Reading Cavafy through the medical humanities
: illness, disease and death

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis seeks to break new ground in Modern Greek studies and the medical humanities. A reading of Cavafy’s poetry through the medical humanities is a new approach that sheds light on many of his poems, and provides a new framework for discussing some of the most celebrated aspects of his work. Cavafy’s poems exhibit a broad awareness of medical theories and views of his time, and in turn his writings have something to offer the field of literature and medicine. 
The introduction includes a brief historical survey of the medical humanities. It also defines ‘additive’ and ‘integrated’ medical humanities and the difference between ‘disease’ and ‘illness’. In addition, it includes some biographical information that show Cavafy’s preoccupation with health issues and medical theories in general. 
Chapter 1 surveys that death is a prevalent subject in Cavafy, concentrating on death as a result of illness. In Cavafy, death as a result of an unspecified illness attacks everyone: from strong military men to the young. 
Chapter 2 revolves around the view of old age as a disease. Cavafy, in a number of poems, presents old age not as a life stage, but as a condition. From that respect, he reflects Jacob Hutter’s view that old age is a disease, as expressed in his treatise That Old Age Is Itself a Disease
Chapter 3 focuses on how Cavafy presents dependence as a specific condition rather than a vice or custom. Cavafy explores the consequences of drinking on the individual and shows his knowledge of theories that saw drinking as a condition, like Thomas Trotter’s theory in his treatise An Essay, Medical, Philosophical, and Chemical, on Drunkenness. 
Chapter 4 reads Cavafy’s homoerotic poems through Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s influential book Psychopathia Sexualis. Krafft-Ebing asserted that homosexuality is a mental illness accompanied by certain symptoms. This view Cavafy explores in his poetry, even if he does not agree with it. 
The conclusion argues that Cavafy’s poetry has something to offer the field of the medical humanities.
Date of Award1 May 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorDavid Ricks (Supervisor), Roderick Beaton (Supervisor) & Maria Vaccarella (Supervisor)

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