April 8, 2022
Transformative Breath: Ana Laura Funes, Arthur Rose, Giuseppe Capalbo

Pamela Gupta, a professor of anthropology at the University of Witwatersrand, moderates a panel on Transformative Breath. The following people make up the panel: Ana Laura Funes, who is based in the philosophy department at Eastern Connecticut State University; vice-chancellor fellow in English at University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, Arthur Rose; and Giuseppe Capalbo, a PhD student in literature and English at the University of Verona, Italy. These scholars give presentations on their perspectives of breath. Here are the key points: 

Watch the full conversation here and keep reading for key quotes by each panelist.

Ana Laura Funes


  • With the Covid-19 pandemic, more people have started to realise these relational aspects of breath: how much we breathe with others, and how much our breathing affects others. 

  • So the idea that the brain is always relational, has been worked by French philosopher Luce Irigaray where she reminds us that we have always shared our breath, reminding is, that we have shared breath at the beginning of all human life, in the womb. 

  • However, philosophically speaking, we can still ask the question about how to harmonise between these two poles of breathing experiences. On the one hand you have original co-breathing and on the other hand we recognise that there is an autonomous type of breathing at the same time. 

  • So from the inside out, exhalation is also related to sensations that have to do with simulating things from the mouth from using our eyes, ears, etc.


  • We need to recognise these breaths in women, in black and indigenous communities, the minorities, children, older people, people with different abilities, in animals and in the environment. 

 Arthur Rose 

  • My presentation comes out of some work that I did for the Life of Breath project based between Durham and Bristol universities. It’s part of a broader project that's about thinking about breath in post colonial literature, the function and the role it plays. 

  • In this particular iteration I was interested in the way in which you've got this profusion of breath metaphors in post apartheid literature in and around the transition. So what we could call the early post apartheid. 

  • There's a coincidence between this and what Pumla Dineo Gqola would call rainbow-ism. In a sense, what I'm interested in, is whether there's anything of rainbow-ism now, that it has been quite convincingly recanted, whether there's anything in that ephemerality that might be redeemed, or taken as a resource. 

  • In the end, begins Achmat Dangor Kafka's Curse (1997), Anna left her husband Oscar, because he breathed down her neck. 

  • This opening startles us, not just because it begins at the end as it were, but because it relies upon a stark contrast between the seeming pathos of cause, Oscar's breathing down Anna’s neck and the profound rupture of effect, Anna’s decision to leave her husband.

  • Like the last straw that breaks the camel's back, it describes a routine minor action that culminates in disproportionate consequences. 

  • Dangor is concerned with the traumatic potential that breath carries. Anna leaves, not so much because of Oscar’s breathing, but because it triggers in her the recollection of a moment when her brother Martin physically abused her. 

  • In the time of Covid-19, breathing down somebody's neck is perhaps a little more threatening than it was before.

  • I want to recognise how disproportionately Covid-19 has affected many of us in the sense of traumatic intensity associated with the monitoring of our own breath, and each other's.

  • What I really wanted to do with these texts is to pick up one or two moments where I think the kind of literature that's emerging in the post apartheid period is starting to think about breaths ephemerality as simultaneously, granting a kind of concrete materiality to people's experience, but also something in a kind of transition, which is to say that  it's not about trying to fix yourself to something so much as trying to establish that relation is is happening. 

  • When we think about breath and literature, it's easy to move away from the materialities. But in that canon, we also need to be thinking about how that feeds into what is happening. 

Giuseppe Capalbo 

  • The title of my presentation is: “I Would Wake Up Choking, Unable To Breathe”: Breathing And Breathlessness In Louise DeSalvo’s Breathless: An Asthma Journal.

  • Louise DeSalvo was an Italian American woman who is known for being a Woolf scholar. In 1989, she published a monograph titled Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work. 

  • By looking at her nonfiction work, DeSalvo understood that the memoir was a radical form of history, because it so often described pain, sorrow, suffering, humiliation, trauma, and violence.

  • Working on Woolf gave DeSalvo the opportunity to heal herself and I quote “could it be that in concentrating on Woolf self, but I'm also trying to heal myself?” . Indeed. 

  • DeSalvo tried to look back at other traumatic paths that help understanding illness and trauma as Maria Michaela Coppola, as recently pointed and I quote “when illness cracks the subject, physical and psychological onus narratives can serve as tools for looking through those fractures, for seeing the preciousness and ultimately for gaining insight into them”. 

  • The act of writing allows the subject to clearly define and embrace traumatic events, which were probably removed from their conscious memory. 

  • After her mother's death, she discovered a mysterious disease no one was able to diagnose immediately, asthma.

  • One day, a doctor suggested that DeSalvo’s asthma was somehow linked to blocked grief and I quote “I think that I haven't yet begun to grieve because I haven't wanted to give up my mother. If my grief stays bottled up inside me, then my mother stays inside me. Can it be that the constriction miasma in part is an inability to mourn?”

  • As you can see, DeSalvo links the development of asthma to those traumatic events she was not able to overcome in doing so, we could read asthma as a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

  • Today, the issue of breathing and breathlessness is one of paramount importance as breathlessness is a common symptom of Covid-19. 

  • My point is that illness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way regarding illness is one of the most purified and most resistant to metaphoric thinking. 

  • I would like to close my presentation with two open questions:
    1. How has the Covid-19 pandemic fostered the discussion on breathing and breathlessness? 

2. Does the act of writing, in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, bring forth a healing effect?