Swimming in a Sea of Death

Susan Sontag is routinely identified as one of the New York Intellectuals. But most of the events and landmarks necessary to situate her in cultural history were always, in fact, French. Following her death during the last week of 2004, she was buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, as David Rieff mentions in the final chapter of Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son’s Memoir. That destination seems very fitting. And so does the tone of this calm and even rather severe little book. The subtitle is not exactly misleading, but calling it a memoir offers only limited help in understanding just what Rieff has done in this book about his mother. For that, we must find other reference points; we must look abroad.

In an article appearing in the scholarly journal French Cultural Studies in 2003, Amanda Macdonald pointed out something distinctive about the obituaries for prominent thinkers that appear in French newspapers. They tend to treat the death as something other than just an event to be recorded. Rather, it is regarded as a chapter in the story of the author’s life — an aspect of the oeuvre, a moment in cultural history. When one of Sontag’s friends passed away in 1980, the headline in Le Monde was not “Roland Barthes Dies” but rather “The Death of Roland Barthes.” (This formula was so well established, in fact, that Barthes himself had slyly alluded to it in the title of his important essay “The Death of the Author,” puzzlingly omitted from Sontag’s edition of his selected writings.) The mortality of a single thinker becomes an occasion to reflect upon the condition of the intellectual as a species.

Swimming in a Sea of Death is much less formal than this French tradition of eulogy. But it bears even less resemblance to the memoir, American-style — a genre in which any trace of reticence vanishes under the pressure of an implied therapeutic demand to get it all out of your system. Swimming is a book in which certain lines are not crossed. One learns, in passing, that relations with his mother “were often strained and at times very difficult” in her last decade, but that is about as far as such confessional gestures go. His father, the social theorist Philip Rieff, died some 18 months after Sontag; this goes unmentioned. The book offers neither a chronicle of medical procedures nor a chart of swings in mood, whether Rieff’s own or his mother’s. There is a precision to the writing that will almost inevitably be called clinical. It’s not that the book lacks emotion. Rather, the author simply refuses to emote. He trusts that understatement can have power.

By his own account, the effort at self-control began the very moment when, in the spring of 2004, Rieff learned from Sontag that her regular medical exam had raised some concerns. He was with his mother when she received the diagnosis of myelodyspastic syndrome (MDS), a form of leukemia. Bone-marrow transplants enabled a small percentage of MDS patients under the age of 50 to experience remission — for a patient in her 70s, the condition was effectively a death sentence. But Sontag had survived two earlier cancers, and she underwent the transplant anyway. “The habits of hope,” as the son puts it, “survived her loss of it.”

In the nine months between the diagnosis and his mother’s death, Rieff did not keep a journal. “Perhaps no writer can escape the sliver of ice in the heart that is one of the professional deformations of their craft,” he explains, “but to the extent that I could, I wanted no ‘writerly’ distance to separate or protect me emotionally from the reality of what was going on.” The word Rieff uses to describe his state of mind is “stupefaction” — the effect of constantly facing the thought: “She really does not know what is happening to her. She still believes that she is going to survive.” The role he found himself playing was that of someone who must impose the best possible interpretation on any comment or report from the doctors. There is a fine line between such an effort and deliberate lying. And living in that ambiguous state made Rieff, he says, a stranger to himself. “I do think that by keeping the darkness out of my thoughts,” he writes, “I somehow let the cold in as well.”

Grief makes regret inescapable, of course. He is left to wonder “if in fact I might not have made things worse for her by endlessly refilling that poisoned chalice of hope.” But each time this line of thought emerges, Rieff follows it into the complex question of Sontag’s temperament: her avidity for life, her sense of having left too much undone, her desire to undertake new work. The other side of this passion was an inability to be reconciled to death. It fed her refusal (furious or desperate) to give up any chance (however slim) that she might be a statistical exception to the almost certainly fatal prognosis. “Almost until the moment she died,” says Rieff, “we talked of her survival, of her struggle with cancer, never about her dying….To go on living: perhaps that was her way of dying.” He might have wanted her to face reality, but the decision to do so was not his: “It was her death, not mine.”

Here, perhaps, we are at the point where it appears that Rieff’s little book might rather be titled “La Mort de Susan Sontag” — with the possessive nuance in that “of,” the sense that the death of an author or intellectual is somehow inseparable from the totality of her work. In Illness as Metaphor (1978) and AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989), Sontag made only the most perfunctory reference to her own experience of life-threatening disease. These books are, in Rieff’s apt expression, “almost anti-autobiographical.” But the most pronounced effect of Rieff’s narrative is to remind us constantly that the qualities of her attachment to life, and her resistance to death, manifested themselves throughout all of her work. About her willingness to undergo the most extreme course of treatments in the face of almost certain failure, Rieff writes, “Real commitment for her was always radical.” A reader of Sontag’s work will immediately think of the title of her second collection of essays, Styles of Radical Will (1969).

In an interview, Sontag once said that an author’s life is of no use to understanding his work — but the work can sometimes be a key to understanding his life. While reading Swimming in a Sea of Death, I kept thinking of “Man with a Pain,” a piece of short fiction that Sontag published in Harper’s in 1964 but that never appeared in any of her books. She was 31 years old; her first bout of cancer was more than a decade in the future.

In the opening lines, Sontag’s unnamed title character — suffering from an ailment that is never specified — “hauls his sorrow up out of his throat. It comes out in bits and pieces, poor shriveled thing. It doesn’t come out whole, because it doesn’t come out as a scream.” The man with a pain endures, and endurance somehow becomes vitality. “He understands his suffering as a sign of vigor,” the narrator says, “and his vigor is a sign of suffering.” By the end of the story, the man with a pain has managed to spend a day away from his sickbed by riding a ferry.

“His injury is incontrovertible,” writes Sontag about her character, though not about him alone. “But the pain of it is dying. The pain, not he. He is his own survivor, and at the end of the return trip on the ferry he greats the stone fortresses of the city with a soiled hardness equal to their own.” To go on living: perhaps that is not the worst way of dying.