The aesthetics of illness: narrative, horror and the sublime

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Abstract

First-person accounts of life-threatening or terminal illness appear frequently in the academic literature and in the media. This paper takes up the question of how these accounts might provide, for their authors, a sense of coherence and freedom, and for their readers a grasp of suffering and its potential. By focusing upon the ‘horrors’ integral to such accounts, the argument is made that such horrors are basic to the sufferer’s symbolisation of an illness-world. This world, rather like the adventure, is torn from life, grounded in the sensuous fragments through which its elusory powers are expressed. Seen as the problematisation of life as a work of freedom, the illness account can then be analysed as an aesthetic project. The paper discusses this proposal, distinguishing between aesthetics and aestheticisation as social phenomena. It uses this distinction to make a critical observation upon attempts to understand suffering in the modern world in terms of power or of myth.

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