Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors

Susan Sontag




Trade Paperback

192 Pages



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In 1978 Susan Sontag published Illness as Metaphor, a classic work described by Newsweek as "one of the most liberating books of its time." A cancer patient herself when she was writing the book, Sontag shows how the metaphors and myths surrounding certain illnesses, especially cancer, add greatly to the suffering of patients and often inhibit them from seeking proper treatment. By demystifying the fantasies surrounding cancer, Sontag shows cancer for what it is—just a disease. Cancer, she argues, is not a curse, not a punishment, and certainly not an embarrassment. She also shows that it is highly curable, if good treatment is followed.

Almost a decade later, with the outbreak of a new, stigmatized disease replete with mystifications and punitive metaphors, Sontag wrote a sequel to Illness as Metaphor, extending the argument of her earlier book to the AIDS pandemic. These two extended essays—now published together, and exclusively, in this volume—have been translated into many languages. Each is a modern-day classic, and each continues to have an enormous influence on the thinking of medical professionals and, above all, on the lives of many thousands of patients and caregivers.


Praise for Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors

"Sontag's Illness as Metaphor was the first [book] to point out the accusatory side of the metaphors of empowerment that seek to enlist the patient's will to resist disease. It is largely as a result of her work that the how-to health books avoid the blame-ridden term 'cancer personality' and speak more soothingly of 'disease-producing lifestyles' . . . AIDS and Its Metaphors extends her critique of cancer metaphors to the metaphors of dread surrounding the AIDS virus. Taken together, the two essays are an exemplary demonstration of the power of the intellect in the face of the lethal metaphors of fear."—Michael Ignatieff, The New Republic

"In Illness as Metaphor, which focused on cancer, Sontag argued that myths and metaphors surrounding disease can kill by instilling shame and guilt in the sick, thus delaying them for seeking treatment. She sees a similar process at work in the case of AIDS, the modern epidemic that has called forth metaphors of plague, implacable viral invaders, a scourge from the Third World. Such metaphors foster the stigmatizing of AIDS patients while spreading misinformation and panic, she argues, further claiming that clinical reports on the course of AIDS from 'fledgling' to 'full-blown' tacitly support the far-from-proven theory that everyone who tests positive for the AIDS antibody will die of the disease. The theory that AIDS originated in Africa . . . feeds into the West's political paranoia and activates racial and sexual stereotypes . . . This brief, brilliant essay discounts many of the fears and illusions surrounding the pandemic."—Publishers Weekly



  • Susan Sontag

  • Susan Sontag was the author of numerous works of non-fiction, including the groundbreaking collection of essays Against Interpretation, and of four novels, including In America, which won the National Book Award.

  • Susan Sontag Mikhail Lemkhin