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Monash Bioeth Rev. 2007 Oct;26(4):21-35.

Celan's poetics of alterity: lyric and the understanding of illness experience in medical ethics.

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Division of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry, McGill University.


Psychopathology can render people strange and difficult to understand. Communication can lead to empathic understanding, which in turn can guide compassionate action. But communication depends on a shared conceptual world. How can language convey meanings that are not shared, that mark a divide between human beings or whole communities? A consideration of the poetics of Paul Celan sheds light on the power of language to bridge disparate worlds and on the ethical stance needed when empathy fails. Celan's poetics of alterity has implications for our efforts to understand individuals' illness experience as a grounding for the ethics of the clinical encounter.

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