Jenny Diski: There are no novel responses possible

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There are no novel responses possible. Absolutely none that I could think of. Responses to the diagnosis; the treatment and its side effects; the development of cancer symptoms; the pain and discomfort; the dying; the death … I am appalled at the thought, suddenly, that someone at some point is going to tell me I am on a journey.

But much as I hate it, the journey – that deeply unsatisfactory, often deceitful metaphor – keeps popping into my head. Like my thoughts about infinity, my thoughts about my cancer are always champing at the bit, dragging me towards a starting line. From ignorance of my condition to diagnosis; the initiation into chemotherapy and then the radiotherapy; from the slap of being told that it’s incurable to a sort of acceptance of the upcoming end. From not knowing, to “knowing”, to “really” knowing; from being alive and making the human assumption that I will be around “in the future”, to coming to terms with a more imminent death. And then death itself. And there is no and. Maybe it’s just too difficult to find a way to avoid giving the experience a beginning and an end…..

The end of the journey doesn’t come until you either die cancer-free of something else, or die of the effects of a regeneration of the cancer cells. Good and bad; from here to eternity, and from eternity to here. But I have been not here before, remember that. By which I mean that I have been here; I have already been at the destination towards which I’m now heading. I have already been absent, non-existent. Beckett and Nabokov know:

I too shall cease and be as when I was not yet, only all over instead of in store.
From an Abandoned Work

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.
Speak, Memory

This thought, this fact, is a genuine comfort, the only one that works, to calm me down when the panic comes. It brings me real solace in the terror of the infinite desert. It doesn’t resolve the question (though, as an atheist I don’t really have one), but it offers me familiarity with “The undiscovered country from whose bourn/ No traveller returns”. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. And it soothes. When I find myself trembling at the prospect of extinction, I can steady myself by thinking of the abyss that I have already experienced. Sometimes I can almost take a kindly, unhurried interest in my own extinction. The not-being that I have already been.

  –Jenny Diski (1947-2016), in the Guardian, 29 April 2016. She died on 28 April.

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Alasdair MacLean: "I like to picture them meeting again"

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Sanna today

[The poet Alasdair Maclean's parents were the last crofters in Sanna, a seacoast hamlet in the west highlands. It is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but it was a hard place to make a living from farming. After many hardships, their life got a bit easier in 1970 when they began to receive an old-age pension from the British government. They died a few months apart, in March and August, 1973.]

"Don't grieve for me," Father had said when he was carried from the house on a stretcher, after his first coronary and before his last one. "I'll be with your mother."

My younger brother had been greatly struck by this anecdote almost in spite of himself. "Do you think there's an after-life?" he asked me now.

I gave the question the serious consideration it deserved. "Who knows?" I said eventually.

"I don't believe it," my brother continued. "Never have done. It's a fairy-story. Yet I like to picture them meeting again. Up there, you know. They've earned that if anybody ever earned it. I like to think of flower-strewn meadows, all that stuff. Father a young man once more, running across the grass. Mother waiting for him. What do you think they would say? How would they greet one another?"

I thought of Mother, her exclamation "My!" when anything impressed her and how much had impressed her despite her unimpressive surroundings. I could not at first get words past the sob in my throat. "O that's easy," I replied when at last I could contort my voice into something resembling normality. "He wouldn't say anything at all. She'd just say, "My! Ian! You weren't long!"

  --Alasdair Maclean (1926-1994) in his reminiscence of his parents and the life of a crofter in Sanna, Night Falls on Ardnamurchan (1984). Sanna is now a tourist destination.


Virginia Woolf: ...when the lights of health go down

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Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul …it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature… literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear.

  --Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) in her essay On Being Ill (1926)


Wordsworth: We find strength in what remains behind

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What though the radiance which was once so bright 
be now for ever taken from my sight,
though nothing can bring back the hour
of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
we will grieve not, rather find
strength in what remains behind.

    --William Wordsworth (1770-1850) in "Intimations of Immortality Through Recollections of Early Childhood." The whole poem is here.


Agius/ Waddell: Thou hast come safe to port, I still at sea

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Thou hast come safe to port,
I still at sea,
The light is on thy head,
darkness in me.

Pluck thou in heaven's field
violet and rose,
while I strew flowers that will thy vigil keep
where thou dost sleep,
love, in thy last repose.

--Translation by Helen Waddell (1889-1965) of a lament for Hathimoda (840-874), Abbess of Gandesheim. The Latin original is in a manuscript called Vita et obitus Hathumodae primae abbatissae Gandersheimensis, composed by a monk and poet called Agius. It is considered one of the most beautiful and simple lives of the Dark Ages. The translation is a loose one.

Te iam portus habet; nos adhuc iactat abyssus.
Te lux vera tenet; nos tenebrae retinent.
Te cum virginibus comitans, quocumque it, agnum,
lilia cum violis colligis atque rosis;
nos cum coancillis nostris tumulo ecce tuopte
flores spargentes, ducimus excubias.