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Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors Paperback – August 25, 2001
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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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In Illness As A Metaphor, Sontag focuses on two illnesses, tuberculosis and cancer. Tuberculosis was viewed as a "glamorous disease" whose "victims" were the highly sensitive: "TB is is celebrated as the disease of born victims, of sensitive, passive people who are not quite life-loving enough to survive." Cancer, on the other hand, was seen as a disease caused by repressed emotions. Both TB and cancer were considered mysterious illnesses until tuberculosis was determined to be caused by a bacillus and was curable, while the etiology of cancer remains unknown and uncurable. Following the discovery of a cure for tuberculosis, a more dramatic shift was seen distinguishing between tuberculosis and cancer.
In AIDS and Its Metaphors, which serves as a fine companion to Illness As A Metaphor, Sontag takes up the specific case of AIDS. AIDS and Its Metaphors was published in 1988, while Illness as a Metaphor was published ten years earlier, before the emergence of AIDS into the global conscious. Sontag, herself, ties the two texts together by beginning the second one with a response to critics of the first text and explaining how she was misinterpreted. Sontag explicitly refers to her own diagnosis of recovery from cancer at the time of the earlier publication, and her awareness that the metaphors applied to illnesses can be stigmatizing and thus harmful to those carrying the disease, even to the point of causing premature death. This stigmatization prevents people from seeking out timely, effective treatment.
Sontag readily admits that thinking is not possible without the usefulness of metaphors. The thrust of her argument is to undermine the use of certain types of metaphors. In both texts, Sontag takes issue with militaristic metaphors applied to illnesses and AIDS -- an illness is an "invasion" which must be met with an "attack" preferably by the body's own "defense system." Sontag urges the abandonment of military metaphors for illness and AIDS arguing that such metaphors serve no useful purpose and may in fact have harmful impacts.
Sontag's erudition is on display here, with her encyclopedic knowledge of the Western canon of literature and philosophy as well as US and French cinema, but always as a means to exemplify, to clarify, rather than to simply impress the reader. Therefore, these texts hardly are ones for the general reader. Nevertheless, even if the reader is unfamiliar with all of the external references from which Sontag draws, the writing is sufficiently clear that the general reader should not have any problems understanding these two "small book[s]." Nevertheless, these texts most definitely are intellectualizations of illness and of AIDS; they fall into the genre of cultural criticism, and therefore do little to the understanding of illness or AIDS as such, but, rather, how illness and AIDS are interpreted by society and the meanings attritutable to these phenomena.
Although the texts are short, they are packed with insights. More than a single reading is recommended in order to discover the full richness of these two texts. Both are outstanding works which further enhance Sontag's legacy.
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Illness as Metaphor was first published in 1978, since when the world-wide epidemic of AIDS has taken first...Read more