Swimming in a Sea of Death

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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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.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Johnnnymac66

    I’ve lived all of my 51 years in Chicago. I learned world politics by reading Gigi Geyer, Evans & Novak, George Will, and many, many others. I learned Chicago politics by reading Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, and many others.
    For me, the tipping point with Evans came when he “outted” Valerie Plame, a crime I believe was treasonous. I wrote him and told him exactly that, and was not surprised when I received no response.
    From that point on, I’d glance at his columns, but never again believed anything in them.
    When Hunter Thompson would inject himself into the stories he was writing, it was funny. Outting an undercover CIA operative because of a personal grudge wasn’t at all funny.
    I still believe Robert Evans committed treason against the United States.

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Novak comes off as a sort of American, Jewish-cum-Catholic verson of Evelyn Waugh: nasty, vindictive and palpably self loathing. But he wasn’t unpatriotic. Moreover, he was correct about the War on Terror and Iraq. Compare his foreign policy views to David Frum’s, and then tell me: who comes out looking better on the geopolitics of the past decade?

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Oh, and by the way Frum, you’d fail your mother-in-law’s course, too: it’s ABC 20/20, not “NBC 20/20.”

  • lolapowers

    Mr Frum, I so wholeheartedly agree with you, Novak was indeed a dark soul !

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