Susan Sontag


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Showing 1 - 5 of 5 annotations associated with Sontag, Susan

Alice in Bed

Sontag, Susan

Last Updated: Feb-12-2010
McEntyre, Marilyn
Co-Editors

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Summary:

This play in eight scenes presents the fictionalized character of Alice James, sister of Henry and William James, who after a sickly childhood, succumbed at 19 to a variety of vague and recurrent illnesses that made her a lifetime invalid. She died at 43 of breast cancer.

In a series of encounters (with her nurse; her father; her brother, Henry; several Victorian female figures: Margaret Fuller, Emily Dickinson, and mythological figures from Victorian fantasy fiction and from Parsifal; and a burglar), as well as a long dramatic monologue, her various forms of internal conflict are hilariously and poignantly articulated. They converge on the implications of her recurrently deciding whether or not to get out of bed and do something, and her confusion, often discussed by biographers and critics, about her place in her brilliant family, her vocation as a woman, and her own desires.

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Illness as Metaphor

Sontag, Susan

Last Updated: Aug-29-2006
Coulehan, Jack
Annotator

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

Sontag argues against the use of illness as metaphor. She states her main point on the first page of this long essay : "The most truthful way of regarding illness--and the healthiest way of being ill--is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking."

Tuberculosis and cancer serve as her two central examples of the human tendency to use metaphoric thinking about illness. In the 19th century, tuberculosis was considered a disease of passion, of "inward burning," of the "consumption" of life force. Sufferers were thought to have superior sensibility; the illness purified them of the dross of everyday life. The romantic image of the TB sufferer became "the first widespread example of that distinctively modern activity, promoting the self as an image" (p. 29). Metaphoric thinking about TB declined in the early part of the 20th century as the disease succumbed to science and public health measures.

Cancer has now become the predominant disease metaphor in our culture. Cancer is considered a disease of repression, or inhibited passion. The cancer sufferer characteristically suppresses emotion, which after many years emerges from the unconscious self as malignant growth. As in Auden’s poem, Miss Gee, reproduced on page 49, (see annotation in this database): "Childless women get it, / And men when they retire . . . . " Sontag uses the 19th century view of insanity as another example of malignant metaphoric thinking, while metaphor related to syphilis was somewhat more benign. She concludes the essay with an eloquent prediction that, as we learn more about the etiology and treatment of cancer, its metaphorical system will die on the vine. (I wonder if Sontag would consider my "die on the vine" an appropriate metaphor here?)

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The Way We Live Now

Sontag, Susan

Last Updated: Oct-04-2005
McEntyre, Marilyn
Co-Editors

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

The Way We Live Now consists entirely of fragments of conversation among friends concerned about a friend with AIDS. They confer on the telephone, over coffee, in the halls of the hospital, about the patient and his illness. They speculate, prognosticate, share anxieties, trade innuendoes of guilt and blame, pool their medical knowledge, and criticize the medical establishment.

The patient never appears, and indeed, we never meet a fully-fledged character, but only hear the orchestra of voices that wryly and accurately reflect the mediated and fragmented character of modern community life. News travels among them like an electric current, carrying shock waves of fear and pain. Their pooling of medical lore results in an eclectic mix of remedies that reach from chicken soup to the patient's favorite jelly beans.

By the end, several of the characters, represented only by voices in the conversation, have had to come to terms not only with the impending loss of their friend, but with their own various and unsettling responses. The disease, clearly AIDS, is never mentioned by name.

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Regarding the Pain of Others

Sontag, Susan

Last Updated: Mar-08-2004
Davis, Cortney
Co-Editors

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Criticism

Summary:

When we view photographs of war-torn bodies, piled-up corpses, or starving children, are we changed? How about the photographer, whether a professional or an amateur, who takes such pictures? Do these photographs teach us about suffering--or do they numb us over time and simply cause us to turn away? In this slim book Sontag re-visits her ideas in "On Photography," published 25 years ago.

Her aim, it seems, is not so much to answer the above questions but to provoke us by her statements, urging us at least to THINK about what happens when suffering is viewed third hand; because after all, she reminds us, we see only what the photographer wanted us to see. When scenes of violence are as close as our morning papers or our TV screens, Sontag's is an important debate.

She also gives a brief history of photo-journalism, from the Crimean and Civil Wars to the almost instantaneous transmission of images from Operation Iraqi Freedom. In chapters that sometimes seem to disagree with one another, she plays the devil's advocate and views the IDEA of photographs of suffering from all directions. Can gruesome photos be artistic? Should they be? And if a war photo is posed--a corpse moved for a better shot or a battle scene restaged to make it more dramatic--is the effect enhanced or decreased? She considers the impact of candid photos versus those technologically manipulated; she discusses how photos, and their impact on us, change when the names of the victims are revealed.

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AIDS and Its Metaphors

Sontag, Susan

Last Updated: Jul-03-1998
Coulehan, Jack
Annotator

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Summary:

This essay was written ten years after the author's Illness as Metaphor (see this database). Sontag begins by explaining the stimulus for her earlier essay: her own experience as a cancer patient. During that time, she discovered that cultural myths about cancer tended to isolate and estrange cancer patients. They suffered needlessly because of "meaning" attributed to their illness by society. A decade later, Sontag observes that attitudes about cancer have become more open and truthful. However, a new illness (AIDS) has arisen to carry forward the metaphorical banner.

AIDS brings together two powerful metaphors about illness. First, AIDS develops further the theme (seen earlier in cancer) of disease as invader: the enemy invades and destroys you from within. Thus, AIDS strengthens the use of military metaphors in medicine. The war against cancer is reincarnated as a war against AIDS. Secondly, because AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease, it also evokes the theme of plague-as-punishment.

Sontag's project in this essay is more focused than in the earlier book. She acknowledges that the medical and public health response to AIDS explicitly counters these myths. She concludes that "not all metaphors applied to illnesses and their treatment are equally unsavory and distorting" (p. 94). The metaphor she is most anxious to see eliminated is the military metaphor, both on an illness level (illness invades the person) and a societal level (social problems invade society).

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