Illness colors everything, especially a serious one. Life seems bleak, there is little that is worth doing, eating is a chore, as is everything else. I suspect that is the reaction of many who are struck with a debilitating disease or injury, although we do hear about an almost equal number who never abandon life, even when it is virtually impossible for them to live it.
Susan Sontag was one of those individuals. Like others so struck, they command our admiration. Of course, there is much else about Susan Sontag to admire, including her recently published and widely reviewed first volume of her journal, Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963.
David Rieff, Sontag's son, has written about her mother's lengthy battle with cancer in Swimming in a Sea of Death. It was a tough book to read as Rieff describes in detail Sontag's three horrible bouts of cancer that one by one descended upon her body and ravished it.
But she never gave up hope that she would be cured by one of the new techniques for treating cancer, each one grimmer than the next. She studied the medical literature, traveled the world to visit doctors and hospitals that specialized in their application, sure in the knowledge that she would be cured.
Her last bout did her in and Rieff struggles with the question throughout his account of whether or not to tell her that there was no cure for it (myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). Here are the some of the passages I made note of in the book.
“I curse death.” I cannot help it. Elias Canetti
She loved living and, if anything, both her appetite for experience and her hopes for what she would accomplish as a writer had only increased as she grew older. If I had to choose one word to describe her way of being in the world it would be "avidity." There was nothing she did not want to see or do or try to know.
…she writes that she is an eternal student and speculates whether, in the end, that is what she is best at.
…irrational human wish to ascribe meaning when no meaning is really on offer.
“The statistics only get you so far. There are always people on the tail end of the curve.” Jerome Groopman.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
Real commitment for her was always radical.
Above all, information needed to be collected. Information meant control, did it not?
Her apartment became a kind of research unit (it had always been more office and library than home)…
…brochure is written in the language of hope, but in fact offers almost none to anyone reading it with care.
But the gap here between language and reality is simply too great
Thomas Mann once wrote that a writer is someone for whom writing is harder that it is for anyone else.
You did not give in to cancer, you fought it, and if you fought hard enough and, above all, intelligently enough, there was a chance that you could win.
…but deferring completely to another person is, if anything, an even more impossible project. For such deference would render one without personality—without the very qualities, in other words, upon which one's relations with the other person are grounded.
…for my mother information had become synonymous with hope: the more you knew, the better your chances of cheating death once more.
Looking back, I wonder if there is any silence worse than the silence of the sick room.
…love was no consolation to her as she fought so desperately for her life.
From a political and, increasingly, an ecological standpoint as well, she had no great hope that the world would get any better and, at the very least, the strong intuition that it would probably get a great deal worse.
…to understand an illusion is not to rid yourself of it…
And if so many people die of cancer today, doctors say that this is at least in part because we are not dying of other diseases when we are younger.
“…as long as one's thoughts are spoken and written down, they'll form another life, they won't perish with the flesh.” Bei Dao