Literature and/in illness Bordeaux (France) December 19-20, 2013

full name / name of organization: 
University of Bordeaux (EA CLIMAS-CLARE-ERCIF)

Appel à communications

19-20 décembre 2013

Colloque international à l'université Michel de Montaigne-Bordeaux 3/International Conference University Michel de Montaigne-BOrdeaux 3 (France)

Illness and/in Literature and the Arts


"Like anyone who has had an extraordinary experience I wanted to describe it . . . My initial experience of illness was a series of disconnected shocks and my first instinct was to try to bring it under control by turning it into a narrative."

Anatole Broyard, Intoxicated by My Illness and Other Writings on Life and Death

In his book The Normal and the Pathological, Georges Canghilem, a French physician and philosopher, writes that "disease is not a variation on the dimension of health, it is a new dimension of life."

For centuries illness has been talked about mostly in medical literature. But since the beginning of the 20th century, it has increasingly become a subject for literature and the arts (painting and cinema in particular)—whether it be physical, mental or moral. Even if it is still perceived, experienced, as a "disaster", it is no longer a secret belonging to the private sphere. Ill people (or their family) tell their stories, writers write personal or invented stories of illness, moviemakers show it on screen. A. W. Frank mentions "the need of ill people to tell their stories, in order to construct new maps and new perceptions of their relationship to the world" (The Wounded Storyteller, 1995). Anne Hunsaker Hawkins uses the term "pathography" to refer to this subgenre of autobiography, even if the narrator is not always the ill person.

However, quoting Virginia Woolf's essay "On Being Ill", Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain points out that pain is difficult to express, let alone describe: "Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it." In The Gay Science, Nietzsche gives it a name and calls it "dog," explaining: "I can scold it and vent my bad mood on it, as others do with their dogs, servants, and wives." It is a means for him to regain control, at least to try to do so, thanks to a metaphor; others use "as if" structures to describe their pain—but all need images "to externalize, objectify, and make shareable what is originally an interior and unshareable experience" (Scarry). While the body speaks in symptoms that require deciphering, the "Wounded Storyteller" "talks around", "obliquely", and his narrative needs decoding.

Following Canghilem's theories, Gilles Deleuze developed a so-called "vitalist" philosophy. He examined a certain number of literary texts presenting the same "crack-up" (Fitzgerald, 1936), and he managed to explore the worst and find the best in it. Does it mean that health is "asphyxiating" as Philippe Godin puts it? And that literature is "restorative", as suggested by Deleuze?

The conference will address the above-mentioned questions. Papers can focus on all artistic forms in the English-speaking world. Cultural studies and gender studies are welcome.

Abstracts of about 300 words, in English or in French, are to be sent with a short biography (200 words maximum) to Pascale Antolin ( and Marie-Lise Paoli ( before July 10, 2013.

Notification of acceptance will be sent within the following week.