"She wanted to live at any price. When she said, "I'm not interested in quality of life," she meant it. She was somebody for whom extinction - death - was unbearable. So she was going to fight for every breath, no matter how much suffering that entailed."-David Rieff on Susan Sontag
"William Saroyan said it best: "Why am I writing this book? To save my life, to keep from dying, of course. That is why we get up in the morning." Desperate as she was to live, Mrs. Sontag knew perfectly that she was bound to live on in her work." -Abigail Zuger on Susan Sontag
"Extinction". The idea of the end, that is, the end of life, even as a metaphor, is for a writer the most unbearable of all ideas. In retrospective, like Etienne Gilson said, if a person of seventy years has been a philosopher for most of his life, when trying to jot down memories and write his memoirs, will find out - to his own despair - that he had no past. What kind of life have I lived? It is a question of the first order of importance for someone whose life hasn't been entirely his - as is the case of the epistolar writer or some novelists and fiction writers - but that instead, has been bound up with the absolute and omnivorous horizon of the present.
Some writers come to be unmistakably known by and with the age in which they lived and wrote, and some of these ages are known to die with them. The question of dying, not of the metaphysical death - that can take place several times during the same lifetime - but of the clinical process in which you cease to take part in the burdens of the world, hardly figures prominently in the writings of those intensely bound to the present. Until the very last minute, they expressed themselves assertively about the degree to which death represented nothing but a meaningless passport into a zone of greys in which freedom and unfreedom no longer retained any of their earthly meaning.
Of course death is a fundamental element of "work", of the "production" not of the means to ensure our survival but of something of lasting value, that will survive us by all means and that is very likely to "endure" for generations; not only as a document of its own time - although it is also that - but as a testimony to human faculties overall. Many philosophers and artists have found an immense consolation in the fact that life might come to an end, and that through their works, they might effect the transformation from the raw materials of human activity into the vault of cultural and historical consciousness. That death, however, is of a very different kind and the rite de passage can happen in the course of one's life, prior to his physical extinction, so to speak.
Illness is one of those markers of the truth that differentiate between the contemplation of one's own mortality through metaphysical mirrors, and the actual activity of decreasing in activity and agency. A certain writer awoke one day with his hands entirely frozen, even though it was a spring day outside, and he hastened to the typewriter - in spite of the discomfort - because he thought that he might have become a corpse long before his time. The idea of extinction was unbearable to him, especially because he regarded himself too young to die; fact that was place alongside the terrifying idea that he didn't want to be remembered at all. He wanted to become part of the world as world, but not as a subject or individual. Not because he wasn't an individualist, but rather the opposite, because his individuality stood to the world as it is, in such degree of antinomy and diaporia that he found the idea itself, the idea of the memory, sinful and perverse; something guided exclusively by facts and not by the poorly tangible processes out of which truth and thought arise.
He explored the possible causes of this innocent symptom and the diagnose was obvious: Sitting at home for nearly half a year, sleeping through the prosperous hours of daylight and adamantly refusing to face the extended limbs of the sun; making a fierce commitment to another ideal of extinction: That of abandoning the province of life - with its large orders of faith and unfaith - for something more supreme and less emaciated, for a total concept of art, free from the world. The nights were always too short and too clean from the passion of necessity, and as such, without radical needs; the order of appearing in the world was replaced by mere objective disclosure of his thoughts - that contained manifold images - but without a face, without a name, and obviously, without a body to accompany them, to suffer them, or even to await them. The consequence of the abandonment and self-imposed sentence of solitary confinement had the obvious consequence of a frail body, no longer able to understand the topography of human physiology.
The extinction he had planned for was not even close to renunciation or even to suicide or self-torture; the ascetic nature of the task transformed it by definition into something nihilistic and self-contained: We will stop living until life will begin again. This is be a hiatus, with an extended contract for renewal of the deed, to be reviewed in due course of time. But the years of extinction turned into springs and summers, into prosperous mornings of the world, into revolutions and into wars, from which he, by the tragic decision made on a certain night in the middle of life, still wounded from a long journey, and that he imposed on himself in the form of exile. Perhaps there was no other solution then, it was exile or death. Only that the meaning of death changed in between, and the ambivalence between extinction (or destruction) of the world and the natural extinction of biological life, became more and more nuanced and pronounced. A book, unwritten, carried alongside and underneath the skin, so immaculate, unbruised, somewhat ignorant and so defiantly banal.
He remembers one time, in his home town, many years and kilometers away, when death was a latent possibility. Something of a blessing. The curse of curses. The incredible taste of foods and the warm afternoons in the sun, thinking that he may not live through the year or the week; everything based not a medical prognosis but on the incalculable fear sprung out of sin. Some sins bear marks on the skin, with purple blotches vandalized by yellow dots containing ailments from life. So young he had been, and his life so entirely not his. He wanted to escape imprisonment, but other than in writing, it was no longer possible; the extinction of life without biological extinction was not only a possibility but a supreme possibility of reality that could not be defied either critically or uncritically. Reality fell and downed through landslides that he consciously avoided, and not successfully. What if his whole life hadn't been true at all? He asked himself constantly. He couldn't remember anything that he had wanted to remember; existing itself was a crime along with other crimes derived from the impossibility thereof.
The old town, so yellow and golden, remained, like a permanent fix at a theater. Perhaps his affirmative desire to return was by no means a form of release, but the final confirmation of the verdict. Maybe it was a final rendition of his incapability, and the signpost from elsewhere that pointed to his bed, under a stairway, the light protracted, in which he might begin carving out a grave to keep himself warm or at least numb. What if the sentence is definitive? What if everything else - from now onwards - can be experienced only as reflex, telescope, mnemograph, postcard and tale? What incredible discipline is required for storytelling, especially when the subject is empty, offering a plate of succulent dishes that he can never taste, that he can never experience not even by color or shape. He still dreams of going there, maybe the sun will be enough to keep warm, maybe the memory is... He's sure to be remembered, against his own will and agency. That's why writing is so difficult... He might not want to let one single word out, without having suffered it, without having bled. He wants to retain everything, until the very last moment and then, not change one single dot. To bury it.
But he remembers the city... The starvation spent through the night at a park, and the gifts of an ugly lover; the cold in the church, no less than at the synagogue, the intoxication mixed with the cold of the hills, so many times he wanted to die, and physical extinction loomed close, but the idea that one day he would be writer, forced him through the darkest hours. He had dreamt of it differently, not necessarily surrounded by glee and fame, but at least slightly more comfortable, among learnt men, inebriated from the world and not so completely excluded from it; far away from father and from anything that resembled his own life. How terrible when a dream is fulfilled, just like that. But it's somewhat comforting to think about the old town, maybe the nostalgia is the pointer that signals the extent to which he will never return. Not in flesh and bone.
"This is the reason why the return to one's origin (redire ad creatorem) can at the same time be understood as an anticipating reference to one's end (se referre ad finem)." -Arendt on St. Augustine.