In a new series starting this month, Cancer and Creativity, writers and artists look at how art can respond to the diagnosis of cancer, whether for themselves, a family member or a loved one. In our first instalment, novelist Oran Ryan explores how an encroaching mortality can enforce a sense of urgency in the artist’s approach.
The novelist Anthony Burgess in the second volume of his autobiography, suitably titled You’ve Had Your Time, tells of his cancer diagnosis. His ambitions to be a great writer were dashed after he left the British Army post World War II. He was told the worst possible news. His doctor informed him he had an inoperable brain tumour and about a year of life left. Burgess, fearing for his wife – who was at this stage a heavy drinker – would have nothing to live on, wrote four novels during that year, trying as best he could to use his time well, and also to fulfil his destiny as a writer.
Burgess did not die, he lived a long and hugely successful life. Yet his habit of overproducing work never stopped after the initial shock of the cancer diagnosis, something he regarded as a curse as well as a blessing for himself.
It is not death itself that we fear but the ending of life, for death is a void and an unknown and unnameable, and because it is such, a tabula rasa, we seek to control it, we seek to make some kind of meaning out of it. Art and cancer go hand in hand, for art is the tool we use against the absurdities of life, of which cancer is one.
In the television series Breaking Bad we see the somewhat Gothic transformation of the lead character, Walter White, from innocuous secondary school teacher into Methamphetamine Kingpin precisely as a result of his lung cancer diagnosis. The immanence of death released oceans of locked down rage and frustration and a sense of failure in Walter White. White’s rage came from when he was a younger man. He felt his research work was stolen from him and as a result he had to settle in life into a role which was well below his considerable skill set. His best inventions, the product of his genius, had been stolen from him. Walter White wanted revenge, and, like Burgess, he wanted to take care of his family.
As cancer embodies so much of what we fear most about life itself – its fragility and capriciousness, its cruelty and painfulness, its loveless taking away of all we hold dear like health and youth, and the aforementioned inevitability of the void – it is such a catalyst for creativity in one form or another. Dennis Potter, the playwright who wrote Pennies from Heaven, named his tumour Rupert, after the TV mogul Rupert Murdoch whom he loathed, and wrote frenetically in a race against time to finish a few plays before cancer took his life, plays that were later televised and well received.
I recall a particularly affecting interview between Potter and Melvyn Bragg not long before the playwright’s death where he was so frail as a result of his illness that he had to stop a few times and take a sip of what I assume to be an incredibly strong painkiller in order for him to continue speaking. It was a deeply upsetting moment, for though this was the great Dennis Potter we were watching, we understood what was happening. We have all have seen those we loved and cared for in such a fragile place. And we felt the overwhelming sense of helplessness for loved ones.
There is also the fear that we too might one day share in our relative’s or love one’s genetic destiny and be diagnosed with cancer. Luck, according to Aristotle, is when the arrow hits the other man. If we are not ill with one of the biggest killers ever, Cancer, then we are lucky. Our sense of being lucky is greatly tempered by watching a love one fade away. But if we have another day, one more day with our loved one who is ill, or a day of health and happiness, then yes, on balance we are lucky.
Cancer is an illness that reminds us who we are. We are human. Life is fragile. We need love and support and kindness. Life without loved ones is lonely and empty. Life with cancer is agonising. We need to be creative with our time and with others. Cancer, as the guest who sometimes stays for dinner, sits at our tables and lingers over the shoulders of writers and scriveners and poets and prophets and tells them to do their job, to describe what it means to be a human being in the world, talk about what it’s means to live well or live badly or fail to live. Cancer, like death, or time, defines our horizon of meaning, and like life – of which it is a part for some, calls out for a creative explanation and an authentic expression.
Oran Ryan‘s novels include ‘The Death of Finn’, ‘Ten Short Novels by Arthur Kruger’ and ‘One-Inch Punch’. He has written plays for the stage and radio as well as publishing poetry and short stories. He contributes literary critical articles regularly to magazines at home and abroad.