Reading Sontag in the pandemic | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 02, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, July 02, 2020


Reading Sontag in the pandemic

What happens to a body when the world around it is wrecked by a disease that has no history?

At the time of writing this article, the number of coronavirus cases in Bangladesh crept towards 140,000. This crises has brought forth an old conundrum: we rarely think of diseases as a part of ourselves, until it becomes personal. Until it creeps into our lives and uncovers cracks in our normalcy which we never knew existed.

Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors, first written in the late 1970s, provides the words for our current collective struggle. As an American philosopher and political activist, Sontag is best known for her essays that brought in a philosophical approach to modern Western culture in the 1960s-90s. Her essays in this book analyse the myths and metaphors surrounding tuberculosis, cancer, and AIDS, drawing references from Nietzsche, Camus, and Kant, literary works like Iliad, The Black Swan, and Doctor Faustus, and the life histories of Keats, Katherine Mansfield, Kafka, and Chopin, among others who suffered from tuberculosis (TB) when it was incurable.

She writes with emotion and force, and her arguments come from a personal place of struggle with breast cancer. The first essay in the collection began as a piece for the New York Times.  Eventually it became a book of two detailed essays written a decade apart, both articulating the core argument that "diseases themselves are, at times, less dangerous than the cultural discourse which creates our responses and behaviours around them." 

As the world tries to navigate the implications of a novel coronavirus, this idea still rings true. Our discourses of the disease do not focus so much on the dangers it has for a body with underlying health conditions or the preventive/curative measures it requires, as it does on accounts of sudden death and dying in wait to access care. It centres on systematic failure particularly in a developing country, where social distancing is hard and vulnerable populations have no social safety nets or sufficient access to quality healthcare. 

The relationship that Sontag teases out between our emotions, our lived experiences, and social and political biases with a disease barely understood, resonates. When reflecting on the romanticization of TB in the 19th century, Sontag quotes painter Marie Bashkirtsev's journal in which consumption gives one "an air of langour which is very becoming". Sontag unpacks how this popular fashion and etiquette of the time viewed looking sickly as glamorous, thus offering a roadmap of how myths and metaphors spread in social and cultural spaces.

It's worth remembering, though, that these essays are personal reflections and are significantly distanced from South Asian realities of illness. They create more questions than they answer, which has a benefit to itself—they challenge us to reflect on the effect of our fears and biases. When Sontag traces the romanticization of TB or the belief that cancer "resulted from feelings of guilt or longing for punishment", it echoes how the coronavirus is viewed in similar ways—the notion that this is nature's revenge on humankind for their greed and destruction or that one's religion can make them immune or susceptible to the disease. 

Diseases take on the form of metaphors perhaps because they are hard to articulate; they are fluid and this characteristic evokes fear, and fear needs something to settle into. Those sick are viewed as taboo and contact with them is feared. Sontag's essays illuminate how myths become powerful in the absence of certainty, and in some cases, construct the edges of our realities.


Ishrat Jahan is a researcher who writes in her spare time. Email:


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