Together these books are amazing for many reasons, not the least of which that she goes back to “Illness as Metaphor” and differentiates how the metaphors of cancer and AIDS differ so much based on a few key considerations: a) AIDS is an epidemic in certain countries, and a pandemic overall, depending on certain factors. b) that the language of public health (especially versus public discourse) differs wildly based on what countries you’re looking into, and c) how AIDS is so invariably talked about culturally in ways tied to behavior, and cancer, while it is, is also not. She’s also writing this second essay in the early 1990s, and thinking through how much has changed between that time and her death in 2006, and 2006 and now is really fascinating.
It’s also very tempting to talk about “AIDS and its Metaphors” in reference to Covid-19 and while it’s tempting, it’s also unfair and dangerous. Sontag references the 1919 Flu pandemic as the “forgotten” pandemic, and talks about other pandemics historically, though she uses “plague” which might be the incorrect terminology medically, is correct culturally such a cholera and leprosy/Hansen’s. So she already references both historic and modern plagues. In regards the flu pandemic, she reminds us that the temporariness of the disease (15 months) drove many of the precautions, while with AIDS, it being a more “slow burn” condition and it being discuss so tied to behavior, that connection falls flat.
That said, there are some connections now because we in the midst of those precautions, however temporary they might end up being, and we’re going to see a rise in “Covid” metaphors in the coming years, just like we’ve already been inundated with “Covid” podcasts, tv shows, porn, and novels. So while it’s specific effects will be short term (ish) I imagine the relationship to modern culture will be relatively longterm. That is, of course, until the next one.
Anyway, here’s my original review:
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.