Susan Sontag is dead.
On hearing this news, I went to my bookcase and found my copy of AIDS and Its Metaphors, which I read in the early 1990s. I was travelling in Europe at the time (the price tag on the back of the book says “78000”: I think I bought it in Czechoslovakia, or perhaps Poland).
Sontag’s essay had a significant impact on me in those days; I guess it still informs my thinking (and, now, writing) about AIDS and the way it is conceptualised. There are too few good books about AIDS: this is one of them.
Not all metaphors applied to illness and their treatment are equally unsavory and distorting. The one I am most eager to see retired – more than ever since the emergence of AIDS – is the military metaphor. Its converse, the medical model of the public weal, is probably more dangerous and far-reaching in its consequences, since it not only provides a persuasive justification for authoritarian rule but implicitly suggests the necessity of state-sponsored repression and violence (the equivalent of surgical removal or chemical control of the offending or “unhealthy” parts of the body politic). But the effect of the military imagery on thinking about sickness and health is far from inconsequential. It overmobilizes, it overdescribes, and it powerfully contributes to the excommunicating and stigmatizing of the ill.
No, it is not desirable for medicine, any more that for war, to be “total.” Neither is the crisis created by AIDS a “total” anything. We are not being invaded. The body is not a battlefield. The ill are neither unavoidable casualties nor the enemy. We – medicine, society – are not authorized to fight back by any means whatever. . . . About that metaphor, the military one, I would say, if I may paraphrase Lucretius: Give it back to the war-makers.
I remember reading these words, somewhere in Eastern Europe at the height of our own cold war. They helped me understand what was going on around me on so many levels.
Like most brilliant people, not everything that Sontag said and wrote has stood the test of time (I’m thinking of her admiration of Leni Reifenstahl and her intemperate comments about the 9/11 attacks) but there is always some truth to be found, and stimulus for thought. We need more of that.
- Update, 5 PM: Bentkid’s “respectful, loving note on Susan Sontag” is beautiful, moving, and unmissable. Go there now.