Anna Elsner

University of Zurich · Zürichbergstrasse 8 · 8032 Zurich, Switzerland ·

I am a Swiss National Science Foundation Marie Heim-Vögtlin research fellow at the University of Zurich, affiliated with the Institute of Romance Studies and the Institute of Biomedical Ethics and History of Medicine, as well as an Associate Member of the Centre for Humanities and Health at King’s College London. My current research project is entitled ‘Palliative Pages: Inscribing Mortality into French Literature and Theory 1950-2000’ and is funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation (2017–2020). In 2016, I completed my three-year tenure as a Leverhulme Early Career fellow at the Department of French at King’s College London; prior to that I was the Joanna Randall McIver Junior Research Fellow at St Hugh’s College, Oxford University. After a BA in Philosophy and Modern Languages at Oxford University, an MPhil in European Literature and Culture at Cambridge University, I received my PhD in French literature and philosophy from Cambridge University in 2011 (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council). During my doctoral studies, I was a member of the Équipe Proust at the Institut des Texts et Manuscripts Modernes and a pensionnaire étrangère at the École Normale Supérieure, Rue d’Ulm.


My research has covered a wide range of topics in twentieth-century and contemporary French literature, philosophy and film. It is characterized by the aim to foster a culture of critical as well as radically interdisciplinary thinking about literature, particularly with regard to medicine. To this end, my work crosses disciplinary boundaries and seeks to have a wider societal impact on how we think about healthcare, medicine and dying. I also work on medical ethics and have co-founded the Swiss Network for Ethics of Care, a platform for exchange and collaboration in the field of ethics of care.

Palliative Care

In my current book project, Palliative Pages: Dying in France since 1975, I seek to contextualize the meaning of ‘palliative’ within French literature and culture since 1975 - the year when reports about the work of Cicely Saunders, the founder of modern palliative care, gave the impetus to reform the French healthcare system’s approach to terminal disease. The book examines the ways in which literary (as well as a select number of visual) representations have idealized and criticized this particular model of end-of-life care and its assumptions about what constitutes a good death in France. This project is founded by a Swiss National Science Foundation Marie Heim-Vögtlin Grant.

Twentieth-Century French Literature and Philosophy

I focus mainly on questions raised by the representation of memory, mourning, trauma and pain in twentieth French literature and philosophy. Together with Olga Smith and Peter Collier I have co-edited a volume that brings together some of the most distinctive voices in contemporary discussions of memory and forgetting in French and Francophone studies. I have also explored these topics in the following recent publications:

Together with Steven Wilson I am currently co-editing a special issue entitled ‘The Cultural Languages of Pain’ for the Journal of Romance Studies.

Philosophy of Medicine and Medical Ethics

My interest in the philosophy of medicine relate to the history of concepts in bioethics and psychotherapy ethics, as well as to narrative and care ethics. I am specifically interested in autonomy and the role of the family in end-of-life care. In 2015, I was a Yale-Hastings Scholar at the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics and in 2017 a visiting fellow at the Hastings Center.

Together with Vanessa Rampton I have worked on the Kantian heritage of the bioethical principle of autonomy, as well as the role of care ethics in psychotherapy:

  • ‘Ethics of Care in Psychotherapy’, with V. Rampton, in The Oxford Handbook of Psychotherapy Ethics, ed. by M. Trachsel, S. Tekin, N. Biller-Andorno, J. Gaab, J. Sadler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), forthcoming
  • ‘Back to Kant? Autonomy and End-of-life Narratives’ with V. Rampton, forthcoming in The Journal of Medicine & Philosophy
Film and Visual Media

Within film studies, I focus primarily on documentary film. I am interested in the role of testimony in film, which I have explored with regard to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. I have also worked on the genre of the first-person documentary more broadly, particularly with regard to the visual depiction of suicide. This material appears in two publications:

More recent work includes a study on the role of nature imagery in documentaries about death and dying:

  • Death Off Screen: Landscapes of care and the enchantment of dying in Edwin Beeler’s Die Weisse Arche (2016), Studies in Documentary Film, forthcoming

My research also engages with intermediality more broadly. As part of this I have explored the interconnectedness between literature and visual art in Proust, particularly with regard to the visual representations of Venice. In my current book project, I also engage with photography and question the role that the photographic documentation of hospitals and hospices in the work of Jean-Louis Courtinat has played in shaping the public image of end-of-life care in France.

Marcel Proust

My book, Mourning and Creativity in Proust, explores Proust’s answers to some of the fundamental challenges of the inevitable human experience of mourning. Combining psychoanalytic and poststructuralist frameworks for thinking loss, it develops an original theory of how mourning and creativity are linked and calls for a fresh approach of the modernist novel at large. A chapter of this book was awarded the runner-up of the Gapper Prize and the book was described as a ‘beautiful book that demonstrates the importance and complexity of mourning in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu’ (Review by Jennifer Rushworth, French Studies, 20 November 2018).

I have explored the reception of Du côté de chez Swann and of Proust’s work during his lifetime, as well as its connection with psychoanalysis and the sociological thought of Maurice Halbwachs. I have also written on the role of the physician, the experience of illness and medicine in Proust in these publications:

Together with Tom Stern I am editing a volume on Proust and philosophy for Routledge’s Philosophical Minds series.

Medical Humanities

The overall aim of my current research is to critically question the reception of medicine and healthcare in French twentieth-century and contemporary literature and the visual arts. This is why most of my work falls under the broad field of the Medical Humanities. I am affiliated Researcher at the Center for the Humanities and Health at King’s College London. I have also held a research fellowship at the Institute for the Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch and I am currently part of a team of researchers setting up the UZH competence center in Language and Medicine.

I am interested in the methodological questions defining the field of the Medical Humanities and its recent critical turn. In this context I have written about the doctor-patient encounter for the BMJ Medical Humanities Blog, I have contributed to The Polyphony and my perspective on the field has been cited in the Lancet Respiratory Medicine.

I also have a forthcoming chapter on psychotherapy ethics in twentieth-century literature and an article on the role of care in dementia narratives:

  • ‘Psychotherapy Ethics in Literature’, in The Oxford Handbook of Psychotherapy Ethics, ed. by M. Trachsel, S. Tekin, N. Biller-Andorno, J. Gaab, J. Sadler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), forthcoming
  • ‘Dementia Care Narratives’, in Wiener klinische Wochenschrift, forthcoming 2020

Academic Appointments

University of Zurich

SNSF Marie Heim-Vögtlin Fellow, Institute of Romance Studies
June 2017 - present
Senior Researcher, Center for Medical Humanities
2016 - 2017

King's College London

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, Department of French Studies
2012 - 2016

University of Oxford

Joanna Randall MacIver Junior Research Fellow, St Hugh’s College
2010 - 2012


University of Cambridge

Ph.D. in French Literature and Philosophy
Thesis: Mourning and Creativity in ‘A la recherche du temps perdu’

Committee: Emma Wilson (supervisor), Edward J. Hughes, Marion Schmid

2007 - 2011
M.Phil. in European Literature and Culture

First Class with Distinction

2006 - 2007

University of Oxford

B.A. (Hons) in Philosophy and Modern Languages

First Class with Distinction

2001 - 2006

Curriculum Vitae

As of May 2020