Creative Health; or, what would Vernon Lee have to say to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing?

This post is contributed by Sarah Green.

‘The time has come to recognise the powerful contribution the arts can make to our health and wellbeing.’

Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing, Short Report (July 2017)

It was Mental Health Awareness Week last week, and I’ve been looking back at the July 2017 Inquiry Report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing (#ArtsHealthWellbeing). The report makes two interesting claims: that the arts could make a significant positive impact on public health and wellbeing, and that this impact needed to be made now to counteract the circumstances (stress, loneliness, aging populations, increasing numbers of people living with long-term conditions) of modern life.

My first thoughts were ‘what would Vernon Lee have made of all this?’ Perhaps this wouldn’t have been everyone’s primary reaction, but for anyone working on the connections between aesthetics – the study of art and beauty – and health in the late Nineteenth Century, the similarities are initially striking. Many late nineteenth-century aesthetes would have wholeheartedly concurred in both of these conclusions, and none more than Vernon Lee. Once again, what is now being presented as the newest thinking has historical roots in the nineteenth century.

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Portrait of Violet Paget (Vernon Lee) by John Singer Sargent (1881) and Vernon Lee and C. Anstruther-Thomson, Beauty and Ugliness (1912)

Vernon Lee (the penname of Violet Paget, 1856-1935) was a prolific writer on art and aesthetics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and had a life-long interest in the healthiness of art. Like many others she was convinced that all art had a distinct and, she increasingly felt, directly observable effect on the body, and that our aesthetic responses were traceable to this impact. Her 1912 book Beauty and Ugliness, written with Clementina Anstruther-Thomson, recorded their joint efforts to identify the precise nature of these bodily responses, from changes in breathing, stance and heart rhythm to less easily described effects. Her essays on aesthetics, morality, and social questions frequently dwelt on the impact of art on health and what we would now call wellbeing, especially in an increasingly pressured and over-civilized world.

The 2017 Inquiry report, entitled Creative Health (online here) similarly finds that the arts have a (to a certain extent) measurable influence on the body, and therefore on both physical and mental health. But it is less interested than Lee in determining precisely why this should be the case. Its focus is on the practical application of this knowledge in a National Health Service struggling under the pressures of an ever expanding and aging population that suffers from an increased level of long-term health issues, including stress. ‘The evidence we present’, it claims, ‘shows how arts-based approaches can help people to stay well, recover faster, manage long-term conditions and experience a better quality of life. We also show how arts interventions can save money and help staff in their work’.[1] It recommends a range of interventions, from group art therapies to museums on prescription.

So what would Lee have made of this? While it is likely that she would have concurred with the report’s broader claims and ambitions, even its plans to use art as generalised therapy, she would almost certainly have been distressed by its generous definition of ‘the arts’. Under this heading the report includes ‘the visual and performing arts, crafts, dance, film, literature, music and singing’, as well as gardening, cooking, attending concert halls, museums, galleries, theatres, heritage sites and libraries (whatever they contain), and the importance of built environments. ‘In this report’, it says, “the arts” is used as shorthand for everyday human creativity, rather than referring to a lofty activity which requires some sort of superior cultural intelligence to access’.[2] Creating or experiencing the arts are treated as the same kind of activity, regardless of what is created or what is experienced.

Lee would be the last to object to the grouping together of so many activities under one banner (her theories of art also encompassed visual art, music, literature, and sense of place). But she would surely have considered the report’s disinclination to distinguish good art from bad to be a public hazard. For Lee, if art’s effect on the body could be restorative and health giving, it could equally be damaging and dangerous. Good art, she wrote, was ‘fresh and wholesome food’ for body and soul, but bad art was ‘mere highly flavoured, spicy or nauseous drug-stuff’ (Child in the Vatican).[3] Beauty, she says in Beauty and Ugliness, is rightly ‘associated with all our notions of order, of goodness, of health, and of more complete life’, and ugliness ‘with everything by which the life of body and soul is diminished and jeopardised’ (30).[4] Careful education was required in order to discriminate between the two.

Lee was motivated by very nineteenth century concerns, not least the relationship between physical and moral health. But her example throws up interesting questions concerning the boundaries of ‘art’ and its impact upon wellbeing. Does everyone receive the same benefit from creating or experiencing art? Are these two activities as healthy as each other? Is Wagner as beneficial as Metallica, or does this differ from person to person? Does that benefit increase or decrease based on the person’s ideas concerning art? Can anything be done to increase one’s susceptibility to art, and if so, what? If these questions are difficult, perhaps impossible to answer, nevertheless the Report’s findings show the necessity of asking them.

I like to think that, despite concerns, Lee would have been especially cheered by the Report’s generous sense of ‘wellbeing’ as something that goes beyond, and yet includes and is profoundly affected by bodily health; and encouraged by its feeling that this cannot be achieved, either now or in the future, without working together as a community. ‘There is no life’, she writes, ‘a man may lead with one or two others which does not spread and affect the life of all and every one’.[5] The short report of the Inquiry ends with an appeal: ‘we ask all those who believe in the value of the arts for health and wellbeing to speak up’.[6] It is an appeal that Lee surely would have applauded.

[1] The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing Inquiry, Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing, Short Report (July 2017), 1, http://www.artshealthandwellbeing.org.uk/appg-inquiry.

[2] Creative Health, 4, 19.

[3] Vernon Lee, ‘The Child in the Vatican’, in Belcaro: Being Essays on Sundry Aesthetical Questions (London: W. Satchell & Co., 1881), 17-48; 23.

[4] Vernon Lee and Clementina Anstruther-Thomson, Beauty and Ugliness, and Other Studies in Psychological Aesthetics (London: John Lane, 1912), 30.

[5] Vernon Lee, Althea: Dialogues on Aspirations and Duties (London: Osgood, McIlvaine & Co, 1894), 234.

[6] Creative Health, 11.

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Dracula and Modern Life

Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown, Dr Hosanna Krienke, and Dr Sarah Green recently led a post-performance panel discussion for Creation Theatre’s production of Dracula, which was staged at Blackwell’s Bookshop, using only two actors and innovative audiovisual effects. Here they each offer their thoughts on the performance, the panel discussion and the role of the vampire in channeling fears about modernity.

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Entering Blackwell’s bookshop after hours and descending into a basement surrounded by rows and rows of books, felt like the perfect start to Creation Theatre’s adaptation of Dracula. We were greeted with soft lighting and the sounds of Postmodern Jukebox—a band who reimagine popular songs as jazz covers, a clever nod to the rich sociocultural interlude that would connect the original 1897 text to its new 1950s setting.

The Vampire, Science, and Technology – Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown

As I watched the play unfold, I was struck by the clever use of technology, not only because it made it possible to tell such a complex story with a cast of just two, but also because it felt true to the original text in which technology takes centre stage. The phonograph, telegraph, and railway are important structures of communication in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, coupled as they are with letters, diary entries, interviews, and newspaper articles that together form the story. This is called an epistolary narrative, a form that while seeming to build a tale through physical evidence, actually relies on a large amount of subjectivity, calling into question the authenticity of its multiple narrators. In this play, silhouettes, hand-held projectors, flashing lights, and disembodied audio, allow the audience to really feel Dracula’s presence without ever setting eyes on him, and in the process highlight the blurring between evidence and memory in very interesting and visual ways.

Both versions of Dracula embody anxieties about truth and superstition—what is real? What can be proved? At the end of Stoker’s novel Jonathan Harker writes:

‘It was almost impossible to believe that the things that we had seen with our own eyes and heard with our own ears were living truths […] we were struck by the fact that in all the mass of material of which the record is composed, there is hardly one authentic document.’

Such a preoccupation with authenticity speaks to the novel’s historical moment in which medical science was branching into multiple specialisms, empiricism and experiment were thriving scientific methods, and psychiatry was a nascent, but visible field of study. From the mid-nineteenth century, practitioners were attempting to pin down the dynamics of disease causation: were diseases internal or external? How were they transmitted? The microscope was steadily revealing the role of parasites and bacteria in the aetiologies of human illnesses and the vampire became a prime metaphor for the contagiousness, not just of illness, but also of transgressive ideas and behaviours. This certainly comes to the fore in Creation’s adaption, which is set, perhaps significantly, in a decade in which Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. Such a discovery gave new credence to the power of scientific knowledge to explain the world, especially following the global destabilisation of two world wars and their legacies for many of PTSD.

But what happens when scientific knowledge fails? In the post-show discussion, the audience were keen to discuss what is and is not knowable. The vampire, they decided, continues to hold power in the popular imagination because of its intrinsically metaphoric nature, able to represent both the real and the imagined.

Vampirism as Madness – Dr Hosanna Krienke

Renfield is a crucial character for understanding Dracula, particularly in this adaptation, which distills the story down to a few key players. While story seems to be set up as a clear clash between regular humans vs. supernatural vampires, Renfield is an uncanny double for both sides. On the one hand, his seeming insanity is based on his attempts to consume the life force of lesser beings (spiders and, in one memorable scene, a sparrow) in order to become immortal. So in a sense he acts exactly like a vampire, albeit an infinitely unsexy one. But on the other hand, Renfield’s diagnosis does not clearly separate him from the other human characters. Seward declares that Renfield is a “Zoophagous”—a fancy medical term that only means he eats animals. He is carnivorous, like a lot of other humans.

So if Renfield is a weird doppelgänger of both humans and vampires, why is he in this story at all? Renfield’s presence emphasizes a pattern across the play: the experience of encountering a vampire is constantly portrayed as a kind of madness. Lucy, Harker, and even Mina start to distrust their own motivations and memories. In this production, the audience too gets to experience a kind of fractured existence as scenes bleed into each other and the actors transform into multiple characters. Ultimately, like Mina and Harker, the audience also cannot always string together everything we’ve witnessed into a tidy, rational narrative.

Today, we are quite used to the idea of the sexy, attractive vampire who is relatively little threat to humans. But this production retains some of the danger of the vampire through its portrayal of Renfield. Though Christopher York portrays Renfield for most of the play, [spoiler!] in a climactic moment Sophie Greenham (who until now has played the resolutely rational Mina and the scientist Seward) slips on Renfield’s distinctive skull cap and assumes his persona. The implication is clear: no one is left free from the taint of the vampire’s touch. So while Harker and Mina think that they are liberated at the end of the play, the actors’ shared portrayal of Renfield hints at a possible future in which they do not become superhuman vampires, but instead are institutionalized as lunatics.

The Vampire and Sexuality – Dr Sarah Green

Dracula has always offered rich pickings to historians of sexuality. This adaptation was no exception. Unlike the novel it centred mainly on Jonathan and Mina, and particularly on the non-consummation of their marriage after Jonathan’s traumatic encounters with female vampires at Castle Dracula. But what was really interesting was the change of time period – from the late 1890s to the 1950s – and what that did to the sexualities in question.

More than anything, the change allowed the introduction of a major figure who was writing in the 1890s, but only started to influence mainstream British culture in the 1920s: Sigmund Freud. The majority of Victorian readers would have shared the belief that excessive sex could be dangerous to the health, though they may have disagreed widely on how much exactly was too much. Dracula can be (and often is) read as a novel about sexual self-control, and the forces of destruction that can so easily be unleashed if that control is relinquished. The characters of this 1950s Dracula, however, have surely been influenced by Freud’s contention that it was precisely controlled or ‘repressed’ sexuality that was the damaging force. Their decision to embrace their vampire natures in an orgiastic embrace concluded a narrative that was more about finding a way to express sexuality than to control it.

But can the vampire ever represent a purely positive sexuality? In the discussion after the show, audience members asked what part horror played in this, and why it is only recent years that have seen the advent of the self-controlled and self-hating vampire (see Twilight and True Blood), who strives to control his or her violent nature. If this is the vampire of our time, what does it tell us about how sexual anxieties have changed since the 1950s?

The Contagion Cabaret at the Science Museum (London)

This post is contributed by Alison Moulds.

Last night The Contagion Cabaret brought its infectious entertainment to audiences at the Science Museum’s ‘Superbugs’ Late.

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The museum Lates are free, after-hours events, aimed at adult audiences, which take place on the last Wednesday of every month. Each event is themed and last night’s focused on how bacteria develop into superbugs, and the threat of antibiotic resistance.

The museum was filled with hands-on activities, interactive exhibits, and live performances. Visitors joined a barbershop quartet singing about microbial resistance and made their own comic strips about a dystopian, superbug-ridden future. Attendees played the ‘Ultimate Superbugs Race’, emulating bacteria to find out how they evolve to fight antibiotics. Meanwhile, a stall called ‘How Clean is Your Phone?’ offered the daunting prospect of testing the dirtiness of attendees’ personal belongings. Throughout the evening, visitors interacted with scientists, historians, healthcare practitioners, and museum staff, among others.

The Contagion Cabaret was performed three times, in the museum’s intimate Wonderlab Showspace. The Cabaret is the result of a  collaboration between researchers on  the ‘Constructing Scientific Communities’ and ‘Diseases of Modern Life’ projects, together with Professor Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, at the University of Oxford, and the Chipping Norton Theatre, led by Director John Terry. The Cabaret features extracts from plays and music, past and present, which touch on the themes of infection, contamination and contagion.

Last night’s performance included a scene from Eugène Brieux’s play Damaged Goods (1913) which looked at venereal disease and marriage, while readings from twenty-first century newspapers showed how images of contagion have featured in discussions of immigration. The Cabaret combines serious, thought-provoking pieces with plenty of comedic material as well. There were crowd-pleasing performances of ‘The Herpes Tango’ from Fascinating Aida (1999) and ‘Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir’ from Sweeney Todd (1979).

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The Cabaret has already had several previous outings, at the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford and The Theatre Chipping Norton. Last night’s was a truncated performance, tailored to the informal atmosphere of the Late.

If you missed previous performances of The Contagion Cabaret, you can catch it* at the British Academy on 24th May. (*Pun intended.) This will be the full-length, two-hour version. To book your free ticket visit: https://www.britac.ac.uk/events/contagion-cabaret.

Science, Medicine and Culture in the Nineteenth Century Seminars in Trinity Term 2018

tringquaggaMonday 7 May 2018 (Week 3)

Professor Harriet Ritvo, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Gone but not Forgotten:  Coming to Grips with Extinction

5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College

Extinction is a timely and controversial topic now, as it has been for centuries.  That is not, of course, to say that the focus of contention has remained constant.  At first the main question, couched at least as much in theological as in scientific terms (that is, in terms resonant with later debates about evolution), was whether it could happen.   Localized anthropogenic extinctions, most famously that of the dodo, were noticed by European travelers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (the intentional extermination of undesirable animals like wolves at home did not figure in such debates).  The dwindling and disappearance of more populous and widespread species, including the passenger pigeon, the quagga, and (nearly) the American bison, in the nineteenth century sparked a different kind of concern among the overlapping communities of hunters, naturalists, and conservationists, which helped to inspire the earliest national parks and wildlife reserves.

Tuesday 22 May 2018 (Week 5)

Dr Carolyn Burdett, Birkbeck, University of London

Sympathy limits in Daniel Deronda

5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College

From the 1860s sympathy emerged as a key term in naturalistic dispute about mechanisms of evolution and the relation of human to animal life. This paper argues that we need to look closely at these debates in order to have a fuller account of the role sympathy played in the ethical and artistic changes of the ‘end’ of Victorianism. Sympathy’s part in its own vanishing conditions during the final three decades of the nineteenth century has not yet been fully explained. As literary historians invariably turn to George Eliot to help grasp the scope and power of secular modern sympathy, I go to her final novel, Daniel Deronda, to find insight about its waning. While sympathy is explicitly referenced on more occasions in Daniel Deronda than in any other of Eliot’s fictions, many readers have noted profound changes that propel the narrative simultaneously beyond both sympathy and realism. Might sympathy, paradoxically, be a key to grasping why Eliot’s last novel is full of terror and dread, magic and divination, Gothicism and melodrama? I conclude by briefly suggesting that sympathy in the final decades of the nineteenth century is part of the same nexus of concepts that produce a new term, empathy, seen by some in the twenty-first century to have largely replaced sympathy in referencing affective and ethical capacity.

Tuesday 5 June 2018 (Week 7)

Dr Manon Mathias, University of Glasgow

 ‘What is health? It is chocolate!’: Chocolate, medicine, and writing

in nineteenth-century France

5.30—7.00, Seminar Room 3, St Anne’s College

Although France’s role in the development of chocolate from an Early Modern luxury to a popular product has been noted, nowhere has the French engagement with chocolate as medicine been examined in any depth. Moreover, the numerous literary engagements with this product in nineteenth-century novels remain unexplored. Taking up the call issued by the Chocolate History Project (UC Davis) for more research on chocolate in literature and in cookbooks, this paper will examine references to chocolate in scientific and medical texts from the period but also in gastronomic texts and novels to see to what extent principles regarding chocolate reached beyond the medical field, and also to reveal the rich and complex relations between chocolate and language.

Drinks will be served after each seminar. All welcome, no booking required.

 

 

‘Wholesale poisoning by hot cross-buns’ and bizarre murders of medical men

This post is contributed by Professor Sally Shuttleworth (University of Oxford).

As you bite into your delicious hot cross-bun this Easter, spare a thought for the inhabitants of Inverness in 1882, who were subjected to ‘whole-sale poisoning by hot cross-buns’, with over 140 worthy citizens and children affected.[1]   The Glasgow Herald reported on Easter Saturday that,

‘Good Friday of 1882 is not likely to be forgotten in Inverness….In the forenoon whole families were suddenly seized with a severe and serious illness, and the town doctors were soon in great demand.  The illness manifested itself at first as a rule with giddiness and pain in the neck and limbs.  The giddiness was in every case followed by severe illness and vomiting….Families here and there were prostrate, and school children were suddenly seized with sickness and were dropping in a helpless condition on the ground.[2]

A subsequent medical enquiry pointed the finger at the spice in the buns as the agent of poison.[3]   I picked up this item of news from the Lancet, April 22, in 1822, amidst a larger item on the insanitary conditions of bread-making in London, including one establishment where bread tins were placed over an open sewer to cool.   Not to be recommended!

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“Hot Cross-Buns!” from Illustrated London News, 1861.

One of the delights of reading nineteenth-century periodicals is that of sheer serendipity – you never know what you will encounter next.  This item on hot-cross buns came from a section in the Lancet called  ‘Annotations’ which gives a round-up of medically-related news and is a wonderful way of exploring the goings-on and concerns of the time.  For the Diseases of Modern Life team, this particular day is a treasure trove capturing many of the issues we are exploring, from public and occupational health through to education, and the problems of drink and drug taking.    The latter figures largely, with items on ‘The Curse of Chloral’, on Dante Rossetti’s death from this new drug; ‘Another Warning against the Use of Narcotics’ on an over-worked doctor who died from an accidental overdose of morphia which he took to get to sleep; and ‘Grocers’ Licences and Secret Drinking’, which highlighted an issue Jennifer Wallis has explored, on anxieties about alcohol licenses for grocers’ premises unleashing a wave of secret female drinking:  ‘To no other members of the body politic is it so well known as to the members of our profession how the secret evils to health and morality springing from the license increase the mischievous and dangerous results from alcoholic indulgence, especially amongst the female section of the community’.   The prospect that the respectable activity of grocery shopping could become a cover for illicit female drinking was clearly alarming.

Occupational health was covered by an item on demonstrations by shop assistants for shorter hours:  the journal supported the general aim, but disapproved of ‘mixed gatherings in Trafalgar–square’ – women breaking decorum again, and disturbing public peace.   The item on education addressed the issue of the day, ‘Cramming and Forcing School Children’, expressing yet again the journal’s opposition to the excessive cramming and examining of the young: ‘It is perfectly well known to everybody who has taken the trouble to study the system of teaching and training for results – the inevitable consequence of the competition and examination mania – that education is a misnomer for the method of tuition too generally employed’.   I would recommend this section to our current Secretary of State for Education as some Easter reading, while munching a hot-cross bun.

By far the most bizarre item in these ‘Annotations’ comes in under the bland title, ‘A Strange Story’.   It recounts ‘an extraordinary plot to murder a number of medical men in Berlin’.   The plot was discovered when two accomplices went to the police.   The idea was to hire rooms in various parts of town, and summon a doctor under the pretence of illness ‘and then to murder him by means of a strangling instrument’.   The instrument, which the perpetrator had spent two years devising, based on ‘an old-fashioned instrument of torture preserved in one of the museums of the city’ is described in gruesome detail.   Even more bizarrely, the police allowed the plot to go ahead, hiding in an adjoining room and dressing up one of their number as the intended victim, Dr Lehrs.  They only intervened when the ‘half-strangled man’ knocked on the floor to summon aid.   If it were not for the fact that this tale pre-dates the Sherlock Holmes stories by eleven years, I would have been tempted to think that the police had been consuming too much detective fiction.  I had always assumed that the elaborate dramas of enticement, so beloved of crime writers, largely belonged to the fictional domain.  Now I am not so sure.

Happy Easter everyone, but beware of over-indulgence, whether of hot-cross buns, alcohol (or other stimulants), or television crime dramas!

 

 

[1]  ‘Annotations’, Lancet April 22, 1882, 657-664, p. 661.   See also ‘The Poisoning by Hot Cross Buns’, Morning Post, Monday, April 10, 1882, p. 6.

[2]   ‘Alarming Occurrence in Inverness’, Glasgow Herald, Saturday April 8, 1882; also ‘The Poisoning Case in Inverness’, Glasgow Herald, Monday April 10, 1882, where the original estimate of 100 cases goes up to 140.

[3]   ‘Poisonous Hot-Cross Buns’, August 12, 1882, p. 284.

Conference – Mind Reading: The Role of Narrative in Mental Health

Mind Reading 2017 - 260 x 323

18th-19th June 2018, University of Birmingham

Key note speakers:

Professor Brendan Drumm (UCD)

Professor Femi Oyebode (University of Birmingham)

Professor Chris Fitzpatrick (UCD)

Professor Dame Sue Bailey, and

Professor Sally Shuttleworth (University of Oxford)

Do clinicians and patients speak the same language? How might we bridge the evident gaps in communication? How can we use narrative to foster clinical relationships? Or to care for the carers?

This two-day programme of talks and workshops is a collaboration between the University of Birmingham, UCD Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Diseases of Modern Life and Constructing Scientific Communities Projects at St Anne’s College, Oxford. Together we seek to explore productive interactions between narrative and mental health both historically and in the present day. Bringing together psychologists, psychiatrists, GPs, service users, and historians of literature and medicine, we will investigate the patient experience through the prism of literature and personal narrative to inform patient-centred care and practice, and focus on ways in which literature might be beneficial in cases of burnout and sympathy fatigue.

A DRAFT PROGRAMME IS AVAILABLE HERE: https://literatureandmentalhealth.files.wordpress.com/2018/03/mind-reading-programme1.pdf

REGISTRATION IS NOW OPEN AND PLACES CAN BE BOOKED: https://shop.bham.ac.uk/conferences-and-events/college-of-arts-law/school-of-english-drama-american-canadian-studies/mind-reading-literature-and-mental-health-conference

 

Confusing Times: Communicating, 24/7

 

Confusing Times

Source: Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Kladderadatsch, 22 Feb. 1857, p. 36 – CC-BY-SA 3.0

In the age of smartphones, broadband internet access, and cheap(ish) air travel, the vision of the ‘global village’, appears to have become a reality. Networks of communication and transportation ensure that work and social life can remain uninterrupted, as those of us privileged enough to benefit from new technologies become—potentially—contactable anytime, anywhere. In the virtual world, video conferences and phone calls take place around the clock, maintaining business relations and friendships across the globe. In the physical world, distance remains an obstacle, but meetings are scheduled at increasingly short notice, as an ever growing number of flights carry passengers from one end of the world to the other, at all times of the day and night.

The roots of this global 24/7 society can arguably be traced back to the introduction of telegraphy during the nineteenth century. Only from the late 1840s and 1850s did networks of communication begin to extend across entire states, continents and, eventually, the globe, allowing a steadily expanding group of users to exchange messages over considerable distances, and instantaneously—at least, in theory. In practice, the cost of inter-continental telegrams long remained prohibitive, and technological limitations often meant that communication was interrupted or delayed. But the idea that diplomacy, business, news reporting, and even social interactions could be conducted across the globe in ‘real time’ both fuelled and confused the contemporary imagination.

Already in 1857, the German economist Karl Knies sketched out the implications of instant messaging for people’s understanding of time. Considering ‘a telegraphic dispatch which is sent eastwards and arrives “in the blink of an eye”’, he wrote, ‘the further it travels, the later it arrives—compared with the time at the sending office; and one which is sent westwards must arrive increasingly “earlier” than when it is sent’. Anticipating the imminent establishment of a telegraphic connection between Europe and North America, he explained that if ‘a message in Washington, New York or Philadelphia arrives five hours “earlier” than it is sent from London, Amsterdam or Paris, it overtakes the “course of the sun”, and puts into question a number of practical matters of everyday life”. For the first time, Knies explained, ordinary individuals would have to be attentive to the date in different places across the world: ‘next to the “today” in our Europe there is a “yesterday” in Asia, and a “tomorrow” in America’.[1]

A year later, the first trans-Atlantic cable was laid between Ireland and Newfoundland, sparking a fascination for the ‘contemporaneity’ of different days and times. The German satirical newspaper, Kladderadatsch, immediately seized on the opportunity to play with the temporal disorder which the telegraph appeared to cause. An article entitled ‘The Wonderful Effects of the Transatlantic Telegraph’ presented a sequence of imaginary exchanges, which began with a telegram received in Quebec, on 10th June 1860, at 5 am, announcing that a fire had broken out in the Tower of London at 10 am that day. The message was immediately transmitted to Nikolayevsk-on-Amur, in Eastern Russia, where it arrived on 9th June at 10pm, local time, and from there was sent to Moscow.

Upon receiving the news of the fire, the article continues, the police chief in Moscow promptly telegraphed the Lord Mayor of London, at 4pm on 9th June (local time),  describing the alarming message ‘which we have just received from America, sent tomorrow morning from London’. ‘Thanks to the wonderful head-start which the telegraph provides’, the police chief added, ‘I hope you will be in a position to prevent the imminent danger’. The Lord Mayor of London finally replied, at 1 pm on 9th June: ‘Thanks, a thousand thanks! Your zeal will save us. The fire services have been alerted, the fire engines are being driven past the site and tested, such that we can hope to extinguish the fire tomorrow morning as soon as it breaks out’.[2]

One hundred and sixty years on, this early fascination with the impact of a now defunct technology may seem almost endearing. Yet the temporal confusion which accompanied the early experience of telegraphic communication has by no means disappeared in the face of increasing global integration. How many of us ask ourselves, as we board a long-haul flight, ‘At what time do I land? And what time will that be in my mind?’, as we plan a strategy to adapt our body clock to local time upon arrival. How many urgent emails are put on hold or lie unanswered because our partners across the pond ‘aren’t awake yet’? Many are the long-distance calls, conferences and interviews, which are planned in advance to suit the habits of individuals in different time zones—heaven forbid one of them should switch to Daylight Saving Time in the interim—only to then begin with the question: ‘so what time is it where you are then?’

Whilst the telegraph lay the foundations of the perpetually connected world in which many of us live, it also first demonstrated the social and biological limits to global synchronisation. As a cartoon published in Kladderadatsch illustrated, the laying of the trans-Atlantic cable in 1858 heralded the age of instantaneous communication—it augured a world kept awake by the pulse of the network. But it also highlighted the many social rhythms and diurnal cycles that co-existed across the globe—frameworks of activity with which the tempo of communication would have to compete. The scene depicted is reminiscent of many a present-day Skype conversation, scheduled at the fringes of two individuals’ days, confronting the bleary-eyed bed-goer with the fresh alertness of the early bird: ‘Good Night, dear Jonathan. How do you do?’, the Englishman asks his American friend. ‘Good morning, dear John! Very well!’[3]

Transatlantic telegraph

Source: Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Kladderadatsch, 22 Aug. 1858, p. 156 – CC-BY-SA 3.0

 

[1] Karl Knies, Der Telegraph als Verkehrsmittel (Tübingen, 1857), pp. 190-1.

[2] Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Kladderadatsch, 29 Aug. 1858, p. 158.

[3] Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Kladderadatsch, 22 Aug. 1858, p. 156.

‘Mind Boggling Medical History’ Card Game Launch Event – Feb 28th!

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February 28th
5pm
Royal College of Nursing Library and Heritage Centre, London

Register here!

Join us for the launch of “Mind-Boggling Medical History” and explore the unexpected in medical and healthcare practice and history.

Mind-Boggling Medical History is a card game and educational resource led by the Constructing Scientific Communities project at the University of Oxford, in partnership with RCN Library and Archives. It is funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC). The educational game is designed to challenge preconceptions and show how ideas in medicine change for a variety of reasons.

The online game is accompanied by teaching resources to enable it to be used in schools for history or health education lessons, and for nursing and medical students at university.

Attendees at the launch will all receive a limited edition printed pack of the 50 card game and answer booklet.