Cristina Keating on Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor”

I’ve begun reading your essays, and I wanted to share with all of you Cristina’s discussion of Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor.” Cristina offers a clear and beautifully written response:

In Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor,” Sontag explains, “the cancer metaphor will be made obsolete, I would predict, long before the problems it has reflected so vividly will be resolved.” (p.87) Sontag shows in her essay that metaphors were created to help people understand the mystery of disease and death. To this day, cancer is still an unsolved mystery. However, in our culture we still attach many stigmas to cancer. These undertones resonate in our minds every time we hear the word cancer. They darken our perspective and cover up what cancer really is: a path to death. These metaphors blind us from seeing cancer as a disease that can kill anyone, whether they are innocent or not. Sontag sees these metaphors as a negative reflection of our culture; however, I do not see them as negative.

In order to understand why good, young, or innocent people die we invent explanations for illness. It is not in our nature to simply accept that life is completely meaningless. We search for answers in order to better understand why people die. Therefore, it is completely natural to wonder why someone has cancer. These interpretations of illness change, depending on how much we know about the disease. For example, in the years since Sontag’s essay was published, we have discovered much more about cancer, and because of that, our metaphorical understanding of it has changed. Sontag dislikes the ways in which we describe cancer; these metaphors portray the disease as aggressive and almost invincible, which she sees as detrimental to a patient’s health. But, the more we learn about cancer, the more likely we are to redefine our existing explanations.

Cancer is deadly, painful, and often incurable. As a result, I think it is perfectly human to use metaphors to make sense of cancer. Sick people will always experience life differently than those who are healthy. No matter how much we try to ignore illness and forget that death is associated with it, it remains an unavoidable part of life.  Sontag states that the metaphors and meanings we ascribe to death are damaging to the sick. She writes that “our views about cancer, and the metaphors we have imposed on it, are so much a vehicle for the large insufficiencies of this culture: for our shallow attitude toward death, for our anxieties about feeling”. (p.87) Here, Sontag identifies what she sees as an issue with our culture and how we approach illness. But why shouldn’t we use metaphors to understand illness and death? If we could learn how to cure cancer and we could figure out what happens when we die, death wouldn’t be scary, because the scary part is the unknown. But death scares everyone, because we don’t know. Therefore, metaphors are vital to our understanding of disease and are necessary for coping with the mysteries of fate. Since the world is unpredictable, it makes sense that people try to interpret illness using religious justifications because these are the only tools we have. I think Sontag ignores the fact that we need metaphors to help us understand the suffering of others. The only way to deal with the harsh reality of illness and death is to compare it to something you already know. Thus, metaphors are crucial for coping with illness and for having compassion for those who are sick.

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One Response to Cristina Keating on Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor”

  1. marcks14 says:

    Thank you for sharing. Cristina it was a pleasure to read. Beautifully said.

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