Life After Covid-19: Entanglements of Illness and Recovery

Avril Tynan //

2021 began with both good news and bad news. The roll out of the AstraZeneca-Oxford, BioNTech-Pfizer and Moderna vaccines across the world has brought a glimmer of hope to strained communities and exhausted healthcare workers. At the same time, the rampant spread of new variants has provoked a slew of border closures and increased vigilance and anxiety. If anything, the dream of a return “back to normal” seems more precarious than ever before. Perhaps the time has come to think beyond the idea of a “recovery” from Coronavirus and to reframe our exit strategies around the notion of a “convalescence” in which complete recovery is always still to come.

To speak of a recovery from the Coronavirus pandemic is mistaken and misleading. As many of those who suffered from Covid-19 can attest, the process of recovery is uncertain, unsteady and unknown. Increasing attention to the ongoing effects of “long Covid” or post-viral fatigue syndrome amongst those who have suffered and apparently recovered – from a clinical perspective – from Covid–19 emphasises the ambiguous future that lies ahead. Similarly, our increasingly optimistic discourses of social and economic recovery overlook the almost inevitable effects of “long Covid” on our futures. Although soon we may no longer live with the physically manifested symptoms of the disease, we will continue to inhabit an ambiguous, post-viral in-between that fails to offer the cathartic notions of progress or advance we associate with full recovery.

Our future will not be one in which recovery is immediately – or perhaps ever – achieved; instead, our future is convalescence, “a time in which one does not, in the manner of accomplishment, enter a state of health; rather, it concerns a time of getting over in which the source of the illness never really withdraws completely” (Risser 187–88). Similar to a post-metaphysical Verwindung, or “overcoming,” in which one does not abandon or forget the past but learns to cope and come to terms with it, convalescence means “recovering from an illness by preserving its vestiges, resigning oneself to something from which one cannot be set totally free” (Vattimo 95). For Gadamer, experiences of illness and pain cannot be disentangled from our ongoing lifeworlds but remain with us, verwinden (27). We may “get over” illness, he contends, but we can never leave it behind (Crist 4).

Such perpetuity of illness in the concept of convalescence also helps us to come to terms with the ways in which we will be marked by sickness. Leaving behind notions of convalescence as a cathartic re-emergence from a state of illness, we would do better to think of convalescence itself as an illness similar “to the work of a large scar” (Bordeu 378) that paradoxically heals while leaving a mark or “imprint” on the body (Pellegrino 159). Although it is commonly reminiscent of late 19th– and early 20th-century tuberculosis sanatoria in the Swiss Alps and conflated with notions of idyllic stillness and relaxation, convalescence rather indicates an action (Guerrier 5), a dynamic succession of changing states (Rennes 10).

Endemic in nineteenth-century testimonials of convalescence is the belief that the patient emerges from illness cathartically “renewed” (Granger), entering a state of rebirth in which the past is forgotten and the subject emerges a “tabula rasa” (Spackman 38) with “a freshness of perception that results from a slate wiped clear” (De Man 396). Charles Baudelaire, for example, in The Painter of Modern Life,describes convalescence as a “return towards childhood” (7), while Graeme Mercer Adam and Agnes Ethelwyn Wetherald, in An Algonquin Maiden, write that “to be slowly recovering from a severe illness is almost like being again a very little child” (88). Helene Schjerfbeck, one of Finland’s most celebrated artists, depicts in The Convalescent a semi-autobiographical child, dwarfed by the surrounding furniture but animatedly positioned for recovery. Yet these leisurely representations of convalescence, in which the subject erases the lived experience and emerges younger and healthier than before, endearingly miss the point: recovery does not mean simply leaving an experience of illness behind but incorporating that experience into ongoing interpretations and understandings.

Convalescence, then, can be better understood as a hermeneutic that “indicates that the recovery is a matter of a recovering in which the recovery itself remains outstanding” (Risser 188). We cannot speak, therefore, of a recovery from Coronavirus – be it individual or collective, medical, social or economic – but rather of a state of convalescence in which recovery itself remains always in abeyance. Adopting a hermeneutics of convalescence now will prepare us for the continued embeddedness of Covid–19 in our everyday lives and interactions even after the disease itself has been controlled or even eradicated. We must learn now to accept that we may never overcome the unprecedented events of this year in the sense that we may never completely move on from the personal, social and economic devastation but, in the process of convalescence, we are resigned to confront these losses as losses and to preserve them in ways that may be morally and culturally valuable.

Works cited

Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, tr. and ed. Jonathan Mayne. London: Phaidon, 1965 [1863].

Bordeu, Théophile de. Œuvres Complètes de Bordeu. Tome 1, ed. Anthelme Richerand. Lyon: Caille et Ravier, 1818.

Crist, Alexander. “A Hermeneutic Approach to Pain: Gadamer on Pain, Finitude, and Recovery.” Journal of Applied Hermeneutics (2018): 1–11.

De Man, Paul. “Literary History and Literary Modernity.” Daedalus 99, no. 2 (1970): 384–404.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Schmerz: Einschätzungen aus medizinischer, philosophischer und therapeutischer Sicht. Heidelberg, Germany: Winter, 2003.

Granger, Mary Ethel. Life Renewed: A Manual for Convalescents. London: Longman, Green and Co., 1891.

Guerrier, Paul-Louis. Essai sur la convalescence. Paris: Faculté de médicine de Paris, 1813.

Rennes, Jean-Mondésir. Considérations générales sur la convalescence. Paris: Faculté de médicine de Paris, 1822.

Mercer Adam, Graeme and Agnes Ethelwyn Wetherald. An Algonquin Maiden: A Romance of the Early Days of Upper Canada. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2019 [1887].

Pellegrino, Edmund D. “Being Ill and Being Healed: Some Reflections on the Grounding of Medical Morality.” In The Humanity of the Ill: Phenomenological Perspectives, ed. Victor Kestenbaum, 157-166. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P., 1982.

Risser, James. “On the Continuation of Philosophy: Hermeneutics as Philosophy.” In Weakening Philosophy: Essays in Honour of Gianni Vattimo, ed. Santiago Zabala, 184–202. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2006.

Spackman, Barbara. Decadent Genealogies: The Rhetoric of Sickness from Baudelaire to D’Annunzio. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989.

Vattimo, Gianni. Of Reality. New York: Columbia UP, 2016.

Image credit

Helene Schjerfbeck, The Convalescent [Toipilas], 1888. Photograph: Finnish National Gallery/Ateneum Art Museum.

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