FACE AS LANDSCAPE: Refiguring Illness, Disability, and Disorders in David B.'s Epileptic.

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Author: Erin La Cour
Date: Spring-Summer 2021
From: Biography(Vol. 44, Issue 2-3)
Publisher: University of Hawaii Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 10,228 words
Lexile Measure: 1390L

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Signifying/Signifiance: L'Ascension du Haut Mal/Epileptic

In 1996 French comics artist Pierre-Franco is Beauchard, known professionally as David B., published the first of what would become a six-volume chronicle of the personal and interpersonal, emotional, and medical effects of his brother's epilepsy. In titling the series L'Ascension du Haut Mal (The ascension of the high evil), from the outset he draws attention to the connotation of the antiquated term for epilepsy: a supernatural evil taking possession of the body (1) While many reviewers of the work in both French and English have noted that le haut mal, along with its English counterpart "the falling sickness," fell out of use by the nineteenth century due to advancements in neurology few have gone further in their examination of David B.'s use of the term as a paratext. In its English translation, first published as a collection of three volumes in 2002 and then in its entirety in 2005, the term le haut mal was abandoned in favor of, "simply," Epileptic. Perhaps one might conclude that the awkwardness of "the ascension of the falling sickness" (or the confusion of the literal translation from French, which might escape the reader) is the reason for the English title, but this easy assumption does not fully account for the connotations of "epileptic."

In a review of the collected English translation of Epileptic for The Guardian, Ian Sansom commented on the title: "with epilepsy the disease defines the sufferer, the 'epileptic' as a human type.... In English, it seems, we allow the language to do the work of stigmatisation for us." While the label "epileptic" is problematically still used today (also in French: epileptique), as with many other illnesses, disabilities, and disorders, there has been a movement, at least since the World Health Organization's 1997 press release "Bringing Epilepsy Out of the Shadows: A Global Campaign is Launched," to clarify the difference between "epileptic" as a type of seizure and "epilepsy" as a neurological disorder. People are not defined as "epileptics," but rather "have epilepsy"--a significant and important difference. (2) What Sansom does get right, however, is that the neurological disorder has been used to justify the creation of a human type, a fact that clearly did not escape David B. or his long-standing translator Kim Thompson. (3) Epileptic is not a direct translation of language or cultural reference, but it speaks to the implied meaning of the original title: an othering upheld by binary conceptions of health and illness, ability and disability (4)

Indeed, David B.'s reinscription of le haut mal into the contemporary imaginary, as well as his equation of a person having epilepsy and being epilepsy via the use of "epileptic," are instrumentalized to engage in a discourse on the stigmatization of epilepsy as a "high evil" and of its sufferers as reduced to their disorder. But Epileptic is not a straightforward story of advocacy solidarity or support; much less is it instructional in terms of the ins and outs of prognosis, diagnosis, and treatment....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A707075970