Intoxicated by My Illness: And Other Writings on Life and Death

Intoxicated by My Illness: And Other Writings on Life and Death

by Anatole Broyard

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Anatole Broyard, long-time book critic, book review editor, and essayist for the New York Times, wants to be remembered. He will be, with this collection of irreverent, humorous essays he wrote concerning the ordeals of life and death—many of which were written during the battle with cancer that led to his death in 1990. 

New York Times Notable Book of the Year 

“A heartbreakingly eloquent and unsentimental meditation on mortality . . . Some writing is so rich and well-spoken that commentary is superfluous, even presumptuous. . . . Read this book, and celebrate a cultured spirit made fine, it seems, by the coldest of touches.”Los Angeles Times

“Succeeds brilliantly . . . Anatole Broyard has joined his father but not before leaving behind a legacy rich in wisdom about the written word and the human condition. He has died. But he lives as a writer and we are the wealthier for it.”The Washington Post Book World

“A virtuoso performance . . . The central essays of Intoxicated By My Illness were written during the last fourteen months of Broyard’s life. They are held in a gracious setting of his previous writings on death in life and literature, including a fictionalized account of his own father’s dying of cancer. The title refers to his reaction to the knowledge that he had a life-threatening illness. His literary sensibility was ignited, his mind flooded with image and metaphor, and he decided to employ these intuitive gifts to light his way into the darkness of his disease and its treatment. . . . Many other people have chronicled their last months . . . Few are as vivid as Broyard, who brilliantly surveys a variety of books on illness and death along the way as he draws us into his writer’s imagination, set free now by what he describes as the deadline of life. . . . [A] remarkable book, a lively man of dense intelligence and flashing wit who lets go and yet at the same time comtains himself in the style through which he remains alive.”The New York Times Book Review

“Despite much pain, Anatole Broyard continued to write until the final days of his life. He used his writing to rage, in the words of Dylan Thomas, against the dying of the light. . . . Shocking, no-holds-barred and utterly exquisite.”The Baltimore Sun

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307775887
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/24/2010
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 156
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Anatole Broyard was a book critic, columnist, and editor for the New York Times for 18 years. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Intoxicated by My Illness and Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir. Broyard died in 1990 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

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.
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. It wasn’t that I believed the cancer was going to kill me, even though it had spread beyond the prostate—it could probably be controlled, either by radiation or hormonal manipulation. No. What struck me was the startled awareness that one day something, whatever it might be, was going to interrupt my leisurely progress. It sounds trite, yet I can only say that I realized for the first time that I don’t have forever.
Time was no longer innocuous, nothing was casual any-more. I understood that living itself had a deadline—like the book I had been working on. How sheepish I would feel if I couldn’t finish it. I had promised it to myself and to my friends. Though I wouldn’t say this out loud, I had promised it to the world. All writers privately think this way.
When my friends heard I had cancer, they found me surprisingly cheerful and talked about my courage. But it has nothing to do with courage, at least not for me. As far as I can tell, it’s a question of desire. I’m filled with desire—to live, to write, to do everything. Desire itself is a kind of immortality. While I’ve always had trouble concentrating, I now feel as concentrated as a diamond or a microchip.
I remember a time in the 1950s when I tried to talk a friend of mine named Jules out of committing suicide. He had already made one attempt, and when I went to see him he said, “Give me a good reason to go on living.” He was thirty years old.
I saw what I had to do. I started to sell life to him, like a real estate agent. Just look at the world, I said. How can you not be curious about it? The streets, the houses, the trees, the shops, the people, the movement, and the stillness. Look at the women, so appealing, each in her own way. Think of all the things you can do with them, the places you can go together. Think of books, paintings, music. Think of your friends.
While I was talking I wondered, Am I telling Jules the truth? He didn’t think so, because he put his head in the oven a week later. As for me, I don’t know whether I believed what I said or not, because I just went on behaving like everybody else. But I believe it now. When my wife made me a hamburger the other day I thought it was the most fabulous hamburger in the history of the world.
With this illness one of my recurrent dreams has finally come true. Several times in the past I’ve dreamed that I had committed a crime—or perhaps I was only accused of a crime, it’s not clear. When brought to trial I refused to have a lawyer—I got up instead and made an impassioned speech in my own defense. This speech was so moving that I could feel myself tingling with it. It was inconceivable that the jury would not acquit me—only each time I woke before the verdict. Now cancer is the crime I may or may not have committed, and the eloquence of being alive, the fervor of the survivor, is my best defense.
The way my friends have rallied around me is wonderful. They remind me of a flock of birds rising from a body of water into the sunset. If that image seems a bit extravagant or tinged with satire, it’s because I can’t help thinking there’s something comical about my friends’ behavior—all these witty men suddenly saying pious, inspirational things.
They are not intoxicated as I am by my illness, but sobered. Since I refuse to, they’ve taken on the responsibility of being serious. They appear abashed or chagrined in their sobriety. Stripped of their playfulness these pals of mine seem plainer, homelier—even older. It’s as if they had all gone bald overnight.
Yet one of the effects of their fussing over me is that I feel vivid, multicolored, sharply drawn. On the other hand — and this is ungrateful—I remain outside of their solicitude, their love and best wishes. I’m isolated from them by the grandiose conviction that I am the healthy person and they are the sick ones. Like an existential hero, I have been cured by the truth while they still suffer the nausea of the uninitiated.
I’ve had eight-inch needles thrust into my belly, where I could feel them tickling my metaphysics. I’ve worn Pampers. I’ve been licked by the flames, and my sense of self has been singed. Sartre was right: You have to live each moment as if you’re prepared to die.
Now at last I understand the conditional nature of the human condition. Yet, unlike Kierkegaard and Sartre, I’m not interested in the irony of my position. Cancer cures you of irony. Perhaps my irony was all in my prostate. A dangerous illness fills you with adrenaline and makes you feel very smart. I can afford now, I said to myself, to draw conclusions. All those grand generalizations toward which I have been building for so many years are finally taking shape. As I look back at how I used to be, it seems to me that an intellectual is a person who thinks that the classical clichés don’t apply to him, that he is immune to homely truths. I know better now. I see everything with a summarizing eye. Nature is a terrific editor.
“n the first stages of my illness, I couldn’t sleep, urinate, or defecate—the word ordeal comes to mind. Then, when my doctor changed all this and everything worked again, what a voluptuous pleasure it was! With a cry of joy I realized how marvelous it is simply to function. My body, which in the last decade or two had become a familiar, no-longer-thrilling old flame, was reborn as a brand-new infatuation. I realize of course that this elation I feel is just a phase, just a rush of consciousness, a splash of perspective, a hot flash of ontological alertness. But I’ll take it, I’ll use it. I’ll use everything I can while I wait for the next phase. Illness is primarily a drama, and it should be possible to enjoy it as well as to suffer it. I see now why the Romantics were so fond of illness—the sick man sees everything as metaphor. In this phase I’m infatuated with my cancer. It stinks of revelation.
As I look ahead, I feel like a man who has awakened from a long afternoon nap to find the evening stretched out before me. I’m reminded of D’Annunzio, the Italian poet, who said to a duchess he had just met at a party in Paris, “Come, we will have a profound evening.” Why not? I see the balance of my life—everything comes in images now—as a beautiful paisley shawl thrown over a grand piano.
Why a paisley shawl, precisely? Why a grand piano? I have no idea. That’s the way the situation presents itself to me. I have to take my imagery along with my medicine.

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