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In Illness and Metaphor, Susan Sontag explores the language of disease, and specifically, the connotations it carries. People with cancer, for instance, are often blamed for causing the disease themselves, either by making poor life choices or by being emotionally repressed. Often their repressed emotions are thought to cause their physical malignancy. Similarly, people with STDs are accused of immoral behavior. Institutionalized religion, Sontag claims, has linked morality with disease, and thus, people with debilitating physical conditions are considered candidates for psychological evaluation. Treating the physical characteristics of the disease takes a back seat to healing their mental states.

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Furthermore, the people who suffer from physical illnesses become victimized by the language that is commonly used commonly to discuss their conditions. This in turn affects their treatment. The word “cancer,” for example, has come into common use to mean something degenerative, uncontrollable, incurable, and stifling. This affects both the people who suffer from cancer and those who attempt to treat them. Sontag focuses much of her argument around the diseases of cancer, but also of tuberculosis. In the past, sufferers of tuberculosis were also affected by the metaphors conveyed in the language used to describe the disease. In the past, tuberculosis was associated with creativity, and people suffering from tuberculosis were often admired and elevated in status. This affected their chance of treatment, as the physical qualities of the disease were linked to the personal characteristics of the sufferers.

Illness as Metaphor

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An incisive extended essay, Illness as Metaphor exposes mythologies connected with two of the most fearful of maladies, tuberculosis and cancer. During the greater part of the nineteenth century, tuberculosis was either romanticized and sentimentalized, or made the object of terrified speculation. Until 1882, when the tuberculosis bacillus was isolated and established as the cause of infection, the nature of the disease was believed to be mysterious. Around this mystery, which could be emotionally but not intellectually apprehended, an elaborate pattern of metaphors developed. Lacking medical facts to explain the true pathology of the illness, people invented a fanciful tuberculosis, using language that communicated their ambiguous, often contradictory feelings. Sontag points out that this fantasized tuberculosis scarcely resembles the real, scientifically described disease. As the inaccurate judgments of nineteenth century science gave way to factual investigation in our own time, so the metaphors of the past were seen to be inadequate. In the same manner, Sontag argues, contemporary metaphors applied to cancer will give way in the future to more exact language describing that malady. In time, cancer will be demythicized as tuberculosis has been. Sontag’s thesis is that we must understand the tyranny of false metaphors in order to liberate ourselves from the language of fears and superstitions that have no basis in reality.

To develop this thesis, Sontag carefully examines the older metaphorical concepts of tuberculosis as a pattern against which the reader can compare the modern metaphors of cancer. She has little interest in the medical or pseudoscientific notions of the disease prior to this century. Instead, she chooses as examples a wealth of material from literature. Because the metaphors concerning pathology either originate among writers, or because literary masters express in definitive form the most nearly representative metaphors derived from popular speech, writers serve as her primary source. With extraordinary erudition, Sontag assembles information from such diverse writers as Stendhal, Kafka, John of Trevisa, Muger, Hugo, Dickens, Henry James, Turgenev,...

(The entire section contains 4315 words.)

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