Illness as Metaphor Critical Context - Essay

Susan Sontag

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

When one considers the range of Susan Sontag’s talents, endeavors, and accomplishments, it is easy to see why she admires such European writers and filmmakers as Jean-Luc Godard, Simone Weil, Albert Camus, Norman O. Brown, and—among others—Alain Resnais. Like Sontag herself, these artists are ones whose works unflinchingly shatter stereotypes and the status quo to which these belong; they push at and extend the boundaries of accepted understanding. Such artists, as Sontag makes clear in her Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966), are exceptional and ones she admires precisely because they refuse to accept traditional categories of meaning, and because they resist creating works of art that could be interpreted by existing standards: Their efforts and their art, therefore, are posited “against interpretation.”

That Sontag’s definition of modernism includes extending or progressing beyond boundaries is exemplified by the various directions in which her own career has moved: As well as scholarly essays and book reviews, she has written and published personal essays, short stories and novels, screenplays, cultural criticism, and a study of photography. Although some readers have asserted that she is too critical of most things American and capitalistic, Sontag’s work is essentially and consistently philosophical inquiry and interpretation. In fact, questions apparent in her Illness as Metaphor underlie her other works—questions concerning the origins and shapers of individual and collective identity, the uses of manipulation in dictating and regulating social and aesthetic encounters, the functions and forms of cultural interpretation and criticism, and the motives of people both inside and outside traditionally accepted social boundaries.

Since as early as 1964, when her essay “Against Interpretation” was published, Sontag’s readers have learned to expect of her a well-informed and well-reasoned rejection of all externally imposed values and meanings upon groups, individuals, works of art, and events. An existentialist, Sontag has repeatedly asserted throughout her career that every experience one has should be—like every work of art—encountered and perceived as unique, thereby enabling both the perceiver and that which is perceived to defy being fixed by conventionally prescribed and life-limiting interpretations. Indeed, as she does elsewhere, in Illness as Metaphor Sontag illustrates the extent to which interpretations and metaphors are historically specific, contextually determined, and therefore frequently limited by the ignorance from which they are derived.