Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

The Hunter

Now his wars on God begin;
At stroke of midnight God shall win.

W. B. Yeats, The Four Ages of Man, last stanza

tristan-mikkelsenTwo years ago, cancer struck me out of the clear blue sky at a moment in my life when I was gathering my strength for relaunching my research. I had just received two very hard-won grants after a lapse in funding that had essentially closed down my lab. The disease was at its early stages and I was spared the agony of chemotherapy, although some after-effects of the surgery (most prominently, severe fibromyalgia) are still with me.

I now know the paralyzing fear and the overwhelming anger as the disease takes over not only your body but your mind, the once wide-open life turning suddenly into a prison, the horrifying sense of being alone, the excruciating pain and discomfort from the treatments, the abject humiliation of not being able to control even basic functions of your once perfectly-allied body, the guilt of becoming a burden to those who love you.

We all die in the end, and we all hope that we will act well when our moment comes. But such heroic stances may only be possible if we die in a manner of our own choosing and if we die quickly. The lingering diseases that our lengthened lifespan has brought us — diabetes, neurodegeneration, cancer — don’t lend themselves to such treatment. They require even greater stoicism and a different kind of bravery.

footprint-on-sandI don’t believe in gods or an afterlife. Yet perhaps the only myth that can sustain us in such circumstances is Poul Anderson’s of the Ythrian Hunter God, a story that the medieval Greeks also told in their folksongs of Dighenís Akrítas: The Hunter will always prevail. The only thing you can do is give him a good hunt, for your own honor if not for his. Keep as much of your self and your life intact as long as you can. And do what you can to be long remembered, to leave that tiny footprint in the sand that will eventually get filled and smoothed away by the tide.

‘I strike spurs into my horse. Against you I will fling myself; unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!’

The waves broke on the shore.

Virginia Woolf, The Waves, final sentences

Top: Mads Mikkelsen as Tristan in Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur; Bottom: Plaka Sands, Naxos, Greece (John Block)

17 Responses to “The Hunter”

  1. Eloise says:

    Goodness Gracious… I had no idea…

    I truly hope you’re fully mended, or at the very least well on the way to be so.

    Having lost a fair number of family members to this disease, I am dearly conscious of its insidious nature and the inherent difficulty of the counter-attack. The cancer, no matter what the form, is an utterly frightening thing, especially because it is a disfunctionment of the organism, and there is no clear way to plan out its evolution. There is hope, and treatment is constantly improving, yet it is still very much of an uphill battle.

    My heart goes with you, and my spirit lends you strength.


    Eloise 🙂

  2. Here’s to giving him the best – and most challenging hunt we can give.

  3. Athena says:

    Thank you for the wonderful words, my dears! I can write calmly about it now, back then it was touch and go. And my research is still catching up, let alone my long fiction! But as both King Leonidas and Bruce Springsteen said, “No retreat, no surrender!” — as long as we have any strength left.

  4. Nice. Maybe one of your posts will disappoint, but so far I’m impressed. Thank for your the reference to the Hunter image. Beautiful – and coming from somebody who was forced to consciously face the reality of certain death, its clearly more than platitude.

  5. Walden2 says:

    And don’t forget the line from Galaxy Quest:

    “Never give up! Never surrender!”

  6. Athena says:

    Bruce Springsteen said the same thing. So did the Greeks, although it served them better during war than during peace. Great minds think alike, it seems!

  7. intrigued_scribe says:

    Powerful, moving, true words, and ones which are given that much more weight by your firsthand experience. As always, I wish you strength, health and the very best.

  8. Athena says:

    Thank you, dear Heather. Your pictures in my hallway always helped!

  9. Athena says:

    Glad you enjoyed it, James! The Star Wars essay is a distillation of many threads. I may eventually reprint it on my blog when an opportunity arises.

  10. John M says:

    Shades of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”. Having had two different cancers in the last ten years, I can recommend your approach of refusing to accept the disease is the stronger of the two of you. Absolutely refuse to accept that a bunch of wayward cells is superior to all the millions of concerted, organised ones of which you are constructed.

    I suspect the benefit comes from a similar effect to that of the placebo in drugs testing (and in homeopathy!) You may not be able to prevent the growth of an established tumor, but perhaps your auto-immune system can more effectively handle potential metastases if kept in top condition with encouraging signals from the nervous system. Whatever – loving life and wanting to stay alive can’t do any harm, and it sure makes all those treatments much more bearable.

  11. Athena says:

    One disease or another will prevail in the end, John. Auto-immune responses certainly play a role in both length and quality of life, and the placebo effect indeed influences pain perception.

    It will be very interesting to identify and disentangle the brain connections that guide our adjustments to pain, particularly the chronic kind. A recent New Yorker article reported fascinating work on this issue by Vilyanur Ramachandran at UCSD. Although it’s old news for psychiatrists, apparently — who go straight to the mind-numbing pills instead of using these simple but extremely effective therapies.

    As a larger point about malignant cells versus the rest of the organism: construction is hard, destruction easy. Our heroic attitudes are bravado, but that’s all we have. My best wishes to you, as well.

  12. Stagyar zil Doggo says:

    Thank you for that. You write beautifully. Its a rare pleasure to find mythology that resonates.

    Also, what Odin said.

  13. Athena says:

    Glad you liked it! I agree about mythology… we still need myths to help us narrate our lives. But they must make sense at a fundamental level.

  14. Stagyar zil Doggo says:

    we still need myths to help us narrate our lives. But they must make sense at a fundamental level.

    And we must remember that they’re ultimately metaphor. Otherwise they exploit our tendency to reify them in pernicious ways. 🙂

  15. Athena says:

    And we must remember that they’re ultimately metaphor. Otherwise they exploit our tendency to reify them in pernicious ways.

    Ab-so-lu-tely! Like Robin Hood (another useful myth!), your first arrow hit the bulls’ eye, your second split the first!

  16. Asakiyume says:

    One disease or another will prevail in the end—this is very true.

    I turn over and over in my mind what bravery is, and what constitutes never surrendering. My mind keeps changing.

  17. Athena says:

    I have a few thoughts on this… another item on the discussion list!