Corona ‘Jihad’ & Irrfan’s ‘Unwanted Guests’: Illness As a Metaphor
It would be perilous to live and not give pandemic a meaning.
“Nothing is more punitive than to give a disease a meaning.”
-Susan Sontag in Illness as Metaphor
How do we think about an illness? How do we describe it when someone asks: what is it? Is it like bubble or mosaic in your body? We take a recourse to metaphor. The virulent metaphors of the COVID-19 with its violent manifestations, and the heartwarming way in which Irrfan Khan and his wife Sutapa Sikdar described the actor’s battle with cancer have brought Susan Sontag’s classic Illness as Metaphor back into the discussion.
Sontag was against the use of metaphors in illness. She saw it as a dangerous trend that makes the diseased vulnerable. As the spread of COVID-19 in India is seen as a jihad, we can see the impending violence that metaphors can engender.
Why Discuss Metaphors At All?
What happens when illness becomes a metaphor? When disease gets a name? When a physical contagion becomes a fictive imagination adding to communal flames? What happens when virus becomes a figure, and the figure a virus? When COVID 19 carries AK-47 and Muslims carry COVID 19? It is not a play of metaphors. It is about deep-seated Islamophobia percolating into metaphors. It matters when a metaphor becomes menacing in its meanings.
Metaphor, a figure of speech can have devastating impact on minorities when it takes a vicious turn. Sontag calls upon to understand disease without recourse to metaphor. In her view, “lurid metaphors” create dangerous precedent about perception and experience of a disease. The metaphors used for disease were of “horrid kind”. Metaphor deludes us from scientific approach. It also stigmatizes the diseased.
Should the Metaphors be Dropped Entirely?
Illness as metaphor is nothing new. Illness itself was a metaphor for “bad moral quality”. Sontag shows how illness is used as metaphor to demonise others. If the Gypsy was equated with plague, racially mixed were called syphilis, and the Jews, cancerous. They all were minorities. It is through the narratives a society understands illness and being ill, the very narratives become problematic. What Sontag would describe as, “feelings about evil are projected onto disease.”
Likewise, the feelings of disease are projected onto metaphors when we see COVID 19 is emerging from the Nizamuddin markaz. Certainly, the use of metaphors is disturbing. But we also use metaphors beyond the problematic meanings. We are still using ‘corona warriors’, ‘frontline fighters’, and calling doctors and nurses as ‘saviours’. Shall we completely ignore the humane sides of the stories?
Illness is a Narrative
Sontag would want so but her anti-metaphorical approach fails on various grounds. Firstly, it is a case of what Laurence J Kirmayer says a hyper-rationalism. It “ignores the significance of bodily felt meaning and minimizes the way in which emotions compel thought, choice, and action.”
Secondly, her argument is based on one-sided readings of metaphors and illness, which are positivistic in nature.
Thirdly, the assumption that metaphor may obscure scientific thinking does not hold. Neither a metaphorical usage has stopped a scientific approach to disease, nor has a scientific approach curtailed the wings of metaphors. Both have different purposes as myth and history.
Sontag also suggests that naming of illness should be a scientific description based on symptoms of the disease.
In 2005, the World Health Organization adopted ‘best practice for naming new disease’. The ‘best practice’ has been taken into account while naming 2019 novel coronavirus. But even the ‘neutral’ name was able to create the backlash against the minorities. It entails that illness cannot be merely a description; it is a narrative unfolding in our time. It is event of life; it is rites of passage.
Words Can Hurt, Words Can Heal
Sontag’s suggestion is radical but instrumental. Her solution is ideal but impractical. Can we stop telling the stories when we are ill? Can we stop sharing the experiences when we are not keeping well? Can we stop making meaning when illness is enduring and it is a matter of life and death? Perhaps not.
Despite my reverence for Sontag and empathetic supports for her arguments, I do not see it as solution. In fact, what Sontag suggests appears to be anti-poetic, anti-narrative and anti-life in spite of its humanitarian concerns.
Metaphors are part of socio-political thinking. Metaphors may stop but not the thinking. True, that metaphorical thinking can incite violence. And anti-metaphorical thinking may lessen the scope of violence, but this is not a solution. Genocidal communities will find the language of genocide, sometimes turning disease into metaphors, sometimes turning metaphors into disease, and sometimes by creating new rhetoric of violence.
Today they are shouting, Corona jihad se desh bachao (Save the country from Corona Jihad), tomorrow they will shout ‘Jihad is as contagious as COVID 19 ’. The point is to think of the metaphors that can bring profound rupture without making the ill ailing. If words can hurt, words can also heal. The point should be to detoxify the metaphors around illness.
What Irrfan’s Illness Narrative Taught Us
Illness narrative of actor Irrfan Khan is a lesson for us. Should we have asked Irrfan not to tell his narrative? That would have been too cruel. What he wrote: “I’m here with you and yet I’m not […] my body has been gate crashed by some unwanted guests with whom I am negotiating with right now. Let’s see where this conversation goes…”
His metaphors are full of life. His words feel like pearls in deep sea. His narratives generate a new sensibility towards the illness.
Narrative is form of life; it cannot be divorced from experiences. The enduring patients see hope and promises in narrative time. The time that does not hold dwells in narrative. What Irrfan said meant “wait for me”.
It would be perilous to live and not give pandemic a meaning. On the contrary, in the time of pandemic, it is only the profound meanings of life, death and illness that will hold the humanity together.
(Brahma Prakash is an Assistant Professor of Theatre and Performance Studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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