The Rhetoric of Illness, Suffering and Spirituality in Two Illness Narratives

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In a culture whose dominant discourse on illness is in thrall to biomedical approaches to healing, and whose prevailing belief in the Cartesian mind-body split is at odds with notions of spiritual healing, the credibility of narratives dealing with matters of "spirit" are often challenged on grounds of empirical unreliability. While the literature of illness and spiritual healing may assume a symbiotic relationship between mind, body and spirit that transcends the empirically-based boundaries of the social and medical sciences, this paper argues that it is possible to trace salient connections between a rhetoric of illness (grounded in appeals to logic)and a rhetoric of spirituality (grounded in appeals to emotion) in two contemporary narratives, that validate the writers’ claims about the therapeutic powers of language and its potential for holistic healing. Close textual analysis of works by Reynolds Price (A Whole New Life) and Nancy Mairs (Plaintext and Ordinary Life) reveals that these writers, in their efforts to validate the providential role of illness in their lives, make authentic appeals to emotion that are equally creditable to those made to logic in scientific discourse. As their illness stories unfold, each uses rhetoric as a dialectical tool of inquiry to examine competing arguments on how illness and suffering have paradoxically shattered their bodies while enriching their spirits. These shifts in attitude are noted by changes in the content of their narratives, in the structures that shape that content, and in the particular tropes they use to reevaluate meaning and prupose in their lives. Research for this paper draws on the work of noted social scientists whose focus is on disease and illness-Sander Gilman, Erwing Goffman and Arthur Frank-as well as on the works of prominent rhetoricans who address the therapeutic nature of rhetoric-Kenneth Burke, David Payne and James and Tita Baumlin.


Keywords: Language, Illness, Healing
Stream: Anthropology, Archaeology, Cultural Studies, Humanities
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
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Dr. Jackie Rinaldi

Director and Adjunct Professor, Department of English, Sacred Heart University
Bridgeport, Connecticut, USA

Dr. Jackie Rinaldi holds a PhD in English from the University of Connecticut where she completed a dissertation on "The Therpeutic Uses of Rhetoric in Contemporary American Life-Writing about Disability." Her work has appeared in professional journals and anthologies, and she has presented papers on diability studies and illness narratives at many national conventions in the USA as well as at conferences in Hawaii, Straffordshire, England and Melbourne, Australia. She directs the Learning Center at Sacred Heart University where she teaches courses in literature and writing and has just received a University grant to develop a new course in Literature and Medicine which will be offered for pre-med students seeking careers in various health fields. Her research explores the cultural rift between the sciences and the humanities--first identified in 1958 in C.P. Snow's essay "The Two Cultures"--and attempts to bridge this gap between medical science and literature for the purposes of restoring the lost voice of the patient to the medical paradigm.

Ref: I08P0263