Dying Did Not Become Her

Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir by David Rieff (Simon and Schuster, 192 pages, $21.00)

Western thought records a long tradition of morbid interest in how philosophers met their deaths. Memorials, testimonies, and whole Platonic dialogues have been devoted to great thinkers' final hours. That's because, historically, the ability to face mortality with perfect equanimity, and fearlessly hold onto values higher than those of daily life, was considered the greatest part of wisdom. "And is not philosophy a practice of death?" Socrates asked in the Phaedo. It was, of course, a rhetorical question: Socrates drank his hemlock, calmed his disciples, and earned the amazement of posterity -- his death demonstrating how great a philosopher he was. Epicurus, who famously preached the doctrine that death must hold no fear because no person persists past death to suffer from it, proved his consistency by dying happily, drinking wine in a warm bath.

In modern times, too, philosophers' deaths have had great significance -- like that of David Hume, a notorious atheist. Christians across Europe prayed that he would be terrified into a deathbed conversion or betray some tiny hope for immortality. After visiting him in his final hours, however, the famous biographer James Boswell testified that Hume remained wholly consistent to the end, jolly and godless to his last breaths.

In light of this history, David Rieff's slim new memoir of the death of his mother, Susan Sontag, has significance apart from its contributions to two contemporary popular genres, the end-of-life narrative and the personal reflection on the death of a parent. Sontag will be remembered as a philosopher. Rieff chose to bury her in Paris' Montparnasse cemetery, steps from Simone de Beauvoir, and in the posthumous company of Jean-Paul Sartre, Emile Cioran, and Raymond Aron.

Yet Sontag was clearly the philosopher of a later era even than that of the existentialists -- the late 1960s and 1970s -- a time ruled by "radical will" (to allude to one of her book titles) and the attachment to "erotics of art" and life (to draw on one of her most celebrated phrases). And she lived and wrote into our own time at the opening of the 21st century, when it seems modern medicine can do everything to cheat death -- when, as Rieff says, our "logic … is that death is somehow a mistake, and that someday that mistake will be rectified."

Sontag had been diagnosed with cancer twice before her final illness. In 1975, at the age of 42, she underwent a radical mastectomy and managed to survive the most extreme therapies then in use for breast cancer. In 1998, while completing her National Book Award–winning novel In America, she developed a uterine sarcoma, urinating blood while she pushed through to the end of her book before seeking treatment. But the chemotherapy seems to have encouraged a further blood cancer identified in 2004, when she was 70 -- a final condition she had almost no chance of surviving.

The two years she fought this illness, as Rieff documents them, had no aspect of either acceptance or equanimity. In a deeply respectful, private, and reserved account of Sontag's dying, Rieff is intellectually and emotionally preoccupied by his mother's need for life at any cost, her uncritical worship of medicine, and his own responsibility for the deceptive hopes that she required and coerced from those who loved her. He beautifully states the central paradox of this philosophical memoir: "My mother had always thought of herself as someone whose hunger for truth was absolute. After her diagnosis, the hunger remained, but it was life and not truth that she was desperate for." With access to the most heroic and most expensive but likely futile care, Sontag went from research into therapies at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York City to an extremely chancy blood marrow transplant in Seattle -- which failed. She surrounded herself with friends so that she was never left alone, set her research assistant to poring over Internet documents on the illness, and called her friend Dr. Jerome Groopman and her doctor at Sloan-Kettering for boosts of hope, if only in the form of some tiny prospect of a cure, while rejecting all other forms of comfort.

Most of Rieff's questions revolve around a single moral conflict. In the name of truth and reason, which Sontag worshipped, should the son have forced his mother's real odds upon her? Could it have brought her resignation and peace, to accept that she would not escape death? The answer so clearly seems to be "no," and Rieff is so explicit about his mother's need to remain hopeful, that it doesn't come across as a problem for anyone but himself. He was a good son. But the situation made him a kind of unwilling defense lawyer, launching spurious arguments against a death sentence he knew could not be evaded. The experience haunts him -- along with his family's inability to get out of the traps of words and ideas and arguments, into any immediate affection. "Thinking back," he writes of their first confrontation with her diagnosis, "I wish I'd hugged her close or held her hand." This was not what she wanted or would allow, however. At her moment of death, Sontag held her physician's hand.

What, one wonders, happens to philosophy in the face of heroic medical intervention? In Rieff's book, and in Sontag's case, it gets put on hold. Rieff is known for his writing about humanitarian failures in parts of the world roiled with conflict. His mother's diagnosis coincided with his return from the West Bank; the opportunity to receive the best care, extended life, and a constant renewal of hope simply does not exist in such places. Before Sontag undergoes the bone marrow transplant in Seattle, arranged by her doctors in New York, Rieff tells us of the pain and difficulty of the procedure, and also of the necessity to get marrow from either a sibling or a donor who is a stranger. We have to presume that a stranger must have been the source, but Rieff doesn't ask who it was or what the pathways are that allow heroic medicine only for a few -- even when, for a 70-year-old, statistics suggest the transplant is unlikely to work, and might better go to someone else.

Must one ask whether 70 years are enough to live? The only sane answer is, of course, "no": not when it is for yourself, not when it is for your own mother. This would be too much to require of anyone. Yet Rieff gives us enough material to think through profound questions for ourselves, and to relate Sontag's life path to her lifelong work. Both Sontag and her most important 1960s writings were avid for life, hungry for this world. Writing sociologically, Rieff acknowledges the "me, Me, ME" stance of other Americans of the baby boom generation. His memoir helps us to connect the dots between the utopian hopes of the 1960s and the utopian medicine of the 21st century, confirming Sontag's character as a thinker of our time.

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