Healing & the...Word
May 12, 1998
[Editor's note: The following is an excerpt of the presentation by Dr. Sue Walker at the Harbinger symposium titled "Healing and the Spoken/Written Word" on April 30.]
by Sue Walker
Breast cancer becomes a part of one's being in a place that is apart from the Foucaultian clinic and beyond the medical gaze. It is where language enables transcendence of what befalls. "Affronting" BC by reading it against Martin Heidegger's On The Way to Language presences the "neighborhood" of [dis]ability where one woman in eight finds herself victimized by "slash, poison, and burn" tactics operative for at least 186 years since the author Fanny Burney had her breast cut off without an anesthetic save for wine cordials in 1811. Attend to her cries as she tells her sister Esther:
of a terror that surpasses all description, and the most torturing pain. Yet when the dreadful steel was plunged into the breast cutting through veins arteries flesh nerves... I began a scream that lasted unintermittingly during the whole time of the incision... Oh Heaven! I then felt the Knife <rack>ling (sic) against the breast bone scraping it.
187 years later in 1997 women are still subjected to mastectomies that treat breast cancer either by slashing the breast, burning it, and/or poisoning the body with chemotherapy. In Heideggerian terms, "concealedness" exists in this realm. The word breast cancer evokes abject horror. Often unspeakable, it is referred to as "The Big C" this trickster whose malignant cells are of the body even as they kill. In this alien country where the silent specter of death lurks ever in the shadows, there are no inalienable rights, and its inhabitants, constantly on the alert for new invasions, speak their broken bodies in a fractured dialect of fear.
I take Martin Heidegger as my guide in this country of BC; he shows "the way." The map is poetry; I write to understand where I am and where others like Fanny Burney have been before me. In a poem entitled "From a Foreign Place," I name cancer as:
a Fourth World Country
where they speak a guttural
dialect of fear.
This place is further down than Hades,
a cave so dark, no flickers herald light. I stare Thanatos straight in the face,
and when I fix on the cold hollow of his eyes, I see nothing
in the pitiful Munch posture
of a scream.
And I hate the lingo:
DX - diagnosis
BC - breast cancer
IDC - invasive ductal carcinoma
MRM - modified radical mastectomy
mets - metastasises, not a baseball team.
I can live without a breast,
adjust to mutilation, a prosthesis,
but I can't conjugate the verb "to die," in a language without the word
I refuse to dwell in this place.
I call the roll, name others who have walked this shade, who have left their mark by telling stories of their engagement with breast cancer. This is, according to Heidegger, the way . . that 'lets us reach what concerns and summons us" (The Nature of Language). He says "the mouth is not merely a kind of organ of the body understood as an organism body and mouth are part of the earth's flow and growth in which we mortals flourish, and from which we receive the soundness of our roots" (The Nature of Language). Language concerns those who speak it by way of their own mortality, and as Heidegger says "[m]ortals are they who can experience death as death" (The Nature of Language).
Breast cancer "throws" those who suffer it into the essential relation that exists between death and language. Death is the way to language, and it allows us as we listen to belong to Saying where the ever-present possibility of death thwarts the will to live. Disability forces an accommodation with a lived and rebellious human body where language as Saying holds itself back, holds itself in reserve, holds together the regions where we, as mortals, dwell. Heidegger says:
"The troubled, hampered, dismal, and diseased, all the distress of disintegrating, is in truth nothing else than the single semblance in which truth truly conceals itself; the all-pervading, everlasting pain. Pain is thus neither repugnant nor profitable. Pain is the benignity in the nature of all essential being." (On The Way to Language) Truth is unconcealed in the words of Alicia Suskin Ostriker when she says in "Riddle: Post-Op" that "[u]nderneath my squares of gauze / I've a secret . . . "Guess what it is / It's nothing" (The Crack in Everything).
In waging her war with the forces of death, Audre Lorde in The Cancer Journals affirms the power of the word. She says that it is important to speak out, for words put fear into a manageable perspective. Naming herself a warrior in confronting the forces of death, Lorde, too, questions asks:
What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own. . . .[O]f course, I am afraid you can hear it in my voice because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation and that always seems fraught with danger.
Marilyn Hacker, another poet battling breast cancer, places her personal experience with the disease within the context of the political sufferings of our century. "It's not Auschwitz," she says. "It's not gang rape in Bosnia or/gang rape and gutting in El Salvador. . . . "My self-betraying body needs to grieve/at how hatreds metastasize" (Winter Numbers). She recalls her father and the Holocaust victims, "They wore the blunt tattoo,/a scar, if they survived, . . . /Should I tattoo my scar? What would it say?" (Winter Numbers).
Although some critics claim that Heidegger has little to do with the body as such, he sees the world as an interrelated set of experiences and says that:"[u]nderstanding of the world, as understanding of Dasein, is self-understanding. Self and world belong together in one being, Dasein" (quoted. in Zimmerman ).
Dasein is embodied openness to what is the very nature of language. It is undergoing "an experience with . . . a thing, a person or a god," and it "means that this something befalls us, strikes us, comes over us, overwhelms and transforms us" (The Nature of Language).
With bag and baggage with words with writing my body, I continue on my journey into this place I name in "Where I Am Already Staying," a poem that be-things breast cancer for it is "the way that lets us reach where we already are, differing from all other ways".
After surgery, when I awoke,
the landscape was barren and flat;
there had been a war,
and from my belly
like an animal makes
lying frightened and wounded
on its back. I could smell
my own blood.
The distant, impassable mountains
as wind picked up the sound
saying where word breaks off
no thing may be.
Food was scarce
a cup of clear broth,
bits of orange jelly
that melted on the tongue
with no taste. I tried to tell the story of stone soup, of why I came to be
where I am. My throat ached;
I could not see
where I was going,
could not read the signs.
Language is a way of overpowering that which is overpowering. Saying is a response to what happens. Heidegger says that to undergo the experience that befalls us "means that we endure it, suffer it, receive it as it strikes us and submit to it" (The Nature of Language).
But how do we incorporate the dramatic change that disability brings to our existence? How does something of overwhelming magnitude allow us to become more fully what we already are? How do we probe this region by means of the word?
Breast cancer overwhelms in the dark of our bonehouse. Wayward cells accrue errors until they make their presence known through damage to the organism of which they are a part. The experience is especially horrifying because cancer is the body at war with itself. But we can't attribute will to cells; can we say that they are deliberately being malignant or hurtful? Yet what happens death is in us. The boundaries between outside and inside are turned inside-out, for cancer knows no borders and does not obey rules. It is Kristeva's "abject" the inability of the body to know what is "me" from what is "not me," the immune system's inability to distinguish malignant cells.
The thing that is being undergone here breast cancer gathers into its neighborhood a number of subsidiary horrors that overwhelm: surgery that mutilates and transforms the body, deprives a woman of the thing that signifies femininity: her orb, jewel, exciting, voluptuous, life- giving, milk-giving breast. It is chemotherapy CAF cytoxin, adriamycin, 5 fluorouracil or CMF cytoxin, methrotrexate, flouricil, that causes loss of hair, mouth sores, rashes, nausea, low blood counts. Life is forever transformed by medical checkups that occur at first every three months, then every six months, then annually with the ever-present fear of metastases that presage death. Titles signify: surgeon, pathologist, oncologist, patient me, undergoing an experience I am unprepared for. I ponder Heidegger's question: "In what relation do you live to the language you speak?" (On The Way To Language).
Our relation to language, Heidegger tells us, is "vague, obscure, almost speechless." One of the immediate and confounding responses to the diagnosis of breast cancer is hearing the words that name the disease and not grasping what they mean. It is being rendered speechless. We find ourselves confounded by metalinguistics by "the metaphysics of technicalization," for medicine is science technology. It is mammograms, computer tomography x-ray imaging (CT), positron emission tomography (PET), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), ultrasounds. The surgeon wields a scalpel instead of a pen. The lab technician draws blood. The pharmacist calculates dosages. The less than patient patient in all of this is data, a path report, a procedure: a lumpectomy, a mastectomy, a stem cell transplant. We are reminded that in Heidegger's A Dialogue On Language, that ultimately "to experience . . . means to refer back to refer life and lived experience back to the I."
As I listen to how others have spoken their [dis]abled bodies and learn to interpret what my own body says, I am able to incorporate even missing parts the lack of a breast into my being, see it as a source of value, as something that legitimately plays a role in how I live my life. Heidegger dwells on the poetic line "Where word breaks off no thing may be."
I am not no thing. I am some thing a woman undergoing the life-transforming experience of breast cancer. I am more than a prosthesis a thing that makes me look whole, balanced, big- busted,-- a woman endowed, who remembers that Andrew Marvell, speaking of his beloved "Coy Mistress," designated two hundred years to adore each breast. The word, BREAST presences all the joy, the desire, the fear and suffering that resides in the word. Saying enables. The physicality of sounds, the juxtaposition of letters written words coagulate into meaning, gather into a clearing where the thingness of breast cancer is made manifest. This is the way analogous to Lao-Tzu's Tao that disability both uses and is used by language and become revelation. Those who live with [dis]ability are released into being whole; they are, according to Heidegger, freed from involvements that imprison them in our technologically constructed world. Heidegger claims that "the soul's greatness takes its measure from its capacity to achieve the flaming vision by which the soul becomes at home in pain." The poet Ted Hughes says that stories "are hospitals where we heal, where our imaginations are healed" so that we may come home again to our house of being where we are and where language is.
Burney, Fanny. Selected Letters and Journals. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987.
Hacker, Marilyn. Winter Numbers. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994.
Heidegger, Martin. On The Way To Language. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1971.
Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals. San Francisco: aunt lute books, 1980.
Ostriker, Alicia Suskin. The Crack in Everything. Pittsburg: U of Pittsburg, 1996.
Zimmerman, Michael E. Eclipse of the Self. Athens: Ohio UP, 1981.