Monday, August 07, 2006

Journal: Admiring a disappointed man

Last week, I stumbled across the remarkable writings of W.N.P. Barbellion, a.k.a. Bruce Frederick Cummings. A hundred years ago, Cummings was a brilliant young Englishman with a prodigious interest in zoology and rather modern sensibilities. Cummings kept an intensely candid diary of his ambitions, desires, and despairs, and later, his illness: "disseminated sclerosis," an old-fashioned term for MS. In 1919, when Cummings was 29 years old and just months before his death, his diary was published as The Journal of a Disappointed Man under the pseudonym W.N.P. Barbellion. It's being republished on the net as a blog.

Reading the Journal, I recognized some of my own deepest fears and obsessions, albeit expressed more completely by Cummings' lucid Edwardian prose. Snips:
July 1, 1913. Returned to London very depressed. Am not so well as I was three weeks ago. The sight of one eye is affected, and I am haunted by the possibility of blindness. Then I have a numb feeling on one side of my face, and my right arm is less mobile. Left darling Mother in a very weak state in bed, with neuritis and a weak heart. She cried when I said ‘Goodbye,’ and asked me to go to Church as often as I could, and to read a portion of Scripture every day. I promised. Then she added, ‘For Dad’s sake;’ just as if I would not do it for her. Poor dear, she suffers a deal of pain. She does not know how ill I am. I have not told her.

January 22, 1913. This Diary reads for all the world as if I were not living in mighty London. The truth is I live in a bigger, dirtier city — ill-health. Ill-health, when chronic, is like a permanent ligature around one’s life. What a fine fellow I’d be if I were perfectly well. My energy for one thing would lift the roof off...

If you could divide the Journal into beginning, middle, and end, the middle has to happen in November 1919. Snip from Wikipedia:
Cummings' life changed forever when he decided to enlist in the British Army to fight in World War I in November 1915. He had consulted his doctor before taking the regulation medical prior to enlisting, and his doctor had given him a sealed, confidential letter to present to the medical officer at the recruitment centre. Cummings did not know what was contained in the letter, but in the event it was not needed; the medical officer rejected Cummings as unfit for active duty after the most cursory of medical examinations. Hurt, Cummings decided to open the letter on his way back home to see what had been inside, and was staggered to learn that his doctor had diagnosed him as suffering from the disease now known as multiple sclerosis, and that he almost certainly had less than five years to live.

For the last few days I've been stuck with a sense that Cummings' diary said everything there was to say about having MS; that he told the gut-wrenching truth of the thing 100 years ago, obviating any story I could tell; that it served no purpose to relate the amusing story of how last night for an hour before bedtime I was seized by a fit of flatulence so foul that my dog stood up and walked into the other room (true story!). But today, I'm feeling more relevant. I'm not nearly as eloquent or handsome as Cummings, but here I am.

And furthermore, pull my finger.

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Linda D. said...

Reading your blog, I am never sure if I should laugh or cry, so I sometimes do both! This particular post is a wonderful example...thank you for writing/sharing it. (And I am always up for a good fart story, too)

Linda D. in Seattle

mdmhvonpa said...

Heh ... pull my finger. Nice. :)