AUTHOR: Richard Barager | POSTED: 03/27/11 12:21 AM
CATEGORIES: Politics and Society, The Literary Doctor, The Value of Fiction
What does a report on cancer survival rates in the United States have in common with civil unrest in Syria? The withering of fear.
Fear of cancer in the national psyche began to wither in July of 1985, with an essay entitled “Seasons of Survival: Reflections of a Physician with Cancer.” [Mullan, Fitzhugh, M.D. New England Journal of Medicine 313, No. 4 (July 25, 1985): 270-273.] Fear of tyranny in the Middle East—in Syria no less than in occupied Iraq—began to wither on April 9, 2003, when a U. S. Marine armored vehicle toppled the imposing statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square.
From each of these seemingly unrelated historical inflection points have come a flowering of human potential.
The CDC reported in the March 11 issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reporthttp://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6009a1.htm?s_cid=mm6009a1_w—that the five year cancer survival rate in America is now up to 66%, the highest in the world, confirming empirically what Dr. Mullan passionately asserted two decades before: that it was time to begin speaking of cancer survivors rather than cancer victims. By believing it could be so, the tenacious striving of medical science eventually made it so.
The eidetic image of Saddam Hussein’s massive totem falling in central Baghdad is an equally powerful symbol of the dynamism of human belief, indelibly burning into the brains of millions of oppressed people throughout the Middle East the notion that if Iraq could be free of Saddam, they could all be free. In Tunisia and Egypt and maybe Libya and even in the police state of Syria—and yes, one day Iran, too. Like cancer survival rates—climbing slowly but inexorably, decade by decade—so will the number of countries in the Middle East no longer under the yoke of authoritarian regimes rise too, painfully but relentlessly.
Yet neither of these vital struggles—the quest to overcome cancer and the quest to overcome tyranny—would ever have been joined without the necessary withering of fear. For fear suffocates hope, and it is hope that gives rise to noble deed. Only when fear withers can hope and nobility of deed germinate and take root, to finally grow into the stout trees of human health and liberty.
Remarkably, a single work of literature anticipated—as great art often does anticipate—each of these still-chrysalid human triumphs, the (partial) cure of cancer and the incipient bloom of liberty amongst the darkest of tyrannies: The Cancer Ward, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. First published in 1967, the book was banned in the former Soviet Union for its symbolic contumely of Soviet totalitarianism. Though famous as a metaphor for the ravages of tyranny, it is also—all 616 pages of it—a poignant and courageous narrative on the ravages of cancer in the mid-twentieth century.
The action occurs in a hospital ward—Ward 13— dedicated to the care of cancer victims in Central Asia in 1955. The patients, who come from all strata of Soviet society, have one thing in common: cancer.
The main character is Oleg Kostoglotov, a political exile who is transferred to Ward 13 from a gulag for treatment of a nebulous tumor. (The author had a similar real-life experience: Solzhenitsyn was transferred to a hospital in Tashkent for treatment of testicular cancer after having spent eight years in exile as a political prisoner.) Kostoglotov’s foil in the story is Pavel Rusanov, a Communist Party minion who has an enlarging neck mass and boundless contempt for the other patients—whom Solzhenitsyn democratically introduces chapter-by-chapter—of Ward 13.
But Pavel Nikolayevich was tormented, no less than by the disease itself, by having to enter the clinic as an ordinary patient, just like everyone else.
Rusanov is as much in denial of his neck cancer as he is of the “cancer” of Soviet tyranny.
“We mustn’t talk about death! We mustn’t even remind anyone of it.”
To which Kostoglotov responds, “If we can’t talk about death HERE, where on earth can we?”
Prominent in the story, too, are Zoya, a nurse/medical student to whom Kostoglotov is attracted—“The strongest memory he had…was of her neatly supported breasts which formed, as it were, a little shelf, almost horizontal”—and Vera Gangart, a female physician (all the physicians at Ward 13 are female) whose romance with Kostoglotov is never consummated.
…he began thinking about Vera Gangart…Her smile was kind, not so much her smile as the lips themselves. They were vital, separate lips…made, as all lips are, for kissing, yet they had other more important work to do: to sing of brightness and beauty.
But mostly the patients of Ward 13 think about their cancers. It is everywhere, all around them, in plain sight day after day, week after week, moment after excruciating moment.
There was a stabbing pain under his neck—his tumor, deaf and indifferent, had moved in to shut off the whole world.
But the real cancer in the novel is tyranny. Again, it is Kostoglotov who frames the matter.
“A man dies from a tumor, so how can a country survive with growths like labor camps and exiles?”
The corrosive effect of totalitarianism oozes from the pores of every patient of Ward 13 like the shameful ichor it is. The librarian Shulubin (afflicted with rectal cancer), one of the “good Russians” who cooperated with Stalin’s purges, gives voice to it while speaking to Kostoglotov.
“At least you haven’t had to stoop so low…You people were arrested, but we were herded into meetings to ‘expose’ you. They executed people like you, but they made us stand up and applaud the verdicts…they made us demand the firing squad, demand it!”
A 1968 New York Times book review of The Cancer Ward, entitled “A Diseased Body Politic,” correctly identified the true subject matter of Solzhenitsyn’s story.
But the review couldn’t have been more mistaken in its opinion of the impact the novel would have.
“Clearly Solzhenitsyn believes in the power of literature to exorcise Stalinism. Vain as this hope may be, it has inextricably bound a great writer to his great, and perhaps his only subject.”
Pace New York Times, it was precisely the power of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s literature—One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; The First Circle; The Gulag Archipelago; and The Cancer Ward—that began the decades-long exorcism of Leninism and Stalinism from Russia. The Cancer Ward challenged tyranny in the same way Dr. Fitzhugh Mullan challenged cancer and in the same way that America challenged the brutal authoritarianism of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: by replacing fear with hope.
May hope thrive, and may health and liberty follow.