Eula Biss and Metaphors

One way in which we understand our lives and recognize how we function in this world is through metaphor. Like breathing, metaphors are essential to our experiences of being alive. In On Immunity, Eula Biss presents many examples of how our lives—especially our bodies and the concept of immunity—“[remain] remarkably dependent on metaphor, even at the most technical level” (55). Through her look into the ways in which the perceptions of immunity and disease play out in our society, Biss looks at how our “ability to make and understand basic metaphor…arrives with language, which is itself made of metaphor” (12).

But we’re not used to having metaphors mixed in with science. Metaphors, as we usually see them, are only in literary works. And we know some of them well.

  • “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances.” –William Shakespeare
  • “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”—T.S.Eliot
  • “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers.”—Emily Dickinson 

The metaphors we use to convey our experiences in literature are memorable and vivid. They feel like a natural part of literature. Integral, even. But science? What happens when we think about “facts” through analogies and symbols? And, specific to this essay, how do we conceive of and experience the concept of immunity through metaphor? What happens when we poeticize science? In On Immunity, one mode Biss uses to approach and explore the concept of creative language that slips into science is through the classic gothic novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. “Dracula arrives in England just as a new disease might arrive, on a boat. He summons hordes of rats, and his infective evil spreads from the first woman he bites to the children she feeds on, unwittingly, at night. What makes Dracula particularly terrifying…is that he is a monster whose monstrosity is contagious” (15).      

Through Biss’s Dracula metaphor, we can see how disease is considered a monstrous thing, that it can spread and infect others quite easily, and that in reality we can’t stop it like we want to. “Dracula, after all, is not a person so much as he is the embodiment of disease” (153). Here, the vampire represents one main thing we are scared of and in some ways very resistant to: death. Not even garlic hung in a doorway (medicine taken daily) or a stake (syringe) shoved right through the monster’s heart (the heart of the disease) can make us feel fully confident about our emotional and physical safety. Illness can bring on death, and we can’t always ward off illness, no matter how many flu shots Walgreens tells us to get. And if we don’t feel these different types of safety, then it is hard to maintain good health and/or to recover from an illness since we’re so stressed out about the possibility of being in pain or dying from it.

As Biss became a mother, she witnessed how the threat of illness is one of the top things we fear, especially in terms of children. As she began to find herself in different doctors’ waiting rooms while she waited for check-ups and current rounds of shots for her child, Biss discovered how the mothers were, like her, writers. She explains: “And so it is not surprising that I began to hear metaphors behind the technical language and information we traded” (10). Metaphor as a way to understand, a way to cope. Yes, immunity understood through metaphor (55).

It is through these metaphors that we’re able to grasp and understand what we can’t see—the biology of our lives. I can’t see what’s inside of my cells, but I know they’re there, working. And they’re working in ways that we have only been able to describe through, you guessed it, metaphor. The golgi bodies, for example, are the janitors of cells. They pack up and move stuff out of the schoolhouse cell body. The mitochondria is the generator, that source of power. And the ribosomes make protein like a cafeteria lady who makes mystery meat. By bringing metaphors into science, we’re able to understand disease on a different level and in different terms.


Writing Exercises

  1. Write about what lives under your skin—metaphorically and/or literally. What thoughts, what things are back there, within you, and wanting to come to the surface?
  2. Use your knowledge about anatomy in order to write about a relationship you were involved with through these physical parts.
  3. Think of your body as a building structure, such as a home or an office. Use this as a metaphor and write about who you think you are as a person through the different parts of your body.