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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Writing of Fatigue

Of writing and fatigue, the experience and its communication.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about liminal experiences and how we can convey these as writers. I have been thinking about one liminal experience in particular, one to which I periodically return as it periodically deigns to return to me: fatigue.

Fatigue is strange. Far stranger than its reputation. Far more challenging to convey.

It is not like tiredness at all. Tiredness feels transitory, its transitoriness is apart of how it feels even as it is being felt. Fatigue is permanent, at least in how it is experienced at the time. Tiredness is a state that afflicts you, as an individual body. Fatigue feels as if it suffuses everything else too, both you and the world. When you feel fatigued, the world is fatigued in turn.

Even the more energetic people seem somehow to share this state from the fatigued perspective, as though the abundance of wakefulness they display is a lie. Or, if not an active deception, a superficial and false appearance. Fatigue expresses itself as a state of reality. It has that in common with anhedonia and joy. It’s experienced as a truth larger than the experiencer, not actively, as a worldview might be, but still, it has epistemic qualities.

There are writers who communicate fatigue well. Long passages of Marcel Proust do this for me, a reflective and dreamy mood suffusing his prose. And the long, languid sentences seem to take their time almost because they are weighted by time itself, heavy with time as something waded through. Proust, often sickly, captures the quality of fatigued time.

When Virginia Woolf talks of the ‘embryo lives’ of the ‘recumbent’ in her essay ‘On Being Ill’, she grasps fatigue too. In this piece she talks of wanting to push against the limits of language in describing experiences that have not been shared, without a common referent. It is a perennial problem for the fatigued, and Woolf’s idea of a vernacular that is ‘more sensual, more obscene’, communicates something of the state.

I read that essay the first time when I was diagnosed with a health condition for which fatigue is the dominant symptom. Around the same time, I read Havi Carel’s incredible phenomenology of sickness, Illness (Art of Living), which makes an impassioned case for seeing such conditions through the point of view of embodied consciousness (drawing especially on the philosophical work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty). I also read W. N. P. Barbellion’s The Journal of a Disappointed Man.

Barbellion’s honesty about resentments and his overall feeling of being disillusioned was refreshing. As with Woolf and Carel, he centres the need to relate to the experience in its embodiedness and its incommunicable ellipses. A need that has a therapeutic dimension, the desire to bridge the divide even if it can never be fully accomplished.

Ultimately, fatigue is hard to render fully intelligible. I am not convinced even I myself grasp it when I am outside of the state. Having felt fatigue, recollecting fatigue, does not quite connect to being in a fatigued universe. Outside of that space, when the world is again awake and vital and faster, glossier, the memory of it is at best a kind of approximation.

Tiredness comes replete with remedies. From changes in diet and company and stress to various sleeping techniques. Fatigue is all too often either a permanent condition or an episodic but unpredictable one. Tiredness points outside of itself, fatigue acknowledges no outside even if one must indeed exist.

Fatigue is not the only experience that operates along these lines. Indeed, it is not the only experience of being ill that does so, as all the writers I mention above testify. There is so much words struggle to say. Art, and the creative attempts that comprise the essay form, get us some of the way there.


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