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

Illness as Metaphor & AIDS and Its Metaphors by Susan Sontag
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Sep 16, 07

bookshelves: theoryandphilosophy
Read in September, 2007

Personally I found the first essay, Illness as Metaphor, to be more thought provoking than the second one. In part, while a dodgy argumentative strategy, I found the comparisons and contrasts between tuberculosis and cancer to be very interesting, particularly as I had not read that much about TB in the 19th century.

Sontag's main argument is that our capacity for metaphorical thinking, while mostly a wonderful thing, is generally counter-productive when it comes to thinking about disease. She refers not only to the ways in which "cancer" comes to be used as short-hand for any social malaise, castigated group, or other undesirable trait (which is a more obvious point), but also about the "individualizing" effects of cancer as metaphor.

Her point here is that in certain eras a certain disease becomes densely packed with significance in a way that other diseases do not. Specifically, these meanings revolve around theories of personality and the individual. Referring back to the contrast with TB, during the 19th century, individuals afflicted with TB were thought to be elevated to a higher level of spiritual awareness as a their physical bodies wasted away--consumed by the disease, as it were.

With cancer, the metaphorics of the disease are less flattering. Sontag points to the way that cancer victims (herself included at the time of writing the essay) often ask, "Why me?" This question casts the disease a carrier of a message or meaning about the individual, an answer to the metaphysical question "Why me?" when in fact the disease is nothing more than a disease with a complex etiology. Far from acknowledging this, however, people often turn to factors like personality or psychology to explain "why" that individual has been afflicted with cancer.

Sontag's solution to this is to treat cancer like a scientific fact, not a metaphoric Mercury from the land of meaning. I sometimes wondered if she placed too much faith in our ability to set aside un-reason or reason, particularly where scientific forms of thinking are concerned. She seems to express a confidence in science's ability to clarify its own interpretations and metaphoric ways of thinking.
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