Susan Sontag was one of America’s great public intellectuals. A writer, a critic, an ethicist, filmmaker and activist — Sontag had a large part in shaping 20th-century American culture. Sontag was the author of several novels, including the National Book Award-winning In America, and many works of nonfiction including Against Interpretation, On Photography and Illness As Metaphor. Her books are translated into 32 languages.
In 2003, Bill Moyers interviewed Susan Sontag about the gap between the images and the realities of war. In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag explored how we can have compassion for others we do not know, the power of images, of photographs and memory, and the persistence of war.
The New York Review of Books has opened its archives to present again some of the most influential writing it has published.
As we now find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic, Sontag’s 1978 essay, “Disease as a Political Metaphor” is just as insightful decades later.
“Disease as Political Metaphor”
The New York Review of Books
FEBRUARY 23, 1978
Punitive notions of disease have a long history, and such notions are particularly active with cancer. There is the “fight” or “crusade” against cancer; cancer is the “killer” disease; people who have cancer are “cancer victims.” Ostensibly, the illness is the culprit. But it is also the cancer patient who is made culpable. Widely believed psychological theories of disease assign to the ill the ultimate responsibility both for falling ill and for getting well. And conventions of treating cancer as no mere disease but a demonic enemy make cancer not just a lethal disease but a shameful one.
Leprosy in its heyday aroused a similarly disproportionate sense of horror. In the Middle Ages the leper was a social text in which corruption was made visible; an exemplum, an emblem of decay. Nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning—that meaning being invariably a moralistic one. Any important disease, whose physical etiology is not understood, and for which treatment is ineffectual, tends to be awash in significance. First, the subjects of deepest dread (corruption, decay, pollution, anomie, weakness) are identified with the disease. The disease itself becomes a metaphor. Then, in the name of the disease (that is, using it as a metaphor), that horror is imposed on other things. The disease becomes adjectival. Something is said to be disease-like, meaning that it is disgusting or ugly. In French, a crumbling stone façade is still “lépreuse.”
Epidemic diseases were a common figure for social disorder. From pestilence (bubonic plague) came “pestilent,” whose figurative meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “injurious to religion, morals, or public peace—1513”; and “pestilential,” meaning “morally baneful or pernicious—1531.” Feelings about evil are projected onto a disease. And the disease (so enriched with meanings) is projected onto the world.
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