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  • Frédéric Badré's La grande santé:Palliation as a Literary Practice?
  • Anna Magdalena Elsner

IN 2015, SHORTLY BEFORE HIS DEATH and three years after receiving the diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), the French writer and painter Frédéric Badré published a book entitled La grande santé.1 This was followed by the publication of "L'intervalle," an essay that appeared posthumously in the Nouvelle Revue Française.2 These two texts, which document Badré's dying, are the only explicitly autobiographical and certainly the most intimate ones within his œuvre.3 They distinguish themselves from other contemporary French end-of-life writing in that they interweave a personal account of dying with discussions of numerous works of literature and the visual arts.4 Through this sophisticated web of references, Badré questions how dying reshapes his concept of health and what role both real and imaginary interlocutors play in accompanying him. The text entails another characteristic feature, namely Badré's use of ekphrasis,5 which becomes a way to test the limits of literary representation. These three distinct topical and formal features—Badré's refashioning of "health" as a concept able to contain his new self, the role of literary texts in establishing a community of suffering, and his pronounced verbal engagement with visual art as a form of spiritual accompaniment—are held together by a compelling refusal of binaries distinct to his engagement with dying. In this article, I propose that Badré's multimodal poetics captures an experience that is complex and resistant to the simplifications of binary thought and thereby creatively responds to some of the key values associated with the paradigmatic end-of-life care modality in the West, palliative care, and its adjacent philosophy.6

Etymologically speaking, "palliative" derives from the latin "palliare," a word that encompasses a range of interconnected meanings such as "to cloak," "to hide," "to shield," "to disguise," and which is mostly understood as meaning "to alleviate" pain. Though the term is not originally connected to death and dying specifically, the root "pall" refers to the "cloak or vestment but also a cloth to cover a coffin."7 In its current use, the term is primarily associated with the specific approach to end-of-life care developed at the end of the twentieth century.8 "Palliative care" was first officially defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1990.9 It is rooted in the pioneering work of Cicely Saunders, who combined scientific research into pain relief for the dying with attending to their narratives.10 Among the different features of [End Page 81] her holistic approach to end-of-life care, three aspects, reflected in the WHO's current definition of palliative care, have a particular affinity with Badré's work. These are its ambition "to accept dying as a normal process," its aspiration to include families actively in the care provided to the terminally ill, and its acknowledgement of the need for spiritual accompaniment at the end of life.11

Given the central role that narrative methodologies played in shaping palliative care, several intersections between literature and palliative care have been acknowledged—from within the field of palliative care itself, but also from literature and film scholars. It has for example been highlighted that the "skills of narrative medicine are integral to palliative care," and that the tools of narrative analysis on which narrative medicine relies are ultimately also palliative tools, namely the close-reading of and attention to stories of both patients and caregivers.12 Looking at the Romantic era, Brittany Pladek has claimed that there is a literary tradition of palliation, a search for holism and unity between literature and medicine. Pladek regards this tradition as having ultimately led to the contemporary "therapeutic holism in the health humanities." She argues that writers such as Woodsworth, Shelley, and Keats developed what she calls a "palliative poetics," namely a diverse set of "models of literary therapy that did not assume literature could cure—that is, could make a person whole again—and so located its therapeutic value elsewhere."13 With regard to contemporary visual art, Emma Wilson has observed that, "looking at the etymology of 'palliation' and...