- Coulehan, Jack
- Date of entry: May-20-1997
- Last revised: Aug-29-2006
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?)
Farrar, Straus & Giroux