Oliver Sacks has just revealed that he has terminal cancer. This sad news from the voice of humane medicine put me in mind of Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, an account of the last days of a great man, looking back and forwards, in a letter to Marcus Aurelius.
The letter opens
Today I went to see my physician Hermogenes…I took off my cloak and tunic and lay down on a couch. I spare you details which would be disagreeable to you as to me, the description of the body of a man who is growing old, and is about to die of a dropsical heart. Let us say that I coughed, inhaled, and held my breath according to Hermogene’s directions. He was alarmed, in spite of himself, by the rapid progress of the disease…
Hadrian is 60/61 years old as he writes this letter. I am exactly the same age. In reading Hadrian’s memoirs and learning of Sack’s terminal illness, I am confronted by the inevitability of my own mortality. Aside from love, this is the most significant subject that human’s encounter, the fact of the limited span of our lives. And, this is amplified in the clinic as we face a doctor’s scrutiny
It is difficult to remain an emperor in the presence of a physician, and difficult even to keep one’s essential quality as a man. The professional eye saw in me only a mass of humours, a sorry mixture of blood and lymph. This morning it occurred to me for the first time that my body, my faithful companion and friend, truer and better known to me than my own soul, may be after all only a sly beast who will end by devouring his master.
In the clinic, despite the best intentions of the physician, naked, we are stripped not only of the garments that clothe us but also of the dignity that shields us from the slough, the mud & clay from which we come and to which we shall all return. This body which becomes a ‘corpus’ when it ails, an object that is distinct from us is, in the clinical encounter, objectified, “a mass of humours, a sorry mixture of blood and lymph” and suddenly it is alien, a foreigner who surprises!
It took Marguerite Yourcenar a quarter of a century to write Memoirs of Hadrian. She said
It did not take me long to realize that I had embarked on the life of a very great man. From that time on, still more respect for truth, closer attention, and on my part, ever more silence.
What is inescapable for the reader is that Marguerite Yourcenar was herself a “very great” person. She was able to circumnavigate, to encompass and then to narrate in the first person, this extraordinary life. The writing was itself as challenging, and as courageous as the lived life of Hadrian. Again Yourcenar said
The sorcerer who pricks his thumb before he evokes the shades knows well that they will heed his call only because they can lap his blood. He knows, too, or ought to know, that the voices who speak to him are wiser and more worthy of attention than are his own timorous outcries.
Here, I thnk, Yourcenar is acknowledging that a) in speaking in another’s voice, b) doing this with honesty, and c) in imagining the authentic voice of the subject, the writer has to give something of herself, perhaps a drop of blood as sacrifice and as magical ingredient, perhaps even her own life. She writes of Hadrian’s illness and of his dying with the same intensity as of his love and his triumphs. There is a message here for doctors, psychiatrists in particular: full engagement and understanding of the patient comes at a price. It requires losing oneself in the world of another person, it requires sacrifice, perhaps even a drop of blood!
Hadrian’s medical condition deteriorates and we have that gradual but yet surprising disjunction between self and body
All my life long I had been on best terms with my body; I had implicitly counted upon its docility, and its strength. That close alliance was beginning to dissolve; my body was no longer at one with my will and my mind, and with what after all, however ineptly, I must call my soul…In fact my body was afraid of me…
And, then the question of death
One desires to die, but not suffocate; sickness disgusts us with death, and we wish to get well, which is a way of wishing to live. But weakness and suffering, with manifold bodily woes, soon discourage the invalid from trying to regain ground: he tires of those respites which are but snares, of that faltering strength, those ardors cut short, and that perpetual lying in wait for the next attack. I kept sly watch upon myself…Meditation upon death does not teach one how to die; it does not make the departure more easy, but ease is no longer what I seek.
In describing his attitude to his approaching death Oliver Sacks quotes David Hume
“I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution,” he wrote. “I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company.”
The last word to Hadrian/Yourcenar
Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes…
Photos by Jan Oyebode
At Caffé Nero, on Thursday mornings, there’s a chance to see a slice of the world sit in varying poses, attired in the daytime frocks of winter. Today, two young men with their computers and headphones, a single woman dressed in black sipping her coffee, and a middle aged man reading Girl With a Dragon Tattoo. Others include a threesome of two women and a man discussing medical negligence and the role of nurses; all three dressed conservatively, in greys and blues.
The barista is a girl, Anna. She’s large, blonde and full of humor. She wears the obligatory blue jeans and regulation black tee shirt. Her hips are broad as are her thighs and buttocks. Botticelli? She is formidable but gives the impression of suave impetuosity, if such a temperament existed. Her laugh is a willful roar, provocative and alert to flirtation, even to the faintest ever so faint interest in her womanhood.
The tables, surrounded by easy chairs, remain cluttered with used cups. There’s spilt sugar and the floor requires a quick going over with a broom or a mop. The urgency to clean, to keep home, to be house-proud has long been consigned to history. Is there is an absence of shame? Embarrassment like wrinkles on the face is a sign, perhaps of being old and past it, and is hence, best avoided.
On Thursday mornings, I go into town on the Bus 50, from Moseley to the Bullring. I leave when the serious minded wage earners are already settled behind their desks. At this time, Bus 50 is like a beer parlor, first thing in the morning. The light reveals what the walls look like, the mistreated floor, and the real state of the assorted furniture. Yes, the Bus 50 can seem like an empty beer parlor in Lagos: the tables, plywood knocked together, battered aluminum, even rattan cane, tablecloths of lace with ragged edges, the occasional velvet, embroidered cotton and starched and ironed brocade. Everything about the colors says dinghy, says off-white, pale off print. And the smells are of boiled onions, palm oil, chilies, over-fried plantains, except on the Bus 50 it is coriander, ghee, and turmeric roasted and left to fester overnight in winter. Well New Orleans on Bourbon Street first thing is exactly the same!
One Thursday, a spray of flowers comes into the parlor and then another. One is quite a bunch, lilies and tulips, variegated and colorful but draped in gauze, so that you can just barely glimpse the beauty. The other is all open to view and the closer you look at the bunch you notice that it is plastic, artificial, with dust, maybe even grime dampening down the colors.
This is a beer parlor, only when the folk that work have left and those like me, who are idle or on the sidelines, I suppose like sleep at the corners of the eyes stare out at the mirror of life, set out for the day.
The poet of these café mornings is César Vallejo when he sings
It was Sunday on the bright ears of my donkey,
my Peruvian donkey in Peru (Excuse my sadness).
But today it’s already eleven o’clock in my personal experience,
the experience of just one eye, nailed in the sheer chest,
of one sole foolishness nailed in the chest,
of one sole hecatomb nailed in the chest
Or when he is sad
I like this life much less today,
but I always enjoy living: no wonder.
I almost touched part of my everything but refrained
with a shot on the tongue behind my word.
Today I finger my chin retreating,
and in these momentary trousers I tell myself:
so much life and never!
so many years and forever my weeks!…
Caffé Nero on these Thursday mornings is an assembly or a stage, a clearing where masks are worn and the dance of heron and fish can be observed. I come with my books and sit. Or I come and lounge as if I was back in time, in Vienna, waiting for Karl Kraus, Musil, Canetti, or Kafka to turn up. I watch “The Book of Nature” as Vallejo would say
Teacher of sobs – I have called a tree –
a quicksilver stick, murmuring
linden tree, on the bank of the Marne, a good student
in your playing card, in your dead leafage reads,
between evident water and fake sun,
his three of cups, his horse of golds…
And I have read the book of when a woman fancies a man that she is having coffee with that there are subtle facial expressions that signal interest perhaps even desire. A young woman across from me, again at Caffé Nero,é is lunching with a young Chinese man. Her lips are glossy 1960-pink. It is as though they are larger than usual. She puckers them, pushes them out towards him, smacks them together, and slightly parts them to show her front upper teeth. And the eye gaze is direct and unwavering, the eyes lined (might as well be with kohl) and large, compelling. She leans in towards him, cocks her head to one side, and stares out coyly out of the corner of her eyes. This is a pantomime of desire. Every move is unconsciously calculated to call attention to every aspect of her body, that above the table: shoulders, hair, bare chest that lifts or drops into her décolletage. A black slip of a blouse contrasting sharply against the white of her skin.
Then there’s the narrowing of the eyes. What does that say? There’s an intensity, a concentrated focusing that is between quizzical and inner lust. A gesture almost as revealing, naked as nudity. She rubs, caresses her own ear lobe, tucks the straying strand of blond hair behind her ears, cackles, throws a laugh that convulses the body, a kind of abandon, a disquieting loss of control that promises ecstasy, perhaps?
Everything is in the eyelids. Apart, fleetingly closed shut, kissing one another, slow, delirious, again wide apart. If you’ve watched a butterfly, drowsy in the tropical humid mid-afternoon, then these eyelids are cousins to the butterfly’s wings. Oh, to be seduced simply, solely by this dance that is choreographed for one person, enacted to the music of smiles and cocked head, brandished like a flag that is held for all to see, a flag that flaps in the wind, sustained and drawn out, sustenato.
These Thursday mornings, like Marguerite Yourcenar when writing Memoirs of Hadrian, I think
The human form and structure hardly change: nothing is more stable than the curve of a heel, the position of a tendon, or the form of a toe. But there are periods when the shoe is less deforming than in others…
In our period the inner life is rendered visible, sometimes flagrantly often stealthily, but nevertheless on show like “the rustle of silk or whispered caress”.
Photos by Jan Oyebode