David Rieff has reported from almost every strange, dusty, and violent corner of the globe. Cruelty, violence, and death have been his great subjects. In his newest book, Swimming in a Sea of Death, Rieff does not travel abroad to find death. It finds him. More precisely, it finds his mother, Susan Sontag.
Susan Sontag was first diagnosed with cancer more than 30 years ago. The experience inspired one of Sontag’s most famous works, her essay “Illness as Metaphor.” Treatment contained Sontag’s disease. But in 2004, Sontag discovered that a new cancer had occurred, this one much more virulent and lethal than that which she had survived in the 1970s.
Rieff’s book describes Sontag’s diagnosis, illness, and death. It is a short, brutal book, written without euphemism or consolation.
For Rieff (as for Sontag) death is catastrophe, ruin, destruction, the annihilation of a living, thinking, conscious being. It is murder for the dying one; robbery for those from whom she is stolen; unmitigated loss and absolute catastrophe; made somehow worse (if there can be worse) by the protracted intrusion and humilations of the medical process.
There is not a trace of acceptance in this book. Neither Sontag nor Rieff makes peace with what happens to her, what will happen to him, what must happen to us all. They remain to the end outraged by the horror of what they are to suffer.
“Illness as Metaphor” was one of the books my own mother read during her long struggle against the cancer that killed her in 1992 at age 54. Sontag sought to draw larger meaning from her disease, to understand society through the language with which we describe lethal illness. Rieff’s purpose is much more direct: to describe loss and suffering as he experienced it, as directly as possible. The result carries all the pain of reality.
The traditionally religious will be disturbed by Rieff’s utter certainty that the life of the mind ceases with the life of the body. At the end, facing a decision about where to bury his mother’s body, Rieff has trouble taking the matter seriously: With her death, he insists, his mother has ceased to exist.
I’ve gotten to know Rieff a little through this blog. I admire his hard determination to observe and judge as accurately as he can. A former humanitarian interventionist, he now searingly criticizes both the war in Iraq and the call for rescue in Darfur. Even when we disagree, I always learn from Rieff’s unflinching mind. What is there to learn from this bleak new book? Those most important things: courage and dignity.