Chronic Illness Memoir as Epitaph In “Neither Weak Nor Obtuse” – Chicago Review of Books


Jake Goldsmith’s memoir opens with both a statement and a confession: “I am very ill. That would be the first and most obvious thing to know.” Suffering from a unique form of cystic fibrosis, he knew early on that he would die far sooner than his peers and that the deterioration of his body would be much more visible to others and himself. In a note accompanying the second, non-self-published edition of Neither Weak Nor Obtuse, Goldsmith writes that this work is “intended to act as an epitaph.” Goldsmith writes with precision, but also with the earnestness of someone who knows death or has entertained the stark reality more than most. With the nearness of death making his prose remarkably (and for some readers, off-puttingly) humble and sincere, he opens up his grave for us to experience his vulnerability and our own. Neither Weak Nor Obtuse is a memoir that helps us all explore how we relate to each other in hope and in illness.

Although Goldsmith frontloaded his memoir with philosophical observations and missives, the book does not suffer from elongated reflection. If anything, it is a rapturous dive into the waves of interpersonal relations and the vitalistic ebb and flow of cultural currents and attitudes. This is not a “normal” memoir and that is reflected in the content and structure of the book. He admits that, while he is more academically inclined, readers looking for a “normal” memoir full of distilled personal experience, and maybe some gossip, can skip to the later sections of the book. The earlier sections handle the macro views of how we communicate, think, and desensitize illness in our society. These macro views provide the scaffolding and context for Goldsmith’s own experiences. He traces not only the thin, static thread of his life, but the refracted experience of illness in our society. 

Goldsmith most perceptively connects the macro with the micro levels when describing his personal relationships with friends and family who attempt to sympathize with him. Goldsmith points out that this is just another burden placed on him: “Relatives and friends may read too much into my pain. They might try to help me too much. I don’t want to be suffocated with sympathy.” He goes on to show how this tension operates. If he is too fervent in waving people off, for instance, he will be ignored or his illness will be taken for granted. Even with our own loved ones, we may assume they are used to their pain or condition, mistaking it for “normalcy,” which is exchanged for a baseline status of “good.” We forget the context in which they live. We might be seeing them during a good season or a rare red letter day. Goldsmith is very much aware of this tension between “normal” and “good,” and he knows that it relies upon his ability to communicate his needs and pain. This begs the question for the reader, especially the “healthy” reader: How much of a social and moral burden are we placing on the chronically ill? In what ways do we expect the chronically ill not to impose their illness on others, but to deal with it by themselves?

Goldsmith shows us how these burdens are piled again and again on the ill through how cavalier we are in our materialist culture: “Yet we speak as if things were easy to replace—as if we really did live in a world where such things didn’t matter so much, despite our actions, our greed, and our dominant cultural infrastructures.” As if they, too, were easy to replace, the chronically ill are told to not name their pain, unless they can deal with it on their own. They are urged to keep up appearances, rather than disrupt daily life for everyone around. (We don’t have to think too far back to recognize these impulses in a post-COVID world.) To his credit, Goldsmith avoids being reactionary: “I need some type of materialism. I cannot accept vague spritualising that denigrates me, tells me I don’t need things, must do it all myself, or can, with enough effort, do without the material. Or that I must wholly rely on others for my care.” He affirms he is in full control of his abilities and inhibitors. The easy slogans we have for the sick and ill turn to ash in our mouths. They are worthless, because they are pointless measures disseminated in order to ease the conscience of the public and negate the personal reality of friendship and genuine relations. The messiness of real interpersonal relations and real care is what Goldsmith is truly after.

Goldsmith wants genuine connection, and he believes the Internet has not helped us as much as we think: “We’re still as isolated no matter how well-connected… now we have the added burden of people with nothing good to say or nothing to say at all, thinking they are deserving of a place in the discourse rather than learning, and having some modesty, before they think they merit a platform or money for nothing.” He wishes the Internet could do more than purely create more talking heads and divisive figures. “In our modern world we get the celebrities and the intellectuals we deserve,” he writes. A disrupting thought. While it may feel like a bitter opinion, Goldsmith is calling on us to do better. What if the Internet were less of a fluke and more of a space for genuine connection? 

Goldsmith lists various thinkers who have given him the tools to be better, although he would contest that “tools” is too utilitarian a term. Albert Camus is named chiefly among them, and his influence is obvious in Neither Weak Nor Obtuse. “I appreciate [the ancients], but we can be too quick to apply ancient thought to modern times,” notes Goldsmith. “I needed voices that are closer to me. Warnings and ways of coping with my own life.” Too often we adopt parroted, inherited notions and pithy, reduced statements from Western thought. Borrowing from Marcus Aurelius or Plato or Thomas Aquinas may be a way to self-soothe or offer a token of peace to our friend in sympathy. But the extent of that token is usually just that, a passing word, rarely followed by something more concrete, something that Goldsmith yearns for, yet is unable to receive.

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His affection for Camus is no accident. The absurdity which Camus described is exactly the motivation Goldsmith needs in order to keep going—to stay alive. However, Goldsmith knows his life is locked into an arc that will ultimately end in tragedy. How can one die so young, knowingly? How can those who honor his life do so well before his time of death? How can we celebrate the life of a chronically ill person without viewing it as a tragedy? This transparency, rather than being a source of painful vulnerability, is actually the hand Goldsmith stretches out to us. The reality of death provides clarity, as some may confirm, and it does no less for his prose. He wants us to see him at his most authentic, to share in the knowledge of his experience and to recognize his disfunctional body as part of him, but not entirely him. This is what every chronically ill individual would want from us. Goldsmith knows he is only the messenger, even if an imperfect one.

The effort it took for him to write these pages, his own epitaph, is not lost on the reader. The feeling of grief lingers upon finishing his memoir and you hope Goldsmith isn’t done writing. There should be more. There needs to be more. Yet, he doesn’t owe us the personal struggle he must endure to write—that would be another burden—but I quietly grieve the words and thoughts that may be lost to us.

NONFICTION
Neither Weak Nor Obtuse
By Jake Goldsmith

Sagging Meniscus Press
Published July 15, 2022



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