Jafar's Reviews > Illness as Metaphor

Illness as Metaphor by Susan Sontag
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Aug 28, 2011

it was ok

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-day cancer and its metaphors. Cancer is perceived to be a “disease of insufficient passion, afflicting those who are sexually repressed, inhibited, unspontaneous, incapable of expressing anger…” She goes on in this manner, and it’s the central theme of her study of the metaphors of cancer.

This book was first published in 1978. Did cancer really have these myths and metaphors surrounding it back then? The book came off as really odd and superfluous to me. Sontag is trying to demythologize a myth that no longer exists – or I’m not aware of it. Was it in response to these myths and misconceptions that the cancer awareness movement has swung to the other extreme and has almost become mawkish and infantilizing, especially with regards to breast cancer (pink teddy bears, etc. – c.f. Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die)?
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Jenne (new)

Jenne Wow, how strange. I was only 3 in 1978, but I've never thought of cancer that way either.


Joshua At the time Sontag wrote this book it was common for doctors not even to tell patients they had cancer, and the metaphors she describes were absolutely common. It is in part because of her impressive book, and the work of many others, that our attitudes have changed.


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