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Illness as Metaphor & AIDS and Its Metaphors…

Illness as Metaphor & AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989)

by Susan Sontag

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I feel like this book would have been extremely amazing when it was first published, however, I am not sure it has 'aged' that well. It would be amazing to see a follow-up text, especially in relation to the AIDS epidemic today. ( )
  bound2books | Feb 12, 2017 |
Illness as Metaphor is highly polemical, and as such, is a suburb piece of polemic. Sontag, herself diagnosed with breast cancer at the time of the writing (a fact she does not disclose in the initial essay itself) compares eighteenth and early nineteenth century discourse about tuberculosis to present day language about cancer. Of course, "present day" for Sontag is 1977. This fact alone makes the book a compelling read -- simply considering how much the approach of Western medicine to cancer has changed in 30 years. Doubtlessly this essay itself has been a large contributor to this shift in thinking.

In a nutshell: Sontag argues that the word "cancer" has become little more than a metaphor for everything that is wrong and evil in the world, and this systemic demonizing of this illness in particular makes it all the more complicated for its patients, and fosters a range of stigmas that are virtually invisible to anyone not dealing with cancer themselves.

Reading the counterpoints and rebuttals to Sontag's thesis is compelling secondary reading as well. All together, a thorough inquiry into Sontag's propositions yields a much broader awareness of the "cancerous" language and metaphors we still use rather flippantly today."
1 vote jamesshelley | Nov 22, 2015 |
Illness as metaphor is a long essay by Susan Sontag about the way we write and think about TB and cancer. The essay is extremely well-researched, citing many instances of the use of these two diseases in metaphorical sense. With references to earlier diseases and epidemics, such as the Plague, Sontag argues that the way we talk about cancer can be explained by reviewing the way people used to talk about TB, before its mystery was solved. Once the mystery, viz. its cause, is discovered, fear dissipates and the disease is brought back to human proportions. Cancer, the cause of which is still unknown, is still largely seen as a great enemy, shrouded in mystery. The comparison and description works very well on the level of the disease and its effect on people, but the final section, section 9, is much less successful. In this section Sontag tries to stretch the metaphor to express the state of the social order or politics. This section seems much less well researched, and quite ineffective.

Written ten years after Illness as metaphor, AIDS and its metaphors explores the same question is largely the same way, using the same methodology. However, the result is not the same. Section one is a capitulation of the earlier essay, so the essay about
AIDS and its metaphors doesn't really start until section two.

While Susan Sontag was a cancer patient herself, her writing about AIDS would not be as engaged. However, a bigger problem is that in 1988, very little was understood about AIDS, even less than about cancer when Sontag wrote about it. As a result, she mainly refers to AIDS, and spends little time on HIV. Writing about TB and cancer in Illness as metaphor, the author could cite sources going back to the Middle Ages, but in 1988, very few literary works, fiction or non-fiction, were published, and supposedly her analysis is largely based on the language use in the media. The author does give any moment's though to the idea that that media might be influenced by her own earlier publication. AIDS and its metaphors lacks the thoroughness and inquisitiveness of Illness as metaphor. In the former, the author seems to be almost dogmatic, whereas in the original work the essay was largely explorative. ( )
  edwinbcn | Jan 2, 2012 |
This collection of two essays examines the social consequences of disease and illness. Cancer, tuberculosis, AIDS and other fatal ills affect the sufferers not only medically but redefines their social position. Guilty by association, the sufferer is ostracized by society, in the mild case in order to avoid the contagiousness of ill luck, in the harsher cases to dissociate society from the supposedly immoral conduct of the sufferers. Man as a sense-making animal seeks to explain the causes of suffering. The simplest explanation remains the wrath of the gods. Only in recent times has medicine revealed the triggering mechanisms of most diseases.

Susan Sontag's own cancer illness triggered this vocal examination of the social consequences of different illnesses. It is outward physical degradation that stigmatizes and isolates the sufferer, who is often also accused of having brought the illness upon himself by his own behavior - which in turn can cause a violent counterattack. See also for example Fritz Zorn's Mars in which the author accuses his parents of having triggered the growth of his fatal cancer.

Sontag's second essay about AIDS is much stronger, as HIV positive patients suffer a lot more from the stigma of having engaged in socially deviant behavior than cancer victims. Her appeal to distinguish the illness and the sufferer and lifting social pressure remains as valid today as it was during the 1980s, even though we are fortunately past the AIDS scare. ( )
  jcbrunner | Apr 6, 2011 |
Cancer phobia, some people say, is worse than cancer. Well, not really... But true up to a point. Being afraid of a disease, be it cancer, AIDS, or whatever else, can be debilitating. And who of us doesn't know people that are scared to death of cancer, or of AIDS? And how can we all not be scared (maybe even terrified) of these diseases, when in our eyes they're not just diseases but are loaded with a whole lot of different meanings, mainly linked to death...

Susan Sontag's essay on cancer (& her later essay on AIDS) deal with these diseases as metaphors of whatever is bad, evil, reprehensible, sinful about human experience. Especially with cancer, the metaphor is more poignant, since, cancer still has unknown causes, at least up to a point: of course cancer now is much better understood, but in '78, when Sontag wrote the first essay, cancer was mostly unknown territory. Obviously, when we're talking about unknown territory, unknown (& mysterious) causes, there's a lot of theoretizing & projecting: anyone can project their own ideas on this white wall of ignorance. And so people 'fight' cancer, 'win the battle' against cancer, 'have cancer personalities', 'cause' their cancer or whatever else. It was even worse with AIDS, especially in the '80s: then it was widely (& stupidely) believed that this new disease was the payback for the free sexuality of the '70s, & especially of the sexuality of homosexuals.

Susan Sontag's essays tackle these issues & show the metaphors & prejudices of illness as what they are. They are important, clearly-written essays, & if today some of these ideas appear obvious or widely known, remember that Sontag talked about these things many years ago, being one of the first people to address the issue. ( )
1 vote marialondon | Jun 30, 2009 |
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This LT work is an omnibus edition of two distinct books by Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (1977/78) and AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989). Please do not combine either of the distinct books with this omnibus edition. Thank you
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312420137, Paperback)

In 1978 Susan Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor, a classic work described by Newsweek as "one of the most liberating books of its time." A cancer patient herself when she was writing the book, Sontag shows how the metaphors and myths surrounding certain illnesses, especially cancer, add greatly to the suffering of patients and often inhibit them from seeking proper treatment. By demystifying the fantasies surrounding cancer, Sontag shows cancer for what it is--just a disease. Cancer, she argues, is not a curse, not a punishment, certainly not an embarrassment and, it is highly curable, if good treatment is followed.

Almost a decade later, with the outbreak of a new, stigmatized disease replete with mystifications and punitive metaphors, Sontag wrote a sequel to Illness as Metaphor, extending the argument of the earlier book to the AIDS pandemic.

These two essays now published together, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, have been translated into many languages and continue to have an enormous influence on the thinking of medical professionals and, above all, on the lives of many thousands of patients and caregivers.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:33 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

A cancer patient herself at the time, she shows how the metaphors and myths surrounding certain illnesses, especially cancer, add greatly to the suffering of the patients and often inhibit them from seeking proper treatment. By demystifying the fantasies surrounding cancer, Sontag shows cancer for what it is - just a disease. Cancer is not a curse, not a punishment, certainly not an embarrassment, and highly curable, if good treatment is found early enough. Almost a decade later, with the outbreak of a new, stigmatised disease replete with mystifications and punitive metaphors, Sontag wrote Aids and its Metaphors, extending the argument of the earlier book to the AIDS pandemic.… (more)

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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