To accept as truth Oscar Wilde’s statement that all bad art is the result of good intentions is to admit the possibility that Eve Ensler is off-the-charts awful. The intentions of Ensler’s new memoir, that is, are of the highest quality. In the Body of the World combines the vivid tale of its author’s treatment for uterine cancer with her attempt to direct your attention toward an ongoing apocalypse of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She writes to comfort the afflicted and to discomfort the apathetic—and she writes well, describing her viscera with visceral intensity and illuminating life’s passing moments and long arc with grace and humor. No, the book is beyond-bad because of its author’s ideas of goodness. This isn’t bad art. This isn’t art. To accept Ensler’s prose performance on its own terms is to close off rendering a standard-issue aesthetic judgment.
It is telling that the Obie-winning author of The Vagina Monologues here prominently describes performance art as a thing she’s done in an obsessive attempt to resolve feeling estranged from herself and from “the rhythms of the Earth.” She classes performance art with promiscuity and anorexia, and if she identifies herself as a playwright, I missed it in three readings. In the second chapter, one of Ensler’s doctors points to a CAT scan that clearly shows masses in her uterus, colon, and rectum, and also maybe a cyst in her liver. Her interior monologue starts off in perfectly normal mortal panic, then turns intriguingly weird:
“This is the day I am told I am going to die. My heart is racing. I know liver. Liver is it. I am a recovering alcoholic. … You can’t live without a liver. But my liver would have healed. I stopped drinking almost thirty-four years ago. I quit smoking twenty years ago. I’m a vegetarian and an activist.”
How could this happen to me? I’m an activist!, she wonders, incredulously, as if doing good works in Bosnia were something on the order of eating rice bran. And as we continue through the book, this eager confusion of the health of the body and the soul comes to seem part of a pattern. This is a book in which the most talented and generous doctors are “handsome” or “very beautiful” or possess a beauty “inseparable” from kindness and devotion.
The brief chapters, called “scans,” push through to Ensler’s physical recuperation and spiritual renewal in blasts and flashes of a half-tranced consciousness. It’s an organic approach, appropriate to the motions of an anxious mind hallucinating free-floating cancer cells, to the disorientations of post-op oxycodone and after-chemo pot, and (a metaphor common to illness narratives) to the sense of dislocation particular to the very sick—the sense of being permanently jet-lagged in a foreign country.
“Illness does not proceed by design,” Kat Duff writes in The Alchemy of Illness: “Defying the rules of ordinary reality, illness shares in the hidden logic of dreams, fairy tales, and the spirit realms mystics and shamans describe.” During Ensler’s months of magical thinking, she pulled many rabbits out of many nurse’s caps, but instead of retrospectively evaluating her protective delusions and existential fantasies, she tends to let the unreality linger. After the surgeons have sliced through her navel, “the only evidence I was once connected to my mother,” she tells the reader that her mother got very sick just afterward. The possibility—the probability!—of coincidence goes unacknowledged.
In that silence, the mythic approach to self that Ensler began retailing in her incantatory opening chapter grows deeper roots. Revealing her youthful traumas—her father’s horrible abuse, her mother’s alienating coldness, her promiscuous drug use as a high school student in Scarsdale, N.Y., her drunken promiscuity as an undergraduate at Middlebury—Ensler reads her life through the disease. Her cancer is a test and a purgation—a phase of her heroine’s journey toward self-actualization. She ardently conflates her experience of it with the horrors of the Congo, “where in one breath the most grotesque acts of evil were countered with the deepest kindness.”
Ensler is not devoid of mordantly amusing self-awareness. In a chapter titled “How’d I Get It?” the author unreels a highly personal—and therefore beautifully universal—list of questions to herself about the causes of her disease. Was it her walls or her boundaries? Was it the tofu or the Froot Loops? “Was it bad reviews? Or good reviews? Was it being reviewed?” But this glimmer of self-deflation is just that, a glimmer, faint and unsteady. Mostly what you get is Ensler’s friend Sue giving a pre-chemo pep talk: “The chemo … is for all the past crimes, it’s for your father, it’s for the rapists, it’s for perpetrators.” Mostly what you get is “almost everyone” telling Ensler that the disease afflicting her reproductive organs has a supernatural dimension. It’s “Congo Stigmata”: “Cells of endometrial (uterine) cancer had created a tumor between the vagina and the bowel and had ‘fistulated’ the rectum. Essentially, the cancer had done exactly what rape had done to so many thousands of women in the Congo. I ended up having the same surgery as many of them.” “Dr. Handsome” declares that the findings are “spiritual.” What you get, ultimately, is inspirational literature: Ensler in Africa finding “a second wind” and embracing “a second life” and accepting it as her destiny to “birth the new paradigm” of global socioeconomics: “We are the people of the second wind. … Be part of this collection of molecules that begins somewhere unknown and can’t help but keep rising. Rising. Rising. Rising.” Christ.
Ensler has written In the Body of the World in a generously intimate tone, and many readers will come away from the book feeling grateful for its author’s testimony and hopeful for her good health. (The final chapter reports that she’s been cancer-free for 18 months.) The reader may feel, in other words, that the author is a friend. I would expect that new friends will lavish her with gifts for the duration of her 19-city book tour, and I hope it isn’t out of line to suggest two books as especially thoughtful presents.
Given Ensler’s passion for Africa—her experience of recognizing “the ultimate love … in the drums, in the voices, in the bodies”—you might consider giving her a copy of Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, with its examination of Hemingway’s white hunters and Bellow’s Eugene Henderson as characters healed by the metaphors of the dark continent: “If we follow through on the self-reflexive nature of these encounters with Africanism, it falls clear: images of blackness can be evil and protective, rebellious and forgiving, fearful and desirable—all of the self-contradictory features of the self. Whiteness, alone, is mute, meaningless, unfathomable. … Or so our writers seem to say.”
But the more obvious present would be Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor:
“My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking. Yet it is hardly possible to take up one’s residence in the kingdom of the ill unprejudiced by the lurid metaphors with which it has been landscaped.”
When Sontag wrote this in 1978, she was receiving treatment for breast cancer, a fact she chose to omit from the text. I’d be interested to know Ensler’s thoughts on that passage.
Or would I? Eve Ensler’s talent is not really for developing or encouraging clear thoughts. Rather, she’s exceptional at articulating and exciting passionate emotions. She’s an activist. She wants to influence action. That sounds commendable, and more likely than not to do the world practical good, and not at all like art. All art is quite useless.
In the Body of the World: A Memoir by Eve Ensler. Metropolitan Books.