Culture | The fictions of soft and easy death

David Rieff, son of Susan Sontag, remembers his mother’s final struggle with leukemia in a new memoir

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” David Rieff quotes Joan Didion in the memoir of his mother’s death. Rieff is the son of Susan Sontag, an author, literary theorist, and intellectual whose work continues to be highly influential in the Western cultural sphere.

Her death in December 2004, at the age of 71, came after a long struggle with acute myelogenous leukemia. Rieff wrote Swimming in a Sea of Death in an attempt to come to terms with the guilt that he believes is inescapable after the loss of a loved one, especially when the process is as slow and excruciatingly painful as Sontag’s was.

Sontag, by virtue of her profession, was “a lover of reason” and certainly no stranger to the power of words and their ability to influence one’s perception of reality. When she was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), the preliminary stage of the leukemia that killed her, she had already survived two cancers. Although she obviously recognized the importance of medical science, Rieff believes that his mother thought her recovery was possible due to her own sheer will; her conviction to live to write yet another essay, to see yet another play, to travel to yet another new country.

MDS’s statistics of survival are not encouraging, but Sontag refused to acknowledge the likeliness of her death – even during the very last period of her life, she couldn’t accept that she would not beat the odds this time. But because, at the same time, she so avidly researched her disease in hopes of finding a miracle cure, despair in the face of cruel numbers was near. Rieff found himself cast into a role where he had to try to counter the facts; he felt compelled to make up stories in order to reassure her and give her the strength to go on.

In Swimming in a Sea of Death, he writes that “there is such a thing as too much reality.” Had his mother faced the gravity of her situation, she would have plunged headfirst into a black hole of panic; he felt that he had no choice but to give her the answers that she wanted, whether they were lies or not.

Why is death so hard to accept? Would the deterioration of her health have been easier for Sontag – and those closest to her – if she had recognized her own mortality? Rieff, it seems, would certainly have been happier had he been able to face reality, rather than being forced to tell his mother the reassuring stories she wanted to hear.

It is a truism that we are all going to die, and yet death in the Western world is clinically removed from daily life. Although it should be the most natural thing, most of us have never seen a dead body except for in movies or photos. And how often do we talk about what follows the last breath? People who are not religious usually have vague notions of a “something,” but when it comes down to it, it’s difficult for an atheist to believe in heaven.

Since the Enlightenment, reason and trust in the Self have become the new religion of the occidental, and if we invest everything in ourselves it is not surprising that death becomes such an unfathomable thing. When the self becomes the centre of life instead of a means to a more important end, its erasure equals the merciless annihilation of a life’s work, and simultaneously seems to demonstrate how pointless all of our strivings may be.

Swimming in a Sea of Death is not only an account of one admirable woman’s struggle against her inevitable death, but also a contemplation of the modern world’s relationship to mortality and its implications on the act of living. Sontag was not unusually young when she died, but she was an atheist who had built the entirety of her worldview on the ability to think and reason. To her, the notion of an afterlife brought no consolation.

Rieff’s biography of Sontag explores the seeming impossibility for a non-religious humanist to come to terms with the transience of life. However, as Rieff points out, a cure for cancer only postpones death by other means, and so this struggle is one that we must all face.

Swimming in a Sea of Death is published by Simon and Schuster. It is 192 pages. The list price is $21 for the hardcover edition.


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