An Introduction

Index of Convalescence: An Introduction

Although we had been thinking discontinuously about convalescence for some time, the idea of compiling an index returned to us with rekindled momentum in light of our recent experiences of the Coronavirus pandemic – both the widespread crisis of physical and mental health, as well as the inadequacy of accessible infrastructures of care it exposed. In this new context, an engagement with convalescence imposed itself as an appropriate place from which to begin to address the manifold physiological, psychological, existential and economic struggles to “come out of” or move on with, the long wake of this crisis. Moreover, following the initial shock and disorientation of living with two small children under conditions of lockdown, a certain dream of convalescence, both private and social, concrete and utopian, began to emerge from out of our own state of exhaustion and relative need of a break.

As the interval and movement between two poles – illness and health, deflation and desire, depression and appetency – convalescence follows a rhythm of oscillation, describing an essentially temporary, more or less repetitive feature of our lives. Closely associated with the cyclical patterns of night and day, darkness and light, sleep and waking life, states of convalescence span across macro- and micro-rhythms, from the prolonged duration of recovery from severe illness to the smaller units of sleep, rest, pause and drift that more regularly interrupt our everyday.

Considering the time of convalescence to be that of a gap, an interval and opening, which ensues from a temporary suspension of our everyday, traditional sites of convalescence – from Alpine regions and seaside shores to the ‘grave-like depths’ of a soft featherbed – are similarly placed at a remove from the familiar spaces of our day to day lives. As the spatial equivalent of a temporal schema, such spaces of convalescence correspondingly adhere to an oscillatory movement – between inside and outside, the private and the public, the sick bed and the sun terrace, the panoramic heights of a mountain retreat and what Hans Castorp, from his balcony in Davos, in Thomas Mann’s classic 1924 novel The Magic Mountain, calls ‘the flatlands’.

These undulating rhythms follow a two-fold trajectory of the re-, which prefixes so many of the closest synonyms of convalescence. Choreographies of retreat and respite, remission and recuperation, recovery and rehabilitation, restoration and rejuvenation, revival and regeneration, perform an interval like motion that temporarily moves ‘backward’ before coming ‘again/anew’. Carving out a gap and at best a clearing, they fold into each gesture of retreat the possibility of (invigorated) return. The convalescent – a prominent figure in the modern literary canon of the West – is closely associated with the potential of a transformative renewal forged in the endurance of an interval, returning to a left-behind world that momentarily opens with newfound pleasures, possibilities and hopes. Engulfed by a resurgence of strength, he can often be found in ‘one of those happy moods’, as the narrator of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’ relates, ‘so precisely the opposite of ennui…of the keenest appetency’. Yet there are other moments, stages, modes and movements of convalescence that evade this classical schema. Along the trajectory of an interval, it is not always easy to know where the time of convalescence strictly begins or ends. And so in Virginia Woolf’s account of ‘being ill’ one already finds at play an inclination towards the pleasure of respite, such as the freedom from responsibility and a chance to drift, ‘to look round, to look up – to look, for example, at the sky’. As if the interruptive force of affliction itself provided a welcome retreat from the indefatigable swell of the waves of life.

As a movement of passage, to convalesce is to pass through, as well as temporarily stall and install oneself in the border region between two times, places or states of being. Roland Barthes, reflecting on his emergence from the daily interval of sleep, describes a type of awakening that momentarily holds in suspense – like an ‘airlock’ between two bodies, a sleeping one approximating death and a wake one, anxiously involved in life – two poles of an oscillatory movement. Here, on the frayed point of a threshold – where the sharp seizes the blurry – to convalesce is to linger in an ambiguous space-time of the liminal.

The broad conceptional, historical and poetic field of convalescence often spills out into other, closely related contexts that infinitely inflect the nuances of its resonance or put under tension a fragile relation between the terms. For example, Barthes’ neutral awakening, ‘a kind of slack time between the tides of worry and of excitement’ stands in stark contrast to the agitated stirring of appetency in Poe’s ‘Man of the Crowd’. Yet the calm drift of its momentary slackening echoes the floating irresponsibility of Woolf’s account of being ill. Following a poetics of the drift, floating through the index of convalescence, we further encounter the image of a stretched-out Jean Jacques Rousseau, afloat in a boat on Lake Biel – gazing, like the bedridden of Woolf’s essay, at a patch of blue sky. Filed under W.G. Sebald’s description of this scene as ‘the opposite of work’, it returns us to Barthes own definition of ‘to float’ as ‘to live in space without tying oneself to a place = the most relaxing position of the body: bath, boat’.

The terminology of convalescence, as a considerable number of entries to the Index reveal, is closely associated with the European history of Tuberculosis and the various places, architectures and methods of its treatment that institute a veritable industry of convalescence during the early part of the 20th century. Before the advent of effective medication in 1944, the ensemble of curative practices available for pulmonary and surgical Tuberculosis largely revolved around a host of generalizable techniques of care and well-being that harnessed the healing properties of more or less readily available natural resources. Promoting the benefits of light, sunshine, fresh air and good nutrition, whilst seeking to provide preferable conditions of rest, comfort, silence and retreat, this body of knowledge and experiment carries a lasting resonance for our times. Yet to make it considerably more relevant today, it would be necessary to wrest it from at least two major points of contrition. Firstly, to expose and critique its tendency towards commercialization– saturated as it is, more often than not, with economic and class privilege at its point of entry, as well as private enterprise at its point of initiative. Secondly, to move its concern with the spatio-temporal conditions of convalescence beyond an exclusively human(ist) perspective.

Any critical reappraisal of the concept, poetics and above all practice of convalescence must therefore overcome the aura of exclusivity and narrow entitlement that historically clings to it, whilst aiming at a more egalitarian sharing of its basic conditions. Conditions of time and space that can no longer be the sole privilege of those that can afford it – from accessible natural resources of sufficient (interior) light, clean air and green space to the sheer possibility of taking time off work. Notwithstanding the important, hard fought-over pockets of historical progress in the reduction of working hours, statutory sick leave, child care support and the founding of a free national health service, what the pandemic has more than amply demonstrated is the persistent manner in which inequality effects the most basic conditions of (self)care, pervasively denying a minimum of security for the possibility of a break and retreat. What is more, such divisions of access to the basic resources and conditions of convalescence are predominantly drawn across ethnic, gendered, geographical and class divides that continue to emerge from out of the historical inheritance of capitalism, patriarchal structures, colonialism and slavery. From this perspective, it would be both possible and necessary to consider, as a kind of shorthand for a larger set of interconnected problems, the deep resonance of the signifier of ‘breath’ in the phrase ‘I can’t breathe’, which carried the wave of Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the brutal police murder of George Floyd, in close relation to the plight of the factory worker unable to self-isolate for a lack of sufficient Government support and a virus that exponentially spreads and kills in conditions of poverty. Put differently, it would be necessary to consider the signifier of breath in the metaphor of the “breathing space” within a much broader socio-political context concerned with the distribution of the interval like essence of the time of convalescence, alongside the political demand for a more egalitarian, anti-racist and feminist culture of care, support and “taking turns” that would make life worth living for all.

Although the interruption of the pandemic has brought with itself certain outward features of the time of convalescence – such as the opening of a gap and interval – it has done so for the most part without the provision of the associated benefits of rest, rejuvenation and the time to drift that would enable an invigorated return to the world. And yet, in our more than compromised experiences of an interval, a sense of private as well as more or less collective opportunity perhaps remains: the slim hope of a chance to return otherwise to a life and world momentarily put on hold. This hopeful opportunity of another return, however, cannot and must not resemble the euphoric appetency of the latter-stage convalescent. Instead of the drunken resurgence of desire, what seems called for, at least from the perspective of a socio-economic and eco-critical context, is an attitude of restraint, hesitance and stutter, as well as gentleness in the gesture of return and controlled revival of aspiration and want within concise limits. In other words, what the experience of the pandemic has made palpable is the opportunity of a future folding of the very features of interruption and intervallic suspension into their temporal aftermath. Instead of a hasty return to capitalism’s (culture of) limitless growth qua destruction, for which the notion of preservation and conservation constitutes ‘a systematic impossibility’, it is the thought of a temporal politics of convalescence that our experiences of existential suspension must afford us. Promoting a closer future imbrication of periods of activity and rest and a general culture of restraint and ‘taking turns’ that combines the cultivation of our own great health with a willingness to give others a break, a politics of the interval of convalescence lies at the heart of any imaginings of a future without or within the limits of capitalism in which economizing means taking care.

Beginning with the concrete, humanist political demands of a Universal basic income, a reduction of the working day and week, opportunities and incentives for job-sharing, expansive statutory rights for maternity and sick leave, extensive childcare support, etc., a culture of the interval of convalescence and its oscillating rhythms of movement and rest, activity and passivity, retreat and exposure, opens onto an eco-logical perspective of conservation and sustainability. Including a concern for the time and space of non-human others within the shared habitats of our interdependent worlds. Nothing perhaps has made this momentarily more palpable than the clear blue skies and hovering silence above our metropolitan streets at the onset of lockdown during the Spring of 2020, giving way to the unfettered sounds of magnificent birdsong.

March 2021, Swen Steinhäuser & Laura Mansfield.

Right at the end of July it’s reported that the sudden decline in human activity during the pandemic has been registered by seismologists as a wave of silence passing over the Earth, its course exactly following that of the virus. From China to Iran to Italy, vibrations from traffic, industry and construction work faded or, for a time, halted altogether; the crust of the planet ceased to judder with the noise that had been dinning, seemingly unstoppably, since the onset of the Industrial Revolution.

Finally, the Earth could hear itself think, and the voice of its thought was birdsong.

Steven Lovatt, 'The Earth could hear itself think': how birdsong became the sound of lockdown', Guardian.

Steven Lovatt, 'The Earth could hear itself think': how birdsong became the sound of lockdown

Bernard Stiegler, Within the limits of capitalism, economizing means taking care.

Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, New York: Verso, 2014.