“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds a dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place” (Sontag 3).
In Illness as Metaphor Susan Sontag famously relates illness to belonging to the “kingdom of the sick.” Perhaps Sontag chose such an absolute and strong metaphor because she herself was suffering from a serious illness. This harsh reality might have led her to emphasize the oppressive nature of illness, as well as the impracticality of attempting to evade it. Sontag’s representation of illness illustrates the lack of choice when it comes to illness. She states, “sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place”; thus, at some point in life each individual is destined to be burdened with sickness, regardless of how dire or trivial it may be. For example, one person may enter the realm of the sick, saddled by the injustice of cancer, while his neighbor merely has his “passport” stamped due to the common cold. Moreover, Sontag’s metaphor argues a dichotomy between the well and the sick as, according to her, they do belong to two separate kingdoms. This choice to portray the two states of being as completely detached entities shows Sontag’s view that there can never be a gray area when it comes to sickness; one is either well or ill, but one is never caught in the middle. This definitiveness ultimately aids Sontag in communicating the gravity illness carries in her mind.
While I do agree with many aspects of Sontag’s metaphor, I choose a different metaphor to portray illness: “Illness is a symphony.” In a symphony there are low notes, high notes, and rests. To the untrained eye, the composition may simply appear as a deluge of notes, but to the expert there is a reason for each of them. A musical virtuoso can approach the challenging score with poise and grace, while the bitter novice merely drowns in his own doubts. The conductor may call for a break in the barrage, but the song lies latent in each of us until the composer decides to make his work known. Often the best a musician can do is to merely await his solo, and in the meantime focus on the orchestral performance at hand.
Similar to Sontag, my metaphor implies how illness is inescapable and how each of us is bound to come into contact with it eventually. However, I choose to describe illness and healthiness as having a certain cohesiveness about them. As with a symphony, illness and healthiness flow together, resonating consonance when the composition is complete. Along with this, my metaphor differs from Sontag’s as I choose to make illness seem a bit more cyclical, with a predetermined pattern to the ups and downs that are inherent within a symphony. In addition, the symphony metaphor allows the reader to relate illness not only to the individual suffering from it, but also the metaphorical audience, which in literal terms would be this person’s friends and family. Thus, my metaphor allows for a more communal feel for illness, stripping it of its quarantined nature. Furthermore, I include the difference attitude makes when approaching the concept of illness, a connotation that Sontag omits from her metaphor. The unique implications of each metaphor, however, still convey a common message, because of the manner in which we both choose to depict illness as an inevitable and powerful force.
Taking into consideration both of these metaphors, one can assess the uses and abuses of metaphors in general. This method of figurative language enables the writer to discuss the substance of a composition in a more metaphysical sense. A metaphor—in this case on illness, is able to turn a subject that is usually looked at through an objective lens into something more abstract. On the one hand, the metaphor enhances the general audience’s ability to understand the characteristics of a particular illness because it can be related to something more familiar. On the other hand, these metaphors on illness fail to enforce the reality of illness, making it more romanticized, a result that is inherent in figurative language. Thus, metaphors may take away from the true gravity of a subject through the inclusion of literary discourse. As a whole though, I believe that metaphors enhance meaning as they lead the audience on an abstract path of understanding that they would not have ventured down without deploying this academic lens.
Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978. Print.