The cruel logic of cancer therapy is that what kills the malignant could also kill the benign.
In the early days of Covid-19 quarantine, every time I received an invitation for a reading group or heard someone talk about finally getting around to War and Peace, I kept thinking of The Twilight Zone character who survives a nuclear war and is delighted that there’s time enough at last to read. He breaks his glasses before he can pick up a book. A nuclear war isn’t an opportunity to get more reading done, and neither is a pandemic—even if you’re not sick.
Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Timebegins with a man nodding off. He drifts, and wakes himself, never catching the moment he slips into sleep. He drifts into memories, some literary, some lived. He reads until he becomes a protagonist: “My thoughts had run into a channel of their own, until I myself seemed actually to have become the subject of my book.”
This is how reading was supposed to go, blending my consciousness with the narration, luxuriating in fin de siècle life. Instead, I read and reread his famous opening line, “For a long time I would go to bed early,” and found myself unable to follow him.
I had assumed time would pass more slowly in quarantine and so I might as well luxuriate in it, as Proust’s narrator does as he gives in to the transportive power of his own memories. I chose Proust for this reason. In such an enclosed space and time—four walls, three days—I should have loved to give in to fantasy, but I couldn’t. My own fantasies, of cellular death and destruction and change, were too captivating.
Proust spent his last years in a cork-lined room, sleeping, as I was, in his childhood bed. The cork was designed not only to be soundproof, but also dustproof to keep his asthma at bay. He could breathe in his room; I could not in mine. He could read in peace; I overheard the television downstairs, the freight train passing by my window. I felt like I needed a fallout shelter lined with cork. My anxiety fought against the indolent pleasure that would surely await me if I could only give in to this book as easily as some people can fall asleep.
Maybe I could not really begin Proust’s oeuvre knowing Proust himself had died of pneumonia in his childhood bed—just as I was in mine—before he could complete it.
I learned I had cancer in the middle of a seminar on Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. It was a Friday afternoon around 5 pm, and I noticed that I had a missed call from my endocrinologist. While the professor excused Heidegger’s card-carrying Nazism, I excused myself from classto listen to the voicemail that urged me to call my doctor as soon as possible. The office was already closed when I called back, but I knew what the news was.
When it was time to quarantine, I thought I might need to turn to Heidegger’s Being and Time. Spoiler: Being is time, time ends with death, and so coming face to face with death, as in a cancer diagnosis, is a radical experience with one’s own finitude.
My focus failed me reading Proust because I could not read indulgently enough. Instead of feeling rapture at Proust’s gorgeous sentences, I drowned in them. Reading Heidegger required a different sort of concentration. Proustian sentences fall away like silk sheets; Heideggerian sentences are like tree trunks you can’t get your arms around. I paced myself, going word for word with the German original. I would notice time passing instead of trying to rush it. I read slowly but still got stuck.
In my room, I felt the contours of my containment shrink to two sentences: “But the state-of-mind which can hold open the utter and constant threat to itself arising from Dasein’s ownmost individualized Being, is anxiety. In this state-of-mind, Dasein finds itself face to face with the ‘nothing’ of the possible impossibility of its existence.”
I read those two sentences as if they were the whole five-hundred-page book, like they were a safe place from which to dwell quietly on the danger of having a body.
They told me that my anxiety, as opposed to my fears, does not have an object on which it focuses. Instead, it faces nowhere and nothing but my very being in the world. If someone asks me what I’m anxious about, I can only gesture, “this.” Anxiety leaves me feeling out of the world and yet draws me closer to it—incessantly reminding me that I will one day leave it.
Cancer forced me to come face to face with the nothing that I feared: the possible impossibility of my existence. Being radioactive felt like a somatic manifestation of anxiety. The awareness of death that buzzed inside of me and seeped through my pores. There was technically nothing to fear; the radiation was making me “healthy.” But I couldn’t wrap my mind around being radioactive. Nor could I forget about it for a second. It wasn’t about being sick or being well because everyone, I realized, was carrying some kind of death with them, waiting to bloom into malignancy or absorb something toxic.
Being radioactive felt like a somatic manifestation of anxiety.
In those three days, I was reminded of all the small deaths within me, the cellular ones I watched in my mind like an intergalactic battle scene, and the future ones I had not yet faced.
By the third morning, I had given up reading anything. I was binging television and purging my worries in long phone calls with every friend who could tolerate my fretfulness. I woke up and my mother had set a breakfast tray outside my door, but I had no appetite. That’s when I realized I had picked the wrong text to bring with me to quarantine—I was living “The Metamorphosis.” Like Gregor, one morning I found myself monstrous. Only, I didn’t have a copy of it with me to read. Instead of looking for the text online, I wrote down everything I remembered on an unprecious notepad until the similarities between the book and my life started to build up.
I drew an apartment with three bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen. The house I grew up in had three bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen. Like Gregor, my childhood bedroom had a bed, a desk, a dresser. Unlike Gregor, my bedroom window had a view of a Burger King. From the other side of the train tracks that carried freighters up the northeast corridor, the smell of Whoppers came to my window on warm summer nights. On the other side of Gregor’s window, I remembered, was a hospital. I sketched a cross with red ink. Gregor learned to creep up and down the walls and sit on the windowsill for pleasure, whereas I paced the outlines of my room, around the dresser, desk, bed. His family fought in other rooms, as did mine. Gregor’s father threw an apple at him that stuck in his back until he and it were rotting. My body hurt in odd places—my jaw, my eyes, the wings of my shoulder blades—and I jotted down every ache. I didn’t even know how to get physically comfortable enough to sit still and read.
Everywhere I turned in my room, I saw walls, right angles. Wasn’t that in Kafka, somewhere?
Being quarantined, I came to realize, was being alone with your body. The amount I could read was the amount I could take my mind off my body, which was minimal. Gregor turned into a monstrous vermin, an ungeheuren Ungeziefer, which might be an insect, or at least some creature with a hard shell and soft underbelly.
Kafka’s sun sign was Cancer. So was Proust’s. These details seemed enormously important to me at the time, only, like Gregor, I didn’t know how to communicate this importance. My thoughts were scribbles getting crossed out by the minute.
Unlike Gregor, but rather like his sister, who ends “The Metamorphosis” stretching out her body, I walked out of my room on the fourth morning.
When I was radioactive, I found that the present was too overwhelming to ignore. My efforts to take my mind off my anxiety only made my anxiety leap out more. Anxiety makes us an offer we cannot refuse: notice pain, think of death, face the world.
What becomes important when we are asked to turn away from the world and dwell in our interiors? Haven’t we all had lofty ideas about productivity and what we could do if only we had the space and time? But even supposedly “healthy” diversions like reading don’t nourish you when the spirit is preoccupied—if the hierarchy of needs has gotten knocked down a couple rungs, you shouldn’t be surprised if you don’t have enough imagination to thrive. If my use of the second person offends, forgive me. It’s just that once you’ve had cancer, it’s hard not to see everyone as pre-sick in some way, and all our sufferings linked.
Even in quarantine, we metabolize the world around us. If your body feels too arrested by the present moment to luxuriate in a book, you aren’t alone in the world, even if you are alone in your room.