So many little unfairnesses scrape at that raw, angry place in the heart. Money, looks, fame, intelligence. The effortless drape of my neighbor’s elegant overcoat, the easy seductive patter of the man at a nearby restaurant table, the cool grace of some winning stranger’s smile. All the luck that smoothes the way for others and not for me¯ not for me , not for me : that’s the small, irritating noise our fingernails make as they rasp at a scabby wound.
And still, we are all equal in this, at least: that we must suffer death, and in those deaths there is an injustice so huge, so gross, so unjust it fills the cosmos¯the enormous pain that swamps all the little ones. The universe has the justice, at least, to apply its greatest unfairness with a great impartial fairness. "This time, for the first time, I don’t feel special," the author Susan Sontag told her son a few months before she died from blood cancer at age seventy-one.
That son, David Rieff, is an enviable author in his own right. Or I, at least, envy him for books like his study of international aid, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis . We get together for lunch sometimes here in New York, though mostly our contact is emailing notes back and forth about how we really ought to get together for lunch sometime, the expression of the wish substituting for the deed, as it often does. Last week, in the New York Times Sunday magazine, he wrote about his mother’s final illness and passing. And his pain and anger are palpable¯as they must be for all who grieve, but perhaps particularly for David. He is, at heart, a moralist, and through his quiet prose there always shows a pain and anger at the world’s injustices, above all. But death¯the death of a mother, that wrenching injustice: what answer has a moralist except righteous anger? And to death, anger is no answer. No answer at all.
Of course, David Rieff knows this. Everyone does. Though he writes of the painful scene when his mother screamed in outrage, "But this means I’m going to die!" after the doctors told her the bone-marrow transplant had failed, Susan Sontag knew it, too. The New York Times gave the essay the title "Illness as More Than Metaphor," playing on Sontag’s famous writings about the use of cancer and AIDS as metaphors. But, really, it’s death that remains "more than metaphor"¯the undeconstructible that waits at the end of illness, mocking language. And no one forgets it.
Or do they? Once, while I was teaching one of those Logic 101 courses with which philosophy graduate students try to pay the bills, a student asked why we couldn’t follow an infinite regress out infinitely, and I answered, in the snide way of philosophy graduate students, that, if nothing else, death would manage to stop us. What followed, however, took my breath away, for a student in the back raised his hand and announced that he wasn’t going to die, since medical science would cure whatever it was he was going to die before he got old enough to die. And most of the rest of that class of eighteen year olds nodded in agreement. It was one of those moments all teachers know¯a proposition so wrong you don’t have any idea how to begin to correct it.
Still, even for eighteen year olds, I didn’t really believe that they didn’t know they were going to die. Mortality is an ache deep in the bone. Death whispers in the blood. Though personal death is not something any human being has ever actually experienced¯my completed death cannot be an event in my life, after all¯still, from the death of a childhood pet to the death of a parent, the black knowledge has been forced upon the brain. Every mother gives birth astride an open grave, as Samuel Beckett put it. That is perhaps the bleakest imaginable picture of human life, but at some level or another, we all know it’s true.
"I will never forget that scream, or think of it without wanting to cry out myself," David Rieff writes. "And yet, even that terrible morning, in a pristine room at the University of Washington Medical Center, with its incongruously beautiful view of Lake Union and Mount Rainier in the background, I remember being surprised by her surprise. I suppose I shouldn’t have been. There are those who can reconcile themselves to death and those who can’t. Increasingly, I’ve come to think that it is one of the most important ways the world divides up. Anecdotally, after all those hours I spent in doctors’ outer offices and in hospital lobbies, cafeterias and family rooms, my sense is that the loved ones of desperately ill people divide the same way."
Though the New York Times piece moves into quiet anger at the cost of cancer care¯the class distinctions expressed by the fact that Sontag had $256,000 in cash to put down as a deposit as a "self-pay patient," the inequalities created by "the realities of the health care system in America"¯David reaches in his remembrance toward a key distinction. Not the difference between the reconcilable and irreconcilable, though that’s true and well observed. But the deeper distinction seems rather the one between the ill and their loved ones, between the dead and their mourners. "One of my dominant emotions since my mother’s death has been guilt," he writes, "guilt over what I did and failed to do."
That guilt has always seemed to me a deeply moral impulse. Grief inverts the world, making ghosts of the living in the overwhelming reality of the dead. And why is this necessarily the wrong view of the world? Let the "grief counselors" natter on as they will. Darkness, as Tennyson said, needs to keep its raven gloss, for we are guilty, in fact: guilty of the great unfairness. Surprised by joy¯impatient as the Wind , Wordsworth writes in one of the Lucy sonnets,I turned to share the transport¯Oh! with whom
But thee, deep buried in the silent tomb . . . ?
But how could I forget thee? through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!
Our experience of death is always and only the death of other people, and grief is more important than anxiety or fear for ourselves. The Victorians’ use of the disease they called "consumption" came in for special scorn from Susan Sontag in Illness as Metaphor . And, in truth, the Dickensian death scenes from consumption¯like the one, say, of little Paul Dombey: What are the wild waves saying, sister? ¯are more than a little mockable.
And yet, even at his most purple, Dickens always knew something that David Rieff has had to learn in a hard school. The dying are special, because they are dying, and we are always guilty in the face of their deaths. If death is at last undeconstructible, then deconstruction is wrong. It’s not all language games and power struggles. The real intrudes¯it radiates back from death, to dying, to life itself. And knowing that, perhaps we find relief from all the little envies, scraping at the heart.
Oliver O’Donovan of Oxford is in the front ranks of Christians thinking deeply about politics and theology. His Desire of the Nations , published ten years ago, is a necessary reference in the discussion of these questions. Now he follows up with The Ways of Judgment . The formidable Gilbert Meilaender reviews the new book in the forthcoming issue of F IRST T HINGS . There is this, for instance:
"Committed though we are to a belief in human equality, such equality will hardly strike us a obvious if we simply open our eyes and look around. Rather, our belief in human equality must be ‘grounded in a truth that is to be told about humankind’s relations to that which is not humankind, and the only relation which answers the point is that in which each human stands to the creator.’
"Despite, that is, our very different capacities, each of us is equidistant from Eternity. To the degree, therefore, that our culture increasingly thinks of itself as secular, and thinks of human beings apart from any relation to the Creator, we have a fundamental commitment without any narrative to make sense of it. We may need Christian theology to ‘display the intelligibility’ of a commitment we take for granted¯lest the day come soon enough when, unable to make sense of it, we abandon it." (To become a subscriber to F IRST T HINGS , check out the “Subscribe” button above.)
The widow’s mite and the billionaire’s beneficence are equally welcome. Regrettably, there is slight prospect of our receiving the latter. That is why the annual appeal to subscribers, which is now in the mail, urges people to give as they are able. The beginning of satisfaction in supporting and benefiting from the F IRST T HINGS experience is to become a subscriber. Please check out the “Subscribe” button above. Thank you.