Residents walk past burned houses in Breezy Point, a neighborhood located in the New York City borough of Queens, after it was devastated by Hurricane Sandy. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)
Violent external storms, like their internally felt cousin, illness, occur with frequency as symbols throughout literature. Storms rage. Illness disables.
Amidst the seriousness of Hurricane Sandy that pounded us here in the U.S. (passing right above my own roof) and the dire consequences of its destructive wrath, on every channel and news site, came images of Mother Nature’s extreme power.
It’s wallop occurred at the near breaking-point of a now down-to-the-wire U.S. Presidential election. Hence Sandy took on added significance both from the actual on the ground logistical sense, with the death and wreckage it left behind as well as a metaphor for an angry planet crying out for attention barely given it on the campaign trail.
From within and without, storms and illnesses have a long pedigree as metaphors from which the state of the world is reflected. And with the fluid speed of the Internet, the pain held by that momentary reality can be palpable. But does it do it justice?
Let’s work from the inside out.
In her combative treatise “Illness As Metaphor”, Susan Sontag delineates how illness has been used in literature and seeks to demystify it. She writes how, in Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain”, a character explains, “Symptoms of disease are nothing but a disguised manifestation of the power of love; and all disease is only love transformed.” Likewise she says, Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is often cited as a case history of the link between cancer and characterological resignation.”
But relinquishing disease from the cuffs of metaphor is not at all easy as she herself describes with analogies to war, when she comments on the fact that the same vocabulary is used in reference to cancer, aerial warfare and science fiction. “Cancer cells invade the body, patients are bombarded with toxic rays, chemotherapy is chemical warfare: the enemy is a nameless Other to be conquered and destroyed.”
While metaphor associates distant experiences with commonly understood illustrative devices, it nevertheless distorts. Perhaps because the real life agony associated with illness is too heavy and all-too-human to be carried by the flimsy medium of metaphor.
On the larger canvas, does weather fare better?
Biblically, Jonah, while running from his responsibility to go to Nineveh, gets caught in a huge storm after which he’s eventually tossed overboard and swallowed by a fish. The storm is retribution for his cowardly action.
Similarly, from “The Tempest” to “King Lear”, Shakespeare used the power of storms to portray the helpless state of man. In Act I, Scene I of “The Tempest”, the boatswain reckons that even kings cannot "command these elements" of wind and water, and tells Antonio and Sebastian that they can either "keep below" or help the sailors.”
In Lear, the raging storm on the heath is an apt metaphor for what’s going on inside his mind due to his fury at his daughters and his own madness. It also parallels Britain’s fall into political chaos as Lear’s in the process of dividing his kingdom.
In the postmodern world, injected with psychological fascination, illness of the mind and the insane asylum became a metaphor with Peter Weiss'' “Marat/Sade”, a play that takes place in an asylum or as Israeli playwright Motti Lerner portrayed it with a rehab hospital in “The Murder of Isaac.”
Was the patient crazy or was it just a metaphor for us all living inside the even more insane institution of a government and society gone bonkers?
In Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” the asylum serves as America as told and narrated by The Chief, a Native American.
Literature as media, in light of the now immediate images of carnage and tragedy beamed onto ones handheld device today appears provincial. The 1,000 words inherently held in the microscopic picture accompanying the 140-word Tweet, race like The Flash and outpace the output provided by the needed distance necessary to conjure literature.
The images have gained and surpassed their verbal counterparts even vying for the mantle of reality as they replace it in the minds of some making the medium more real than the actual.
Much later in her career, Sontag wrote “Regarding The Pain of Others” and condemned the notion that this real pain, felt by those actually suffering, was somehow unreal. She writes, “There is still a reality that exists independent of the attempts to weaken its authority.”
The image, the tweet, the post is no replacement for pain.