“Any disease that is treated as a mystery and acutely enough feared will be felt to be morally, if not literally, contagious.” Two essays by Susan Sontag are devoted to an analysis of myths surrounding paradigmatic diseases of modern times and metaphors that turn physical illnesses into a moral matter and lead to public shaming of their victims.
If in the nineteenth century, the main object of pseudo-scientific theories was tuberculosis (then incurable), in the past hundred years “culture’s need to blame and punish and censor through the imagery of disease” was satisfied through the discourse that formed around cancer and later AIDS. Spreading ridiculous myths concerning their causes and cures, society has created a body of prejudice around them, connecting physical diseases to notions of sin, shame and punishment, and has turned their carriers into outcasts. As a result, Susan Sontag argues, diseases have been used to identify individuals or entire social groups (homosexuals and drug addicts in case of AIDS) as unwanted, dangerous and alien. Myths and metaphors, she continues, also “inhibit people from seeking treatment early enough, or from making a greater effort to get competent treatment”.
Diagnosed with cancer in the late 1970s, Sontag found herself in a situation where her disease became a metaphor for a number of taboo subjects, including death. In the first essay, written in 1978, she calls on the medical profession to abandon pseudo-scientific practices and give patients full and precise information about their diagnosis and prognosis. The second essay, in which Sontag takes on AIDS—“the plague of the 20th century”—, was written only a few years after AIDS was discovered, when thousands of HIV-infected people were still dying because of the lack of reliable information on the virus. The imagery that developed around AIDS was even stronger than that associated with cancer, its “alien” nature and “mysterious” etiology commonly related to the notions of vice, promiscuity and squalor (it is a common belief that AIDS came to Western countries from Africa). People infected with HIV have been marginalized to an even greater extent than patients with cancer.
Written with a ten-year gap between them, Susan Sontag’s essays provide ample evidence for her main argument, that actual diseases might in fact sometimes be less harmful than the cultural discourse surrounding them. “The metaphors and myths, I was convinced, kill.”
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