Abstracts and speakers

Katharine Murphy

Metaphors of Sickness in Spanish Cultural Production: Aboulia as an Epidemic of Exhaustion

At the turn of the twentieth century, aboulia was frequently cited by intellectuals and authors as a prominent symptom of degeneration, thereby providing a useful metaphor for the perceived exhaustion of the Spanish people. The diagnosis of the nation in relation to an epidemic of fatigue combined and confused biological explanation with fears about Spain’s future. I contend that cultural narratives of this period drew powerfully on medical sciences for the diagnosis of problems that were, in reality, political, social and cultural in origin. The cultural myths of aboulia and degeneration, therefore, offer a fruitful context for the study of a wider phenomenon that persists to the current day: the identification and legitimisation of pathological symptoms through the transposition of medical terminology to describe a community or nation during a period of perceived crisis. Metaphors of sickness, for example, were particularly resonant in Spanish fiction following the 1898 ‘disaster’ and the loss of Spain’s New World Empire. My paper traces the literary treatment of aboulia in the novels of Pío Baroja, a well-known author who studied medicine at the University of Madrid and practised briefly as a doctor in the Basque Country. It explores literary examples of aboulia in early twentieth-century Spain in order to propose a broader paradigm for our understanding of cultural metaphors of sickness. I propose that the ways in which these symbols respond to national circumstances resonate beyond a specific geographical or temporal context.

Katharine Murphy is Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies and Comparative Literature in the Department of Modern Languages, University of Exeter. She is author of Bodies of Disorder: Gender and Degeneration in Baroja and Blasco Ibáñez (Cambridge: Legenda, 2017) and Re-Reading Pío Baroja and English Literature (Bern: Peter Lang, 2004). She has published widely on Spanish Modernism and Comparative Literature, and was co-organiser for the 60th Anniversary Conference of the Association of Hispanists of Great Britain and Ireland in 2015. She is currently researching metaphors of sickness in Spanish cultural production from the turn of the twentieth century to the post-war period.


James Illingworth

George Sand, Sickness, and the Body Politic, 1870–71

When looking for potential case studies for medical humanist research, George Sand is generally not the first writer to which one might turn. Her works have long been considered under categories such as ‘idealist’, ‘sentimental’, or ‘pastoral’, and examinations of her texts have therefore focused on the inner, emotional lives of the individuals she depicts or on their relationship to nature. Yet illness is notably present in the pieces she produced in the period during and immediately following the Franco-Prussian War. Through readings of these texts, this paper will establish the ways in which Sand approached the socio-political climate of the period in ways that coalesce around depictions of bodies that in turn come to assume a broader political significance, not least the eponymous heroine of Francia (1871) who, as her name suggests, comes to allegorize the nation state. After placing this text within the context of Sand’s other works of the period (Journal d’un voyageur pendant la guerre and Nanon), this paper will consider Sand’s use of illness in this text as a means of figuring the perceived illness of the nation. It will privilege above all the figure of the doctor, who in this text is the only one to correctly recognise Francia’s mental illness and in turn can be seen to represent the good reader, suggestive on the one hand of the ways France can learn from its past but also of how we, as readers, can better approach Sand’s texts at large.

James Illingworth is Teaching Fellow in French at the University of Leicester. He completed his PhD at Queen’s University Belfast in 2018, in which he examined the representation of the body in the works of George Sand. His thesis was highly commended for the George Sand Association Memorial Prize in 2019 and won the bourse doctorale of the Adeffi (Irish Association of French Studies) in 2017. He has published on various aspects of gender and culture in nineteenth-century France, including on Sand’s engagements with medicine and ecology, as well as his broader interests in the history of collecting.


Şima İmşir

Ottomans’ Zola: Limits of Naturalism and Social Darwinism in Turkish Literature

In the second half of the nineteenth century, scientific world-views were espoused by many Ottoman intellectuals who saw positivism as a tool to engineer a new Ottoman society. Towards the end of the century, social Darwinism became a debated topic among members of the intelligentsia as well as the politicians. With the foundation of the modern Turkish Republic, these perspectives evolved into discourses on the “healthy nation”. In particular, the work of German materialist Ludwig Buchner, French physiologist Claude Bernard and later, English naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin, among many others, became influential names that provided key scientific and positivist ideas through which society could be analysed and transformed. As the hereditary qualities of the population became a matter of concern, this discourse inevitably found its representation in works of literature from melodramas to national romances. Emile Zola, in particular, and with him naturalism became highly debated subjects; while some writers were criticizing Zola’s naturalism, some combined Zola’s naturalism with Islamic spiritualism.  For instance, Halit Ziya Uşaklıgil, a well-known writer of the period, wrote in his Hikaye (Story), ‘The Goncourts are also realists but in spite of this their work is not filthy. There is filth in Zola, why?’ In this presentation I will discuss how Zola and naturalism functioned in the Social Darwinist discourse in Turkish literature through the works of Ahmed Midhat and Halide Edib Adıvar, and argue that Zola’s novels and his understanding of naturalism worked as a dynamic and thought-provoking barrier for the novelists of the last quarter of the nineteenth century; one that would lead the way to positivist thought, but exceeding the barrier was regarded as highly dangerous, morally corrupt and radical.

Şima İmşir is an assistant professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Istanbul Sehir University. She received her BA degree from the Department of Comparative Literature and her MA degree from the Department of Women Studies. Having received School of Arts, Languages and Cultures funding from the University of Manchester, she completed her PhD at the University of Manchester and taught as a teaching assistant between 2013–2018. Her PhD research examined ideological and discursive constructions of diseases in women writers’ fiction in Turkish in the twentieth century by looking at a variety of genres from melodramas to modernist fiction.


Damian Catani

Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Tragic Hero: Philippe Ignace Semmelweis

Although primarily known as a novelist, Louis-Ferdinand Céline wrote a medical thesis, La Vie et l’Œuvre de Philippe Ignace Semmelweis (1924), that was a biography of the forgotten nineteenth-century Hungarian doctor (1818–65) who discovered the cure for puerperal fever, only to be unjustly vilified and unrecognized in his own lifetime. This paper analyses Céline’s reverence for Semmelweis as a tragic hero who individually embodies a number of medical, religious and literary archetypes. It explores his careful exploitation of these archetypes to cultivate a public persona he would modify in accordance with his shifting fortunes. When he first shot to fame in the early 1930s, this persona was that of the self-sacrificing, anti-elitist ‘doctor-writer’ who tirelessly practiced in the working-class district of Clichy during the Depression. The attributes of Semmelweis on which this early persona drew were first, the Balzacien and Positivist physiognomie or detailed physical character study of a subject deemed to be of social interest; secondly, the religious genre of the hagiography or ‘vita’ of the saint as a kind of martyr figure — a ‘médecin des pauvres’ who acts as a moral exemplar to society; and thirdly, the literary archetypes of the misunderstood Romantic genius, in the manner of Edgar Allan Poe, and the socially devoted and ascetic doctor typified by Zola’s Naturalist Docteur Pascal. By the late 1930s, however, Céline was emphasizing Semmelweis as the epitome of the accursed genius and social outcast, thereby reflecting the more defensive and reactionary public persona he was now adopting in response to his literary and political fall from grace. He republished his thesis on the doctor in 1936, just after the disappointing reception of his second novel Mort à Credit, and explicitly identified with him as a fellow victim of social injustice when he was condemned and exiled in Denmark for his Fascist sympathies in the late 1940s.

Damian Catani’s three main research interests are nineteenth-century French poetry (especially Mallarmé and Baudelaire), representations of evil in nineteenth- and twentieth-century French literature and thought, and the novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline. His publications include: The Poet in Society: Art, Consumerism and Politics in Mallarme (New York: Peter Lang, 2003), Evil: A History in Modern French Literature and Thought (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), and ‘Louis-Ferdinand Céline, literary genius or national pariah? defining moral parameters for influential cultural figures, post-Charlie Hebdo’, (French Cultural Studies, July, 2016). He is currently writing a biography of Céline, to be published by Reaktion Books.


Caragh Wells

The Anxious Male Body in Post-War Spanish Culture

Despite the paucity of medical accounts of male neurosis and anxiety under Francoism, representations of the neurotic or depressed man are ubiquitous in post-war Spanish fiction and films during the period. Under Francoism, a hierarchy of gendered power was naturalized as men were expected to perform their patriarchal and domineering roles across all social spheres, both publicly and within the private domain of the home. This paper explores how writers and film makers presented an alternative version of masculinity to that of the militaristic male archetype through images of the depressed, anxious or neurotic male body. What is under investigation is the split between the socially performed role of the strong, silent male alongside the deeper, emotional needs and fragility of some male subjects, subjects who remained unable to articulate their true selves and whose physical displays of emotional weakness represented a threat to a national ideal of a mythologized ‘yo ideal’. This term, coined by the right-wing Spanish psychiatrist Antonio Vallejo-Nájera, emphasised the importance of men aligning their identity to national heroes and denying their psychological individuality. This plays out in male gestures, group behaviour and cultural practices performed through the body, whilst simultaneously denying the individual psyche. The dissonance between masculinity as a form of bodily group performance and individual emotional needs is played out across literature and film through representations of male despair, suicidal thoughts, outbursts of violence and other forms of bodily expression that indicate an incapacity to sustain Francoist hypermasculinity.

Senior Lecturer in Spanish Studies in the School of Modern Languages, University of Bristol, I am currently working on a monograph on masculinity and mental health during the early years of the Francoist dictatorship. I have published widely on post-war Spanish fiction and culture, women’s writing and European literature. My forthcoming monograph focuses on the concept of psychological and bodily relief in the novels of Carmen Laforet: The Novels of Carmen Laforet: An Aesthetics of Relief (Oxford: Legenda, 2019).


Françoise Campbell

Doubling, Dissection and Discontinuity: The Transhuman Subject and Bodily Decay in Marie Darrieussecq’s Notre vie dans les forêts

Marie Darrieussecq’s 2017 novel Notre vie dans les forêts introduces the reader to a futuristic world where all bodily disease has been cured by advances in cloning technology. Along with the appearance of drones and robots, most humans of this world are equipped with a “moitié” that lies dormant, serving as an organ bank for their human counterpart. Told from the perspective of the psychotherapist Viviane, whose body is gradually falling to pieces, this narrative raises the question of our contemporary desire for physical perfection and its effect on the subjective experience. Drawing on current debate surrounding transhuman ethics (Bostrom, 2005; 2008; Hall, 2017) and Michel Foucault’s theory of bio-power (Foucault, 2004), this paper will focus on Darrieussecq’s portrayal of the body as a lens by which to explore how this novel challenges our understanding of human and transhuman subjectivity, and the ethical dilemmas posed by scientific advancement in an age of material capitalism. Beginning with an analysis of human doubling through the figure of the clone, I will then consider the portrayal of bodily decay and dissection as a further decentring of Darrieussecq’s human subjects, before concluding with an exploration of textual discontinuity as a reflexive mirroring of the characters’ corporeal fragmentation and its influence on the interpretation of this work. This paper thus hopes to reveal the ways in which Darrieussecq’s novel offers an ambivalent portrayal of the human subject, at once venerating and undermining the notion of subjectivity, as the protagonist’s search for physical wholeness is undercut by the narrative’s discontinued form.

Françoise Campbell has recently completed her PhD thesis on the ambivalence of utopia in the novels of Michel Houellebecq through a cotutelle programme between the University of Melbourne and l’Université Paris 7 Diderot. Françoise has published articles in both French and English on utopia, ethics and subjectivity in Houellebecq’s novels. She is currently co-editing a special issue of French Cultural Studies on transgression in Houellebecq’s oeuvre, while preparing a postdoc project on ideological ambivalence in contemporary French novels.


Caroline Verdier

Giving a Voice to Female Bodies: Narratives of Illness in French

The sick body has been the focus of narratives by several contemporary francophone women writers, including Delphine de Vigan’s Jour sans faim (2001), Nicole Malinconi Hôpital Silence (1985) and Nous deux (1993) or Lydia Flem’s La reine Alice (2011). Whether writing a pathography stemming from their own experiences of illness, hospitals and cure, or a narrative from the perspective of witnessing a relative going through physical or/and mental illness, or an autofiction/autobiography reflecting on the link between trauma and illness — both as a trigger for or as a result of illness — these writers put the female body to the fore. They depict various pathologies, at different stages of the lives of the patients; ranging from teenagers admitted in hospital for eating disorders to women undergoing gynaecological surgery or abortion, or from accounts of battling cancer to elderly parents treated for dementia and other ailments at the end of their lives. Drawing on the works of Anne Hunsaker-Hawkins or Arthur W. Frank on the importance of giving a voice to the sick bodies, this paper aims to explore, through a few examples, how pathographies can be seen as key pieces of literature meant to help those reading them or producing them. Through patients putting the illness into words, or stories detailing the medical system’s dealing with the body and its various pathologies, and taking into account the human being or, conversely, treating a body but not a person, pathographies are powerful texts which can lead to a better understanding of the relationship between the body and society.

Caroline Verdier is a lecturer in French at the University of Strathclyde (Glasgow). Her research interests include contemporary French and Francophone literature, in particular Belgian women writers. She is also interested in issues surrounding cultural identities in Francophone countries and currently works on contemporary Francophone illness narratives in relation to trauma and gender. She published several articles on Belgian writers Elisa Brune and Amélie Nothomb and co-edited Francographies: Identité et altérité dans les espaces francophones européens with Susan Bainbrigge and Joy Charnley (2010), As Time Goes By: Portraits of Age with Joy Charnley (2013) and Solitaires, Solidaires: Conflict and Confluence in Women’s Writings in French with Elise Hugueny-Léger (2015).


Marta Arnaldi

From Illness to Healing: Therapeutic Translation in Contemporary Italian Women’s Poetry

The paper explores the therapeutic potential of translation in contemporary Italian women’s poetry published from the late 1960s up to the present. It investigates the ways in which, and the extent to which, different practices of translation — including adaption and transformation — shaped the formation of a female-authored poetic canon that privileged medical-related themes, ranging from the experience of hospitalisation to the stigma of mental illness. By foregrounding the understanding of translation as a super-literary phenomenon, the paper examines three forms, or models, of therapeutic translation: (i) outer translation, which occurs when the poet-patient uses translation as a means to express in words her own illness, or that of other people; (ii) inner translation, which describes the process whereby the poet-patient translates the doctors’ medical jargon into a comprehensible language; and (iii) self-translation, a hybrid category including poets-patients who write in a language that is not their own, or who adapted their poetic verse to a different medium (theatre, sculpture, installations, textiles). The result is the construction of a deviant, unconventional and resilient canon, one that built, together with alternative medical orthodoxies, a translational poetics. The paper contributes a new chapter both to the history of medicine and to the history of literature. It also offers a new paradigm for reading contemporary poetry in all languages, as the metaphor of translation helps us reconsider traditional oppositions: (male) doctor vs (female) patient, writer vs reader, citizen vs foreigner, and fiction vs reality.

Dr Marta Arnaldi is a Stipendiary Lecturer at St Anne’s College, University of Oxford. She has recently been elected to a Laming Junior Fellowship at The Queen’s College, Oxford, with a project analysing the interplay of medicine and translation in contemporary English, French, and Italian poetry. She published seven articles and two book chapters which combine perspectives from different research areas, from anthology studies to translation studies, and from philology to ethics. Marta is also a former student of Medicine, a writer and a dancer (RAD). Her first collection of poems, Itaca (2016), won two international literary prizes.


Robert Craig

Learning from Psychiatry?: Alfred Döblin Between Medicine and Literature

“Let us learn from psychiatry, the only science which deals with the human being in its mental  entirety.”  Some of the most illustrious names in German and Austrian modernism combined their writing careers with medical practice. The plays and stories of Arthur Schnitzler and the poems of Gottfried Benn, for example, were shaped in very different ways by their work as physicians. However, Alfred Döblin (1878–1957) was unique in bringing the angular forms and contents of his psychiatric case studies directly to bear on an experimental prose that would have a profound impact on German literature. His call to learn from psychiatry, from an essay of 1913, encapsulates an aesthetic that is at once extravagant and strangely clinical: a way of writing that drew its inspiration and its energies from the absurd twists and dead ends of mental illness. My paper focuses on the pathological figures in Döblin’s Expressionist stories, notably the hallucinatory ‘Die Ermordung einer Butterblume’ [‘The Murder of a Buttercup’] and the austere ‘Die Tänzerin und der Leib’ [‘The Ballerina and the Body’] (1912). It will then bring these into dialogue with his most controversial fictional ‘case study’, the shell-shocked war veteran and anti-hero of the epic Berlin Alexanderplatz, Franz Biberkopf (1929). Building on Louis Sass’s (1992) and Iain McGilchrist’s (2009) links between madness and modernism, I ask how modernist literature challenged the boundaries between mental ‘normality’ and ‘pathology’. In recent years, the medical humanities have turned towards forms of narrative medicine in a bid to reaffirm the agency and dignity of the patient. But what ethical implications emerge when ‘narrative meaning’ — both literary and anthropological — starts to break down? Döblin’s bizarre and fantastical creations can provide us with valuable, if unexpected, insights.

Robert Craig is a Postdoctoral Teaching and Research Fellow at the University of Bamberg  in  Germany.  Here  he  teaches  courses  on  British,  German  and  Austrian literature and culture. Co-editor with Ina Linge of Biological Discourses: The Language of Science and Literature around 1900 (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2017), he has also published on Günter Grass, posthumanism in 1920s science fiction, and the philosophy of social networking technologies. His PhD (Cambridge, 2016) investigated configurations of the body in Alfred Döblin’s literary and philosophical works; and he is currently completing the monograph, which is under contract with Legenda (Cambridge: MHRA).