What do writers Marcel Proust, John Updike, Ann Radcliffe, Edith Wharton, Dylan Thomas, Samuel Johnson, Djuna Barnes, Elizabeth Bishop and your humble blogger all have in common?
We all had sex with Gore Vidal.
No, that’s not true. Gore Vidal isn’t quite old enough to have had sex with Samuel Johnson.
In fact, we are all afflicted with asthma.
Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition, in which the airways may unexpectedly and suddenly narrow, often in response to an allergen, cold air, exercise, or emotional stress (in my case all four). Symptoms include wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and coughing.
Asthma is rather like knowing that at any moment a boa constrictor could wrap itself around your chest and squeeze.
That’s a good if well-worn (and dare I say homoerotic?) analogy.
An acute asthma attack is terrifying. An excellent first person account of how horrific an asthma attack can be is found in John Updike’s memoir, Self-Consciousness. Updike writes:
“An asthma attack feels like two walls drawn closer and closer, until they are pressed together… I thought, This is the last thing I’ll see. This is death. The breathless blackness within me was overlaying the visual world.”
An excellent description.
I’ve also tried to write of the horror of the asthma attack. From my novel, Shirts and Skins:
The first attack happened at night. It had seized Josh by the throat from out of the darkness, strangling him. He woke up gasping for air. I can’t breathe. Arching his back with his stomach in the air, the boy strained to inhale and a sickening wheezing sound emerged from deep inside him. His eyes bulged. The room was dark, except for the glowing orange numbers on the clock radio beside his bed. 1:33. Pushing himself up on his elbows, Josh gagged and coughed something thick and wet onto the front of his flannel pajama shirt. His throat opened slightly and he sucked a small amount of air into his lungs murky caverns. Terrified, Josh tried to call out to his parents sleeping down the hall, but could only choke out another loud wheezing gasp. His legs kicked out wildly over the faded brown horses printed on his bed sheets until one foot connected hard with the wall beside his bed. In the living room, on the other side of the wall, something fell with a thud and shattered with the tinkle of a thousand jagged shards onto the hardwood floor.
And does asthma affect the writer’s work?
Some interesting study has recently been done specifically on the asthmatic writer. Two such writers, Marcel Proust and Elizabeth Bishop, have recently had their work re-examined through their asthmatic symptoms. In Proust’s case, researchers have at their disposal a large amount of correspondence that details his respiratory illness and treatments. Relying on such comprehensive information concerning Proust’s health, investigators have attempted to relate Proust’s fiction back to his respiratory illness. One such example, “Proust’s Prescription: Sickness as the Pre-condition for Writing,” Lois Bragg and William Sayers study how illness, and particularly asthma, manifests as a number of extended similes in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.
I once gave (if I do say so myself) a brilliant paper in graduate school on Ann Radcliffe, the grande dame of Gothic fiction who died during an acute asthma attack in 1883, theorizing how she transformed the asthmatic symptoms that tormented her through most of her life (breathlessness, sudden violence, tyranny, nocturnal attacks, suffocation, darkness, constriction etc.) into an abundant collection of dark metaphors that became prototypical Gothic images.
(I specialized in Restoration and 18th Century literature. You can imagine how useful that is in real life.)
Your humble blogger’s own asthma comes and goes. I take medication everyday in an attempt to limit my asthma symptoms.
Luckily I have times of remission (often lasting months) followed by its inevitable (and at times depressing) return. Though, unfortunately, I never have completely normal lung functions even when in remission.
Like anything, you live to learn with it.
And though living with asthma can be trying, with the likes of Proust and Updike as fellow sufferers, I am in grand company. Which makes it a little easier.
Jeffrey, The Gay Groom