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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Writing the unspeakable : metaphor in cancer narratives Teucher, Ulrich C.


Narratives of life with illness, disability or trauma occupy a rapidly growing field in literary studies, and increasingly so over the last thirty years. Among the illnesses, cancer is the one most often addressed. It is obviously an experience that is enormously difficult to put into language: how should the suffering, the uncertainty, and the fear of dying be stated? Many patients, some of whom were writers before the fact, struggle to find a language that can represent their experience adequately. To them, cancer is not only a biomedical story, but their lived experience. For some, pain and changes in the body that accompany cancer may escape communication through words altogether. Along with other life-threatening diseases, cancer can make one face the very limits of linguistic expression. Therefore, cancer discourse abounds with imaginative tropes such as metaphors. In fact, as Anatole Broyard has noted in "Intoxicated by my Illness" (1992), his autobiographical narrative about life with cancer, "the sick man sees everything as metaphor" (7). Broyard's text, replete with metaphors, is itself a metaphor of his experience. Given the pervasiveness of metaphor in cancer discourse, it is important to examine how these tropes are used in the struggle for meaning. Which metaphors can give expression to, or help people deal with such crises? Cancer is evidently an extreme experience that puts every theory of language developed over the last thirty years to the test. Despite these challenges, cancer narratives have undergone a remarkable explosion, covering the full narrative spectrum from self-help books to highly aestheticized works of art. The language and organization of the writing depend on a variety of factors, including, in addition to writerly skill: the individual's type of illness, its stage, its prognosis, progression and treatment, and the resources at the person's disposal, including support from family and the community. The texts as metaphor and the metaphors in the texts can reveal a writer's general orientation towards the body and self, illness, life and death. As such factors and orientations differ, often radically, from person to person, each cancer narrative tells a unique story. Moreover, the language of each narrative reveals an astonishing variety of attributed or assumed meanings that appear particularly crucial in cancer. Metaphors that may seem constructive and therapeutic to one patient, or writer (or to his/her readers) can be entirely destructive and further traumatizing for others. The language that patients use reveals an ambiguity in meaning whose range is so perplexing that writers—indeed, most people—are only now beginning to come to terms with it. Those who do not have cancer and live in relative certainty may, in fact, enjoy the excess of meaning that metaphor can present. However, when faced with overwhelming existential uncertainty, and longing for more stable ground, the ambiguity of language can become problematic. Despite all these difficulties, many people with cancer struggle to make meaning of their experience and tell or write their story. This ambivalence, between the impossibility of adequately narrativizing radical illness experiences and a fundamental need to try, is the central structuring principle of my study, and constitutes the core problem I will be investigating. The purpose of this thesis is to establish the crucial importance of metaphor in cancer discourse and to analyze its resources, ambiguities and ambivalences in narratives of life with cancer, written in English and German. Primarily a comparative literary analysis, it involves a "synthetic" methodological approach. I examine not only the literary, but also the psychological and therapeutic properties of metaphors, drawing upon my literary training, my skills as a social scientist, and my practice as a nurse. This "therapeutic psychopoetics," as it were, is based on an empirical, cross-cultural study of metaphors in cancer discourse. Metaphors shape our ability to frame our experience. Because our meanings vary so radically, we need to analyze the range of metaphoricity in cancer discourse and map the resources of language for conceptualizing cancer. Elaine Scarry (1985) has described the move from unspeakable pain to speech as the birth of language. In cancer, metaphor can help to make this birth of language possible. Appropriating the unknown, conveying the unspeakable through the known, metaphor provides the building blocks of language and narratives. A fuller awareness of this resource and its ambiguities can help us find patterns of narrative forms and language used to give voice to the experience of life with cancer and improve our sense of the complexity of problems involved in cancer therapy.

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