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Rethinking Illness: Philoctetes’ Exile

Rethinking Illness: Philoctetes’ Exile

(p.13) 1 Rethinking Illness: Philoctetes’ Exile
The Distressed Body
Drew Leder
University of Chicago Press

A phenomenology of illness-experience is constructed from Sophocles’ play Philoctetes. Having suffered a foul-smelling foot wound, the hero is exiled to a desolate island. So, too, does the seriously ill person suffer a three-fold exile: from the cosmos, the body, and the social world. The sick person may feel the cosmos as punishing or meaningless. One is brought home to a heightened awareness of one’s body, but discovers it as a body in which one no longer feels at home—that is, as a threat and cause of suffering. To fall sick is also to be banished from the daily routines of our conventional identity. We experience exile from the social world. Others cannot experience or relieve our pain, and may turn away from us in fear or revulsion. All this is portrayed in Philoctetes, but so too is the redemptive power of compassion, which ultimately saves the hero from exile. The importance of social support in assisting the process of healing and re-integration and is thus demonstrated in rich literary terms.

Keywords:   illness, exile, cosmos, bodily awareness, suffering, pain, compassion, healing

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