Long before anyone understood the bacterial provenance of consumption, ancient Greeks described the fecundity it seemed to visit on sufferers as spes pthisica (the disease was then known as pthisis, from the Greek phthiō, to waste, decay and spes from the Latin for hope, expectation). The idea that the wasting disease proffered artistic fertility persisted well into the twentieth century, and it was hard to argue with the evidence: consumptives through the ages have been prolific and their art enduring. Among others, the disease claimed the lives of Katherine Mansfield, Anton Chekhov, Molière, John Keats, Emily Brontë, Franz Kafka, Amedeo Modigliani, and Frédéric Chopin.
It’s not so surprising, maybe, that a mortal imperative fueled the fires of creation. Chekhov was known to exclaim ‘Time is short!’ incessantly. But there were also the languid periods of enforced inactivity in the sanatorium, the almost endless supply of time for unhurried reading and introspection, and the utter absence of domestic or altruistic burdens. Artists who created while sequestered by the disease include Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, Albert Camus, Eugene O’Neill, Paul Gaugin, and Igor Stravinsky. “You must not say disease,” argued Roland Barthes, whose long periods in sanatoriums had a profound influence on his work. “You must say tuberculosis, because at the time TB was a veritable mode of life, a way of being — almost a choice.” It was the perfect incubator.
Eking out time to create in a post-sanatorium world intolerant of idleness (consider the impatience for Sidney Crosby’s return to the ice, when even one more serious blow to his head could render him vegetative or dead) makes this kind of stasis an object of desire.
Longing for solitude, we fashion sanatoriums of the mind: we retreat physically, wall ourselves off emotionally, turn off the ringer and the modem, not for respite or peace or avoidance but for the brooding that yields to hatching. It’s the human equivalent of fallow, the benign neglect that restores fertility, the state of openness that can happen only in the absence of interaction, the drawing of the bow to compel the arrow’s flight. It’s the practice for dying, the rehearsal that brings life ever closer.
- Christine Fischer Guy