The Germans have two words for experience: “Erlebnis” and “Erfahrung“.

An erlebnis is a specific “life-event”. So, this week I went for the first of my six chemo sessions and that was therefore one of those. But Erfahrung has to do with the accumulated experience of life. You can have lots of life-events and learn nothing from them. Or, you may amass your Erfahrung.

First rule of Chemo Club is not that you don’t talk about Chemo Club. It is rather that your first experience of chemo club may bear no resemblance to your fourth or seventh experience. So, this is my first report.

It wasn’t too bad, at all.

First point of note: no neuropathy. That rotten tingling that turns into a more intense sensation that flows like acid through your veins: nada. To make up for it I have something called a PICC line which is a thin tube that goes into my bicep and runs along a vein for 48cm to somewhere near my heart. It is used to insert the fluids. To infuse me. I’m convinced that I can feel the spot where it ends.

Some nausea, but then my old friend the Dom Perignon sound-alike (Domperidone) is the cure for that. They say that I will have hair loss and a dose of the shits to look forward to. We shall see, but not so far. The fatigue is there. I suppose the last time I was working from home so it was easier to manage.

I am upbeat about this. Make no mistake, however, this chemo stuff is like a poison and the shock of it to your body cannot be played down. Chemo feels like Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du mal” spreading their dark stems and tentacles along the veins of your body.

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme, et volupté.

(There all is order, naught amiss:
Comfort and beauty, calm and bliss.)
–“Invitation to the Voyage”, by Charles Baudelaire

One of the key critiques of Baudelaire was written by a German literary critic, philosopher, and essayist called Walter Benjamin. He was a German Jew who became a Marxist in the 1930s under the influence of Bertolt Brecht. His writing was extremely broad. This is a man who wrote a thousand-page work (unfinished) spanning thirteen years of his life, about the covered-passage shopping arcades of Paris. One of his quotes about Baudelaire is that his poetry is “grounded in an experience (Erfahrung) for which exposure to shock (Chockerlebnis) has become the norm”. I think it means that Baudelaire’s poetry is a shock experience on which Modernism is borne. I guess Chemo is a chockerlebnis too.

Walter Benjamin’s final years are a sad story. In 1937, he was living in Paris. Back in Germany, the Nazis declared all German Jews were stripped of their German citizenship. As persons with no state, Benjamin and other German Jews were arrested by the French government and put in a concentration camp for three months in Burgundy. Back in Paris during 1940, the German army were defeating the French. One day before the Nazis entered Paris (14 June 1940), he and his sister fled the city. They went to Lourdes (quelle ironie). By August, he was in possession of a US travel visa negotiated for him by friends and colleagues in America. But, he still had to get out. His plan was to get to the States from neutral Portugal. To do that, he had to travel through the also-neutral-but-fascist Spain, then under the rule of Franco. He made it across the French-Spanish border to the coastal town of Portbou, in Catalonia.

However, the instruction came from the Franco government that all visas were cancelled and refugees were to be returned to France. He kept going until the night of 25 September 1940, and then he killed himself with an overdose of morphine tablets. The novelist Arthur Koestler, author of Darkness at Noon, was in the same group and took the same morphine tablets, but he survived.

That is well proper Erfahrung. What I experience is but a pin-prick.