In my comments this week, I am going to skip over the initial pages of this chapter in which Dr. Dugdale reflects upon Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague. Nevertheless, please feel free to include thoughts about these pages in your comments.
I will focus my reflections on the part on this chapter that is about the writings, concerns, and choices of Susan Sontag. Here are a few quotes:
In her 1978 book Illness as Metaphor, the literary giant Susan Sontag explains how the military metaphor was popularized in the 1880s when bacteria were identified as “agents of disease.” Eventually that language was appropriated for cancer.Page 96
Sontag was so terrified of death that she could not speak of it . . . She could write about death with unusual eloquence. And she fully understood that one day she herself would die. But she could not bring herself to say it.Page 96
Despite Sontag’s fear–or perhaps as a manifestation of it–she was obsessed with death. She visited cemeteries . . .. She even kept a human skull on her worktable–a true memento mori. The fact that she refused to resign herself to death “gave her resolve,” according to her son, “to undergo any treatment, no matter how brutal, no matter how slim her chances.”Page 97
I can’t tell from Dr. Dugdale’s narrative whether Sontag was critical of the military metaphor she explained in her book, whether she expressed approval of it, or whether she applied it to her own experience of disease. Dr. Dugdale certainly applies the military metaphor in her description of Sontag’s diseases, recalling how Sontag “survived” breast cancer, “beat” uterine cancer, and was “defeated” by leukemia. Whatever Sontag might have thought about the use of such language to describe her history of illness, it does seem consistent with her son’s description of her “resolve.”
We have talked before about this kind of language and the frequency with which it is used. I hear it all the time in the hospitals in which I minister. Being treated for cancer is almost always a “battle” in which the sick are “fighting.” Even in eulogies praising deceased love ones, those people are said to have “lost” their “battle” with cancer after putting up a valiant “fight.” Cancer and other diseases win this battle when sick people die. And, since we will all die, we will all conclude our lives as losers. In the meantime, the sick live as fighters, defined in opposition to their disease, going down swinging in mortal combat with the inevitable.
Susan Sontag seems to have defined herself by her opposition to death in a remarkable way. For most people, I think, fearing death makes them want to ignore death, to put it out of sight and mind. Sontag’s reaction seems to have been the opposite. Her fear of death caused her to obsess over it. Dr. Dugdale refers to Sontag’s desktop skull as “a true memento mori.” But its purpose for Sontag is the opposite of it purpose in the medieval tradition. For medieval Christians, remembrances of death were aids for accepting death as the inevitable conclusion of earthly life and the transition to the heavenly life to come. For Sontag, remembrances of death seem to be ways of staying focused on an enemy whom she would resist at all costs. I don’t know whether that was morbid or courageous or both or something else? Maybe you have ideas about that?
All who were close to Sontag in her final months conspired to speak words of hope rather than truth. This was what she wanted, but such a conspiracy made it impossible to tell her that she was dying. They could not say goodbye properly or fully express their love for her–to do so would be to admit defeat.Page 99
It seems strange to me that Susan Sontag, who fixated on remembrances of death throughout her life, wanted to remain ignorant of her own death when it drew near. I’m sure some of you have insights into that kind of mentality that don’t occur to me.
The kind of conspiracy described here, however, is familiar to me. I see this kind of deception happening frequently. It may be more or less explicitly conspiratorial, but people often try to shield their dying loved ones from the truth about their state of health. This may be justifiable in cases like Sontag’s in which such ignorance seems to have been the patient’s express will. But it remains sad, as Dr. Dugdale relates. I think this kind of deception usually has as much to do with the fears of family members and medical professionals as it does with the fears or wishes of patients. I also think dying patients frequently know more than people think they do. I myself have had the experience of being a patient (not dying, but recovering from major surgery) and hearing and knowing much more about my condition than everyone else seemed to think.
I will be interested to read your comments about how the fear of death leads us to talk and think, or avoid talking and thinking, about death and potentially terminal disease. Thank you for sharing your insights.