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Lee on Literature: Illness as Metaphor

Susan Sontag's essay exposes preconceptions about medical conditions

October 28, 2011, 4:00 am
By Lee Miller

While sick with breast cancer in the 1970s, author and feminist Susan Sontag wrote the essay “Illness as Metaphor,” which was first published in 1977. Sontag argues that cancer is the most powerful disease metaphor, and also the most unfair.

 “Cancer” is often discussed in terms of military language: a “fight,” a “war,” an “invasion,” an “attack,” a “radical treatment”—some of the same language used by the Nazis to describe the need for extermination of Jews. Unlike modern heart disease, for example, cancer is mysterious in source and cure, and more likely associated with the faulty character of the afflicted rather than simple genetics. The metaphor that Sontag describes enters the relationship between the individual and modern society, and forms the foundation of cultural phenomena like the AMC television series Breaking Bad.

 

To illustrate her ideas, Sontag compares tuberculosis (the scourge of the 19th century) to modern-day cancer. TB was often described in the 1800s as producing spells of euphoria, increased appetite and sexual desire—a periodic flush of life. Modern-day cancer is an opposite state. TB was considered the result of superior character, “the artists’ disease,” resulting from a sensitive and creative nature, separate from an industrialized world. The rock star of 19th century Europe, Frederic Chopin, was “tubercular at a time when good health was not chic,” when it was “glamorous to look sickly.” This chic, a fusion attempt with the highest social class, still appears today on high fashion runways and the countenance of Johnny Depp. Many celebrated writers had TB, including Kafka, Keats, Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson and DH Lawrence. Their writing romanticized TB, as they were often “forced” out of “unhealthy” urban areas to mountains, the Mediterranean, or South Pacific islands as a prescription for recovery. 

 

In contrast, cancer is often perceived as the result of character flaws. In Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilych, the main character slowly dies from cancer, and then clearly sees his self-deceptions, failures of character and the foibles of the surrounding society. The cancer metaphor helped raise the stock of Freud and Jung. A belief that repressions created cancer, that mental health caused cells to mutate, led to extensive study and clout within this field of psychology. The modern “existentialist,” defined by Sartre and Camus, is also derived from a cancer “victim”: passive, unfeeling, robotic, uncaring, inhuman, an antihero. The myth that mental will causes cancer (and can cure it) is still prevalent today. Guilt persists with the cancer victim, an embedded idea that they did something wrong or disharmonious, that they somehow deserve this malady. In tandem, a cancer patient on the doorstep of death is still fed huge doses of optimism, all lies about his or her actual condition.

 

According to Sontag, the power of the cancer metaphor is the reason for all of these deceptions and misunderstandings. The mysterious causes and unknown cures feed fear and paranoia, an irrational phobia. This mindset seeps into the relationship between individuals and society and distorts perception; it seeps into the language used to decipher modern culture, to grapple with our darkest fears.

 

Vince Gilligan, the creator of the AMC hit television series Breaking Bad, taps directly into the power of the metaphor Sontag describes.  The Breaking Bad series’ main character, meek high school chemistry teacher Walt White, is diagnosed with lung cancer and transforms completely. Walt starts cooking methamphetamine to make money for his family before he dies, but instead runs headfirst into the myths of modern society with its corresponding lore surrounding cancer and the drug world. The fourth season of Breaking Bad finished in October 2011. The fifth season (16 episodes) will be the last, yet maybe the viewer can now watch with a different eye, keeping Sontag’s classic essay in mind.

 

 

Lee Miller is the author of the Bengali novel, Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com), the story of how cancer changes Mrs. Sona Choudhury’s perception of her family, her life, and 20th Century India.

 

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