“It is impossible to imagine our own deaths,” wrote Sigmund Freud, a man who nevertheless stared unrelentingly at our death anxiety. Our position at the second-most important event of our life is an uninformed—and unempowered—spectator.
In The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End, Katie Roiphe (born 1968) takes a unique approach to this spectacle of death. Stepping beyond this unknowledge, beyond the metaphor we make of death and into its antechambers. Through meticulous interviews and some dramatic license, Roiphe brings us Death, the Show.
I’m writing about deaths. Not the deaths of people I loved but of writers and artists who are especially sensitive or attuned to death, who have worked through the problem of death in their art, in their letters, in their love affairs, in their dreams. I’ve picked people who are madly articulate who have abundant and extraordinary imaginations or intellectual fierceness, who can put the confrontation with mortality into words—and in one case images—in a way that most of us can’t or won’t.
Susan Sontag, this public intellectual and guardian of our morality who defied cancer only to meet up with it again and again, is the most lengthy feature.
Roiphe draws information from Sontag’s son, from her partner, Annie Leibovitz, and from her friends. It culminates in this: Susan didn’t want to be alone. Roiphe uses the words fierce and ferocity to describe Sontag’s attitude. And yet, dying from untreatable cancer, Sontag was very much alone.
Her room looks like an operating theater. In order to protect her radically suppressed immune system, everyone who enters wears a robe, a mask, gloves. There is a layer of plastic, or paper, of rubber, between her and everyone else.
To die thus, without touch or contact, how did that affect Sontag?
Roiphe notes the hypocrisy of Sontag’s desire that we should not treat illness as metaphor, should not build it up in our minds, and yet on her deathbed, Sontag is almost mythologizing her own image. And indeed it might just have been this mythologizing that kept her going: Susan the body could die, not Susan the myth.
When Susan was sixteen, she wrote in the notebooks, “It is a bullying fear of death, the stretching, the straining to comprehend the incomprehensible…’I will die too’… But how is it possible for me to stop living…’How could anything be without me?’
How different this is from the solemn recognition of nonexistence from Jorge Luis Borges: “[The Universe] did not need me until 1899, when I was born. I was left out until it did.”
As Sontag battles with existential annihilation, novelist John Updike brings a more relaxed approach. Suffering from stage 4 lung cancer, Updike steps in and out of a sort of existential paralysis. Wanting to intellectualize what is happening—to write poetry about it—and, simultaneously, to stay in the present for as long as possible.
When his children came to visit him at Massachusetts General Hospital, he was, as his youngest son, Michael, put it, ‘a good host.’ The common human impulse to entertain, even in a hospital room, seems to have been especially strong in Updike, though he also saw through the impulse, resented it, examined it. At the same time, he was writing a poem about lying in the hospital, making small talk with visiting children and grandchildren: ‘Must I do this, uphold the social lie / that binds us all together in blind faith / that nothing ends, nor youth nor age nor strength,. . . My tongue / says yes; within, I lamely drown.’
The ability to be in the moment, yet exercise some removed observation of our consciousness is perhaps what Roiphe sought when she pursued these writers for The Violet Hour.1
What Roiphe presents to us in The Violet Hour is deeply personal. She was driven by a brush with her own mortality, yet she vanishes in the text. It’s the inclusivity, that curious nature and wonder, that outreach to the human continuum that makes this book excellent.
Joan Didion, a public intellectual and social critic equal to Sontag and born a year later, famously wrote “When we’re talking about mortality, we’re talking about our children.” After the unexpected and completely untimely death of her daughter—a child is the closest thing we have to our self—Didion knew what it was like to outlive death. She wrotes it all in Blue Nights (the metaphor of death as day and night continues) and The Year of Magical Thinking.
And then there is Sigmund Freud.
‘My world is again what it was before—a little island of pain floating in a sea of indifference.’ And now the pain is unruly, would be for most people impossible. His family and friends and doctors urge him to take painkillers, but he refuses anything stronger than aspirin and the occasional hot-water bottle. ‘I prefer to think in torment than not to be able to think clearly,’ he says.
Freud knew death was unknowable. In Roiphe’s The Violet Hour, it was almost as if Freud wanted to step out of his self-awareness entirely. Out of knowledge, into pain. We never know how we will act in the violet hour, a small certainty in our unknowable death.
Read more personal accounts of death from the illustrious, irascible Christopher Hitchens who turned his critical eye on his own body and mind as he slowly died from cancer. Or the last correspondence from John Keats, who lay dying for a quite a while, the tuberculous taking its time. For a more joyous read, turn to Oliver Sacks’ essays written “as he was dying”, each of which thrust at us an unassailable desire to live.