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Culture Carries Marks of Epidemic Diseases

February 23, 1986|ANNE C. ROARK

The arts and language itself are filled with epidemic-inspired symbols and allusions.

Two of the more famous literary examples are Thomas Mann's "Magic Mountain," a 1924 German novel about a tuberculosis sanitarium, and Albert Camus' "The Plague," a 1947 French novel about a modern outbreak of bubonic plague.

Many modern idioms in English can also be traced directly to early epidemics. To be a "moral leper" or to be "treated like a leper" refers to the biblical notion that victims of leprosy were sinners who were to be cast out of society.

Nearly everyone who has ever gone to a doctor has at one time or other come home with a "clean bill of health," a phrase surely inspired when ships were required in the 16th Century, upon entering a new port, to present a bill of health certifying that the last port of call had been free from disease.

Even fashion has been influenced by outbreaks of incurable diseases.

In "Illness as Metaphor," essayist Susan Sontag describes how tuberculosis, a disease of the lungs characterized by loss of weight and weakness, became romanticized in the 19th Century.

It was reflected, she said, in a famous phrase attributed to the Duchess of Windsor: "One can never be too rich. One can never be too thin." The popularity of this notion has been carried to the present day in women's fashions and their cult of thinness.

Similarly, the AIDS epidemic has begun to affect art and language in America, said George Rousseau, a professor of English at UCLA who has studied the connections between medicine and literature for several years. Two major plays about AIDS have been staged--"The Normal Heart," adapted from a book by Larry Kramer, and "As Is," by William Hoffman.

And the language has begun to be transformed, at least in the gay community. "People now ask, 'Are you negative?' meaning, 'Did your test for AIDS antibodies turn out negative?' Negative is actually becoming a positive word," Rousseau said.

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