Lucretius said to handle them with caution; Berkeley, not to handle them at all. Aristotle said that too many confound; Locke, that even one can “mislead the judgment”; Hobbes, that their natural end was “contention and sedition, or contempt.” Sontag said simply, they kill.
Pity the poor metaphor, so maligned, so alluring. We’ve been warned repeatedly — and, inevitably, in metaphors — that metaphors can do terrible things. (According to Sontag, the grotesque metaphors attached to AIDS and cancer contributed to their stigma and prevented people from seeking treatment.) And yet, it’s impossible to go without. Supposedly, we use one metaphor a minute, about one metaphor for every 25 words; we seem scarcely able to string together two thoughts without them (there goes one), they cast such clarifying, necessary light (and another).
The essayist Eula Biss is something of a specialist at handling our twitchiest, most combustible metaphors. In her 2009 collection, “Notes From No Man’s Land,” she picked apart the metaphors we’ve used to construct and report on race in America. In her new book, the subtle, spellbinding “On Immunity,” she goes under the skin. She asks why vaccination triggers such anxiety — anxiety so intense it lives in the language: The British call it a “jab,” Americans, a “shot.”
“The metaphors we find in this gesture are overwhelmingly fearful, and almost always suggest violation, corruption and pollution,” she writes. And though vaccine production is one of our more rigorously regulated industries, vaccines have been blamed for causing everything from allergies to autism. Even though the scientific literature cited by the anti-vaccination movement has been repeatedly debunked, American children — particularly those of white, wealthy, educated parents — are going unvaccinated in increasing numbers, with the predictable consequences. There have been recent outbreaks of mumps and whooping cough. Measles, which had all but disappeared in America, made a major resurgence this year.
Biss doesn’t linger on the outbreaks, nor does she refer to an “anti-vaccination movement.” She speaks only of “mothers.” This book, she tells us, was born out of conversations she had with other mothers while expecting her first child, conversations that complicated her ideas of vaccination and introduced her to a vocabulary of dread. She was warned about potential contaminants — “the frickin’ mercury, the ether, the aluminum, the antifreeze,” in the words of the actress Jenny McCarthy, a vocal critic of vaccination. But Biss realized that what was troubling about vaccines wasn’t what was in them (not least because she says there’s nothing toxic to be found), but the fog of fear surrounding them, how strenuously these mothers insisted that vaccines were dangerous even when presented with evidence to the contrary. “Our fears are dear to us,” she writes, and she parses these fears with kindness and complicity. After all, she says, she matches the profile of the kind of woman inclined to be suspicious of vaccines — white, educated, relatively wealthy — a woman drawn to doing things “naturally,” who tells us she gave birth without pain medication, medical intervention or an IV.
That “naturally” is key. Our anxieties about industrialization, at how we’ve polluted the world and presumably each other, have given the word its particular luster: “Where the word filth once suggested, with its moralist air, the evils of the flesh, the word toxic now condemns the chemical evils of our industrial world.”
Biss reports from deep inside the panic. “My son’s birth brought with it an exaggerated sense of both my own power and my own powerlessness,” she writes. The world became suddenly forbidding: There is the lead paint in the wall to fear, the hexavalent chromium in the water. Even stagnant air, she was told, can kill her child. “It is both a luxury and a hazard to feel threatened by the invisible,” she says. “In Chicago, where 677 children were shot the year after my son was born, I still somehow manage to find myself more captivated by less tangible threats.” Weaning proved especially excruciating. “As long as a child takes only breast milk, I discovered, one can enjoy the illusion of a closed system, a body that is not yet in dialogue with the impurities of farm and factory,” she writes. “I remember feeling agony when my son drank water for the first time. ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ my mind screamed.”
We do love to pit the sacred against the profane, but breast milk, it turns out, contains traces of paint thinners, flame-retardants, even rocket fuel. If it were sold in stores, some samples would exceed federal food-safety levels for pesticides. “We are all already polluted,” Biss learns. “We are crawling with bacteria and we are full of chemicals. We are, in other words, continuous with everything here on earth. Including, and especially, each other.”
Sontag said she wrote “Illness as Metaphor” to “calm the imagination, not to incite it,” and “On Immunity” also seeks to cool and console. But where Sontag was imperious, Biss is stealthy. She advances from all sides, like a chess player, drawing on science, myth, literature to herd us to the only logical end, to vaccinate. To refuse is to fall in love with our fears, to create a fantasy of our purity and vulnerability and forget all the ways we are dangerous. She writes of one mother resistant to vaccination to whom it had never occurred that her child might be strong enough to fight off a virus but might pass it on to someone more vulnerable — a baby, an elderly or sick person — who couldn’t. Vaccines were meant to enlist a “majority in the protection of a minority,” Biss writes. Today, “a privileged 1 percent are sheltered from risk while they draw resources from the other 99 percent.”
“On Immunity” concludes by inviting us to relinquish illusions of the body’s independence and acknowledge our participation in a web of interdependency. This isn’t a treacly take on “community,” though. It’s the blunt reality of blood banks and organ donors. Biss reminds us that we owe each other our lives.
But her realization that “from birth onward, our bodies are a shared space” posits a question. Didn’t “Notes From No Man’s Land,” open with the words “We are all connected, all of us”? Did she feel compelled to create a narrator for “On Immunity” who is more naïve than we know her to be? I suspect it’s more complicated — not a restatement of a theme but a deepening. The idea that all bodies are continuous is greatly important to Biss; she even plays with it textually, with one book leaking into another and the delayed attribution of quotations challenging our notions about what is native to the book and what is foreign. What she seems to be suggesting is that knowledge isn’t an inoculation. It doesn’t happen just once. There are things that must be learned and learned again, seen first with the mind and felt later in the body.
Biss’s “natural” delivery went wrong. After the baby was born, her uterus inverted, and she was taken immediately into surgery. “Alarms were sounded for me, doctors rushed to me, bags of blood were rigged for me,” she writes. “During the birth, when the violence to my body was the greatest, I was most aware not of the ugliness of a body’s dependence on other bodies, but of the beauty of it.” When she wakes, shivering, tethered to IV bags of antibiotics, she’s told: “You’ve had a lot of people’s hands in you.” No metaphors necessary.