Illness: a moving and important book

by Chris Bertram on September 17, 2008

This blog post is a shameless plug for a friend’s book. But I wouldn’t be writing it if I didn’t believe that the book is a tremendous achievement, as well as being a very moving personal document. “Havi Carel’s Illness: The Cry of the Flesh”: (“UK link “: is published tomorrow by Acumen. It is a philosophical meditation on the nature of and social meaning illness, disease and death. It discusses philosophical and psychological literature, Epicurus, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. But it is also a personal memoir, it is about Havi’s experience of being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, about what that meant for her presence in the world, about how she appeared in the eyes of others, and how she felt she appeared. It is about the encounter with medical professionals and their detached and external perspective on another’s catastrophe; it is about the varied reactions of friends, some of whom couldn’t maintain friendship. It is about how to confront the fact that all your assumptions about how your life is going to go: career, relationships, family, old age, can just be taken away. Havi was diagnosed with lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM), a rare disease that affects young women, and for which the progosis is about 10 years from the onset of symptoms. The sufferer experiences a progressive decline in lung-function over that time. Life may be extended by a heart-lung transplant, but that’s, obviously, a difficult business.

I’m not much of a fan of “contintental” philosophy, because I’ve often found it obscure to obscurantist. Havi, however, is trained in that tradition and is really good at overcoming the resistance of sceptics like me. She uses Merleau-Ponty’s ideas about embodied subjectivity throughout the book to explore what illness is like for the sick person and how powers and abilities that are invisible to and taken for granted by the well person become all too manifest to the sick (or disabled or ageing) person. All the time, she is constantly moving backwards and forwards between this theoretical discussion and the fact of her own experience: the first onset of symptoms, “denial”, diagnosis, treatment, the foreclosure of plans, projects, possibilities. The phenomenology of social situations gets explored too: how people react, their sensitivities and insensitivities, callous reactions, stupid injunctions from ignorant people to try faddish diets of exercise routines.

The discussions of Heidegger and Epicurus I found a little hard going at times. Havi does a brilliant job, I think, of making Heidegger clear. But in doing so she brings to the surface, of my mind at least, the suspicion that, far from being a radical philosopher, he was often turning into universal truths the parochial facts of European bourgeois life: not everyone has a career, nor sees their life as a structured series of projects. But then I’m not a Heidegger scholar, and perhaps I’m being unfair to him. In a sense, issues of Heidegger interpretation don’t matter, because Havi is just using the philosophical traditions most available to her to reflect on the social and personal meaning of the imminence of death.

I know that the book is going to get quite a few mentions in the press. There’s already been “a piece in the Telegraph”:, and I’ll add further links to the bottom of this piece. If you can buy the book by clicking through to “Amazon”: (“UK link “: . I get a commission on sales from Amazon, and I’ll make sure that any such gets donated to “LAM Action”: You can also donate to them or, in the US, to the “LAM Treatment Alliance”: .



Anonymous in Toronto 09.17.08 at 10:20 pm

Any chance of an link? I’m going to buy the book from Canada, and would prefer some of the money to go to a good cause.


Chris Bertram 09.17.08 at 10:36 pm

I think I’d have to set up an associates account with to do that, and it really isn’t worth it for 1 sale. Sorry.


Michael Drake 09.18.08 at 1:40 am

There should be more such shameless plugs. I remember reading her article in the Independent last year; I can’t wait to read the book.


pogonisby 09.19.08 at 12:54 am

She’ll have a job topping Love’s Work.


Chris Bertram 09.19.08 at 7:55 am

#4 I wasn’t aware that there was a competition, but if you read the book you’ll be able to make an informed judgement.


eszter 09.19.08 at 1:52 pm

pogonisby, of all the many ways you could have conveyed whatever message was your purpose, it’s unfortunate that you picked this one.


pogonisby 09.20.08 at 5:06 am

‘Love’s Work’ refers to the memoir by Gillian Rose, a great book of similar theme and origin.

See Geoffrey Hill’s elegy in A Treatise of Civil Power, too.

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