The disease of the self: Representing consumption, 1700-1830

Clark Lawlor, Akihito Suzuki

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

26 Citations (Scopus)


Susan Sontag’s now-classic Illness as Metaphor presents a compelling analysis of the paradoxical nature of the disease that was variously called consumption, phthisis pulmonalis, and, later, tuberculosis. Comparing the disease with cancer, she noted a stark contrast in the metaphors generated by the two fatal diseases of modern times: while cancer stood for negative values, consumption served as a metaphor of essentially positive attributes, such as heightened beauty, refined sensibility, and artistic creativity—La Traviata, The Magic Mountain, and John Keats being obvious examples. Or, as Sontag has succinctly put it, “As TB was the disease of the sick self, cancer is the disease of the Other.”1 Her perceptive work has done a great deal to stimulate both medical and literary historians to approach diseases in the past from the perspective of the subjective experience, images, metaphors, and mythologies, supplementing studies of the objective frameworks of medical discoveries, therapeutic breakthroughs, and disease mortality.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)458-494
Number of pages37
JournalBulletin of the History of Medicine
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2000


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