Elliot's Reviews > Illness as Metaphor & AIDS and Its Metaphors

Illness as Metaphor & AIDS and Its Metaphors by Susan Sontag
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Oct 03, 11

bookshelves: freshman-year-2011-12
Read in September, 2011 — I own a copy

I've been nursing a somewhat healthy intellectual crush on Susan Sontag for the past few months. Actually, I don't know how healthy it is. All I know is that I want to read everything she wrote, and now.

As with On Photography, the strength of this publication doesn't lie in its ability to full convince you of the 10,000 (sometimes vaguely contradictory) arguments that Sontag makes. Closing the cover of this book, I remained skeptical of exactly how one could conceive of disease without the use of metaphor. Metaphor is essential to approaching reality -- particularly the abstraction of illness. Most highly technical descriptions of illness contain elements of clinical jargon that, one might argue, if they were the only option, would do as much harm to the average person by virtue of establishing disease as something ultimately unintelligible except to the highly trained than the use of metaphor. I was also specifically bothered by the potential ineffectiveness of any manner of describing viral infection except, well, in terms of "infection" or other military terms. The shedding of the body-as-fortress metaphor would flip the way we conceive ourselves in relation to nature -- we could not define ourselves in opposition to the natural world in any way. While now we talk of "viral infections," we would have to speak of "human-to-virus generosity," of us sharing our cellular resources with non-living agents. Even the most environmentally conscious, eco-compassionate individual would never completely eradicate the idea that humanity is in opposition to some elements of nature.

Sontag recognizes these arguments, and others, I think. As with On Photography, Sontag is polemical to challenge the reader's previously un-observed behaviors, to call into question elements of modern society that might otherwise go unquestioned. So whether we ultimately believe everything she says is irrelevant -- in fact, Sontag was perhaps more willing than many other intellectuals to constantly reflect on her own views and to own up to how her opinions could easily change.

One reason for my intense fawning over Sontag is her ability to pack every essay with hundreds of arguments that could each deserve its own book. In these two companion pieces, Sontag not only shows the development of the unique metaphors of warfare and pollution into the metaphor of the plague, and ultimately the metaphor of the apocalypse, but rips into the ethical force of capitalism, analyzes the commodification of personal pleasure, discusses elements of literary theory, etc. With Sontag, almost every sentence is an argument, and almost every sentence will offend some sensibility or prick some pre-conceived notion of the reader.

Oh, and her style! For being so fiercely intellectual, Sontag is wonderful to read! She writes with lucidity, wit, and a passionate honesty that makes prose as addicting as it is stimulating. I read this along with Foucault's The Birth of the Clinic, and while the latter text is also remarkably brilliant, Foucault's writing lacks the same magnetism and his meaning is much more obscure than Sontag's.

(As a side note, I might interject here a curiosity as to what Sontag would think of Foucault's observation that 18th century nosologists, who sought to categorize disease in specific, symptomatic terminology, viewed both the patient and doctor as possible hindrances in the identification of the ideal disease which inhabited the patient's body. Foucault writes of how the patient's own predispositions could make, for example, pneumonia appear different than "pneumonia" in some Platonic sense, and how a doctor's hasty or inadequate observations might also lead him astray. This disease-centric approach to medicine almost denied the importance of the patient himself -- and yet it appears devoid of metaphor also, and deals "honestly" with the illness in a way one could infer from Sontag's essays.)

I truly enjoyed reading this text, particularly the second essay. I don't think that I exactly share Sontag's convictions, but I will forever be aware about the power of the language that I use to describe illness, and cancer and AIDS in particular. I also now know a lot more about representations of tuberculosis and syphilis in art than I did before, which is quite exciting and interesting.

My passionate interest in Sontag continues, and I can't wait to read more of her writings!
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