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This paper reads the epidemic afflicting Thebes in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus as a contagion of signs. Thebes is suffering from hypersemiosis: a surfeit of signification in the body and the body politic. My subject, then, is not illness as metaphor, but metaphor as illness. For in hypersemiosis truth does not issue forth transparently but is simultaneously concealed and revealed through signs situated in the body: not truth itself, but figures thereof. In Illness as Metaphor Susan Sontag asks us to regard cancer tautologically, as “just a disease . . . Without ‘meaning’” (102). Illness as Metaphor is an attack on figural representations of disease: “My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness – and the healthiest way of being ill – is one . . . most resistant to, metaphoric thinking” (3). My argument in this paper is the converse: that metaphor is not an illness; and that the healthiest way of regarding truth is the one least resistant to metaphoric thinking. All illness is, of course, essentially metaphorical, manifested as it is through symptoms, signs referring back to an underlying aetiology. What is in dispute is not the semiotic aspect of illness, but the nature of that aetiology. From an “archaic” point of view (e.g., Homer, Sophocles, Exodus 16-19, Jerry Falwell, Tony Kushner) the plague has a larger purpose, emanating from a “supernatural” agency; from a “modern” perspective (e.g., Thucydides, Boccaccio, Pasteur, Camus, Sontag) the plague is without purpose, a purely “natural” event. But if all illness is metaphor, it is equally the case that all metaphor is illness. Sontag’s crusade against metaphor is tied to a venerable hermeneutics equating truth with health. Aristotle regards metaphor both as the infiltration of a foreign body into the text (Rhetoric 3.2), and a contagion of meaning within the body of the text (Poetics 1457b5-10); a confusion corresponding to two distinct aetia traditionally ascribed to the plague, both clearly visible in OT. In the first, the body is assailed by something external, as when a virus infects its host (thus the lamentations of the priest: “the flaming god, the malign plague, has swooped upon us [elaunei, strikes, attacks], and ravages the town” [trans. Jebb 27-29]); in the second the body (and body politic) is polluted by something internal, as in the manifestation of a previously latent condition (so the diagnosis from Delphi, as reported by Creon, commanding the Thebans to “drive out a pollution from our land [chôras], / Pollution grown ingrained [tethrammenon]within the land [chthoni]” [96-98]). OT shows the distinction between these pathologies is illusory: the epidemic (epidêmos, “sojourning in a place”) is endemic (endêmos, “dwelling in a place, native” [Liddell and Scott]). This paper approaches the Theban plague as a contagion of metaphor. When the priest declares, “A blight [phthinousa men]is on the fruitful plants of the earth, / A blight [phthinousa d'] is on the cattle in the fields . . . on our women that no children / are born to them” (trans. Grene 25-27), the figure of anaphora reinforces the idea that different symptoms are the same symptom, all figures themselves, metaphors re-enacting the same aetiology. The use of anaphora and other figures (paronomasia, anadiplosis, euphemism, etc.), I argue, reproduces the effect of contagion on both the level of syntax and semantics; as if language itself were infected with the plague.

Works Cited

  • Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Ingram Bywater. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941. 1455-87.
  • Aristotle. Rhetoric. Trans. J. H. Freese. Aristotle in 23 Volumes. Vol. 22. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926.
  • Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. W. H. Fyfe. Aristotle, The Poetics; “Longinus,” On the Sublime; Demetrius, On Style. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965. 4-118.
  • Liddell, H. G., and R. Scott. Greek-English Lexicon. Revised and augmented throughout by Henry Stuart Jones. 9th edition; with Revised Supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
  • Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.

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