Saturday, October 14, 2023

My cancer - "It can’t be true! It can’t, but it is."


Liver cancer.  That was a surprise.  I knew something was wrong, but I was not expecting that.

Since the diagnosis last summer, since it was known for a fact that I had something serious, things have moved fast.  It has been like boarding a train.  Once in motion there is no way off.  I guess I have seen plenty of movies where people get off of moving trains, often with bad results.  I am going to stay on and do what my doctors tell me.

Monday is my liver surgery, a major change of direction.  When I wake up, my tumor will be in the hands of the researcher who expressed almost too much interest in getting a look at it.  He can have it.  The subsequent year of immunotherapy treatment is to keep the tumor from returning.

I have great doubts about sharing personal information of any kind, much less medical information, with the internet, but my cancer is no secret in my real life, and I wanted to explain why the schedule of my Greek philosophy reading – no, not the reading, the writing – fell apart.  How fortunate to be reading Greek philosophy – Cynics, Stoics, and others – at just this time.  The perfect companions.  But my energy was not so good, and a lot of what was left went to health care appointments.  So, so many appointments.  My writing suffered, and will likely do so for some time.

My doctors, by the way, have been superb, as have the nurses, technicians, and everyone else.  The insurance company has behaved itself.  No medical horror stories, or even irritation stories, not yet.  My greatest suffering, at this point, has been the 900 calorie per day liver-softening diet that I am currently enduring, although not for long.  Have pity on this poor glutton.

Ivan Ilych, in “The Death of Ivan Ilych” (1886), worries about the cause of his illness.  The illness, which involves, the appendix, or maybe the kidney, sure sounds like cancer.  I wish he had had my doctors.  He once heavily bumped his side while hanging a curtain:

‘It really is so!  I lost my life over that curtain as I might have done when storming a fort.  Is that possible?  How terrible and how stupid.  It can’t be true!  It can’t, but it is.’  (Ch. VI, tr. revised Maudes)

Of course, however comforting it would be to know, poor Ilych has no idea.  I had a brief discussion with the surgeon about the cause of my cancer, ending in a shrug and a laugh.  Who knows?

Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece is the only work on illness I have deliberately sought out.  I owe a debt, though, to Nanni Moretti’s 1993 anthology film Caro Diario, specifically to the extraordinary third part where he recreates his frustrating, circular experiences with the Italian medical system (which does save him in the end – he is now 70, with a new movie out).  It’s because of Moretti’s film, backed by some family history, that led me to push hard on my doctors to look for cancer.  “Be your own advocate” is the phrase people use.  Yes, do it.

I will be out of touch – out of everything – on Monday, and I have never been a recovering patient before so I have no idea when I might respond to any well wishes, kind thoughts, crackpot advice, or angry scoldings.  Many thanks, then, in advance for any of that.

Now back to the problem that makes me fret the  most: which books to bring to the hospital?


Friday, October 13, 2023

But the Moon rescues others as they swim from below - a glance at the essays and dialogues of Plutarch

The great ragged Greek philosophy readalong ends with Plutarch, famous for his extraordinary Parallel Lives but also the innovative author of a large mass of essays and dialogues which picked up the title Moralia (late 1st C.) along the way.  Plutarch was hardly an original philosophical thinker, but he invented the familiar essay, and most readers of Montaigne will find Plutarch to be a genial companion.  Of course Montaigne quotes Plutarch (and Seneca, and Lucretius) frequently.

Plutarch has retroactively become a “Middle Platonist,” one of a number of 1st century Greek writers creating a Plato revival, preparing for the eventual triumph of the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, who would be the next logical person to read if I kept going.  I suggested the Oxford World’s Classics Selected Essays and Dialogues (tr. Donald Russell) as a good place to see Plutarch in his more philosophical modes, but now I see that my premise was false.  Plutarch was always in a philosophical mode.  He lived in a social world suffused with philosophy, much like the community surrounding Socrates, except Plutarch’s mental world also includes Stoicism, Epicureanism (the enemy), and other movements we have encountered.  And although he himself is a priest at Delphi, as Greek a profession as I can imagine, his world also includes Rome, as he will demonstrate in his Parallel Lives where Roman history turns out to be a version of Greek history.

Essays like “Bashfulness” and “Talkativeness” are the Montaigne-like essays.  The argument of, say, “Talkativeness” is really a long string of examples of the dangers of the vice, pulled from a masterful knowledge of Greek and Roman history.  “These remarks are not meant as a denunciation of talkativeness, but as therapy” (218).  Virtue, but of the practical sort.

More impressive and difficult are Plutarch’s dialogues, modelled on Plato but with innovations.  “Socrates’ Daimonion” is a highlight.  Socrates openly said that he was sometimes warned against specific actions by a daimon, a friendly spirit outside of himself.  He was never advised to do anything but only warned against things.  In Plutarch’s dialogue a number of Thebans and others, including an old friend of Socrates, debate what he might of meant, complicating the concept of daimon, climaxing in the remarkable “Myth of Timarchus,” a wild vision of the afterlife where the soul and intellect are distinct, the latter actually being the outside daimon.  The stars are daimones being pulled to the moon.

But the Moon rescues others as they swim up from below. These are they for whom the end of Becoming has come.  The foul and unpurified, however, she will not receive.  She [the moon!} flashes and roars at them most horribly and will not let them near her.  They lament their fate and are borne away down there once again, to another birth, as you can see.  (108)

That’s up there with Plato’s late, weird visionary myths.  The discussion of the daimon is intermixed with the story of a political conspiracy to overthrow the tyrant of Thebes.  The philosophical discussion is part of what is really a piece of historical fiction (the conspiracy is 400 years in the past).  This is what I mean when I say the dialogues can be difficult – this is a dang complex text.

I tracked down an old translation of “On the ‘E’ at Delphi,” a cryptic title.  Alongside the famous “Know Thyself” inscription, Delphi had the an uppercase epsilon (the same as our E) inscribed on the temple of Apollo.  What does it mean?  Plutarch puts himself in this dialogue but does not give himself the last word.  Many theories are explored.  Fans of Thomas Browne’s magnificent The Garden of Cyrus (1658) will enjoy the long discussion of the meaning of the number five; others may well be baffled.

Don’t miss the other Delphic essays, “Oracles in Decline” and “Why Are Delphic Oracles No Longer Given in Verse?” or the short, heartbreaking “A Consolation to His Wife,” on the death of his infant daughter.  Don’t miss, if you like this book, the additional essays in the Penguin Classics collection.  Don’t miss Parallel Lives, at least the best parts – the life of Anthony! – whatever you do.

So that’s the Greek philosophy readalong.  I meant to write more and for that matter think more, but life interfered in a way that was almost ironic.  Still, a success as far as it went.  Many thanks to the people who helped me out by joining in, on the internet or in real life.

Just a bit more about real life tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and their Stoic self-help books - I shall not be afraid when my last hour comes

The curious thing about Stoicism is its long-lasting survival in the self-help genre, curious at least until I read Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic (1st C.) several years ago and discovered that it was a self-help book, one of the founding self-help books.  The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (170-180), which I read recently, has a different format, more of a commonplace book, but is similarly aimed at self-improvement.

I did not get much out of Meditations, but that is because I read it, one page followed by another until I finished.  Written in fragments, it is more of a book to keep handy and consult, perhaps randomly.  What wisdom will pop out?

Remember that what is hidden within you controls the strings; that is activity, that is life, that, if one may say so, is the man.  Never occupy your imagination besides with the body which encloses you like a vessel and these organs which are moulded around you.  They are like an axe, only differing as being attached to the body.  (Book X, 38, tr. A. S. L. Farquharson, Oxford World’s Classics)

Tough words, since I have been spending a lot of the last few months imagining one particular internal organ – I will write about my illness soon and be less cryptic – but the Stoics are generally bracing.  Cold baths, simple food, contempt for money and success, a “tough it out” attitude towards pain and adversity, and indifference about death, those are the Stoics.  One can imagine, for any illness, for example, times when a “tough it out” pep talk is useful.

Still, it is an odd book to simply read, except for the first chapter which is where the emperor lists what he learned from people in his past: “modesty and manliness” from his father, “piety and bountifulness” from his mother, and on like that through a dozen people.  A smart exercise I can imagine encountering in a contemporary self-help book, if I ever read such things. 

I did glance at a couple of Ryan Holiday’s books, since he makes a lot of explicit use of the ancient Stoics, and was pleased to find that he does not emphasize money and success – so much of the audience for these books is the business crowd, desperate to increase annual sales by 10% – but rather how to be happy.  A real Stoic tells me how to be virtuous, not necessarily the same thing, but I was impressed that Holiday is not trying to make his readers wealthy.

Seneca is more my guy.  He is the great Stoic hypocrite, since for the five years before Emperor Nero came of age he was effectively the domestic ruler of Rome (a general handled foreign policy) and became one of the richest men in the world.  Then again when he gave it all up without complaint when Nero took power.  The letters, including the selection I read in the Penguin Classics edition (tr. Robin Campbell), were written after his fall from power.  They are likely pseudo-letters, written for if not exactly publication than at least dissemination among interested readers.

I had better jump to Letter LIV, about ill health, and look for wisdom.

Even as I fought for breath, though, I never ceased to find comfort in cheerful and courageous reflections.  ‘What’s this?’ I said.  ‘So death is having all these tries at me, is he?  Let him, then!  I had a try at him a long while ago myself.’  ‘When was this?’ you’ll say.  Before I was born.  Death is just not being.  What that is like I already know.

The short sentences and conversational tone make Seneca pleasant reading, as if a friend has written me.  Perhaps they are artifacts of the translator; I don’t know.  “You can feel assured on my score of this: I shall not be afraid when my last hour comes – I’m already prepared, not planning as much as a day ahead” – now that is Seneca, that is Stoicism.

A pleasure of Seneca’s letters is that they are full of ordinary Roman life.  Letter LVI is about how to deal with noise:

But if on top of this some ball player comes along and starts shouting out the score, that’s the end!  Then add someone starting up a brawl, and someone else caught thieving, and the man who likes the sound of his voice in the bath, and the people who leap in the pool with a tremendous splash.  Apart from those whose voices are, if nothing else, natural, think of the hair remover, continually giving vent to his shrill and penetrating cry in order to advertise his presence, never silent unless it be while he is plucking someone’s armpits and making the client yell for him!  Then think of the various cries of the man selling drinks, and the one selling sausages and the other selling pastries, and all the ones hawking for the catering shops, publicizing his wares with a distinctive cry of his own. (109-10)

I’m sitting at a window in ancient Rome.  Love it.

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Lucretius brings to light in Latin verse the dark discoveries of the Greeks

During the Hellenistic period, Epicureanism and Stoicism replaced Plato and Aristotle as the dominant philosophical movements (Plato would make a big comeback; Aristotle would have to wait for the great Arabic philosophers).  Both movements were popular in the Roman Republic as well as in Greece.  Thus although Epicurus had, until recently, survived only in three letters preserved by Diogenes Laertius, his ideas were preserved in one of the four (let’s say) great Latin epics, De Rerum Natura (1st century BCE) by the mysterious Lucretius, translated as The Way Things Are by Rolfe Humphries.

I am well aware how very hard it is

To bring to light by means of Latin verse

The dark discoveries of the Greeks.  I know

New terms must be invented, since our tongue

Is poor, and this material is new.  (Book I, p. 23)

The ash-engulfed library at Herculaneum contained a substantial collection of Epicurean texts, including at least one major lost work by Epicurus, but I do not know if that text is in condition for amateur readers to read.  I doubt I would enjoy it more than I enjoy Lucretius.

If I had kept to my schedule I would perhaps have walked through each of the six books of Lucretius, from his dismissal of the gods, absent from human affairs if they exist at all, through the surprisingly modern sounding atomic theory, the origin of the world and everything else, ending with a dramatic account of a plague in Athens that ends so abruptly one wonders if the book is unfinished.

                    Sudden need

And poverty persuaded men to use

Horrible makeshifts; howling, they would place

Their dead on pyres prepared for other men,

Apply the torches, maim and bleed and brawl

To keep the corpses from abandonment.  (Book VI, 236)

A grim end at least fitting the materialism of the book’s philosophy.  You’re on your own, folks.  The last book contains numerous science-like causes of natural phenomena, for example nine separate theories about how lightning works.  An actual scientist would care which theory is true, but all that matters to Lucretius is that the cause is not Zeus or Jove or any other god.  A more common translation of the title is The Nature of Things.  Nature is natural.

The most fascinating piece of pseudo-science is apparently an innovation by Lucretius.  Bothered by the determinism of the standard atomic theory, he adds an element of randomness or indeterminism, his famous “swerve.”  Atoms, and the things made of them, like humans, move along their deterministic paths until they don’t.  Thus free will is possible, or at least something indistinguishable from free will.  I take the physics as mostly poetic, but it sounds so modern, as if Lucretius intuited quantum theory.

De Rerum Natura barely survived to the Renaissance, but once rediscovered it became a favorite.  Stephen Greenblatt somehow wrote a popular book about the early modern love of the Swerve.  Lucretius was a favorite of Montaigne.  I will say the same about Seneca and Plutarch in my next few posts.  We are in Montaigne’s library.

Such a complex book, and this is what I have to say.  Good enough.  Some of us are in talks about an Ovid readalong later this year, taking on another of the great Latin epics, my favorite of the bunch.

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Books I Read in September 2023

Despite all evidence I hope to wrap up the Greek philosophy project within the next couple of weeks.  A medical deadline approaches.  That will help.

As usual, I read good books.



Letters from a Stoic (c. 60), Seneca - good timing for some Stoicism.



Collected Stories (from roughly 1930 into the 1960s, the second half of the book), Vladimir Nabokov

They Came Like Swallows (1937), William Maxwell

Joseph the Provider (1943), Thomas Mann, concluding a 1,500 page monster.  Evidence of graphomania.

Death of a Salesman (1948), Arthur Miller

The Aleph and Other Stories 1933-1969 (1978), Jorge Luis Borges, arranged and rearranged.  The genial New Yorker memoir that concludes the book is a great pleasure.



The Poems of J. V. Cunningham (1942-82)

Selected Poems (1944-73), Jean Garrigue

A Wall of Two (1947 / 2007), Henia & Ilona Karmel & frankly Fanny Howe too.  Please see Dorian Stuber’s 2021 review of this book and these poems, many of them literally written in the camps.  The story of how the poems, and the poets, survived is itself worth knowing.

The Kid (1947) &

Skylight One (1949), Conrad Aiken

Pisan Cantos (1948), Ezra Pound.  High level Modernist kitsch, I fear, including both Aiken and Pound.



The Situation and the Story (2001), Vivian Gornick, generous insights into essays and memoirs, more relevant to our moment than to hers, even.



Selected Writings (1913-48), Antonin Artaud, the 700 page Sontag selection, time well spent with an alien sensibility.



Journal, 1933-1939, André Gide

Notre-dame des fleurs (1944), Jean Genet, real French prison literature (although I read the less obscene 1951 revision) that with its rich French vocabulary that included but went well beyond slang was on the edge of my reading level.  It was so hard.  Between Genet and Artaud, it was French Weirdo Month for me.  That should be a regular event.