This is one of several essays from my private cancer journal. It is not intended as anything than a record of my states of mind as I struggled with the disease and the effects of the treatment.
That Wilder Shore: Intoxicated with Anatole Broyard
June 6, 2001
While I was sitting on my Bodhi porch this morning, I realized how little I have written in my "cancer journal" these past months.
In those early days after diagnosis, my keyboard was a unique solace as I poured my guts out. I wrote how I didn't know what to say. I wrote about my fears and worries. I wrote about breakdowns and thoughts of suicide, when I would completely fell apart.
Then in mid-October, 2000 (with the essay about Van Gogh), it changed. I spent more keyboard time working on Phoenix5 or responding to list mail. My attention went OUT into the world, rather than IN on my condition. I would have been more interested in writing an article about building a Web site, than living with prostate cancer, even though the latter would certainly have greater market value. (Nothing personal. Writers tend to think in those terms.)
I didn't even write about that change, although it has been of great personal value to me. What is even more interesting is that I'm really not interested if it has been of PHYSICAL value to me, meaning helping me to fight the cancer. I am more interested in my work, than my situation. The pixel count of a Web page was more interesting than my PSA.
Then a couple of weeks ago, someone asked me in email if I had read Anatole Broyard's Intoxicated By My Illness. No, I said, I hadn't heard of it. Well, this person said, I think you might enjoy it.
Curious, I went on the Net and looked up the title and learned that Anatole Broyard had died of prostate cancer in 1990 at age 70. I was definitely intrigued enough to try to find the book. Alas, it was out of print. But yesterday I managed to find a used copy in very good shape.
The design was clean and fairly simple. On the back was a black and white photo of Anatole Broyard, taken in 1989, according to a credit. It shows a man with a relatively thin and perpetually young face, with light-colored, boyishly curly hair that dangled onto a high forehead and a bemused smile that was reflected more in his eyes than his lips. It made me feel he was caught in the middle of a light-hearted remark.
As I read the jacket and flyleaves, as I am wont to do, I learned that Anatole Broyard had been a New York Times editor, literary critic and essayist for 40 years. Right there, that said much.
Every writer is interested in the credentials of his fellow scribes and Broyard's were well of out my league. No one writes and edits material for the New York Times without a love of the language and the ability to spot a dangling participle or split infinitive at a hundred yards, in a dense fog and even while severely inebriated. The heart will stop beating before those skills abate in a Times editor.
Nor will he write the way he speaks. His writing style will be couched in that careful, exacting prose that can be used for literature classes, compared to mine which is a good example of the Spontaneous School. I write in the moment and (have been told repeatedly) rely on the passive voice too much and mix verb tenses as well as predicates and metaphors. In short, I am one of those for whom God created editors. Anatole Broyard, on the other hand, will be the type who savors the language, building sentences like an artist, crafting them until each word it fits exactly into its place. Reading it aloud won't be as people speak. Neither is poetry, but it sounds wonderful.
I plopped down on the couch and began to read a Prologue by his wife, Alexandra, who had also edited the book. I liked her. She didn't overly laud the man. She merely spoke briefly of him, a wise move when writing about writers. Let their words speak for them, a task made even more difficult when the writer is your spouse.
But it was the end of her essay that caught me. She wrote that in a talk Anatole had given six months before he died, he said, "Dying is the end of illness. It is the further shore of illness. There's a wonderful book called 'The Wilder Shores of Love.' Well, dying is the wilder shore of illness."
Then she closed her essay with these words: "This is a book from that 'wilder shore.'"
That wilder shore.
The phrase roused something in me that is seldom touched, let alone stirred.
It had a name!
Without effort, I had a vision of a turbulent landfall with waves exploding on rocks and cliffs as the wind whipped the spray through trees that bent to the rage. What made the heart pound more was that it was the end of one's journey. After months - nay, years - at sea, navigating through storms and calms, fighting monsters, mutinous crew and starvation, this was the epoch, our destination - no, our destiny - a shore that offered no simple, safe haven, since the approach is laced with black, jagged teeth tearing through the water and threatening anything that nears.
Nor can we turn back.
It is for this that we journeyed so far?
Yes. It is that wilder shore.
And it is wonderful. The smell of the salt air and the rush we feel watching that shore appear and disappear as the deck lifts and falls under the heaving motion of the waves, exhilarated by the discovery that we are here. This is why we came.
In that moment, I felt that I had a grasp of this man, Anatole Broyard.
My heart pounding, I turned the page and began to read his words.
So much of a writer's life consists of assumed suffering, rhetorical suffering, that I felt something like relief, even elation, when the doctor told me that I had cancer of the prostate. Suddenly there was in the air a rich sense of crisis - real crisis, yet one that also contained echoes of ideas like the crisis of language, the crisis of literature, or of personality. It seemed to me that my existence, whatever I thought, felt, or did, had taken on a kind of meter, as in poetry or in taxis.
The meter of a poem or a taxi. What a delicious turn of phrase.
When you learn that your life is threatened, you can turn toward this knowledge or away from it. I turned toward it. It was not a choice but an automatic shifting of gears, a tacit agreement between my body and my brain. I thought that time had tapped me on the shoulder, that I had been given a real deadline at last.
Deadlines. I knew deadlines. It was as close as one could come to proving there is such a thing as an Aristotelian "Final Cause" out there in the future, determining the right here in the now, molding today not by yesterday but by tomorrow, a teleological world where we are pulled into the future as much as we are pushed.
Maybe we spoke the same language, although I'm sure he was better with his deadlines than I, not to mention grammar and syntax.
I sank into the rest of the opening essay and consumed it with the joy of discovering another who might understand me. Anatole Broyard was truly intoxicated by his disease. He felt it sharpened his wit, gave him new freedoms of expression and opened vistas that he had never imagined. His words, insights and perspectives were more than I could absorb, let alone relate.
Further into the book, he becomes more the literary critic, drawing and quoting from various esoteric works, as a graduate student or professor might, gathering as many resources on the subject as one can find. For him, it is literature and he savors the authors he quotes, as a literary critic would. There is also a section of notes from his journals with a paragraph or a sentence that reflected his fascination with the process he was experiencing.
But it was a closing paragraph in one section that captured me again. Writing how he felt busy and occupied and how "There are many ways a sick person can divert and defend, maybe even transcend himself," he closed with these words:
The British psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott began an autobiography that he never finished. The first paragraph simply says, "I died." In the fifth paragraph, he writes, "Let me see. What was happening when I died? My prayer has been answered. I was alive when I died. That was all I had asked and I had got it." Though he never finished his book, he gave the best reason in the world for writing one, and that's why I want to write mine -- to make sure I'll be alive when I die.
To be alive when I die. What a powerful attitude. It was what had been growing in me since I found that quote from Van Gogh, more than eight months ago.
Broyard's wife Alexandra closes the book with an Epilogue and the same point. She wrote, "Anatole died doing what he did best, commenting on life and his surroundings. And yes, he was alive, as he had hoped, when he died."
I had devoured the book in one setting and closed it with a new invigoration. Someone had put into words a sentiment of mine that had escaped expression. From the title, through "that wilder shore" and on to being alive when one dies, I knew what Anatole Broyard was saying, although there was still something else gnawing at me that I needed to find.
Meanwhile, I wondered, why are such feelings so rare? Are people with cancer afraid of being alive with their disease or is it the lack of writers who can express it as well as he? I've read stories of people who felt more alive since their diagnosis but no one had truly reached me until now. Or maybe I wasn't ready until now.
It doesn't matter.
I had found someone whose words expressed my excitement and explained why my priorities had shifted.
I had found That Wilder Shore.
And maybe better yet: I was not alone.
[The opening essay from his book is now available at Phoenix5.]