The Totality Trap of Reading Illness: Unica Zürn’s The House of Illnesses

Anita Wohlmann*, Katharina Bahlmann

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingBook chapterResearch


This contribution examines the German writer and graphic artist Unica Zürn, her creative work and how it relates to her experiences of schizophrenia. Zürn’s work does not easily fall into the popular genre of the illness narrative and pathography. While illness is indeed the subject matter of several of Zürn’s artistic works, Esra Plumer has argued that Zürn uses illness primarily as a “consciously employed artistic methodology” and an intricate element of her process of production (1993, 6). In other words, as an artist, Zürn responds creatively to her experiences and appropriates them purposefully (Clements 2019, 202). Indeed, Zürn inventively plays with linear chronology and the fragmentary; she also muddies the boundaries between realist and non-realist aesthetics. In doing so, Zürn’s work taps into some of the central concerns and controversies in the fields of Health Humanities and Narrative Medicine.
In this article, we focus on the body images in The House of Illnesses and look more closely at Zürn’s strategies of creation and fragmentation through both language and visualization. These strategies, we argue, self-reflexively invoke and destabilize any sense of semantic wholeness and totality. Zürn’s work is often approached in a dualistic, binary way: either Zürn’s works on illness are understood as “direct products of her illness” – schizophrenia – or they are read as a form of appropriation, a conscious staging through “intentional artistic strategies that are intertwined with experiences of mental illness” and that aim at challenging our conventional patterns of perception and interpretation (Plumer 2016, 5; Lutz 2003, 169). Taking inspiration from Lutz’ notion of the totality trap, we suggest that, in addition to these two important lenses, Zürn invites a broader perspective of non-binary approaches, juxtaposing diagnostic, medically informed readings, biographical approaches, historical contextualizations, a focus on the genre of the illness narrative and its affordances, as well as an exploration of her aesthetic strategies. This plurality of understanding the meaning(s) of Zürn’s work can be usefully transferred to the pedagogical context of Narrative Medicine, which thematizes, among other things, the complexities of perception and the value of ambiguity in young doctors’ professional identity formation.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHealth Humanities in German Studies
EditorsStephanie M. Hilger
PublisherBloomsbury Academic
Publication date18. Jul 2024
ISBN (Print)9781350296183
ISBN (Electronic)9781350296206, 9781350296213
Publication statusPublished - 18. Jul 2024


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