Archiving the Sick Body

Cristina Robu // Defining the body as a “political archive,” the philosopher Paul B. Preciado calls it “somathèque”[1] (French for “somatic chronicles”): a registry of power-relations, cultural constructs, events, drives, and narratives or, as Preciado puts it, a “living archive of political fictions.”[2] Through this lens, we might understand the sick body as a site where the so-called normal body is shaped and regulated, especially in the vast interdisciplinary field of medical humanities. Viewing the body as an intertwined collection of epistemic inquiries makes it possible to examine different “chapters” of these chronicles as they are viewed by the self and by the other. In the context of literary texts that deal with trauma, disease, and physical pain, these somatic excerpts define narrative, character, and discourse. In third-person narratives, in particular, the body of the sick other becomes the (not so blank) canvas for negotiations, symbolic representations, mise en abyme, and existential fears. Both very personal and yet historically locatable, somatic chronicles are situated in a network of individual and collective experiences, creating a narrative trajectory through the event of pain and its representation.

As an example of such a “somathèque,” we could take the autofictional novel A Cannibal and Melancholy Mourning (Deuils cannibales et mélancoliques, Éditions Héliotrope, 2000) written by the Québécois author Catherine Mavrikakis. In naming most of her friends Hervé, Mavrikakis pays tribute to Hervé Guibert, a well-known chronicler of the early occurrence of HIV, expanding his experience and influence to all of the Hervés that populate the text. The novel portrays the traumatic experience of sickness through the perspective of an uninfected narrator, a possible alter ego of the author, named Catherine: “I learn the death of my friends much as others discover their lottery ticket still doesn’t have the winning number. This week I lost yet another Hervé and it was statistically predictable: all of my friends are named Hervé and are, for the most part, HIV-positive.”[3] While the recurrence of the name Hervé connects all HIV infected people, it is filtered through the public persona of Guibert, and it is ultimately encapsulated in the “somathèque” of the narrator. Her body represents a chronicle of all her encounters with the Hervés, of all the experiences she has had or has been told about by them, and of all the embodiments of their presence in her life (e.g. her helping one of the Hervés to die in order not to endure more pain). Catherine’s own body thus becomes “present”—as opposed to Drew Leder’s “absent body” which becomes “transparent” when it’s healthy—when it participates in an exchange with the “somathèque” of another.[4]  The sick bodies of all the Hervés unfold and continue Catherine’s life story (they were her friends), her narrative (they are the characters of her novel) and her own body (she identifies herself through the absence of each Hervé). Catherine’s body is materialized in the void caused by the absent other and, by means of writing her mourning, Catherine herself becomes other. She gradually perceives her own materiality through the narrative she creates, from the standpoint of a doppelganger acknowledging her connection with the sick body of each Hervé: “In me, Hervé had found his double — the same spasms, the same fitful splintering of his person that he could hardly contain.”[5] Vacillating from one body to the other, these connections are the fabric of the novel and the chronicle they narrate are those of grieving, care, awareness.

The absence of the other proves to be a visceral experience involving Catherine’s deep process of mourning following her friends’ sicknesses and deaths. The chronicle of the suffering bodies of the Hervés is a grief narrative in which loss and fear concern not just the absence of others, but also the incapacity of the self to recognize itself without them. The story of the Hervés gradually becomes a mirror in which the narrator is reflected. Furthermore, it grows into a praxis for a life in praesentia—the experience of each absence in real-time and the connection to the lost friend to her personal, ongoing chronical. The “somathèque” that is all the “others” allows the narrator to create and attach meaning to the experience of loss through the event of their sickness and death. It bears witness to the lived sick body, but also to the event of this suffering from the perspective of the outsider of physical pain—a friend who is subsequently abandoned.

Toward the end, the novel becomes a memento mori which reveals how a profound care for the other can bring about recognition of one’s own finitude. The HIV-infected and ultimately deceased other, when distilled through a permeable narrator as a rhizomatic but central subject, enables an awareness of fragility on the part of narrator and reader. The ambassador (or proxy) of this lost friend is Hervé Guibert, the figure of the artist whose work is emblematic for its desire to portray the complex, unutterable self.[6] This lineage underscores the fact that being, writing, and remembering are all extensions of the self towards the other, reterritorializing memory and existence, even in the other’s absence.

In memorializing her friends through the text, Catherine thus becomes a Being-toward-death, in Heidegger’s terms, because she knows that death is already part of her. Her existence enfolds in the sickness and loss of her friends. This event is situated not only in the past of their lives, but also in the present of the narrative. Because of this multiplication of temporalities, the narrator is able to acknowledge her own finitude and imminent death.[7] The other, through his sickness, death, and absence, doesn’t only tell the story of an epidemic—that of all the HIV victims—or a personal retelling of a trauma caused by loss induced by an entire generation of dead friends. It also mobilizes the other as a reminder of Catherine’s (and, by extension, the reader’s) own condition: finitude.


Cristina Robu is a PhD candidate in French and Francophone studies and a minor in Critical Theory at Indiana University in Bloomington. Her doctoral dissertation investigates on third person sick body narratives in contemporary Quebec literature and film.


Header Image: Author’s photograph of Susan Edgerley’s Chatoiement (2008), Quebec Art Museum


[1] Preciado, Paul B. “Testo Junkie Notes for a Psychoanalytic Forum.” Studies in Gender & Sexuality, vol. 17, no. 1, Jan. 2016, p. 24. doi:10.1080/15240657.2016.1135680.

[2] Ibidem.

[3] Mavrikakis, Catherine. A Cannibal and Melancholy Mourning. Translated by Nathalie Stephens, Toronto: Coach House Books, 2004, p. 11.

[4] Leder, Drew. The Absent Body. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

[5] Mavrikakis, Catherine. A Cannibal and Melancholy Mourning. Translated by Nathalie Stephens, Toronto: Coach House Books, 2004, p. 32.

[6] Or, as Guibert puts it, he sees it as « un paradigme dans mon projet du dévoilement de soi et de l’énoncé de l’indicible ». Guibert, Hervé, À l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie, Paris : Gallimard, 1990, p. 247.

[7] A very good example of this awareness of one’s own finitude could be found in the following quote: “Every day, I walk past the hair salon where Hervé used to work. After the salon has closed for the day, I look through the window at the chair in which Hervé used to have me sit, as though I were a little girl, his own. That empty chair isn’t only Hervé’s absence, it’s my death as well, inscribed there, because I will never again return to that chair under the same conditions as before. That empty chair is Hervé sending me the sign of my own death, which will arrive sooner or later. ‘Look at us, absent,’ he says to me.” Mavrikakis, Catherine. A Cannibal and Melancholy Mourning. Translated by Nathalie Stephens, Toronto: Coach House Books, 2004, p. 101.

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