connection, over how much I had taken my health for granted. I found myself too tired to write anything, except for taking last year’s Shabbat Torah Reading column and cobbling it slightly, updating its style a little. I was able to—had to—grade papers, but that is a fact of my academic teaching life, as regular as the sun rising.

Otherwise, I fell into bed like a dead man every night, and rose with reluctance in the morning. I do not do “sick” well; most men do not. Men are big babies: women are made of stronger, sterner stuff. I joke with my students, who are Floridians born and bred for the most part, or, if immigrant stock, used to Caribbean, Central, or South American germs. I say that women who become sick will scoop a child under one arm, another child under the other, cook with the ladle gripped between their teeth, and drive the car with one foot on the wheel.

Men, by contrast, will sprawl in bed, like fallen sequoias. They will call, “I’m sick—and no one gives a damn! Darling, will you bring me some chicken soup—oh, and fluff my pillow?”

Hearing my tirade, the men will look down, sheepishly; they know that I speak the truth about our gender. And the women will smile, wisely. It is no accident that the lionesses hunt for the pride, fight off attackers, and raise the cubs. The male lions simply lie in the shade, check each other for fleas, and lick themselves. From time to time, there in the afternoon heat of the veldt, one male may nudge his buddy, and say,

“Hey, Maury, there’s a gazelle. Wanna go hunt and kill and eat the gazelle, Maury?”

Maury: “Naw. Let the women do it.”

And the women will. And when they do, the men will be first upon the carcass, smacking their jaws and digging into the entrails of the freshly-killed Thompson’s cow. It’s picnic time on the savannah—back off, Ladies!

And only a man like John Donne (1572-1631), the great lover and later churchman—he was able to substitute Divine Love for Earthly—could write a poem like the one I quoted above. He is sick; indeed, he may be deathly ill.

We twenty-first-centurions have so many advantages over the primitive beliefs and practices of Donne’s time. When 16th-Century people got a fever, the best cure they could hope for was for the doctors—shamans, really—to kill a pigeon or dove, and place the dead fowl at the patient’s feet, in an attempt to draw the heat out of their body, in a vain attempt to restore the balance of the “Four Humours,” a medieval belief that went back to Galen (130-200 C.E.), or earlier. It is odd but true that alternative medical healers still practice cupping, which derives directly from that ridiculous belief. Donne’s best remedy, therefore, is to prepare his eternal soul, if not his fragile, mortal body, to meet his Maker:

Since I am coming to that holy room,
         Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore,
I shall be made thy music; as I come
         I tune the instrument here at the door,
         And what I must do then, think here before.

It is altogether appropriate that he compares his entire body—his skeleton—to a harp, conjuring up the image of David, the sweet singer of songs, and Donne’s model and precursor as poet, as well as a type of Christ. His entire Self will become celestial music, of a sort he was unable to accomplish on earth. The very grave will become a “holy room.”

Whilst my physicians by their love are grown
         Cosmographers, and I their map, who lie
Flat on this bed, that by them may be shown
         That this is my south-west discovery,
      Per fretum febris, by these straits to die,

I joy, that in these straits I see my west;

Donne here moves on to the newfangled notion of earthly discovery, comparing himself to a Map of the World, even as he plans upon leaving it. His straits—that is, not only his suffering, but the “narrow places” he is traversing on his exit from this life—will cause him to depart from his mortal existence, and, by dying, live eternally.

This optimistic, even cheerful, viewpoint regarding one’s demise and passage to Heaven takes the pain and suffering out of death, and transforms it into something positive, something (almost) desirable. It is cosmic lemonade from lemons.

What shall my west hurt me? As west and east
         In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
         So death doth touch the resurrection.

“In my beginning is my end,” said Christ, and Donne extends this to the beginning and ending of all earthly existence. It is the true reward for living a life of faith, which I might still apply to myself, as a non-Christian who yet believes in (and whose people originated) the concept of Resurrection. I interpret it as holding fast to the memory of those departed, or affecting the lives of one’s descendants, whether of true relatives, or of people with whom one has interacted, regardless of the length of one’s earthly sojourn.

Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
         As the first Adam's sweat surrounds my face,
         May the last Adam's blood my soul embrace.

As a Jew, I do not, certainly cannot, embrace the metaphysical Christian ingenuity or theological complexity of Donne’s lines here, but can wholeheartedly embrace that of his successive lines—that is, through suffering we gain greater understanding of our earthly existence. Were it not for suffering illness, we could not appreciate the joys of health. (I am not speaking here, obviously, of near-death experiences, or illnesses which bring on premature death. I have never been in a position to judge those, or suffer from them. I would hope and pray for the fortitude and quiet courage I have seen others in those predicaments display, and have been fortunate enough to witness.)

And as to others' souls I preach'd thy word,
         Be this my text, my sermon to mine own:
"Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down."

I can agree with Donne’s conclusion, here: let us pray to God—whatever, whichever God we accept, follow, subscribe to, rely upon, in both good times and bad—for the strength to get through the bad times, and the understanding to appreciate the good times. And may the good times of our lives outnumber the bad. Amen.