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Illness as Metaphor

3.93  ·  Rating Details ·  1,070 Ratings  ·  92 Reviews
This landmark study was her ferocious yet coolly intellectual response to her first bout with cancer at the age of 35. Diagnosed as a terminal case and given only a few months to live, the writer survived, by her own account, partly by writing the book in her head during her long treatment.
Hardcover, 87 pages
Published January 1st 1978 by Farrar, Straurs and Giroux
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Riku Sayuj
In 1978, when Susan Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor , a classic work, she was a cancer patient herself. But in spite of that, it is not a book about being ill or about the travesties of being a cancer patient. In Sontag's words, it is 'not what it is really like to emigrate to the kingdom of the ill and live there, but the punitive or sentimental fantasies concocted about that situation'.

Her subject is not physical illness itself but the uses of the various diseases as a figure or metaphor for
Feb 14, 2016 Steven rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“But how to be morally severe in the late twentieth century? How, when there is so much to be severe about; how, when we have a sense of evil but no longer the religious or philosophical language to talk intelligently about evil? Trying to comprehend “radical” or “absolute” evil, we search for adequate metaphors. But the modern disease metaphors are all cheap shots. The people who have the real diseases are also hardly helped by hearing their disease’s name constantly being dropped as the epito
May 06, 2014 Trevor rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: social-theory
There’s really not a lot of point in my reviewing this book when Riku has already done such a wonderful job here His review is infinitely more comprehensive than this one will be.

Still, I just want to say that I really did enjoy this. I particularly liked the idea that the metaphors for TB and cancer are so differently understood in our culture. I was particularly struck by the idea that cancer is a kind of hardening of cells and that TB is a kind of liqu
Aug 04, 2011 Jafar rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Mukherjee quoted from this book so many times in The Emperor of All Maladies that I decided to read it. Sontag is an overanalyzing intellectual – that I knew and was prepared for it, but I still didn’t really get this book. She cites tuberculosis an example of an old disease that was laden with myth and metaphor. It was considered the illness of the artist, brought upon by too much passion and sensuality. It was almost cool to catch it. That may have been so. But then Sontag moves to the present ...more
Feb 24, 2015 Carolyn rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Herein, Sontag presents an excising polemic on the use of cancer and tuberculosis as metaphors of evil in (respectively) the Romantic and industrialized eras of modern society. Unfortunately, this diatribe is neglectful of non-Western cultures and carries a certain sense of an overly-personal motive. Sontag grasps desperately at every little data point in history suggesting at her thesis. As a result, the author repeatedly rehashes concepts with a frequency that is tiring for a mere 85-page nove ...more
Mar 27, 2008 Jana rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: theory
Sontag argues that a certain ideological cruelty resides in the metaphors commonly used to describe cancer and other illnesses. And when we let go of the metaphors, we can free ourselves (and those who are ill) from the tyranny of superstition, an over-excited imagination and blame.

On a personal level, I get this. She's suffered; we've all suffered or known others who've suffered. And on page 101, she says that her aim is to "alleviate unnecessary suffering." On the same page, she also says tha
Jan 21, 2011 Mag rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Sontag, a cancer survivor at the time, wrote Illness as a Metaphor to explore and elucidate the metaphors used to describe serious illnesses like cancer and tuberculosis. Sontag argues that the metaphors and mythology created around these diseases make them seem evil and mysterious and very much like invincible predators, and hence sometimes prevent people from believing in conventional treatment to cure them. In addition, since cancer is seen as obscene, repugnant to the senses, and ill-omened, ...more
Feb 09, 2017 Matthew rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: essays-theory
Illness is the night-side of life, more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds duel citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.
I was to describe, not what it is really like to emigrate to the kingdom of the ill and live there, but the punitive or sentimental fantasies concocted about that sit
Opal McCarthy
Jul 22, 2009 Opal McCarthy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
sontag makes such fascinating perceptual leaps between illness/militarism/
the real culpability of metaphors in the way we survive:

'TB is often imagined as a disease of poverty and deprivation... in contrast, cancer is a disease of middle-class life, a disease associated with affluence, with excess' (15).

'Like all really successful metaphors, the metaphor of TB was rich enough to provide for two contradictory applications...It was both a way of describing sensuality and promoting the claims of pa
Sep 16, 2015 Brent rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: all readers
Recommended to Brent by: New York Times Book Review, upon publication
I reread this for first time since 1970s in the middle of my own challenges last year.
Sontag is clear in writing about health speech, or ill health comparisons.
God bless and keep her.
Highly recommended.
Maybe I don't like this quite as much as I liked Regarding the Pain of Others because I know a little more about the topic. I know basically nothing about photography, but I know a little more about portrayals of diseases, even if I'm not exactly an expert. I kind of wish Sontag had taken a harder stance on some of the issues she brings up - most of the essay is spent documenting evidence in a neutral tone, and I would've liked a little more time explaining what that evidence implies. I also wi ...more
Richard DiCicco
Nov 04, 2015 Richard DiCicco rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is the first book by Susan Sontag that I've read, and I very much enjoyed it. Previously, I had read her shorter essays and excerpts, but Illness as Metaphor provides much deeper insight into how she thought about politics, literature, and morality. As a book about medicine, it details the many, many ways that disease and its treatment have been misrepresented by allegory and metaphor. It comes off as a demythologizing letter to a generation still frightened by the associated (and unfounded ...more
Jalendhari Tabeeb
One of my favorite writer Siddharth Mukhergee made several references to this book by Susan Sontag.That's what sparked my interest in it.It's full of literary references and poetic descriptions of diseases which makes it a delightful read but the main theme of the book is somewhat outdated.Medical community doesn't raise a blaming finger at a patient of cancer for having a character that caused the disease.In 1970s, when Susan wrote this book, it was believed that one of the causes of cancer wa ...more
Marija Radoman
Jul 10, 2015 Marija Radoman rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Published in 1978, “Illness As Metaphor” testifies to attitude towards cancer patients and it brings out a specific history of aversion through examples from literature and philosophy. Although a progression from pure psychological prejudgment to accurate scientific improvement in cancer treatment has certainly been made since 1978, this book retains its topicality.

The study exposes insightful analogy of two different illnesses, exploring the boundaries of their broader cultural and historical f
Jan 24, 2012 Susan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2012, nonfiction, medicine
Hm. I was a little surprised at the argument presented by Sontag in this essay: that cancer, similar to TB in the 19th and early 20th centuries, is mythologized, often to the detriment of those who have the disease. She explains the argument for TB very well - the romantic idea of TB as the overexpression of passion and energy, the likes of which we see in common depictions of consumptive individuals. In fact, I was fascinated to see just how much of our current fashions come from mythologizing ...more
Apr 27, 2011 Jennifer rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: for-thesis
Ok, positives first: it's a smart, smart book. It's neat, tightly packaged, and makes some stunningly good observations. Susan Sontag doesn't let me down in the epiphanies department.

With that being said, Sontag's kind of a lazy writer. Like I get the sense that TB is this and cancer is that, but she doesn't do enough research to back up her claims. It's just like, claim, pseudo example, move down, second claim, etc. And that's something coming from me because I'm the laziest writer there is and
May 31, 2011 Leslie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is an excellent historical analysis of the development of tuberculosis and cancer metaphors. The TB metaphors have largely died down (although understanding them is important to understanding literature at the times when they were in vogue) since treatments for TB were discovered. The cancer metaphors are much more current, despite this work being 30 years old. It provides a foundation for how we interpret illness, the sick, and society using the metaphor for cancer. Because we do desc ...more
Nov 16, 2014 Maddee rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is so interesting, I can't believe it took me so long to get around to reading it.

I started reading it after a day and a half of having being shut in my room with a cold, not really seeing anyone and feeling kind of dramatic. And it was really soothing. The stuff about cancer as metaphor for middle class repression and emotional restraint made me think a lot about people I know with potentially fatal/terminal/incurable illnesses who have gone on the Gawler diet or similar; my mum and her p
Lisa Vegan
Dec 01, 2007 Lisa Vegan rated it it was amazing
I read this when it was first published and I was in my mid-twenties. A lot of what she said about cancer & illness & health really resonated with me; my mother died of cancer when I was 11 and I’d known other people who had also died of cancer. But, society has changed quite a bit since then, in a positive way, so I’m not sure how much the material in here is still applicable. But, at the time, it seemed powerful and insightful.
Nov 05, 2007 Britton rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
romantic notions of tb, and how they fare up against cancer's imprint on modernity. oh, susan

Sep 12, 2014 Carolinemawer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: death-and-dying
This is a great and very thoughtful book - I only gave it 4 stars cos it feels out of date: for example, I wonder what she would have said about the current pink-ribbon fetishising / consumer movement around breast cancer?
It's great as an historical prompt, but for me, the most interesting points were:
- the contradictory nature of many of the metaphors - is this simply because they are metaphorical? or because of the range of cultural and historical contexts?
- the distinction between plagues (m
Jun 11, 2015 Karen rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An eye opening book about how certain illnesses (TB and cancer are her two examples) are used as metaphors--either to characterize the type of person who has the illness or to indicate something is wrong in a society. In her introduction, Sontag says, "My point is that illness is *not* a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness--and the healthiest way of being ill--is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking." Proceeding from this point, the book is a sad ...more
I only finished this in the wee hours of this morning--I need to reflect but I want to capture my first impressions & understandings. Sontag traces the language we use to discuss tuberculosis and cancer, with the former often referred to in romantic/aesthetized terms. In the case of both cancer and TB, Sontag argues, society has a notion that a type of personality is particularly prone to the illness, that the illness reveals something about the self and thus it can be cured if only the pati ...more
Feb 06, 2013 Kim rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've been meaning to read this for about a hundred years, so perhaps the anticipation--I expected it to rock my world as a reader and as a scholar--killed it for me a little. Or perhaps that was because it's getting pretty outdated (cancer narratives of the 1970s being similar and recognizable but nonetheless rather different from the cancer narratives of today). Or perhaps it's because I didn't realize it was going to be mostly about how tuberculosis and cancer are represented in literature? Th ...more
Dorothee Lang
Dec 27, 2014 Dorothee Lang rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
After coming across Susan Sontag's quote: “Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship...", I now looked for her book and started to read it. Didn't know that Sontag was going through a time of breast cancer, too. It makes it different to read the book. At her time, one of the additional therapies was... psychotherapy:
"At the time that Sontag was writing, the current alternative cancer treatment fad was psychotherapy for the patient's supposed "cancer personality". According to
Jul 18, 2011 Amanda rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I finished this last night despite loudmouth and screaming alley lady. This was real interesting. The author takes TB and cancer and examines these illnesses as metaphors in literature. The root of the metaphor is mysterious causes. The book was written in the 80's so TB had passed through its unknown cause phase and had become less dramatized, though it still held to certain characteristics.

The thing that struck me the most was when Sontag claimed that TB metaphors had brought about a consciou
When I was younger, I spent quite some time as a visitor in oncology wards. People were separated by walls, cubicles and glass divides. There was always a faint humming of machines, a reassuring rhythm of blips and beeps. Apart from that, there is the silence of the waiting. I might have been to young to fully grasp it, but I knew: a cancer ward is not a place one wishes to be more often than one absolutely has to.

Sontag, too, was once a patient. Her father suffered from tuberculosis, earlier. I
I'm not really sure what I was expecting, but I'm not really walking away from this book with much to say. It probably doesn't help that I read most of this well over a month ago, and I just now finished up the bit I had left...that kind of disconnect never helps the experience.

Admittedly, I knew very little about TB before reading this book, so I was pretty surprised to read about the whole romanticization of the illness, and just...really, how the illness shaped various parts of culture- I nev
Robbie Bruens
A remarkable work of erudition that made me think Sontag, like Borges, has read pretty much everything. I can also see how her style and associative logic have influenced Rebecca Solnit, who is one of my favorite writers/essayists. If anything, I wish this had been a bit broader and longer. For example, she doesn't spend much time describing what is destructive about our use of illness metaphors. It almost seems like she thought it was self-evident, but I think it could be unpacked more. And I h ...more
Mar 13, 2014 Sarah rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned
Written in the late 1970's, a little of the cancer stuff is dated. She was so optimistic about a cure. But that's not the focus or point of her book. Her theme is how serious diseases become metaphors for a variety of things in the cultures surrounding them. I wondered what Sontag would think of our pink ribbon culture. She made much of the military metaphors surrounding cancer. She was also very aware of the blame the victim mentality. Its all your attitude, your beliefs, your emotional behavio ...more
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Jewish American literary critic, theorist, novelist, and filmmaker.
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“Depression is melancholy minus its charms.” 332 likes
“Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” 136 likes
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