Back in February, when I was enjoying a post-surgery, pre-chemo dose of sun, salt and memory in my hometown, San Diego, I happened in a used-book shop on a copy of Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor, something I'd been meaning to read for years. No time like the present, I thought, and hey! it's only eighty-six pages long.
Righteous indignation propelled me through those pages as much as curiosity. Sontag opens by describing illness as a second, shadow citizenship, a kingdom to which we all hold a passport and to which we will all one day be summoned, much as we prefer to dwell in health. She does not pause for breath before she then declares: "My subject is not physical illness itself but the uses of illness as figure or metaphor. My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness - and the healthiest way of being ill - is the one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphoric thinking." [Emphasis mine, on the words that got my goat by the throat.]
What garbage! I thought. What arrogance and naked presumption! Who are you - I addressed her silver-streaked ghost - to prescribe a thought cleanse to me or to anyone now residing on the "night-side of life"? Get thee gone with that enema bag, Sontag! Purified, my ass.
I thought she couldn't possibly be writing from the benighted state of illness, or she'd show a little humility. She'd have a hard-won appreciation for the idiosyncracies of how each of us best copes (or best fails to cope, because we're all failing all the time, up until we fail for good).
I'm glad I kept reading, since it is a truly pithy bit of writing, fiber-rich and full of interest. That first paragraph should have alerted me to (what I consider) the healthy hypocrisy I found at work throughout: Sontag doesn't much mind her own metaphors, only other people's. I later learned that she had in fact written the book while under treatment for breast cancer, and it made better sense to me as a defensive act. We don't have the luxury of restraint when we're under serious threat; it's too much to ask us to be perfect masters of our fists and feet when we're down and getting kicked in the head. Kicked by the metaphors of the well.
Sontag's real beef is with those on the "day-side" of life whose use of sloppy and dangerously ill-considered metaphors for her condition (and for another wasting disease, tuberculosis) she experiences as figurative and even literal violence, as her doctors' conception of her ailment guides their prescriptions for her treatment, though she never says this aloud.
If she'd made her predicament explicit, I think her book would be more coherent and persuasive. Here's one serious problem with trying to write "objectively" or impersonally about matters in which we are so personally implicated: we risk blinding ourselves and hobbling our arguments. Sontag's natural reluctance to expose herself to further insult pushes her to overgeneralize; she loses the distinction she might have made between the metaphors that we individually (and provisionally) embrace to help us make tolerable sense of intolerable experience and those that others impose on us for their intellectual convenience or professional expedience.
Granted, identities were not so porously, transparently, or fluidly constructed in 1978 as they are now. While most of Sontag's diatribe against metaphor is directed outward, that sentence about "the healthiest way of being ill" speaks to a strong mistrust of what she apparently conceived as a "weakness" for metaphor. She recognized how seductive associations can bait intellectual traps, how even the identifications we choose can harden to steel and have their points turned against us.
She's right about the danger, but her response still revolts me (personally). I've been sufficiently denuded and denied, thank you - I want more metaphor, more play, more mess. (Less purity!) I want to be able to say Monday that I am engaged in a civil war against a wily frenemy well-practiced in guerilla tactics (while my doctors blast away with big guns and napalm, careless of collateral damage), Tuesday that I am seeding a new garden, and Wednesday that I await my transformation into wolf form sometime in late May.
If I took Dr. Sontag at her admonishing word, how would she have shrunk my head early last Tuesday morning, when the birthday I no longer share with my mother arrived just as the earth's rusted shadow eclipsed the moon? For the five hours I spent Wednesday with strangers' blood falling drop by drop into my parched veins (in the middle of a week that began with Passover and ended with Easter), would she have forbidden me thoughts of human sacrifice and resurrection? Or of Lon Chaney (or Griffin Dunne) with the lupine taint now wending inexorably toward his heart?
Maybe she's right that imagining myself as a werewolf isn't the "healthiest" way to have cancer (or - more hopefully - to endure in cancer's absence the horrors of "just in case" treatment). But I'll settle for healthier - my mind won't twiddle its thumbs for long, and I know there are much worse things it could be getting up to if it didn't have metaphors to play with.
P.S. Hey! Who better to celebrate when we're making a case for metaphorical fecundity? Happy Birthday, Will! 450 and you're still a playa!