Being Ill with Romantic Music

October 9, 2009



P1000883.JPGPOE3Being Ill with Romantic Music


I can’t begin equivocating abstract good from diseases.


Saturday I was in an elevator with a sick woman who coughed and sniffled. I hadn’t slept well the week before and went out that rainy evening to listen to Mendelssohn and Beethoven string quartets. For me that is part of my complicated formula for coming down with a cold or influenza. Romantics put me in a mood for illness. Illness finds me welcoming viral decadence.

 Several autumns past I had a lovely toxic bout of fever connected with reading Andre Gide’s “The Immoralist”. For a few weeks in the afternoons I would collapse on the love seat in dreamy naps and wake up physically adrift in my psychic malady. Then I believe it was Richard Strauss and Chet Baker who accompanied my hypnogogic drift. Too many people I loved were dead, or ill, seemed to be hopelessly injured or addicted to something. Mine was a sympathetic disease of indolence, guilt and affectation…and some opportunistic virus. It was a form of intoxication that let me appreciate the willing thrall of Gide’s fiction. It was an especially gorgeous autumn, the afternoons were marked by feckless blue skies, and in the early evening breezes bent north from the Gulf Coast that were still faint with Africa and the decay of low tides.

 Now I stagger through Borges’ “Labyrinths”  It’s one of my favorite collections of rare dreams and the type of thinking that constructs thoughts both large and enveloping enough for a reader to wander around fragmenting their own life in the Borgesian mirrors. Tedium and twists of language build a tale designed to entrap the reader, and what is Borges if not a diversion in diversions? Like Daedalus himself, Borges creations seem so little concerned with his self expression that he is another near perfect visitor for the sickroom. Along with Borges, Poe’s prolix Auguste Dupin exchange opinions near my night table, advising me about the clues of my experience of captivity and exotic alienation.

 So many hours of my life have been lost to the tedious pursuit of money, of what needs to be done (and ignored) in order to earn a living. That world plans our days as its agenda commands, squeezing minutes to task, making time for this meeting, returning calls while driving on the freeway. Even our days off are crushed by lists of duties and pleasures fit together with chronological severity. It’s no wonder sickness is such a lucrative industry in our country, it’s the only place left to be oneself. There is a mysterious liberty in sickness.

 Our culture seems obsessed by sicknesses. Sickness requires a higher level of civility and forbearance from those around it. Dressed in our most comfortable pajamas we are permitted to sleep, speak, or be as silent as we wish, doctors and relatives will stop to speak with us, folk cures and patent medicines get passed along as forms of affection. Except for the distraction of discomforts, we are permitted to think whatever our imagination chooses to indulge in—wistful longing, fevered monstrosities, memories, or poetic meditation. That the quality of these considerations may be maudlin and forgettable is secondary to the intensity and novelty of their appearance. 

 I have flu symptoms. By the latest H1N1 virus television terror alerts I’m encouraged to take my medications at home—expend my sick days for the good of the healthy. I went in to work accomplished a few tasks and left just before noon. I had finished and awakened from my first nap by 2:00. We’re all much more expendable than we would like to believe.

So, if I have to reread the same paragraph several times, it feels as if it were a string quartet passing its theme from movement to movement until it’s resolved.  Borges and Poe are seldom direct or well served by speed reading. They seem like suggestions and invitations. Invitations I recieve in a borderland somewhere short of delirium by importune medication where I temporarily reside. In younger, stranger, days it was my desire to build a home there, but now a few days vacation suffice—just as now the mere taste of sweets brings satisfaction. When we are ill in some ways we are spiritually closer to our lost selves.

My dear and beloved friend Billy Parker was diagnosed with AIDS in what seems a century ago, when no one knew about the diagnosis, and treatment was a guess in a cataclysm. He lost everything. I write that as casually as if those three words were no more than two pronouns and an intransitive verb. In the first twenty four hours of his hospitalization for pneumonia, and the subsequent secondary diagnosis, he lost his home, his ability to work, his lovers, and the last years of his youth. But in a strange way he found a second life, not one anyone would have wished for him (or anyone), but a spiritually pitiless and inevitable life. A naked life most of us pretend we’ll never have to live.

Wednesdays we went to the Thomas Street Clinic. It was the place in Houston gay men without insurance turned to for HIV/AIDS treatment when there was no treatment. It was the waiting room on the living edge of a nightmare where doctors and nurses faced hour after hour of patients who deteriorated day by day. Men disappeared watching one another smoke under the covered walkway. I lit too many cigarettes for men with tremors. Last weeks’ friend appeared in a wheelchair this week…didn’t appear the next.  Any rumor of a cure or treatment was surrounded by a dozen rumors of paranoia and terror. Patients didn’t know if they were receiving experimental drugs or placebos. Behind the cheerfully astute receptionist were mazes of brad and bracket manila files compiling clues about victims pursued by an unknown killer.  Beneath the scent of disinfectant, tobacco and burning coffee was  panic, death and love pressured beyond convention. It was from there that Bill recieved his second life. A life removed from ambition or the fool’s paradise of fame, or wealth…it was an uncertain fixity of one day, and perhaps…

His medications seemed to be tentatively working; our visits to the clinic became less frequent. We entered the more intimate world of T-cell counts and the wary watch for skin lesions Does this seem larger to you? I piled up a fantasy rock wall between HIV and AIDS. The frantic clinic waiting room gave way to long lunches on Wednesday. Each week we found a budget exotic lunch, and then we went grocery shopping. Bill was an alcoholic and I had learned I couldn’t give him money (another mystery disease). Bill joined a PWA writing workshop. He began throwing pots. We went to museums, or shopping. He lectured me on nihilist post punk music or  we discussed the Beats while driving around the city. Bill tired easily, so often we sat and talked. We had our history together, but we seldom reminisced. In good weather we sat on the back stoop, or at the kitchen table on wet days. As the afternoon wound down, we talked about the strangeness of love, or the peace of autumn arriving, our mothers, or exchanged recipes. All of these moments were left off the calendar of ordinary days.

One afternoon Bill showed me a story he’d been writing—pages of purple prose murders committed by a dyed blonde barmaid who took violent revenge on her sex partners. The familiar block letters of his handwriting styled their way into a savage melodrama where the heroine’s only salvation was the writer’s procrastination and incompletion. He watched me read it. I knew what it was. He didn’t. It was raw fiction, unpolished expression, not literature, but the force beneath literature—dreaming, desperate, swimming into a fevered world where death is controlled by logic and form and not random viruses.

So many of us fall asleep reading murder mysteries.

 Having recovered some energy and bored enough, I wander downstairs. Television is just as boring on a larger screen. I’m getting better. I  try listening to the re-released Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but it makes the past seem too pretty even for pop. Looking around the house I take one of those hangover inventories—where this picture or that figure has come from, what they may have meant when I bought them—if they’re showing cleaning damage.  I’ve traded most of my life for this private second hand store of petit obsessions. I need to have these thoughts and probably wouldn’t without my sickness. My medication has reached that level where I feel dizzy and about to sweat all the time…not quite drunk, certainly not euphoric. Removed.

Beethoven String Quartet in C-sharp minor.

The invisible microbes that tied me to my pillow tie me to the other chaotic world. An unlovely world, where earthly pleasures can be reduced to stalling off a fit of coughing, or keeping the afternoon light from piercing the sides of my eyes….or a sip of tepid water. I’m there alone—lost to my family, my work, my FaceBook page, abandoned by the thousands of joys and procrastinations that were supposed to keep me from dying…yet.

In the dreadfully serene storms raging in the one city where all of us survive, it takes illness to sit me in the rocking boat of my own soul.


5 Responses to “Being Ill with Romantic Music”

  1. Pamela Harrison Says:

    “Even our days off are crushed by lists of duties and pleasures fit together with chronological severity. It’s no wonder sickness is such a lucrative industry in our country, it’s the only place left to be oneself. There is a mysterious liberty in sickness.”

    Beautifully expressed and, yes, there is some liberty in it. Especially liberty from a sense of duty. But “the only place left to be oneself”? I’ve always thought that poetry was that refuge—and one doesn’t have to feel bad to be in that inner sanctum that reverberates so richly with memory and desire.

    But yes, we are sick, our culture is sick, and it’s true that I’ve begun to say outloud what a gift dying at last will be, to be liberated, as you say, from the growing alienation of each passing day. Maybe feeling that way is a sickness?depression? or just a realistic acknowledgment that my values have become obsolete/foreign to the larger body of the tribe? Just as my own written language now languishes in the backwaters of a romanticism all but drowned in cynicism. Does such an acknowledgement constitute the sickness of despair?

    • domzuccone Says:

      Assuming despair is a sickness is the 21st century equivalent of assuming it’s a sin.
      “Here’s your medication go and sin no more.”
      The nature of the death reality has been culturally the focus of religion and medicine.
      Sickness seems like an opportunity to peek over that dark fence. If someone can make it beautiful we go to heaven, or somewhere in between like “Four Last Songs”. Poetry is a refuge of sorts…but generally not for the poet. It’s like the gift of sobriety…it requires a certain amount of discipline to appreciate. Being a rich Zen master requires practice to say this is meaningless, much different to make the say statement when you’re hungry.

  2. Wonderfully written Dom! It’s so true. I think we get sick because being out in the world is too stressful. We get to forget everything else and sit in our souls as you say so beautifully. If we slowed life down a lot . . . and maybe we even get old because it’s good for us . . . James Hillman’s latest book “The Force of Character” finds all these good reasons for getting old. Anyway, interesting thoughts, lovely combination of words. And I wish you Wellness & slowness.

  3. Mike Says:

    Someone drowning – circling a drain – from AIDS & BOOZE pulls you in. Let him go his way. You go yours.

    Charity clinics and national health service will make it all better. Bless you.

    How did Billy Parker get sick?
    What kind of work ethic did he have before he got sick?
    Immediate Gratification versus Sublimation?

    You’re the interesting one in the story, the one with insight about work and illness. Billy Parker? Stick-figure, straw-opponent AIDS case.

    Sorry you got sick, Dom. I think you’ll regain your good health. Good luck. Thanks for writing.

    • DEZ Says:

      I’m not making a moral judgment on Bill’s life before, or after AIDS. I loved him. Like all of us he lived with his own demons and ecstasies. My point was how he was changed by being ill, at least given an awareness of his existence apart from the habitual world. Illness, may be no more than a drug(or vice versa) but it isn’t a complete abberation in our lives, but part of our lives—merely an experience, not some alien intervention…not even a metaphor because it isn’t like anything, it is something, something very personal.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: