Illness as Metaphor is the title of a book by Susan Sontag. I bought a copy today at a local bookshop that is closing down with a 50% off sale. It appears to have some relevance to the subject of this blog. Further report when I have had a chance to read it through.
A paper on the web I just came across discusses Sontag’s essay:
Ecce homo! (Joh 19,5)—The suffering body as a metaphor of Man? by Benedikt Gilich
Some quotes from Sontag’s essay:
“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 the one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking. Yet it is hardly possible to take up one’s residence in the kingdom of the ill unprejudiced by the lurid metaphors with which it has been landscaped. It is toward an elucidation of those metaphors, and a liberation from them, that I dedicate this inquiry.”
“It seems that TB had already acquired the associations of being romantic by the mid-eighteenth century.”
“For snobs and parvenus and social climbers, TB was one index of being genteel, delicate, sensitive.”
“As do accounts of cancer today, the typical accounts of TB in the nineteenth century all feature resignation as the cause of the disease”
“TB is celebrated as the disease of born victims, of sensitive passive people who are not quite life-loving enough to survive.”
“Twentieth century women’s fashions (with their cult of thinness) are the last stronghold of the metaphors associated with the romanticizing of TB in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.”
“Many of the literary and erotic attitudes known as ‘romantic agony’ derive from tuberculosis and its transformations through metaphor. Agony became romantic in a stylized account of the disease’s preliminary symptoms (for example, debility is transformed into languor) and the actual agony was simply suppressed. Wan, hollow-chested young women and pallid, rachitic young men vied with each other as candidates for this mostly (at that time) incurable, disabling, really awful disease. ‘When I was young,’ wrote Théophile Gautier, ‘I could not have accepted as a lyrical poet anyone weighing more than ninety-nine pounds.'”
As Gilich says in her essay, “…metaphoric thinking is a basic principle of human cognition and thus an indispensable tool for making sense of our lives. Metaphors are not only ways to interpret and communicate our embodied experience, they function as models that organize our perception and our interaction with our physical and social environment. Metaphoric Models are involved into the construction of our worlds and identities.” I don’t think Sontag is denying this. All models and metaphors have their advantages and disadvantages and Sontag is merely pointing out that “the map is not the territory” (as the saying goes) and some metaphors can have negative consequences if taken too literally.