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American Literary History 14.4 (2002) 828-836

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Contagion as Metaphor

Cynthia J. Davis

Facing a grim cancer diagnosis some 25 years ago, Susan Sontag wrote Illness as Metaphor (1978) in an effort to get us to take illness literally. "Illness," she insists, "is not a metaphor," although it is frequently treated as one. Sontag maintains that "the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, resistant to, metaphoric thinking" (3). Where illness is concerned, words wound us most when they are most allusive. The more mysterious the disease is made to seem, the more likely we are to supply it with meaning and the greater the fear of moral—if not literal—contagion (6). Under the influence of metaphoric thinking, diagnoses come to signify moral failings, inherent defects that now appear to be external, palpable, legible. The way we imagine disease, Sontag suggests, is itself diseased. And to cure it we must demystify the discourse surrounding illness. We must be against interpretation, against the hunt for psychological causes and hidden meanings: "[N]othing," Sontag writes, "is more punitive than to give disease a meaning" (58). We must, in short, resist the seductions of metaphor.

This is no easy task, as Sontag herself acknowledges. "One cannot think without metaphors," she concedes, "but that doesn't mean there aren't metaphors we might well abstain from or try to retire" (93). Seeking to halt interpretation where disease is concerned, Sontag sets about prying the most cancerous images open and unpacking them, stripping language bare and exhorting us to do the same, in the belief that the way we currently envision illness and assign meaning to it (for example, as "curse," "punishment," or "embarrassment") only enhances the suffering caused by the illness itself (101-02). As Sontag later reflects, "the purpose of my book was to calm the imagination, not to incite it. Not to confer meaning, which is the traditional purpose of literary endeavor, but to deprive something of meaning" (102). Sontag employs literary means to achieve antimetaphoric and antihermeneutic ends, but only where the alternative is believed to disable more than enable, and even while brandishing the very tools she resists. At the end of these comments, I will return to this aesthetic and explore its potential restorative properties. [End Page 828]

In both its content and its form, Illness as Metaphor offers an instructive template for this special issue on "Contagion and Culture." The contributors to this volume join Sontag in evaluating language's ability to hurt and in exploring its ability to heal. They share Sontag's interest in writing's infectious qualities, its perilous potency. Contagion and writing are both forms of communication, after all, and as those of us who are at once beckoned and sickened by the blank page know full well, there are evocative parallels between the two. Like bodies, narratives can be infected by a series of "retroviruses"(to borrow Schell's suggestive trope), which, when set in motion by a complex of factors, risk endangering whatever or whomever they touch. Schell discusses ideological contaminants, but the focus of other contributors suggests that her trope might apply as well to narrative properties, including structure, conventions, and figures of speech. The rub is that many of these are also potential boons.

Sontag acknowledges this fundamental ambivalence, finding—as do many of the contributors—the source of both dis-ease and its cure in metaphor and narrative. In particular, acts of revision, rereading, and rewriting are regarded as medicinal, offering what Kenneth Burke refers to as "stylistic medicine" for "very real" situations (54). Writing as such constitutes both a useful and a moral act, an intervention in the world. At least where literature is concerned, however, we need to be wary when assigning it too much political agency. This is not to question its political significance or value but only to caution that equating literature with social transformation risks making claims for literature that few, if any, works can sustain (see Davis 192). A more tempered optimism is modeled by...


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