Davina Höll – Politics and Poetics of Cholera

Politics and Poetics of Cholera in 19th-Century European Literature


In the 19th century, Cholera impresses the collective memory of entire generations. As a “real and imaginative leading disease” (Briese 20), the “new, even worse plague” (Ibid.) becomes a scientific driving force, a political factor of destabilization, and a poetical provocation.

The polymorphic discourses of Cholera are manifest in numerous (pseudo-)scientific treaties, theological and political pamphlets as well as in (auto) biographical documents of life writing. They demonstrate the coexistence and interdependence of both scientific and everyday modes of experiences and narration. However, the participation of art and literature in these discourses does not seem to equal the status of the omnipresent disease—neither in quantity, nor in quality. Socially tabooed and repressed as an individually and culturally traumatic experience, Cholera appears to be unnarratable.

And yet, in the frame of specific narrative practices, fictitious texts, various kinds of life writing, and documents, life sciences co-construct the knowledge of Cholera. These literary and non-literary modes of writing reflect, problematize, and constitute the disease’s lived experience and its discursive manifestation from highly diverse perspectives.

Cholera, as Christopher Hamlin impressively states in the introducing chapter of his book Cholera- a Biography (3),

"did not merely kill, and rapidly, but distorted lives and bodies. It took hold, drawing out the body’s heat, twisting muscles into spasms and cramps, producing insatiable thirst but taking away voice. It liquefied a body as fluids streamed uncontrollable and insensibly from both ends. It quickly wrung the water from the body, leaving a shriveled form and thickened blood. Cholera bypassed both cathartic crisis of fever and the advances and declines of consumption; it was not a disease that a person lived with."

Cholera’s violently traumatizing symptoms cross the social threshold of disgust and taboo conversation. This taboo coincides with leading 19th century aesthetic theories that exclude the ugly, the diseased, and the divergent as subjects of literature. Cholera’s “leaky bodies” (Law 18) thus become aesthetically indexed (see Menninghaus 16). They undermine the concept of self-contained bodies and, with it, the model of a self-contained society, thereby emphasizing the (bio-) political dimension of Cholera. The rapid and highly lethal progression, as well as the impossibility to speak about the disease often lead to an “aberration of mourning” (Rickels 14)—mourning becomes pathologic. The experience cannot be narrated and instead is individually and collectively repressed. Cholera thus creates ghosts and enters language and literature as a ghost itself.

In my research project I argue that Cholera, in spite of its supposed “impossibility of narration” (Assmann 264), becomes representable as a motif and structural element primarily through the concept of the ghost. Employing ghosts for the modelling of manifold complexes of problems is no recent phenomenon (see Baßler, Gamper). Since Freud, ghosts have been thought to be paradigmatic for the return of the repressed (see 264).

This research project aims at investigating how the knowledge of Cholera is narratively constituted by contemporary discourses and how literature contributes to the production of knowledge. The project focuses on the analysis of specific literary forms of representation of the knowledge of Cholera as a geographical, political, social, scientific, and artistic border-crossing phenomenon. Exemplified by the existentially threatening experience of an epidemic, I want to gain deeper insights into the complex mechanisms of interchange between science, life-world, and narration.

Based on a close reading of fictitious texts and selected documents of life writing, approaches of discourse analysis, and poetologies of knowledge will be extended by the discussion of cultural and literary theories of trauma (see Caruth, LaCapra).

While the narratability of traumata caused by experiences of e.g. war or violence has been problematized widely by scientific research, a transfer on the field of epidemics as traumatic borderline experiences has only been realized very rarely (Belling, Davis). With my systematic investigation of the nexus of Cholera, I hope to make an innovative and interdisciplinary contribution to existing research. My findings will not only be applicable to the analysis of coping and narrative strategies of historical diseases (such as Plaque, Spanish Influenza), but also to acute present-day experiences of epidemic threats (such as Ebola, Swine Flu).

Author: Davina Höll


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Rickels, Laurence A.. Der unbetrauerbare Tod. Mit einem Vorwort von Friederich Kittler. Aus dem Englischen von Sabine Groß. Passagen Verlag, 1989.