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”.
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 . . . .]
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).
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.