Book Review

Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors by Susan Sontag

I've been ignoring my depressive relapse by studying AIDS

Image result for illness as metaphor and aids and its metaphors

AIDS has taken a significant amount of my conscious attention over the past few weeks. Why? What has led me to culturally engage with a topic that has had no weighty real-world attention for a couple of decades, and one that has no personal connection with me at all.

Everyone interesting of my parents’ generation knew someone – usually multiple people – who died of AIDS.

I wish I was dying.

No, I don’t.

I don’t wish I was dying of AIDS or of cancer or of anything else. I already feel like I’m dying. Dying of just… being alive.

I don’t wake up happy. I don’t go to sleep happy. Sometimes I go to sleep tired and sometimes – though increasingly rarely – I go to sleep drunk. Sometimes I read a book I enjoy a lot, sometimes I see a wonderful film or episode of a TV show or I have an exciting personal interaction or I have a piece of writing accepted somewhere but-

I do, I feel like I’m dying.

I feel the inevitability of my own death and I feel an absence of time time time time time time time.

What the fuck should I be doing?

I know, yes I’m only thirty, but also, yeah, I’m already thirty.

I have two degrees but I don’t have a career. I’ve had a book of poetry and a chapbook published and a handful of articles elsewhere, but I earn barely any money from it, certainly less than I spend on books.

Writing doesn’t make me money, in fact my continued inability to value anything else except my writing and my urge to be writing costs me costs me costs me on a daily basis, financially.

If I didn’t care so childishly about reading and writing I could hold down a dull but paid job. If I earned minimum wage for all the hours I spend engaged with literature I’d have a comfortable salary, certainly more money than I need slash want.

When I do something I don’t want to do it hurts.

I cry and I scream and I have panic attacks. I sit and stare at walls or water and I do nothing.

Instead of trying to find a job, I write a blog.

Instead of pitching an article to a magazine, I write a poem.

Instead of responding to emails, I edit together a live album of me reading poetry. Nobody wants that.

Instead of getting my life in order, I spend two hours making a (tbf delicious) stew and listening to podcasts.

Instead of having a social life, I go and use cardio machines at a cheap gym and watch HBO dramas about AIDS.

Instead of researching anything I could write about with any kind of personal authority – mental illness, Parkinson’s disease, being bullied, being manipulated, directionlessness, being over-educated, hair loss, having a dog, whatever – instead I fucking research AIDS.

My interest in AIDS is absolutely fucking touristic and I should be ashamed of myself.

I’m not gay or a heroin user, and though I was treated as if I was gay throughout school, university and in certain scenarios afterwards, this didn’t put me in any at-risk group for HIV infection. I’m just another dull fucking monogamous heterosexual lower middle class loser who didn’t work hard enough at the right times or in the right ways to have what would conventionally be considered success.

I quit jobs because they make me cry. That isn’t the behaviour of an adult. Adults don’t cry because they’re unfulfilled, adults fucking get on with their small little lives and don’t pretend they’d be happier if they, what, had a thicker book with their name on the cover???

I don’t have jobs that I care about and this makes me weep, too. I get by. I do what I have to do. I’ve had more cash, but I’ve also had less. What I used to have but have no longer, though, is proximate affluence, and though I’m glad to be rid of it, a troubling question often arises in my mind:

What psychological situation would I be in now if I hadn’t had that security in my twenties? Yes, other people’s money and the way other people with money treated me exacerbated lots of my problems, but they also allowed me access to therapy and medication that would not have happened (so easily) had I been elsewhere. I worry that I might have already died. I worry that I’d be locked up, in a ward, even more damaged than I am, because at least the ways in which I’m damaged now are ways that I can handle being damaged in. I worry that I escaped my destined early death through the very thing that made my youth deeply unhappy. Was I always going to be achingly depressed and anxious and a waster? Probably, yes. But, was I always going to get through young adulthood alive and (in my own very cynical way) optimistic? That one’s not a given.

I fucking hate my memories and my past, but would every other potential past have given me the access to mental health services that have allowed me to develop an understanding of my own needs, hopes and aspirations?

Though, was that even helpful? Did I make my decision to reject society, normative society, before I even understood what normative society, like, was??? A good half of the people who live in the same building as me in this gentrifying district of a big city look like addicts, or look like they have mental health problems. Do I look, to them, the same as them, or like an other? I don’t have any money, and whenever I do I spend it on booze (and books). Am I gentrifying the place because I have a postgraduate degree and eat fresh vegetables, or am I an authentic working class adult living slightly above the poverty line? I basically spend all my money on rent, debts and alcohol, BUT I can quit a job I don’t like without real fear of ending up homeless. This detaches me from the authentic working class claim, right? I’m further from the edge than many of my neighbours. But I’m a lot closer to that edge than I was for most of my twenties…

I… I don’t have proper work, I don’t have much of an income, I don’t have any security or many responsibilities or much hope. I don’t have a social life but I don’t want one. I don’t have a career but I don’t know how I’d even get one or if I’d even be able to handle it without tears and panic attacks. Probably not.

I’m not happy with myself. I don’t want to meet people because I don’t want to have to explain or justify my increasingly confusing life decisions. I have serious mental health problems that I allow allow allow to overwhelm my life. Do I need more medication or less, to push me into more societally engaged living? I should try and get a job so I can earn money and pay off my debts and save up so I can like try and move to a place where I’m happy to, I dunno, live until I die. Which, alas, probably won’t be for a while.

I’ve never been living a life that I’d be content to stay within until death. I’ve always been waiting for the next bit, except for – basically – 2018. I knew, when I was in Brixton and then Barcelona that I had a life I was happy with. I can’t return to that, because it’s the past. The past has withered, even though I have not.

I am the healthiest I have ever been as an adult. I am drinking less and excersing more than since before I first discovered beautiful drunkenness. Why? I don’t want to extend my life, I don’t want to be healthier, I just just just-


Sontag’s pair of essays – Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors – aggressively critique my current interest in AIDS.

Sontag writes about how cancer, tuberculosis, AIDS and – hinting at its future increase in metaphorical importance – mental illness are used as potent symbols and definitive statements about those who suffer from them.

As my depression has grown again, this time without the external factors I used to escape it before (e.g. living in exciting places, having a social life, having work that was appropriate to my education, making dramatic steps forward with my writing), perhaps it was inevitable that I would end up focusing my intellectual attention on a disease that a) I do not have and b) is far less dangerous and terrifying than it once was.

I have been thinking about AIDS because I don’t want to think about my own depression or the very real and very destructive illnesses that are right now killing people I share genes with, far across the freezing sea. I am exercising and reading a lot and listening to a lot of podcasts because you can’t fucking cry on a cross trainer and being mentally wrapped up in other people’s writing allows me the justification to write these posts, this nothing, rather than pushing me into more serious literary pursuits. I can pretend I’m still writing, as I continue to publish a blog twice a week, but I’m not, am I? This isn’t art, and nor will it ever be.

In blogging more than I write creatively, and more too than I do anything remunerative, I am preventing forward momentum. I am reactive and responsive, rather than creative. I am not creating or exhibiting energy, I am merely a distorted mirror: the poems and blogs I put out are the shattered fucking reflection of my damaged, but fixable, self.

I need to stop reading about AIDS and start behaving like I matter to myself, even if I don’t at the moment.

Forwards forwards forwards forwards.

The Sontag is great, btw. It’s Scott Manley Hadley who isn’t.

Sometimes, when I was writing the above as I walked around Toronto alone on one of the first pleasant Spring days of the year, I felt like I was writing a suicide note. That in itself, right, is a red fucking flag.

Download my weird live album via Bandcamp.

Order my raucous poetry collection via Open Pen.

Order my sad prose chapbook via Selcouth Station Press.

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1 comment on “Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors by Susan Sontag

  1. Pingback: The End (My Struggle Book Six) by Karl Ove Knausgaard – Triumph Of The Now

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