Silikon im Kühlschrank: Writing (Post) Illness

Silicone in the Cooler: Writing (Post) Illness

“Cancer is a rare and still scandalous subject for poetry; and it seems unimaginable to aestheticize the disease.”

Susan Sontag in Illness as Metaphor, 1977/1987.1

Before thinking about the aesthetics of breast cancer, one must liberate oneself from a historically sharpened idea of the female body. The gendered breast is a mistake. Yet the sexualized torso is not the only image that ought to be overcome to see this disease. Confusion also emerges from cancer itself, which is not simply a biological phenomenon, but has also become an image, as Susan Sontag wrote in 1977/1978 in her essay Illness as Metaphor. Since Modernity, cancer, as the unpredictable growth of the eerie within the own body, has provoked fantastic theories about why a person falls ill with it. Has lifelong disharmony confused the cells? Have repressed sorrows and desires pooled to form a tumor?2 Sontag believed that these toxic myths would recede as research into the biological causes advanced.3 If the origins of mutation were clearer, people would stop associating the disease with the personality of the affected people and would refrain from projecting the cultural unconsciousness onto their bodies.

A photograph. The torso of Dorothea Lynch. She has put her head back, the eyes remain invisible outside the frame, but her mouth is visible, wide open for a laugh. Dark curls spring over bare shoulders. The underwear is peeled off the upper body. A dark spot covers the skin between sternum and shoulder. It has a peculiar shape. One can see a rose in it and remember that the photographer of the picture was Lynch’s partner Eugene Richards. But one can also reject this romantic interpretation (the tragic inscription of a relationship into the doomed female body) and identify the wound’s form as the aesthetics of mastectomy, hence the immediate traces of breast removal. However, the shape of this sign depends on the individual body and surgery. Rapidly it changes, heals, varies colour and shape. The portrait of Dorothea Lynch captures her body immediately after she underwent mastectomy in Boston, 1978. The photography captures an image that must have been alien to the patient herself. In the late Seventies, Lynch could not yet find imagery of bodies post breast removal. The metaphorical overload of cancer that Susan Sontag analyzed at the time coexisted with a paradoxical lack of visual material. Although these images did exist, the American Cancer retained them, claiming they were not „suitable“ for non-medicals.4 For this experience, Lynch decided to have her wound documented by Richards. She also wanted to photograph the upper bodies of other mastectomy patients in order to illustrate the aesthetic diversity of the cuts and experiences, but the hospital intervened. So, Lynch’s wound did not become part of an collective album of scars, but turned into a single frame in the record of her personal treatment history. In 1986, posthumously, Richards published the book Exploding Into Life, which connects the photographs with Lynch’s poetic notes. In Richards‘ role, care and camera work overlap, confusing solidarity and potentially unwanted, but exercised authority. Lynch could no longer authorize the volume himself, could not prevent it, but neither could she publish it. In a practice of Writing Illness, she had actively defined her disease in literary and visual terms, had claimed sovereignty on its interpretation. But she could not destine how others would preserve and rewrite her account after her death. In Exploding Into Life, she noted, „I do not know what will survive from this new knowledge.“5

Dorothea Lynch, but also Susan Sontag and numerous other writers and artists created different images of the disease from the 1970s onwards. They produced an archive of unsuitable images that challenged cancer as metaphor as well as constructions of the female body. While Sontag put her hope in the enlightening potentials of medical research, it also was this movement’s anarchic production of new emotional and aesthetic knowledge that weakened the mystification of the disease. However, both can only have had limited effect. Half a century later, obscure images are still being attached to the bodies and psyches of those affected by breast cancer, ascriptions which alienate the patients. They experience a fundamental discrepancy between their own diagnosis and the interpretation of others. Yet these last sentences are also attributions. They are fallible images as I do not know what it is like to have breast cancer. What it looks like when your own body bears such a scar. 

Night. D’s fridge is open. Light from the little bulb floods through the plastic boxes and makes the jars glow. Standing in front of the cooler, I register a common phenomenon; after one has left the house of one’s childhood, weird stuff arrives in the parents‘ fridge. Suddenly, there are products that were never in stock before. In D’s fridge, a thick, flesh-colored silicone drop, twice the size of my fist, is now stored on a stack of cans and plates. I place my finger on the surface of the object. It is cold and smooth. When I press into the material, it bends softly, but remains firm and elastic. Never before have I seen or touched the prosthesis. I leave the cooler open, grab my cell phone and take a picture. A truly unsuitable photo. Then, I feel the hunger again. In the box below the prosthesis, I recognize the blurred outlines of the leftovers from dinner. To free my snack from the box, I put the silicone breast on another pile. Why D cools it, I do not know. I have the vague feeling that the object does not fit into this mosaic, perhaps because its sterile artificiality breaks the order of this arrangement in which everything originates from organic agriculture, the chestnuts, the soy sausages and the goat cheese with wildflowers. As I keep staring into the blinding interior, I understand that there might be hundreds of refrigerators in which differently shaped prostheses are currently resting. In this very night, even in some hotel mini-bar a disinfected breast imitation might slumber next to cans of coke and gin and tonic. I understand that the photo I took is not a neo-surrealistic meme that I share with friends as a digital nocturne. This picture is the document of the pragmatic coexistence of an old and a new normal, an image that seems harmonious after some time and getting used to it, so, first of all to those who see it every morning when they take the oat milk out of the cooler. D for example. This image will not be retained by anyone.6 The image of D.’s refrigerator now exists, as does the imagination of the cool beds of other prostheses. Maybe one day my fridge will look like that, too. 

What has changed since the publication of Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor is the fatality rate. Today, breast cancer can often be cured. Still, a cancer diagnosis retains its fatalistic connotation. The old, dull metaphor empties the content of promising prognoses, making recovery an impossible picture. This picture must become imaginable, not only to allow patients to believe in realistic, fortunate scenarios, but also to acknowledge the many recovered patients whose daily routine is having lived past the disease. Their bodies then usually look different, and so do the refrigerators. A contemporary practice of Writing (Post) Illness can place impressions of dying next to pictures of convalescence, old scars and cooled prostheses. An unsuitable arrangement, clearly. Classifying certain images of cancer as „not suitable“, in the American Cancer Society’s manner, suggests that there may be suitable representations, too. But these appropriate, even iconic images are impossible. There can only be many fallible, emotionally dissonant images. Breast cancer becomes visible in unsuitable images that stir up cancer’s metaphorical load and defy the fantasy of a female body. They must be unsettling. Writing (Post) Illness, meaning the poetic appropriation of the disease in the tradition of Lynch and other politicized patients of the 1970s and 1980s, could and can only exist as a wild, prismatic refraction of the absurd images projected onto those affected. One of these breaking images can be the view into the refrigerator.

1 Sontag, Susan: Illness as Metaphor, New York 1977/78, p. 20.
2 See Sontag, Susan: Illness as Metaphor, New York 1977, pp. 21, 23, 40, 42.
3 See ibid., p. 5.
4 Sile, Agnese: “Exploring Intimacy in Collaborative Photography Narratives of Breast Cancer”, in: Humanities, 9 (1), Edinburgh 2020, p. 5.
5 Lynch, Dorothea; Richards, Eugene: Exploding Into Life, New York 1986, p. 60.
6  D was the only person to retain it, but she welcomed its publication. 

Picture: Schwermaschinenbau „Ernst Thälmann“, Kühlschrankproduktion, Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-61891-0001 / Biscan / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Lena Schubert is a writer exploring art in the contexts of housing and the city, histories of knowledge, sustainability, and psychology. Her post-critical essays derive from critical theory rather than traditional art critique. She partly takes detours into fiction.