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Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors Paperback – August 25, 2001

4 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"In Illness as Metaphor , Sontag argues that the myths and metaphors surrounding disease can kill by instilling shame and guilt in the sick, thus delaying them from seeking treatment," wrote PW. She sees, and discusses provocatively, a similar process at work in the case of AIDS.
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


“Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor was the first to point out the accusatory side of the metaphors of empowerment that seek to enlist the patient's will to resist disease. It is largely as a result of her work that the how-to health books avoid the blame-ridden term 'cancer personality' and speak more soothingly of 'disease-producing lifestyles' . . . AIDS and Its Metaphors extends her critique of cancer metaphors to the metaphors of dread surrounding the AIDS virus. Taken together, the two essays are an exemplary demonstration of the power of the intellect in the face of the lethal metaphors of fear.” ―Michael Ignatieff, The New Republic

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; 1st edition (August 25, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312420137
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312420130
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #26,928 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Susan Sontag was born in Manhattan in 1933 and studied at the universities of Chicago, Harvard and Oxford. She is the author of four novels, a collection of stories, several plays, and six books of essays, among them Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. Her books are translated into thirty-two languages. In 2001 she was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for the body of her work, and in 2003 she received the Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. She died in December 2004.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a quote from the book that I would consider its thesis statement:

'Theories that diseases are caused by mental states and can be cured by will power are always an index of how much is not understood about a disease.

Moreover, there is a peculiarly modern predilection for psychological explanations of disease...Psychologizing seems to provide control...over which people have no control. Psychological understanding undermines the 'reality' of a disease.'

Sontag traces, historically, the ways different diseases and the people who contracted them have been viewed. She spends time discussing tuberculars--waif-like, pale, romantic--and cancer patients--repressed, the 'cancer personality,' shame--then goes on to debunk these notions by stating that once the cause, cure, innoculation is found, the 'myth' or popular psychology of the disease no longer holds.

In this edition, in the final chapter about AIDS and its metaphors Sontag writes that she'd written the first part of the book (all but the AIDS chapter) while a cancer patient and in response to reactions she saw in fellow patients. She saw guilt and shame; and she saw these as impediments to people's treatments. For she knew she had an illness and she set about to cure it medically, in the best possible way, while others passively accepted the 'metaphor' handed to them and, thus, did less to help themselves best. She felt frustrated or saddened by their psychologizing and self-blame and wished to write to others that their physical illness is a physical illness and the best route to recovery is to think only of how to find the best medical treatment.
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Format: Paperback
Even if we hadn't evolved the ability to think sensibly about the world around us, disease would have continued to be a major factor in Homo sapien debilitation and mortality. Conversely, if conscious beings had been born to a world free of disease, they would have still tried to find out how their universe functioned, and they probably would have employed the metaphor as an aid for conceptualizing notions not well understood. But for whatever reason, human beings did attain the ability to think critically about their surroundings, which happened to be a world filled with diseases. It should come as no surprise than that illness and disease, concepts sometimes etiologically and often morally incomprehensible, are often the subject for metaphors; an inevitable consequence of human insight intermingling with mysterious biological forces. In the view of the cultural critic Susan Sontag, however, metaphorizing illness and- perhaps more importantly- using illness as a metaphor can have damaging consequences for those afflicted.
In her pair of related essays, Illness as a Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors, Susan Sontag reveals many of the metaphors surrounding such influential diseases as tuberculosis, cancer, syphilis, and AIDS. While she does acknowledge the necessity of the metaphor for human understanding, throughout her assays she argues that there "aren't some metaphors we might well abstain from or try to retire". Although this important point should by no means be taken lightly, the true worth in her essays is the skill in which she uncovers these metaphors and explains (she is, after all, against interpretation) the stigmatizing affects of the myths they create.
Sontag does not limit the scope to which she describes the metaphors.
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By A Customer on September 1, 2000
Format: Paperback
I've read only the original essay (Illness as Metaphor) so will
comment on that alone. The book is an excellent antidote to the
overemphasis on psychological causes for physical illness that is
current in society and, especially, in the "new age"
community. Well worth reading and digesting for that purpose.
said, I do think [the text] overstates the case somewhat. There is
a body of empirical evidence showing, for example, links between
mental state and immune function. This link would, in principle, be
expected to influence the incidence of both infective disease and
cancer. For example, only a fraction of those who are infected with
T.B. develop clinical disease, and stress may play a role in
activating latent disease in those who are chronically infected. In
polio, the situation is even more extreme, as only about one pecent of
those who are infected develop clinical disease. Thus, for many
infective diseases, there is a marked difference between rates of
infection and rates of "symptomaticity." It seems likely
that the mind and mental state is one (but certainly not the only!)
factor that influences whether an infection becomes clinical
Similarly, in cancer, as I understand it, all of us are
constantly experiencing mutations that have the potential to become
cancerous. But most of these mutations are eliminated, before they do
harm, by the operation of various "survaliance" systems
(including the immune system) in the body. Thus, the onset of cancer
may involve an escape from survaliance. To the extent that mental
state affects immune function, the mind could affect the appearance of
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