The notion of cancer as an affliction that belongs paradigmatically to the twentieth century is reminiscent, as Susan Sontag argued so powerfully in her book Illness as Metaphor, of another disease once considered emblematic of another era: tuberculosis in the nineteenth century. Both diseases, as Sontag pointedly noted, were similarly “obscene—in the original meaning of that word: ill-omened, abominable, repugnant to the senses.” Both drain vitality; both stretch out the encounter with death; in both cases, dying, even more than death, defines the illness.
But despite such parallels, tuberculosis belongs to another century. TB (or consumption) was Victorian romanticism brought to its pathological extreme—febrile, unrelenting, breathless, and obsessive. It was a disease of poets: John Keats involuting silently toward death in a small room overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome, or Byron, an obsessive romantic, who fantasized about dying of the disease to impress his mistresses. “Death and disease are often beautiful, like . . . the hectic glow of consumption,” Thoreau wrote in 1852. In Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, this “hectic glow” releases a feverish creative force in its victims—a clarifying, edifying, cathartic force that, too, appears to be charged with the essence of its era.
Cancer, in contrast, is riddled with more contemporary images. The cancer cell is a desperate individualist, “in every possible sense, a nonconformist,” as the surgeon-writer Sherwin Nuland wrote. The word metastasis, used to describe the migration of cancer from one site to another, is a curious mix of meta and stasis—“beyond stillness” in Latin—an unmoored, partially unstable state that captures the peculiar instability of modernity. If consumption once killed its victims by pathological evisceration (the tuberculosis bacillus gradually hollows out the lung), then cancer asphyxiates us by filling bodies with too many cells; it is consumption in its alternate meaning—the pathology of excess. Cancer is an expansionist disease; it invades through tissues, sets up colonies in hostile landscapes, seeking “sanctuary” in one organ and then immigrating to another. It lives desperately, inventively, fiercely, territorially, cannily, and defensively—at times, as if teaching us how to survive. To confront cancer is to encounter a parallel species, one perhaps more adapted to survival than even we are.
This image—of cancer as our desperate, malevolent, contemporary contemporary doppelgänger—is so haunting because it is at least partly true. A cancer cell is an astonishing perversion of the normal cell. Cancer is a phenomenally successful invader and colonizer in part because it exploits the very features that make us successful as a species or as an organism.
- from Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies. So far, the only complaint I have about this book is that I will never be able to write it myself. Between him and guede_mazaka, I am turning into a very bitter person.
Perhaps my favorite thing about this book is that Mukherjee gets it, the all-consuming perfect terribleness of cancer, the way we aren't even close to a viable long-term solution. There is no witty conclusion, because there isn't the space.
Tumbling problems aside, I still have not yet managed to stop listening to Marina & The Diamonds, part because, as with all the favorites you know you're going to like thirty seconds in, it's like those two albums have my name written all over them. The bright smiling anger and the satire and the performativity, the cheerful wink and nod at the construction of her whole image and the simultaneous deconstruction, the plucky synthetic pop and the clear fuck-off I do what I want and the consequences are all mine air. Oh well.
Waging a war against our printer. Losing.