Of Love And Asthma

All Asthmatics, being angry or sad,
do fall into Fits oftener than when
they are cheerful
Sir John Floyer, A Treatise of the Asthma — 1698

Proust cropped up in the blog a while ago. I’ve never read any of his stuff, I have to admit. But I have discovered that he suffered his first asthma attack at the age of nine, and thereafter was considered a sickly child. The pneumonia that finally killed him followed asthma brought on by the young Samuel Beckett’s cigar-smoking. I’ve seen him referred to as “the asthma poet”.

I thought you were going to call this post, “A la recherche de la respiration perdu”.

Ferdinand Mount is another nominee for the asthma poet in the Blog My Wiki post, having written “Of Love And Asthma”, the source of the introductory extract above. Also, it seems, the Conservative manifesto of 1983.

[Fun fact: the Labour manifesto of 1983 that was described as “the longest suicide note in history”, actually put the party ahead in the polls in the months leading up to the Falklands Conflict War. Maybe if Michael Foot had promised to invade Ireland, Denmark, Iceland and The Faroes over Rockall . . . .]

Michael Foot

But Blog My Wiki gives Bruce Robinson the nod for his introduction to the script of Withnail and I.

Personally, I’d go for Alasdair Gray. The author of Scotland’s Ulysses also suffered his first asthma attack when quite young, and began writing writing around the same time. Gray has speculated (in the manner of his avatar, Duncan Thaw, but with the “neurotic imagination” tacked back on) that “the onset of asthma may have been due to the fact that his mother was not much given to cuddling or caressing.”

Some psychologists think asthma starts with struggles to draw breath while screaming hopelessly for a mother’s attention, in a state of rage and horror. I was five when the first asthma attack came and the longest of them were after her death in 1952, so there may be truth in that Freudian theory, though Mum never neglected me.

There’s a long academic piece from Rhode Island College in which Disease, Consumption And Sex In Lanark are discussed. Here’s a short an extract to give you the flavour:

Lanark’s protagonist “becomes a neurotic but visionary visual artist and rejects [his father’s] and Scottish society’s understanding that “Unless [men] learn to work obediently because they’re told to, and for no other reason, they’ll be unfit for human society”. He . . . suffers from severe asthma . . . . Thaw’s illness plagues more than just his lungs: he lies awake racked by anxious thoughts and the threat of suffocation. He battles it through sexual fantasy and masturbation, finding that these help him breathe easier . . .

Asthma is the opposite of meditation, it appears to me. While the mind focuses on but a single thought — the struggle to breathe — the sufferer doesn’t find samatha or vipassana. Instead, he “lies awake racked by anxious thoughts and the threat of suffocation.” Horrible stuff, as I can attest from rare but ugly experience. So why should something so unpleasant inspire so much writerly activity?

Well, as many Scottish schoolchildren have discovered, great poetry does not exclude ugliness from its bailiwick. Consider Norman MacCaig’s Assisi (read by the poet here) or Wilfred Owen’s Dulce Et Decorum Est (a description of a World War One gas attack, or the worst Ben & Jerry’s flavour name yet).

Dulche De Leche Est

And, a proper asthma attack is properly ripe with metaphor. Who among us doesn’t recognize, in some context, the inability to take a deep, cleansing breath, the mind filled with a single, ugly thought, the wondering When will this be over? Oh. Just me, then. But, it does pass, the nebulizer allowing the victim to fill his lungs with cleansing, life-giving air. With relief.

In our next exciting episode — The Literal Version.

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13 thoughts on “Of Love And Asthma

  1. Poetry from school that stuck with me? Ho Xuan Huong. Medieval Vietnamese poet. She was famed for writing poetry with sly, subversive wordplay.

    Like for example she wrote a poem called “The Lustful Monk”, which reads as perfectly pious on the surface. But apparently if you pronounce some of the words in a different tone, the lines become obscene. As you read it (assuming you’re a native speaker of medieval Vietnamese), dirty thoughts subtly flow through your subconscious the same way dirty thoughts are invading the mind of the monk.

    In my novel, which I will eventually finish some year, there’s a passage where the character partially inspired by Beth expounds on her love of Ho Xuon Huong. Though I did cut about 100 pages with that character so I’m not sure if that scene made it through the cut.

    1. Ah, she’ll be immortalised, one way or another. Interesting stuff, though I fear my Vietnamese isn’t up to snuff. This particular combination of the pious and profane puts me in mind of Donne, nevertheless.

      Meanwhile, the world’s smallest Vietnamese festival took place in the east end of Edinburgh’s city centre yesterday. From the stage, we heard a charming Vietnamese person tell the crowdlette that the Scottish and Vietnamese senses of humour were very similar.

      Poor Vietnamese.

  2. Phineas and ferb says I, misses says Miami vice. Button moon also sticks in my head, mainly because even thirty five years ago simply filming a button then calling that a tv show seemed lame. Or, I suppose, fantastically clever for managing to pull it off.

    1. Ah, some excellent calls there. As it happens, apoplectic.me is a pro Phineas and Ferb zone. Friendoftheblogpaul is a huge fan. Any day Rae was up for an episode of P&F was a good one for me, too. Although the stage show looked a bit terrifying (http://sellabitmum.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Idea-Mash-Up-Machine.jpg).

      Now, the live Button Moon show, “which ran during the late 1980s and the early 1990s,” on the other hand — I’m sure that was great. If you were mashed out yer gourd. In the “fantastically clever” vein, though, I read that “[a]ll of the characters within the show are based on kitchen utensils, as well as many of the props.” Which is borderline clever, at least.

      Nice to see you on the site.

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