Friday, October 26, 2007

Illness as Metaphor

I read Illness as Metaphor yesterday and today, and I would like to write about it. The most appropriate way of writing what I'm thinking may be a contrast study with The Bridge of San Luis Rey, but I don't know if I'll have the mental energy to do that. I have other things I need to write in the next week or so. However, for a start, here are some quotes from the book that I thought to be rather edifying.

"According to the mythology of cancer, it is generally a steady repression of feeling that causes the disease... the passion that people think will give them cancer if they don't discharge it is rage. There are... cancerphobes like Norman Mailer, who recently explained that had he not stabbed his wife (and acted out "a murderous nest of feeling") he would have gotten cancer and "been dead in a few years himself.""

"So well established was the cliche which connected TB and creativity that at the end of the century one critic suggested that it was the progressive disappearance of TB which accounted for the current decline of literature and the arts."

"Doctors and laity believed in a TB character type- as now the belief in a cancer-prone character type, far from being confined to the back yard of folk superstition, passes for the most advanced medical thinking."

She quotes Katherine Mansfield, who died of tuberculosis: "A bad day... horrible pains and so on, and weakness. I could do nothing. The weakness was not only physical. I must heal my Self before I will be well... This must be done alone and at once. It is at the root of my not getting better. My mind is not controlled."

"In his Morbidus Anglicus (1672), Gideon Harvey declared "melancholy" and "choler" to be "the sole cause" of TB... In 1881, a year before Robert Koch published his paper announcing the discovery of the tubercle bacillus and demonstrating that it was the primary cause of the disease, a standard medical textbook gave as the causes of tuberculosis: hereditary disposition, unfavorable climate, sedentary indoor life, defective ventilation, deficiency of light, and "depressing emotions.""

"The second [hypothesis] is that every illness can be considered psychologically. Illness is interpreted as, basically, a psychological event, and people are encouraged to believe that they get sick because they (unconsciously) want to, and that they can cure themselves by the mobilization of will; that they can choose not to die of the disease. ... Psychological theories of illness are a powerful means of placing the blame on the ill. Patients who are instructed that they have, unwittingly, caused their disease are also being made to feel that they have deserved it."

"The notion that a disease can be explained only by a variety of causes is precisely characteristic of thinking about diseases whose causation is not understood. And it is diseases thought to be multi-determined (that is, mysterious) that have the widest possibilities as metaphors for what is felt to be socially or morally wrong."

For all that Sontag's writing style is atrocious- she makes me want to tie her to a desk and force her to write outlines until she can complete an argument in a linear fashion- she does have some things to say in this piece that are very apt. I am tempted to write up a little bit about the psychological model of illness to take with me to my next appointment with the Psychologist From Hell.

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