Monday, March 13, 2006

Susan Sontags' Illness as Metaphors - One

One thing that struck me in Tamara Ball's article is the "view of disease as bad, or worse yet, of people with disease as bad." I don't think anyone consciously admits it, but it seems that it's sometimes true. In Susan Sontag's book, Illness as Metaphors, she argues against the use of illness metaphors for this reason--illness metaphors tend to be negative, so people with an incurable illness, for example, might be prone to internalizing the "badness" of their disease as their badness for having it. This makes me wonder why one rarely sees, in public, the bald head of a cancer patient; the head tends to be covered up in some way. I imagine that some patients cover their heads out of the need to maintain their privacy and deter people from poking into their personal lives. For all the various reasons that patients cover their heads (and I'm sure all the reasons are self-protective in one way or another), I wonder whether another reason is out of a feeling of shame that they have the disease.

In a world where people often feel like they are playing the survival game, no one wants to appear weak or vulnerable (which begs the question, "why should someone appear weak for being sick?'). But more importantly, no one wants to be the object of people's pity, probably because "pity" is a sort of announcement that "Oh, sorry, too bad you can no longer play at the same level as us." I know that if I were in a cancer patient's shoes (this is not to say that I know the magnitude of what cancer patients go through), I would want to cover my head, to hide this insulting disease, because of an aversion to people's pity, or maybe even out of wanting to prevent people from feeling uncomfortable around me. But why shouldn't I be free to bare my bald head, if I so choose, without having to worry about negative feelings? Do patients who do bare their heads derive some benefit, mentally or otherwise, from doing so?

Like anything else, our body progressively breaks down. Some parts of us will need repair at one time or another, and to various extents. Here I have to acknowledge our society's unrealistic and implicit expectation that we be in tip-top shape all the time. I mean, let's be serious. How many percentage of people will not be worried about possibly losing their particular job or position, if they are sick for more than a period of a few consecutive days? A capitalistic work structure does not tolerate illness. Now imagine being a person with a chronic illness in this structure. That person's mind, fueled by society's (faulty) values, is tempted to think "Why me?" "What's wrong with me?"

So for this and other reasons that Sontag mentioned in her book, the use of illness metaphors will tend to add more to a patient's already heavy load. But does this mean abandoning illness metaphors entirely? What is the purpose of illness metaphors? Are they always negative?

Until my next post.

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At 12/12/07 2:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love your writing. Good analysis of Sontag's work!


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