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Illness As Metaphor (original 1978; edition 1978)
by Susan Sontag (Author)
Illness as Metaphor by Susan Sontag (1978)
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Sontag presents a compelling argument against illness as metaphor, specifically the illnesses of TB and cancer. The majority of the essay focuses on TB and while her insights are well wrought I found the delineation of her argument to be a bit confusing, particularly when she gets into the evolving metaphor of TB. Sontag gives ample evidence, historical and literary, to support her points and at the end I found myself convinced that illness as metaphor is a rather inflammatory and low-hanging fruit when articulating societal malaise. ( )
Some of this is weird from a 2018 vantage point. How we think of cancer has changed and how we think of TB has really changed. But toward the end this hit it's stride for me in her discussion of the "war" on cancer and various military metaphors for illness. Makes a kind of interesting companion to On Being Ill if I remember it right... https://thenewcriterion1926.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/woolf-on-being-ill.pdf
Upsetting my edition doesn't have the add on for AIDS. Could have been a much wider foray -- but what was I going to ask of this woman? To revisit On Illness as she dies in Annie's arm? I'd never ask of her. But only kind of. Because I know I would.
Outstanding work of criticism and history, one loomed over by the coming AIDS epidemic that started a few years after publication.
When the causes and mechanism of disease are mysterious or unknown, metaphoric meaning rushes in to fill the gap. TB (and later, cancer) filled that role for literature and culture at large, and Sontag gets a lot of mileage from tracking depictions of the two, and how they diverge. Granted, by the time Sontag was writing, cancer was knowable enough that its metaphoric power was failing outside of the generic references to uncontrollable, malignant growth. But soon afterwards, the AIDS epidemic would rise up and prove the subject of endless moralizing by all sides. Sontag was more correct than even she could know.
Sontag's long essay on the metaphors associated with disease is both necessary and thought-provoking. With a focus on TB and cancer, Sontag presents the developmental history of metaphoric associations related to disease, discussing the ways in which these metaphors have evolved and controlled various discussions over the years. Her careful look at inaccuracies and comparisons, along with her clear presentations of metaphors (and related themes) is smart and nuanced, particularly when she looks into the clusters of words used in association with the diseases (ie. military language, language of punishment/justice, etc.) and when she expands on the mindsets that contribute to such discussions (ie. romanticism, paranoia, fear, etc.).
For me, the one drawback to her discussion is that I'd like to see more of a discussion of how these metaphors and approaches have affected not only our language, but the people who are personally affected/infected and/or working with the diseases in question.
Overall, though, this is a straightforward and intelligent look at disease and metaphor, and the ways in which our popular understandings of disease have developed (often faultily). Well worth the time, and highly recommended.
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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.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)306.4 — Social sciences Social Sciences Culture and Institutions Specific aspects of culture