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Illness As Metaphor By Susan Sontag: Tuberculosis, Cancer, And Poverty

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Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor” focuses in on the analysis of tuberculosis and cancer, how they overlap, and what she believes each of the conditions symbolize. Although disease originates from biology, the lived experience of the disease, the illness, takes into account other factors such as psychological and social effects. The flaw in Sontag’s argument of tuberculosis is that it fails to recognize any perspective that is not related to biology. This is mirrored in the present day understanding of poverty in our society.

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“Poverty is an illness” is a metaphor often used to categorize poverty. Illness is defined as a disease or period of sickness affecting the body or mind. According to Sontag, both tuberculosis and cancer are illnesses and they fit the definition, but what about poverty? Tuberculosis and cancer are biologically-based conditions, which is what qualifies them as illnesses in the first place. However, poverty is neither biologically nor psychologically based, thus does not qualify as an illness. Yet, our society treats poverty as an illness, even though it is a social condition. Despite it being a social condition, our society treats poverty as illness because of detrimental conditions that emerge from it. By romanticizing an illness, it becomes more socially talked about and analyzed. As more interest is generated, society prioritizes this particular illness. This, in turn, leads to more funding to conduct research and generates more data around the topic. As a result, there may be bias in the historical establishment and cultural understanding of these particular diseases. Sontag herself is a cancer survivor which inherently makes her argument against tuberculosis biased. In addition, her argument is well supported by the cultural and historical establishments of this disease because the data is already there. Looking at modern day poverty, it is hard to make a parallel argument. Some define a romanticized condition as social contagion, something that can easily spread if talked about in the right manner. However, it is also more than that. A romanticized condition is about setting unrealistically positive benchmarks for a condition that is not meant to be idealized. The term “romanticize” has been overused in recent classroom and societal settings to express our need as a society to find the good in everything. We started by romanticizing illnesses such as mental health and anorexia and eventually came to romanticize more trivial things such as smoking. We have reached a point in which we can romanticize any and all objects, conditions, and scenarios around us.

In her book, Sontag asserts that illness is purely based upon a physical aspect that is caused by biological reasons and not psychological ones. Science logic being prioritized over emotions is a more common concept today than during her time, yet it was one that she recognized in the midst of social scrutiny against certain illnesses. Tuberculosis is caused by an infectious bacterium, which might seem all too biological but the full illness – like any illness – also involves the will to fight and the will to recognize that you need to fight. Sontag writes “TB is celebrated as the disease of born victims, of sensitive, passive people who are not quite life-loving enough to survive”. This quote represents one extreme and Sontag represents the other. Psychology and biology are inherently linked, making it almost wrong to separate them as Sontag did. This leads to Sontag’s provocative claim in which she argues, “Health becomes banal, even vulgar”. In this quote, she was able to illustrate how health transforms into a socially constructed concept. Romanticizing illness makes good health synonymous with monotony. She is alleging that while a huge portion of the sick population affirms to want to be healthy, there is still a part of them that enjoys having the illness. Not the physical aspect of the illness, but the social part. Another quote that verifies this thought is, “Above all, it was a way of affirming the value of being more conscious, more complex psychologically”. Becoming ill means that other people become aware of you and your condition. Some sympathize, some empathize, and some simply pity. Either way, you are at the center of discussions that otherwise you would have been on the outside of. “I’m so poor” is one of the most used lines that I personally hear on a daily basis. There has been a certain type of separation between the words “poor” and “poverty”, as if they refer to different conditions. The word “poor” is often overused and misused more often than not by someone who has never experienced poverty. Of my most vivid memories from attending school in Atlanta, a leading city for homelessness and poverty, consisted of when a friend of mine was approached by a homeless man outside of a dinner begging for money and her response? “I’m sorry, I’m poor. ” This response was relativised: Perhaps in comparison to her peers she was “poor” but she was not under the poverty line. This statement was inappropriate given the context of the situation and her response flowed too easily and without a thought. In fact, she was about to spend a decent amount of money on an everyday meal.

The line “I’m poor” has become an excuse for us to hide behind when we need to simply say no. This is a prime example of how poverty and illness are victims of social construct: Being poor is an excuse for some, but a reality for others. Being poor can be viewed as a platform for happiness and simplicity. Not realizing the difference between the two words, people regularly mistake poverty for choosing to live a more simplistic life as if it were a choice. Just as Sontag claims that tuberculosis is synonymous with passion and sensitivity, poverty is synonymous with a minimalistic lifestyle and satisfaction. It is those who are rich who romanticize the poor and argue that they are content with what little possessions and wealth they have. The film industry does not stray away from promoting these backward ideas. The poor are often depicted as hard workers, heroes of some type, working towards a better life. What is failed to be depicted; however, is the idea that the poor do not find joy or happiness in their poverty. No one finds joy in eating one meal a day or living in dire conditions. It is only the rich trying to escape the prison of their greed.

As a result of misinterpretations and overuse of metaphors in our society, it is becoming more natural and customary to romanticize poverty. This even extends into religious arguments. Some refer to the New Testament in the Bible as an example, which states, “For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God”. Ignoring all other factors and implying that to remain or to become poor is your highway into heaven. Sontag started by saying that illness adds a new layer of depth and complexity to a person and poverty is often referred to as an “illness. ” If poverty is in fact seen as an illness and as an illness that can grant you a ticket into the “kingdom of God”, then why would anyone want to be cured? On the other hand, just because a condition is being romanticized does not necessarily imply it does not serve a purpose. When it comes to poverty, it is often looked at as a necessary condition for the overall well-being of society. Not everyone can be rich and that is a concept that we always lived upon. For the poor to become less poor results in the rich to become less rich, it is how our economic system was built. And no one is willing to sacrifice their place in our social hierarchy. The rich are meant to become richer and the poor to become poorer. This is our way of maintaining social order; we ask people to accept their conditions and live with them in order to maintain the status quo.

Poverty and tuberculosis, at first glance, may seem to have nothing in common, but they are essentially composed of the same ideologies. Those who can romanticize an illness as deadly as TB are the same kind of people who can put poverty on an idealistic platform. People who, most likely, never experienced nor lived with either condition, are at the root of the whole notion of romanticizing. Poverty and tuberculosis are not caused by similar sources, but they are perceived the same way. It is often the rich that romanticize the poor, as the healthy romanticize the sick.

Our society has become desensitized to disease and social conditions. By romanticizing serious conditions such as Tuberculosis and poverty, we are belittling their meaning. Nearing an edge of becoming completely dehumanized, it is easier to romanticize conditions than to deal with reality. Romanticization is the product of self-involvement.

18 May 2020

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