Confessions of an English Green Tea-Drinker

‘At all events, I felt the want, and I supplied it. Tea was my companion – at first the ordinary black tea, made in the usual way, not too strong: but I drank a good deal, and increased its strength as I went on. I never experienced an uncomfortable symptom from it. I began to take a little green tea. I found the effect pleasanter, it cleared and intensified the power of thought, I had come to take it frequently, but not stronger than one might take for pleasure’.

It sounds harmless enough. A couple of pots to keep the stamina up through long nights bent over books. I’ve tried it once or twice, I admit. I’ll even cop to having enjoyed it. But not any more. I’ve been scared straight by Sheridan Le Fanu’s horrifying account of the Reverend Mister Jennings’s ultimately fatal dalliance with mind-altering substances.

Green Tea, Le Fanu’s 1872 exposé of an insidious threat to the mental health and moral integrity of every Englishman of an intellectual disposition, introduces us to the tragic Jennings at his moment of vulnerability to this scourge, when he is engaged obsessively in ambitious and potentially subversive research on the metaphysical beliefs of ancient pagans. I need not detail here the inherent dangers of dabbling with ideas of that sort at any level; they are well-documented, but Jennings has recklessly thrown himself into his study without regard for maintaining the correct scholarly detachment. As he confesses to his doctor, he has allowed himself to become entirely consumed by his work, always thinking on it, always dreaming about it, always reading and writing between the hours of eleven at night and three in the morning. Worse, he has begun experimenting with black tea – the gateway tea – as a stimulant to boost his productivity. Inevitably, black tea leads him to the green, and Jennings’s fate is sealed.

One day, while riding an omnibus, Jennings sees two piercing red eyes staring at him, gradually realising that they belong to a demonic black monkey. This grinning nightmarish vision persecutes him for the rest of his days, sitting on his books and interrupting him while he studies, shrieking curses and blasphemies to drown out his prayers, tempting him to perform evil acts, and eventually, perhaps inevitably, commanding him to commit suicide, which he does, slitting his own throat with a single-edged razor.

Evil monkey

One would have hoped that society at large might have heeded such a potent warning, but sadly, no. Even now, one-hundred-and-forty years later, walk into any supermarket in the UK and there, occupying at least half an aisle are teas of every description – not merely black and green, but white and infusions, too. It makes me shudder to think of the peril susceptible scholars are unwittingly faced with every day of their lives in every corner cake shop, at every Chinese restaurant. What is the point, I ask, of a government that allows our streets to be overrun with this poison? If ever there were any questions of the social relevance of literary studies, then surely it must lie in our ability – nay, our duty – to ensure that cries from the past, like Le Fanu’s, do not go unheeded. The temptation is insidious. Green tea may have the allure of a key to knowledge, power, or terrible secrets, to a world beyond ordinary human understanding, but it is a chimera, unpredictable and dangerous; open the doors to perception and what lies behind them is all too capable of taking on a life of its own, taking possession of the mind and the body, and of wreaking havoc on our way of life. So remember: say ‘no’ to tea.

Melissa Dickson

Inside and Outside Bodies at the University of Glasgow

Dr Melissa Dickson and Dr Jennifer Wallis will be speaking about two moments of Victorian social and cultural anxiety in a panel entitled ‘Inside and Outside Bodies: the Science of Micro and Macrocosms’ at a one day interdisciplinary conference on Anxious Forms: Bodies in Crisis in Victorian Literature and Culture, to be held at the University of Glasgow on Friday, 22nd August.

In her paper, ‘Sounding Out the Body: Laennec’s Stethoscope and the Anxiety of Inner Acoustics’, Melissa Dickson will foreground the potentially uneasy relationship between abstract, invisible sounds and the visible, sound producing bodies of nineteenth-century patients. When, in 1816, René Laennec sought to overcome his difficulties in examining an obese girl with symptoms of heart disease by rolling an exercise book into a cylinder and placing one end at his ear and the other at her precordial region, he discovered that he could hear the sounds of her chest more clearly than if he had applied his ear directly to her body. Three years later, he published a 900 page treatise on the art of mediate auscultation, filled with descriptions of the various sounds he had detected through use of the stethoscope and the diseases they signified. In its gradual adoption by medical practitioners across Europe and America, the stethoscope, a powerful symbol of modern medical practice, marked – as Jonathan Sterne has observed – an important shift in the Western history of listening, whereby the voice of the patient was no longer the basis of diagnosis but existed in relation to other sounds made by and within the patient’s body. However, the ability to hear and to interpret those internal sounds remained exclusive to the trained ears of medical professionals. What of the stethoscope’s effects upon the increasingly objectified patient, unable to hear the sounds of his or her own body?

L0007797 Laennec and the use of the stethoscope at the Hospital Necker

Laennec using his stethoscope at the Hospital Necker.

Drawing on representations of the stethoscope in nineteenth-century literature, poetry, and the periodical press, Melissa will offer insight into the emergent corporeal anxiety implicit in the development of this new medical technology, and the ways in which the stethoscope served as an interface between constructions of presence and absence, and between material and immaterial realms.

Jennifer Wallis’s paper, ‘Gloom and Misery Everywhere? Stormy Weather and Human Barometers in the Victorian Asylum’, conceives of the anxious body as an expectant body, examining work from the late nineteenth century in which the body of the asylum patient became something of a forecasting tool. At Sussex Asylum, chaplain Thomas Crallan collected a range of meteorological data that he charted alongside the condition of asylum residents. In doing this, Crallan was expanding upon older folkloric ideas about the susceptibility of the insane to atmospheric influence – such as the lunar cycle – and reformulating these within the discourse of late Victorian meteorology.

V0025766 Lightning striking a rural building during a storm: onlooker

The supposed effect of storms on the minds and bodies of asylum patients was one question considered by Thomas Crallan at Sussex Asylum.

Jennifer will use Crallan’s investigations at Sussex to consider how meteorological data was employed in the study of mental disease. In viewing certain classes of asylum patients as ‘human barometers’, commentators implicitly linked them with those ‘lower animals’ long said to possess an acute awareness of impending meteorological changes. Thus, discourses around meteorology in the asylum raised the spectre of degeneration, feeding on widespread anxieties about the impact of the external environment upon both the body and the mind. Medical meteorology, as a developing and self-consciously ‘scientific’ practice, was also a body of knowledge that itself raised anxieties: about the interaction of the medical man and the amateur observer, and – for churchmen like Crallan – possibly forcing observers to examine their personal positions on matters of God and nature.

More information about the conference and its programme is available here. And best of all, it’s free to attend!

The Bane of Modern Technology

The tragedy of comedy, for those who work at creating it, at least, is that jokes will go off. This is a phenomenon familiar to joke-receivers as much as tellers. Who does not detect a fishy odour whenever someone begins a tale with a man walking into a bar? Even the best ones can only be cellared for so long before they turn, as anyone passingly acquainted with the classics will attest. The eternal joke is very rare; little always has and always will work. Pratfalls, maybe – schoolboy humour, broadly speaking, but the shelf-life of satire or any jokes involving social commentary tends to be shorter, not surprisingly, given the load of cultural context they have to bear in order to be intelligible. I have a lot of pity for these miserable, rotten gags, struggling vainly to retain their relevance. I try to force a laugh, or chuckle politely, and I find it quite heartening when an old joke succeeds at reinventing itself, as they occasionally do. I came across one such recently when I was picking through the comedic wasteland of Punch, that inexhaustible repository of mid-nineteenth century England’s often outworn wit, its pages filled with caricatures of obese be-whiskered patriarchs stuffing their elastic maws with oversize slices of Victoria sponge inscribed “Duty on Hair-Powder Act”, inscrutable drolleries so many historical and literary researchers have leafed through, bemused or benumbed. This is it:

Punch Forecasts

It caught my eye because it reminded me of an image I was shown not long ago, snapped of a gaggle of girls – the photographer’s teenaged daughter and her friends – seated in a bedroom, allegedly “hanging out together,” the photographer had claimed, each absorbed in her own smartphone. Different technology, same joke, underpinned, I think, by the same anxiety that real human interaction, mediated by nothing bar visceral experience, is under threat from the technological innovations that we have assimilated into our daily lives. By using such devices, these artists claim, we are somehow damaging ourselves and relationships. I thought, too, of Michael Leunig’s famous sunrise cartoon, which is another variation on the theme:

Leunig Cartoon

What is this essential, authentic, real communication with whose fate we are so vitally concerned that this joke in its various manifestations keeps becoming relevant? Can it really be said to exist at all? Such a position would seem to presuppose that there is nothing lost in face-to-face conversation, which is, on consideration, untenable. If I talk to you directly, is my expression not immediately limited by the degree to which I am capable of rendering my subjective experience into language? And I would be doing it off the cuff, at that. Of course, I could write down what I want to tell you, thereby permitting me to articulate the ideas I want to communicate to you more fully. I wouldn’t need anything as modish as these suspect products of “technology” to do that, would I, simply to write? Unless you wanted to call writing itself technology, and worry that it might have some sort of insidious effect on our minds, that it might implant forgetfulness in our very souls, say. But what sort of intelligent person would ever be concerned about that? Oh, wait… Plato was. No joke!

Melissa Dickson