6/19/11: Another view of Susan Sontag

Just read: Sempre Susan, by Sigrid Nunez, a memoir of sorts. I’ve been fascinated by Susan Sontag for years, but have come to realize that my infatuation, if it was that, was somewhat misplaced at the onset. Or perhaps that’s unfair, I learned a great deal from Sontag’s musing about illness, I just didn’t turn out to agree with her stance.

I first read Sontag during the 1990s, her Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors seemed to be among the few writings I could find that put illness, and in particular, HIV/AIDS, into a literary perspective from which I could attempt to understand my own feelings about illness and death. Besides, she turned me on to reading Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain; Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich; and Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. But I (perhaps intentionally) missed her whole point, which should have been obvious from her first paragraphs onwards:

I want to describe, not what it is really like to emigrate to the kingdom of the ill and live there, but the punitive or sentimental fantasies concocted about that situation: not real geography, but stereotypes of national character. My subject is not physical illness itself but the uses of illness as a figure or metaphor. My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking. (from Illness as Metaphor)

I put the entire paragraph in front of you, so you can see how easily I was fooled. She uses metaphor extensively and well (as in the brilliant ‘emigrating to the kingdom of the ill’), and then exhorts one to forswear metaphor altogether in discussing or confronting illness. I was fully in agreement that some metaphors about illness are dangerous, condescending, biased, and hurtful. But I did not see until much later that Sontag believed that she could triumph over illness herself by this method. In other words, she was selective about the metaphors she chose to deal with her own confrontations with illness, in her case, three separate episodes of cancer, the final one ending in her death.

Shortly after it came out, I read David Reiff’s memoir of his mother’s dying, Swimming in a Sea of Death. Remarkably to me, this intellectual giant and lifelong atheist was terrified of dying, to the extent that her son was never able to have sober discourse with her about her death, the meaning of her life, her sense of triumph and regret, legacy and loss, last words or stories. She simply wanted more life.

Reiff was stunned by her non-metaphoric battle against a third episode of cancer, this one remarkably unforgiving, as he was dismayed by her unwillingness to look death in the eye. In his memoir, he says:

Which was her right. I’m sure of that. What I’m far less sure of is whether I did the right thing in going along with and in fact doing what I could to abet her in her refusal to contemplate the prospect that this third time around she would die of her cancer. Looked at from a distance, this is probably just one variant of what you might call “the loved one’s dilemma.” The questions tumble out, in wakefulness and in dreams. At least, more than two years after her death, they continue to for me: Did I do the right thing? Could I have done more? Or proposed an alternative? Or been more supportive? Or forced the issue of death to the fore? Or concealed it better?

I was awed by Rieff’s dedication to the work of helping his mother at the end of her life and the valor he displayed in his struggle to do right by her. His unflinching efforts to recognize what belonged to her and what belonged to him. To refuse to fictionalize the experience as he walked through it. He also struggled with the decision of whether or not to publish Sontag’s lifelong journal writings, a struggle that I could identify with, in having the journals of my friend, Jon Greenberg, who died of complications of AIDS in 1993. And brought me to my own questions about what to do with my own journals (answer: I will burn them before I die). Suffice it to say that the first volume of Sontag’s Journals and Notebooks (1947-1963) was published under the title Reborn in 2008. I gobbled it up immediately. She is a fascinating person, brilliant and uncompromising, determined to lead an interesting and complicated life.

And there are 3 more journals to come, according to Reiff, who, if in the end he lacks the courage to publish them, I will wholly forgive him.

So, it was not surprising that I wanted to read Nunez’s memoir. She was quite close to Sontag during a period when she lived in her home along with David, whom she was lovers with at the time. Her book seems uncompromisingly honest, although it is certainly merely a slice of perspective. It is not, at first or last glance, a complimentary portrait of Sontag. I’ll just give you a tiny taste.

She was suspicious of women with menstrual complaints. She herself had always taken her periods in stride, and she thought that a lot of women must be exaggerating the inconveniences and discomforts of theirs. Or they were buying into old myths about the delicacy and vulnerability of the female body. In fact, she suspected that many people exaggerated or overreacted to both physical and emotional pain, an attitude that no doubt owed much to her having had cancer and having stoically withstood radical surgery and chemotherapy.

I suppose this is not a surprising attitude, and I’m sure I’ve had similar arrogant feelings at times, as a defense. Funny though, how for Sontag, holding fast to this attitude became quite a successful career. Yet, in my view, it did not serve her well as she went about the business of dying.

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4 Responses to 6/19/11: Another view of Susan Sontag

  1. Thanks for this fascinating account of your reading experience and for these excerpts. I was riveted to the Sontag paragraph you presented–on real illness NOT being a metaphor but a real illness–because of your current focus and past “misplaced” infatuation! I am also interested in how there might be a disconnect between our notions about an experience and our actual experience of it when it comes. Here’s a weird tie in: my mom’s straightforward description of childbirth and her metaphor of the bones being broken apart in that area (felt like that to her, but no actual bones were broken) + my own severe menstrual pain when young (not later) were excellent preparation for actual childbirth. I hope the literal and metaphorical descriptions of the death experience I’ve heard and read do help me prepare for that, too. Though they are all from the observer’s stance…as far as I know. Who knows? Maybe some observers have lived and died before….

  2. while i haven’t read either of the sontag biographies or her illness as metaphor, i appreciate denenberg’s observation that “Sontag believed that she could triumph over illness herself by this method[ of metaphor, hence denial].

  3. It seems that Sontag viewed death as a metaphor and not real.

  4. All great comments, thanks. I think my perhaps one of my unstated conclusions is that Sontag substantially overestimated what is medically possible, had a couple of earlier lucky breaks with cancer to bolster her position, and then used the magical defense that if a person is strong enough (good enough, spiritual enough, positive enough, etc.) and if they seek “the best” medical providers (which itself seems elitist), they will survive unsustainable illnesses.Those who die have failed to do their best. I think this is how she was able to be so unsympathetic of others’ weaknesses (as in being scornful of women who complain of menstrual pains) . My greatest problem with this stance (which is all too common) is its effect on survivors, in this case, it was clear that Reiff second guessed himself unmercifully, wondering if there was something he neglected to do that might have changed the outcome.

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