Sickness and Salvation

Sylvia Lawson

  • Aids and its Metaphors by Susan Sontag
    Allen Lane, 95 pp, £9.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 7139 9025 2
  • The Whole Truth: The Myth of Alternative Health by Rosalind Coward
    Faber, 216 pp, £12.99, June 1989, ISBN 0 571 14114 5

Each of these polemical books considers health and illness in recent Western history. Each moves in to large areas of disputation and advertisement, involving sections of the medical and paramedical professions, the academy and the media, with populations of patients, families, commentators and consumers. Each is launched against beliefs and ways of speaking seen to be retrograde and damaging; each communicates a broadly progressive politics and brings to bear long-developed skills in argument and writing. Their concerns intersect; at several points, the arguments are similar.

The reasons why one book is so much more productive than the other are mattters of writing, of the self-inscription of each writer in her work, of the legible understandings of the task in hand. One book exists because a highly-regarded writer has visited the domain of a destructive epidemic – much as she, and Jane Fonda, once visited Vietnam. Those visits probably did help in shifting consciousness; I’m not so sure about this one. The other book comes out of work on the ideology of new fashions in health-care and health-talk – work which is understood as, centrally, a job of writing. The difference is crucial.

Aids and its Metaphors is a short essay (90 pages), explicitly offered as a kind of sequel to Illness as Metaphor, written in 1976 when Susan Sontag was herself a cancer patient. Both show clear lines of affinity with her work in quite different areas. Twenty-five years ago, in Against Interpretation, she argued for a criticism which attended first, descriptively, to aesthetics, to the intrinsic properties and total character of a work, setting ‘meaning’ in abeyance. ‘In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art,’ she said. It was a call, almost a manifesto, which resonated compatibly with the incipient politics of the decade.

Sontag mediated the works of Benjamin, Barthes, Genet, Godard, Resnais, Bresson, Riefenstahl and Canetti to that American audience which listens first to what is spoken from New York. Every essay, in her lively early collections, enacted her declaration of faith in the indissoluble quiddity of the artefact. You do not peel away the text to reveal the subtext, as though the surface was no more than packaging; you don’t replace the object or the text with a verbal simulacrum; you rather try to serve its existence by writing about what it is and what it does. (The interpretation, of course, begins with the selection of objects.)

When it came to cancer, Sontag stuck to her intellectual guns with exemplary consistency and courage. But while her responses to the life and work of a given artist or writer provided for expanding effects, Illness as Metaphor worked – or meant to – in the opposite direction. The objective was to belittle, deliberately: to get rid of ‘meanings’, of the mythic shadows cast by life-threatening disease, and concentrate strictly on the material facts of it, the chemistry and physiology, the business of treatment, survival or non-survival.

In the course of her argument she produced a highly literary, writerly and readerly essay, patterned with tall shadows, and other, older voices sounding constantly behind her own: the quotations on illness range from the Greeks to Keats and Stendhal, Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield and Auden. The not-so-curious fact is that when people claim to have found the essay helpful in their own and others’ time of illness, it’s not because it persuaded them to make less of the situation, but rather that it proposed links they had not previously thought about between history, writing and present bodily experience. In a few good bookshops you can find it on the shelves marked Health and Healing, rather than – or as well as – in Literature, under the author’s name. The practical value which puts it there lies not in Sontag’s insistence on practicality itself, but in the way the essay is in fact an interpretative artefact, a weaving together of connections, a transformation.

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