Anatole Broyard, Intoxicated by My Illness (New York: Ballantine, 1993). 156 pp. $15.00.
Patrick Kurp has a long satisfying post up this morning about the poet L.E. Sissman, who died of Hodgkins’s disease in 1976 just about a decade after first being diagnosed with the disease. “No one,” Patrick comments, “has written so unromantically and with such wit about the certainty of a foreshortened life. . . .”
The lack of romance is the keynote of Sissman’s poetry, but it is also the key to writing about the certainty of death. Sentimentality or self-pity mars most such writing, and renders it useless for anyone who looks for help in how to think about his fast-approaching death. There are not many writers who are both clear- and tough-minded in the face of death.
One other is Anatole Broyard. A longtime book critic for the New York Times, Broyard is remembered now largely because he was an African-American who “passed” for white in an age when “passing” had long since ceased to provide any advantages. In his biographical essay “The Passing of Anatole Broyard,” Henry Louis Gates mentions Broyard’s prostate cancer (although he mangles the diagnosis somewhat) and also the critic’s characteristic reaction to it:
And that’s it. One expects more basic (and accurate) information from a critic of Gates’s standing.
The collection of writing on Broyard’s “progress toward death” was published posthumously as Intoxicated by My Illness. It concluded with the brilliant story “What the Cystoscope Said,” first published in the Pocket Book collection Discovery #4 edited by Vance Bourjaily and reprinted in Fiction of the Fifties (1959) edited by Herbert Gold. The narrator never identifies the cancer that kills his father. (Broyard’s own father died from cancer of the bladder.) The cystoscopy that unmans him, the “little surprise” that Peter Romain receives from his doctor “to get the inside story on you,” is a test to measure the health of the urethra and bladder. It is commonly administered to differentiate bladder from prostate cancer.
Gates mimics the euphemistic language of the story’s doctor, who describes Romain’s cancer as “incurable” (Broyard’s was “inoperable,” Gates primly says). It would be more direct and accurate to say that both men had a cancer that had similarly metastasized. As Dr. Windelband says to Romain’s son, “The cancer has reached his bones.” Despite advances in medicine, Broyard was no more fortunate forty years later. When it is localized, prostate cancer is one of the most curable cancers; according to the American Cancer Society, the relative five-year survival rate for men with localized prostate cancer is 100%. When it “spreads” to the bones or lymph nodes, however, average survival time is one to three years.
Broyard got fourteen months. During that time he wrote a number of short essays, delivered a talk at the University of Chicago Medical School, and sporadically kept a journal. From this material his widow extracted four essays and not quite ten pages of notes and reflections.
The tone is established at the outset. “I felt something like relief, even elation, when the doctor told me that I had cancer of the prostate,” Broyard writes. Gates describes this as “dandyish, even jokey,” but Broyard is neither striking a pose nor cracking wise. “When you learn that your life is threatened,” he explains, ”you can turn toward this knowledge or away from it.” What follows is an object lesson in turning toward the knowledge of one’s near death.
It is more than a matter of intellectual honesty. A sentence of death can be a gift—deliverence from the unknown into the cause of urgency. One is narrowed to the immediately relevant and no longer responsible for social expectations or graces:
Perhaps Gates cannot tell the difference between jocularity and wit. Jokes are appreciated by academics, but not an assemblage of Ideas put together with quickness and variety. Wit is Broyard’s weapon against despair, but also the preservation of his identity. He is defined, not by his cancer, but by his thought and words.
The best thing in the book is the long essay “The Patient Examines the Doctor.” Although he does not abandon his epigrammatic and allusive approach (his talent for developing a scene or argument was damaged by nineteen years of writing a regular book column for the New York Times), Broyard circles around and around a sharp and significant point. From his side, the patient and his doctor are a couple (“what the French call un couple malade, a marriage of doctor and patient”), which the doctor would do well to understand. Instead, the relationship between doctor and patient is too often like a marriage in which husband and wife no longer talk to each other. Broyard’s doctor was a famous urologist:
Okay, the last line is a joke. Until then, though, Broyard is making a serious point. A patient’s feelings toward his doctor are like the love that a wife feels for the husband who has fallen out of love with her. The problem is that most doctors cannot locate a middle ground between brutal directness, in medicine’s technical vocabulary, and pious, inspirational banalities.
If only for reprinting “What the Cystoscope Said” in a collection of Anatole Broyard’s own writing, Intoxicated by My Illness would deserve praise. It is better than that, however. It is capable of teaching physicians—teaching all of us—a different language for terminal disease.
I saw what I had to do. I started to sell life to him, like a real estate agent. Just look at the world, I said. How can you not be curious about it? The streets, the houses, the trees, the shops, the people, the movement and the stillness. Look at the women, so appealing, each in her own way. Think of all the things you can do with them, the places you can go together. Think of books, paintings, music. Think of your friends.
While I was talking I wondered, am I telling Jules the truth? He didn't think so, because he put his head in the oven a week later. As for me, I don't know whether I believed what I said or not, because I just went on behaving like everybody else. But I believe it now. When my wife made me a hamburger the other day I thought it was the most fabulous hamburger in the history of the world.
With this illness one of my recurrent dreams has finally come true. Several times in the past I've dreamed that I had committed a crime - or perhaps I was only accused of a crime, it's not clear. When brought to trial I refused to have a lawyer - I got up instead and made an impassioned speech in my own defense. This speech was so moving that I could feel myself tingling with it. It was inconceivable that the jury would not acquit me - only each time I woke before the verdict. Now cancer is the crime I may or may not have committed and the eloquence of being alive, the fervor of the survivor, is my best defense.
The way my friends have rallied around me is wonderful. They remind me of a flock of birds rising from a body of water into the sunset. If that image seems a bit extravagant, or tinged with satire, it's because I can't help thinking there's something comical about my friends' behavior, all these witty men suddenly saying pious, inspirational things.
They are not intoxicated as I am by my illness, but sobered. Since I refused to, they've taken on the responsibility of being serious. They appear abashed, or chagrined, in their sobriety. Stripped of their playfulness these pals of mine seem plainer, homelier - even older. It's as if they had all gone bald overnight.
Yet one of the effects of their fussing over me is that I feel vivid, multicolored, sharply drawn. On the other hand - and this is ungrateful - I remain outside of their solicitude, their love and best wishes. I'm isolated from them by the grandiose conviction that I am the healthy person and they are the sick ones. Like an existential hero, I have been cured by the truth while they still suffer the nausea of the uninitiated.
I've had eight-inch needles thrust into my belly where I could feel them tickling my metaphysics. I've worn Pampers. I've been licked by the flames and my sense of self has been singed. Sartre was right: you have to live each moment as if you're prepared to die.
Now at last I understand the conditional nature of the human condition. Yet, unlike Kierkegaard and Sartre, I'm not interested in the irony of my position. Cancer cures you of irony. Perhaps my irony was all in my prostate. A dangerous illness fills you with adrenaline and makes you feel very smart. I can afford now, I said to myself, to draw conclusions. All those grand generalizations toward which I have been building for so many years are finally taking shape. As I look back at how I used to be, it seems to me that an intellectual is a person who thinks that the classical cliche's don't apply to him, that he is immune to homely truths. I know better now. I see everything with a summarizing eye. Nature is a terrific editor.
In the first stages of my illness, I couldn't sleep, urinate or defecate - the word ordeal comes to mind. Then when my doctor changed all this and everything worked again, what a voluptuous pleasure it was. With a cry of joy I realized how marvelous it is simply to function. My body, which in the last decade or two had become a familiar, no longer thrilling old flame, was reborn as a brand-new infatuation.
I realize of course that this elation I feel is just a phase, just a rush of consciousness, a splash of perspective, a hot flash of ontological alertness. But I'll take it, I'll use it. I'll use everything I can while I wait for the next phase. Illness is primarily a drama and it should be possible to enjoy it as well as to suffer it. I see now why the romantics were so fond of illness - the sick man sees everything as metaphor. In this phase I'm infatuated with my cancer. It stinks of revelation.
As I look ahead, I feel like a man who has awakened from a long afternoon nap to find the evening stretched out before me. I'm reminded of D'Annunzio, the Italian poet, who said to a duchess he had just met at a party in Paris, ''Come, we will have a profound evening.'' Why not? I see the balance of my life -everything comes in images now - as a beautiful paisley shawl thrown over a grand piano.
Why a paisley shawl, precisely? Why a grand piano? I have no idea. That's the way the situation presents itself to me. I have to take my imagery along with my medicine.Continue reading the main story