This is a long essay written in the mid to late 1970s as Susan Sontag has just learned she has cancer. The essay is not narrative or personal really at all, but explores the ways in which illness is defined through metaphors in literature and culture. Because of her own cancer, cancer becomes one of the two main subjects, with tuberculosis being the other. The primary focus of the two subjects in the essay is to explore the ways in which meaning has been inscribed onto these two diseases specifically throughout literature. Particularly important to her reading of tuberculosis as metaphor is specifically how treatable and ultimately un-dire of an illness it is by the 1970s (and consequently today) and how cancer has kind of take up the mantle in that same way, but also failed in some other ways as a very Romantic disease, specifically the domain of lost youth, fractured and failing bodies, and spent artists.
She focuses on both the texts themselves that deal with the disease, for example Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, and artists with the disease, Kafka etc, and how those artists lives are defined through their interaction with the disease. With cancer, she spends less time with artists who dealt with or died from the disease and more so in the ways in which while cancer is clearly the disease of record in the 20th century, it has otherwise failed to capture the imagination of the reading public.
She would later go on to include the logical next step of AIDS in years to come.
It’s a mostly convincing argument, but more a rich study in reading.