Archive for August 4th, 2010

“Mortal combat”: Illness as cliché

Wednesday, August 4th, 2010

"In whatever kind of a 'race' life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist."

Christopher Hitchens usually summers in the sunny, mild climate of our own beautiful Palo Alto — not, obviously, this year.  He writes about his chemotherapy in “Topic of Cancer,” in Vanity Fair here.

In Susan Sontag‘s 1977 Illness as Metaphor, she writes: “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.  Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

Here is Hitchens’s version of the 911 call that launched a very different kind of journey during his book tour:

“Any movement, however slight, required forethought and planning. It took strenuous effort for me to cross the room of my New York hotel and summon the emergency services. They arrived with great dispatch and behaved with immense courtesy and professionalism. I had the time to wonder why they needed so many boots and helmets and so much heavy backup equipment, but now that I view the scene in retrospect I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.”

Hitchens continues Sontag’s metaphor in his piece, with an unexpected detour for Edna St. Vincent Millay (of all people).  Hitchens at his best when his observations are sharp, pungent, and iconoclastic, even when his offensive observations land like a pie in the face (and any with an IQ over 73 will meet something that offends).  Oddly, it’s only in his prejudices that he descends to conventionality.  So cancer has found him, ironically, in good hands — his bracing attempts to come to grips with sudden illness will have a familiar echo for anyone who has suffered a forced deportation to this unwished-for valley.

With his illness, he has entered the land of cliché, and for a writer that is mortal combat indeed.  As someone who survived a terminal cancer diagnosis nearly a decade ago, I appreciate the vividness of his own internal experience contrasted with the shopworn expectations and conventions of the “well people” (for example, I recall their sentimentality, as if I had crossed the final border into terminal self-pity when I was merely struggling to breathe or swallow).  I also recognize his startled confrontation with the barbaric practices that are the very best modern medicine has to offer — but that remain outrageous assaults on the body and its sense of well-being.  One views as a stranger one’s own, equally barbaric will to live:

“Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.”

Among the clichés one confronts are the strictures of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whose constructs are often seen as ironclad, rather than commonplace patterns. Hitchens of course has a few clichés of his own:  I rather doubt his chest hair was once “the toast of two continents” — in fact, I’d rather not think about it at all.

His piece is well worth the read.