Blindness as Metaphor
- differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies
- Duke University Press
- Volume 11, Number 2, Summer 1999
- pp. 76-105
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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 11.2 (1999) 76-105
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Blindness as Metaphor
There is a casual cruelty, an offhanded thoughtlessness, about metaphors of illness. As Susan Sontag demonstrated some years ago, illness constitutes a special category of metaphor; to speak of cancer as just another word for what the dictionary defines as "a source of evil and anguish" is to massively deny the reality of mutilating surgery, chemotherapy, hair loss, pain, and hospice care, but also, and more importantly, to freight an already onerous diagnosis with the crippling stigma of an unspeakable disease. 1 Sontag's main concern in writing her influential essay was in fact double: on the one hand, to dispel what she calls variously "metaphorical thinking" (3) and "the trappings of metaphor" (5) that surround cancer; on the other, to debunk what she describes as myth, or what we might call by analogy, "mythical thinking." Just how metaphor and myth mutually inform each other is never spelled out in Illness as Metaphor; they are used interchangeably--although metaphor is granted a special status in light of its rhetorical antecedents. The impetus that drives Sontag's essay is not so much, as she makes explicit in her more recent sequel and companion essay, "aids and its Metaphors," the idealistic desire to contribute to cultural transformation, as the more [End Page 76] urgent therapeutic goal of changing the prospects of those who are diagnosed with those fearsome diseases of our modern and postmodern time, cancer and aids; for the misuse of metaphor and the proliferation of myth can, in Sontag's view, prove fatal. Looking back from the vantage point of ten years of being cancer free, Sontag spells out in her second essay the intent of her first:
My purpose was, above all, practical. For it was my doleful observation, repeated again and again, that the metaphoric trappings that deform the experience of having cancer have very real consequences: they inhibit people from seeking treatment early enough, or from making a greater effort to get competent treatment. The metaphors and myths, I was convinced, kill. (102; emphasis added)
To a great extent her concern is more with the myths than the metaphors of the major illnesses--tuberculosis, cancer, and some years later, aids--for they are the disabling and punitive aspects of the discourse of certain, but not all, scourges that afflict mankind. The major thrust of writing on the metaphors and, above all, myths of illness is to save lives.
Today I would add metaphors of disablement and disfigurement to this register of bodily metaphors that void words of their charge of pain and sorrow, dread and death, and invest them with the language of stigma and shame and burden them with negativity. What makes some of these metaphors so difficult to extirpate is that these metaphors are catachreses, that is they belong to that peculiar and little understood category of figures that signifies (at least in French, for there are interesting divergences between English and French definitions of this figure) a necessary trope, an obligatory metaphor, to which language offers no alternative: e.g., the leg of the table, the arm of the windmill. 2 And blindness is a privileged example of so-called metaphorical catachresis, at least according to the bible of all students of French rhetoric, Pierre Fontanier's definitive nineteenth-century recasting of Dumarsais's eighteenth-century treatise, Les Figures du Discours (1821-30) 3 , which was adopted throughout France as a basic manual:
Blindness must have at first referred only to the deprivation of the sense of sight; but he who does not clearly distinguish ideas and their relationships; he whose reason is disturbed, obscured, does he not slightly resemble the blind man who does not perceive [End Page 77] physical objects? The word blindness came naturally to hand to also express this deprivation of moral sight. And how without these obligatory metaphors, without these catachreses, would one have succeeded in retracing these ideas. (Fontanier 216-17)
There are then, following Fontanier, metaphorical catachreses, but catachreses are not properly...