Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors critique the use of metaphoric language, particularly military metaphors of invasion and battle, to describe illness experiences. Metaphors generate explanatory narratives, just as stories often use a resonant metaphor as shorthand for them. Metaphors and narratives can suggest reductive or stereotypical ways of imagining illness, disability, and other experiences of embodiment. However, rather than attempting to limit the metaphoric framing of illness, we should work to confer the agency to make metaphors on a larger constituency, one that always includes the patient. The author's first-person ovarian cancer narrative illustrates that not having the capacity to make metaphors for one's embodied experiences can affect the timing of diagnosis; the dearth of effective public metaphors for imagining some internal organs, such as the ovaries, contributes to the problem. Metaphors can be reductive, but they can also generate a wide range of relationships between illness and the person experiencing it, as illustrated by examples including Margaret Atwood's short story “Hairball.” Simile, in particular, which expresses similarity but not equivalence and thus does not erase difference, can spur healthy ways of imagining illness. Some recent literature has suggested that doctors use metaphor to communicate with patients; this gives doctors the power to determine which metaphors will frame the illness and direct its narrative. The lessons of narrative medicine, which advocate that patients and doctors use narrative collaboratively to generate a more effective understanding and treatment of illness, need to be extended to include the practice of metaphor.
Martha Stoddard Holmes; After Sontag: Reclaiming Metaphor. Genre 1 September 2011; 44 (3): 263–276. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00166928-1407594
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