I have written several times about a genre called the Vollendungsroman – novels about becoming old. There is also a particular category of stories about people who are confronted by a terminal diagnosis, well aware that they are facing death and living through their “end times.” I don’t know whether there is a specific label for such writings. (Readers, help me with this!) Anyway, there are some very good examples out there, and I recently read a new one. It was What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez. Here is the thing that is different about this novel: it combines a story about age and the end of a life with the prospect of the universal end of life as we know it. The microcosm and the macrocosm, both facing apocalypse. Think about it.
The book opens with the narrator going to a lecture by a man who has written an important piece of work about the irredeemable damage humans have done to their planet. It ends as the narrator stays with a friend who is planning to end her own life before the final assault of the cancer that is killing her. In between, there is clear contemplation of aging, death, and disaster. The latter are on levels – from runaway global warming to a terminal cancer diagnosis to an overflowing bathtub.
One might question whether the prognosis for the earth is really as apocalyptic as is presented by the speaker in the first chapter, but no one can debate whether death is apocalyptic for the dying individual. (Even if one believes in an afterlife, death is still the end of this life, life as we know it.) And it is not apocalyptic as in the warnings of Jeremiah or Jonah, where the purpose is repentance. It is more like the irreversible prophecies of Cassandra, which no one believed but were nevertheless true. There is no real hope for the terminal patient. The question is how is one – one person or one people – to deal with the reality of the situation.
I have written elsewhere on the pre-Enlightenment view that the human body was a microcosm of the macrocosm, the world – both of which were decaying from their Edenic self. The earth was growing old and decaying and so – once we had reached the peak of our life cycle at 33 – were we. Not the view of infinite progress that the Enlightenment drew, but, rather, apocalypse all around. Was it easier to die knowing that the world was dying too?
What Are You Going Through, the title of Nunez’s novel, comes from an essay by Simone Weil. She quotes it as the magic question in the search for the Grail and says that “the love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?’”
Henning Mankell asks and answers this question in a memoir he wrote just before he died. The author of the terrific Wallander mysteries and also a theater producer and a crusader for the rights of the oppressed, Mankell was given an “incurable” diagnosis of lung cancer in 2013 and died in 2015. His account is called Quicksand: What It Means to Be a Human Being. A human being, one particular human being. Quicksand is a record of Mankell’s thoughts as he goes through chemotherapy and the realization of his mortality. He chooses, however, to dwell on the positive, the gifts that life has bestowed on him. Although he is only 65 upon his diagnosis , he realizes that he has escaped his end many times and has had a far longer life than many people on this planet can expect. While he admits that death is always an “uninvited guest,” he puts it in perspective:
…if, like me, you have lived for approaching seventy years, longer than most people in the world could ever dream of, it is easier to become reconciled to the fact that an incurable disease has taken over your body.
Maybe. The Bible only offers us three score and ten, but we have come to expect more.
Once Mankell tells us how he has come to terms with what has happened to him, he does a kind of life review, dwelling mostly on high points of his life. It is not the rituals of our culture, the technical progress, nor political movements that he dwells upon; it is the wonderful people he has met who rise up despite the obstacles that civilization erects in front of them. It is the joys of creative interaction. The book ends when chemotherapy has given him a “breathing space” (which turned out to be brief). He says this:
I am living today in that breathing space. I occasionally think about my disease, about death, and about the fact that there are no guarantees when it comes to cancer.
But most of all I live in anticipation of new uplifting experiences. Of times when nobody robs me of the pleasure of creating things myself, or enjoying what others have created.
Mankell’s is a kind of gratitude journal for his life. I hope when my final diagnosis comes, I can be so positive. And before then, I can more often ask myself and those around me, “What are you going through?”
I recommend both these books about dying – one fiction and one non-fiction. Neither takes us to the utter brink; no one who hasn’t been there can know and those who go over aren’t around to write about it.
For a little comic relief about aging (and you might need it at this point), this week’s story is “Closing Time.” Its title is homage to the wonderful song about the end of the party by Leonard Cohen. Enjoy.