January 29, 2008
There’s a pretty repulsive undertone to this New York Times review of Swimming in a Sea of Death, David Rieff’s memoir of his mother, Susan Sontag, and her long, agonizing battle with not one but three different forms of cancer. Ask yourself if you would want to be treated by a doctor who wrote something like this:
Three decades of having cancer, being treated for cancer or waiting for cancer to recur might bring out the inner philosopher in some. In Ms. Sontag, an inner adolescent seems to have emerged instead, with each battle and victory strengthening her determined appetite for life and her conviction that she was immortal. Intellectually, of course, she knew otherwise, but she balanced that age-old contradiction with the insouciance of a helmetless 18-year-old on a snowboard. “She believed in her own will, and, grandiose though it may seem, in her own star,” Mr. Rieff says in his book. “My mother came to being ill imbued with a profound sense of being the exception to every rule.”
To watch that kind of arrogance and bravery succeed is marvelous; to watch it fail, dreadful. For an elderly woman with a body weakened and deformed by prior surgery and bones oozing new malignant cells, failure was pretty much a foregone conclusion.
Such was the strength of Ms. Sontag’s giant personality, however, that apparently no one in her coterie of friends, family or physicians was willing or able to help her along the path to accepting the inevitable. She took them with her instead, on the snowboard heading straight for a cliff.
An “inner adolescent”? A “snowboard heading straight for a cliff”? What is the reviewer, Abigail Zuger, going on about? Is it really so remarkable that an independent, intellectually vital woman would fight for life with every ounce of her dwindling strength? Was Susan Sontag the first cancer patient to refuse an accommodation to her illness? Were her relatives the only family members to suffer from the protracted loss of a loved one? Check out this howler: “Desperate as she was to live, Ms. Sontag knew perfectly well that she was bound to live on in her work.” When Abigail Zuger’s number comes up, will she go to her grave passive and smiling, knowing she will have immortality through nasty, shallow book reviews like this?
The distasteful irony here is that Zuger, identified as a physician, is writing about the author of Illness As Metaphor, a deeply challenging work that emerged from Sontag’s first bout with cancer. In it, she compared the depiction of cancer in popular culture with views on tuberculosis in the late 19th century. Sontag noted that in both cases, lack of understanding about the source of each illness made TB and cancer into blank canvasses onto which society projected its own prejudices, always to the detriment of the sufferer.
Time and again, Sontag found, tuberculosis was viewed as an outgrowth of the afflicted patient’s flighty character and “artistic” temperament. Cancer, meanwhile, was early on depicted as the body’s rebellion against the patient’s own bottled-up emotions. A “Type-A personality” was considered particularly vulnerable to cancer.
Sontag’s intellectual rigor led to an immensely compassionate judgment: That the condition of cancer patients, or sufferers from any misunderstood disease, can only be worsened when they have to fight stereotypes and pop-psychology along with their illnesses. Zuger apparently has no knowledge of Susan Sontag as anything but a famous radical from the Sixties, one who didn’t know how to act her age, just like all those other Baby Boomers. Had Zuger read Illness As Metaphor, I have to think her review would have turned out much differently.
Then again, maybe not. Zuger’s constant references to one of the most singular thinkers and writers of the 20th century as a stubborn teenager, unwilling to lie down and die like a responsible adult, are of a piece with the numbskull anti-Boomer Sixties cliches we’ve been hammered with for some four decades now. You just can’t go wrong beating up on the Boomers. During the Nineties we saw the government overrun by braying thieves and clowns who worked to paralyze the Clinton administration while terrorists were making plans against us. The first decade of the 21st century has been a trashy Gilded Age cavalcade of cynicism and corruption. But it’s the Sixties that must be slain, over and over. It was those Boomers, the fundies told us, that undermined society with their immoral ways. It’s those Boomer, the Bushies told us, that would make it necessary to “reform” Social Security by opening it up to looting. And now here’s Abigail Zuger to deliver the final judgment –those Boomers can’t even die properly!
And so Susan Sontag, who warned against turning cancer patients into stand-ins for society’s bogeymen, gets turned into a stand-in for society’s bogey generation, with help from the New York Times.