The Sword of Damocles
“…and now here he is, a full-grown adult in a church basement in the 137th nicest city in America, divorced, addicted to video games, mostly friendless, eking out a meager living by exploiting his cancertastic past, slowly working his way toward a master’s degree that will not improve his career prospects, waiting, as we all do, for the sword of Damocles to give him the relief that he escaped lo those many years ago when cancer took both of his nuts but spared what only the most generous soul would call his life” (Green 5).
In Hazel’s description of Patrick, the leader of the Support Group which she attends, she references the ancient Greek moral anecdote, The Sword of Damocles.
Damocles, a courtier of Dionysius II of Syracuse, makes commentary on the opulence and great power in the life of Dionysius, emphasizing how the good fortune of the tyrant. Dionysius offers to trade places with Damocles, an offer which Damocles, after viewing the luxurious lifestyle of Dionysius, was eagerly accepts. However, once Damocles takes the throne and assumes the extravagance of one in power, Dionysius arranges for a sword to hang over Dionysius’s head, suspended only by a strand of horse hair. Upon this realization, Damocles begs for liberation from the agreement. It is fear that allows Damocles to begin to comprehend the life of a tyrant. A life of uncertainty and constant awareness of mortality.
The irony in Hazel’s description of Patrick lies within this reference to Damocles. Though Dionysius does indeed live a life of magnificence, the reality of his life lacks magnificence in the face of constant impending doom. Patrick is no Dionysius. And Patrick’s wearied and banal trudging through “what only the most generous soul would call his life” contains neither the glamour of being a powerful tyrant, nor the luxury of being so fortunate as to cast speculation upon the life of another.
Hazel makes a point throughout the book of resenting the “heroism” of cancer patients, where those who live healthy lives can cast an idea of virtue and aspire to the wisdom and strength of these superhuman and unfortunate survivors. She notes the blatant error of assigning cancer patients heroic and wise lifestyles, when in fact there simply exists a person, attempting not only to grapple with cancer, but with understanding how to be human. Hazel says in chapter two, “Illness repulses.” The same is true of idealizing someone to the point of becoming more than human, and in this way, not human at all.
This theme of idealization clashing with reality gets established with this reference, as does the idea that the fragility of an ideal (or a person) does not make it a precious or ‘fortunate’ thing (as Damocles would have believed).
When I read Hazel’s description, my first thought was of the Doom of Damocles, which is of course the same concept, but for screw-ups instead of leaders.
I think meeting Hazel might break Dresden’s heart. He has that saving-people thing, and there isn’t anything he could do to save her.