I'm only halfway through this book, but here's what I can say at this point:
Stein's objective is to represent the experience of illness from the perspI'm only halfway through this book, but here's what I can say at this point:
Stein's objective is to represent the experience of illness from the perspective of the sufferer. His notion of illness revolves around the common metaphor that illness is a journey into foreign territory. Stein emphasizes the importance of the patient's narrating her illness as a means of discovery, and a process by which she can find empowerment, psychic release, and (sometimes) pain-relief. Simultaneously, Stein recognizes the difficulty of representing pain linguistically, and the frustrating "wordlessness" and isolation (alienation, even) that pain experiences inflict. He relies heavily on Elaine Scarry's work in "The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World." Anyone who has read Scarry's groundbreaking book will recognize her first two chapters in simplified form in Stein's "The Lonely Patient."
"The Lonely Patient" is highly-accessible, pleasant reading. It contains some interesting clinical tales It will serve as a useful, rudimentary, introduction to contemporary biocultural pain theories, but it won't give you much of the nitty-gritty. For advanced information you'll have to go elsewhere. ...more
Susan Sontag’s son, David Rieff, wrote the horrendously titled “Swimming in a Sea of Death” in an apparenti hate to kick a guy when he's down, but...
Susan Sontag’s son, David Rieff, wrote the horrendously titled “Swimming in a Sea of Death” in an apparent attempt to bear witness to Sontag’s last nine months of life and her attempt to cope with a diagnosis that terrified her. Additionally, this is the story of the son, who, as a result of his “own grave failings as a person” and the difficulty and circumstances of his mother’s illness, felt unable to console or comfort Sontag as she died. (I’ve over-simplified in my synopsis, but since Goodreads provides an abstract for each posted book, I'll spare readers that redundancy. See book profile above for further details).
This is a toughy. I’m having trouble reconciling the things that I’ve heard about David Rieff with the things I’ve now come to believe as a result of having read this book written by him. While I do not believe that literature necessarily should be pleasant, I’ll begin by saying that for me, reading “Swimming in a Sea of Death” was an uncomfortable experience—not because of the cheerless subject matter, the poor editing, or the awkward writing style Rieff employs, but more primarily, as a result of the melancholic and painful portrait it inadvertently paints of a son who, despite his desire, is never able to reduce the distance between his mother and himself.
Throughout this text, Rieff depicts Sontag as a woman who surrounded herself with intimate companions; sadly, it seems that Rieff never felt himself to be among them. He admits that he is, by nature, cool and removed in personality, and he recognizes these personal limitations as part of the reason that he failed to connect with his mother. (Perhaps this book, then, stands as a haunted and belated attempt to compensate for his emotional impotence). But it seems that abandonment issues may be at work here as well. Rieff comes across as an undesirable…the remnant of a short-lived marriage… a distraught outsider looking in, desperately wishing that he were endowed with the talents necessary to attract the attention—and love—of his powerhouse mom. His attempt to understand Sontag, and to identify with her plight during the last months of her life, read more like a desperate justification for the distance she maintained from him.
I have to wonder whether we aren’t also witnessing a sad inferiority complex. Sontag’s profound impact as a cultural critic and theorist cannot be overstated, and Rieff cannot help but to live within that shadow. Beyond his introductions to the works of Freud, I can’t claim to be familiar with Rieff’s journalistic writing; but this book reveals him to be a perfectly mediocre memoirist. His voice is disordered, formal, cliché-riddled, and forced—mechanical, even. His theoretical understanding of his mother’s illness experience is somewhat informed by her work in “Illness as Metaphor” and “AIDS and Its Metaphors”, but Rieff seems unable—or unwilling—to deal with these themes with intellectual or emotional sophistication.
In the end, “Swimming in a Sea of Death” left me unable to identify with either its subject or storyteller. I suppose that for me, the most difficult aspect of reading this book is the way it provokes… (I hesitate to say it!)… pity for the author.
Sontag’s fear, and her unflagging refusal to acknowledge her impending death, prompted her to live a self-involved end. Dying with dignity… I’ve always been a bit suspicious of this expression. I understand that it’s supposed to convey a sense of proactive agency, autonomy, and maybe even acceptance—a death “on one’s own terms,” so to speak. “Swimming in a Sea of Death” isn’t the story of dying with dignity. Rather, it portrays a death so severely controlled by DYING that the living were denied the opportunity to ask the important questions or to say goodbye as they wished or needed. Sadly, it seems that Sontag’s version of dying with dignity robbed the people who loved her—including her son—of their dignity. Ug.