Intoxicated By My Illness Essay Writer
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.
Intoxicated by My Illness and Other Writings on Life and Death Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:
This detailed literature summary also contains Quotes and a Free Quiz on Intoxicated by My Illness and Other Writings on Life and Death by Anatole Broyard.
The following version of this book was used to create this study guide: Broyard, Anatole. Intoxicated By My Illness and Other Writings ON Life and Death. Ballantine Books, 1992. Kindle.
Intoxicated by My Illness is a collection of writings by American literary critic and former editor of The New York Times Book Review, Anatole Broyard.
In 1989, Broyard was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer, passing away in 1990. Before his death he wrote multiple essays on illness and dying, three of which make up Parts One through Three of Intoxicated by My Illness. The rest of the works included break from this format, and are comprised of journal entries in Part Four, a literary review of death written in the early 1980s, and finally, a short story published in 1954.
“Part One: Intoxicated by My Illness” is a brief essay chronicling the early days of Broyard’s illness. Here, the author explains how illness, for a writer, is an intoxicating experience because it is truly tragic. Writers, like himself, seek out tragedy for inspiration and therefore relish complex, negative experiences. Broyard also details how illness alienates one from friends and family.
In “Part Two: Towards a Literature of Illness,” Broyard assumes his role as a literary critic, creating a veritable bibliography of illness literature. He opens the section referencing Shirley Hazzard's novel The Transit of Venus and how it allowed him to transcend his circumstances while he was in the hospital. Hazzard's work made Broyard realize that literature could truly help terminal patients and call for the creation of a genre of illness literature. He states that he has not come across a single nonfiction book that does serious illness justice. He praises fiction novels like Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano for fearlessly tackling the topic and avoiding the comfort of clichés. Broyard takes issue with most nonfiction books about illness because in their attempt to inspire, they become disingenuous. However, in the nonfiction category, Oliver Sacks is Broyard’s favorite author though Susan Sontag, Norman Cousins, and and Bernie Siegel also receive honorable mentions.
“Part Three: The Patient Examines the Doctor” is Broyard’s indictment of modern doctor-patient relations. In this essay, the author argues that doctors should reveal more of themselves to their patients, creating a more personable and healing relationship. To argue this point, Broyard details his own experiences with his various doctors. These men were all described as interacting with patients with the same detachment of a mechanic fixing a car. Ideally, Broyard’s doctor would enter into a complex relationship with his patients, treating them as human beings rather than broken machine parts. The most striking of these descriptions is of his first urologist, who was a nondescript looking man who hardly spoke to Broyard. To compensate for the disappointment he felt towards these doctors, the author recounts spending time dreaming up his ideal physician. Broyard believes that, though it would make the doctor more vulnerable, his vision of a more personable doctor-patient relationship would be mutually beneficial.
“Part Four: JOURNAL NOTES May-September, 1990” breaks from the formula of the first three parts in that it is a compilation of random journal notes. Here, the reader is offered insight into Broyard’s creative process and private fears. Within these fragments are the beginnings of Broyad’s main thesis points including the necessity of developing one’s own style for illness and the necessity of a personal relationship with one’s doctor. The journal notes also reveal a more vulnerable side of the author, detailing his personal fears and regrets.
“Part Five: The Literature of Death 1981-1982” was written before Anatole Broyard fell sick with cancer. Broken up into five small parts, it explores an emerging pattern of death literature that Broyard saw coming out of the late 1970s and early 1980s. These books, unlike the self-help movements of the 1960s, essentially taught one how to face death and how to die. Broyard believes that people have forgotten how to deal with death and dying because the once communal process became a solitary in the eighteenth century. He suggests that the rash of literature that had emerged as he wrote could lead to a true understanding and acceptance of death in the twentieth century. To illustrate this point, Broyard names several books that he finds particularly significant, namely, Lisl Goodman’s Death and the Creative Life and Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death. Finally, Broyard recounts the story of his writer friend Paul Breslow who died of cancer. Breslow spent his final days writing a novel that was never completed. His unflinching desire to finish his final work even in the face of immense pain, proves to Broyard that having one’s own style of illness, be it through the creation of art or other means, is an essential aspect of the dying process.
“Part Six: What the Cystoscope Said” is a short story written by Broyard in 1954. It is an only slightly fictionalized account of his father’s death by cancer and his subsequent entry into manhood. The story chronicles Broyard’s father’s degeneration from a strong man to an infantile shell of his former self at the hands of cancer. Broyard recounts that as his father deteriorated, he rapidly took on the role of the patriarch. The story is filled with symbolism and references to this process which can be compared to a benevolent vampirism as the strength of the father is passed on to the son. In the hospital Broyard struggled with the inhuman way in which the dying were treated and found it all to be overwhelmingly grotesque. His father, and indeed all of the terminally ill patients, were placed in a large room and treated as nuisances rather than suffering human beings. His father’s attending nurse, Miss Shannon, became emblematic of this and Broyard decided that he had to possess her sexually in order to avenge all of the dying men that she treated. Just after his tryst with the nurse, Broyard’s father died, expelling his last breath into his son’s mouth and therefore finally passing on the role of the patriarch.
Read more from the Study Guide
|This section contains 1,034 words|
(approx. 3 pages at 400 words per page)
View a FREE sample