Professor Femi Oyebode and the Poetry of Disquiet

This is a guest post by Femi Oyebode, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Birmingham and a recent speaker at Mind Reading 2017: Mental Health and the Written Word, a one-day programme of talks and workshops seeking to explore productive interactions between literature and mental health both historically and in the present day, organised collaboratively by Diseases of Modern Life and UCD Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

The title of this blog might as well have been ‘Mining Medicine from Literature’, borrowing from Professor Fergus Shanahan’s excellent talk at the recent Mind Reading 2017- Mental Health & the Written Word conference held in Dublin in March since that is the subtext this blog.  My contribution was a workshop on the poetry of disquiet. (A podcast of this and other talks is available here). In preparing for my session, I went back to Bashō (1644-1694), a master of classical Haiku. His life was marred by a number of tragedies and hence he understood the spirit of disquiet. His father died when he was 12 years old and his patron also died suddenly when Bashō was 22 years old. At the age of 39 years his home burnt down and soon after his mother passed away. In 1693, a year before his death, his nephew, Toin, for whom he was responsible, died suddenly from tuberculosis and, the following year Toin’s wife, Jutei, also died whilst looking after Bashō’s house.  Towards the end of his life, his poetry centred on sabi, described as a sense of loneliness or aloneness in poetry that conveyed a tragic sensibility. So, you can see why Bashō was my guide and model.

Haiku with its disciplined and highly concentrated form gives an idea of why poetry is such an effective mode for communicating emotional disquiet, for expressing despair and for anchoring a mind that’s in turmoil, grounding it in the firmly shared perspective of human frailty as well as strength. It is comforting to know that others have responded to loss with frailty but have nonetheless triumphed over dark feelings. I did not say much about Haiku at the workshop save to allude to its simplicity, its power and its use of time, place and imagery to capture stillness in a fluid world. Perhaps also like all poetry the pacing and pulse of the words act to comfort too.

Elizabeth Jennings (1926-2001) understood mental anguish. In poems such as “Sequence in Hospital”, “A New Pain”,  &  “Night Garden of the Asylum” she exposed to the reader’s scrutiny the tedium of hospital life, the sharp and distinct pain caused by the visiting lover’s departure, and the isolating influence of disease as it marks out the distressed soul as Other. These poems speak directly to make memorable but also, and perhaps more importantly, to draw attention to aspects of illness, asylum, and suffering that can go unrecognized by clinicians if not by family. When Jennings wrote

“Observe the hours which seem to stand

Between these beds and pause until

A shriek breaks through the time to show

That humankind is suffering still […]”

She ensured that the reader was involved in the situation, that they became an observer of the ward experience, that the veil covering the manner of existing in a hospital ward was pulled back so that nurses and doctors who may have become inured to the fact of what it means to live on a ward have their compassion and awareness rekindled.

In my view this is the proper role of the humanities in medicine- the capacity to make fresh for the clinician, a situation that is so commonplace, so ordinary that it loses its uniqueness. For the patient these situations are anything but ordinary.

I did not refer to Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) at the workshop. He lived the last 15 years of his life at the City of London Mental Hospital where he continued to compose music and write. Gurney’s gift was to be able to communicate the intensity of his feelings of despair and his powerlessness in the face of extreme anguish.  He wrote in “To God”

“Why have you made life so intolerable

And set me between four walls, where I am able

Not to escape meals without prayer, for that is possible

Only by annoying an attendant. And tonight a sensual

Hell has been put on me, so that all has deserted me

And I am merely crying and trembling in heart

For Death, and cannot get it. And gone out is part

Of sanity. And there is dreadful hell within me.

And nothing helps […]

This is a poem of what it is like in extremis. It makes it impossible for anyone to come to think of depression, or better still melancholia, as anything other than serious and unimaginably painful. The descriptions in textbooks and the attempts to standardize the features of severe mood disturbance fail to communicate the gravity and enormity of the human condition that clinical labels denote. Gurney’s writing, his desire to escape the pain of depression is most patently expressed in “An Appeal for Death”. He wrote

“There is one who all day wishes to die,

And appeals for it – without a reason why –

Since Death is easy if men are merciful.

Water and land with chances are packed full.

Who all day wishes to die […]

Suicide is the unexpressed but obvious desire here. Suicide is a difficult subject. Clinicians are confronted with suicide in their daily work. It challenges the primacy in medicine of the drive for life and the systems in medicine that act to save, preserve, and prolong life. It is capable of infecting the natural optimism of youth, of the young clinician and of the established clinician too, with a slow canker that imperils and corrodes confidence and enthusiasm. And, instead of turning the clinician towards the patient it can turn them away because of the subtle yet virulent energy that the subject of suicide possesses, and that is seen as best avoided if at all possible. I suppose I am hinting at the cost to the clinician of dealing with these situations. What literature does is to allow for a discussion about the depth and extent of feelings involved in this trade between clinician and patient of gross and inexpressible despair and hope. Literature does not solve these dilemmas but can create a space where profitable discussion can take place.

At the end of the conference, the following day, on Sunday, Jan and I went for a walk along from Dun Laoghaire to Joyce’s Tower at Sandycove. It was a blustery morning walk with intermittent rain. On the first floor of the tower was the room that Joyce shared with his friends including St John Gogarty. It was easy to imagine that Joyce and his friends had just stepped out and could return any minute. The way in which the room seemed to be waiting for its previous occupants put me in mind of Fernando Pessoa’s house in Lisbon, at Rua Coelho da Rocha, Campo de Ourique. When I visited his first floor flat, it was just as if he had merely stepped out for a minute. There was his black jacket and waistcoat, a white shirt and black tie, his bed with its yellowish brown and white stripe cover and the black hat resting on it. There was his pair of black shoes and a bookcase with a few books. The title of my workshop was taken from a collection of Pessoa’s, Book of Disquiet.

Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) was a Portuguese poet who wrote prodigiously in several heteronyms including Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Alvaro de Campos, and Alexander Search. He also wrote under his own name. There is a distinction to be made in Pessoa’s work between what might ordinarily be termed pseudonyms and heteronyms. Pessoa wrote in heteronyms, meaning that there was a well-developed character, style and voice to each name that he assumed and wrote under.  It is when he wrote as himself that we come closest to his melancholia. In “Diary in the Shade” he wrote

“Do you still remember me?

You knew me a long time ago.

I was the sad child you didn’t care for

But gradually got to be interested in

(In his anguish, his sadness, and something else)

And ended up liking, almost without realizing it.

Remember? The sad Child who played on the beach

By himself, quietly, far away from the others,

And he sometimes looked over at them sadly but without regret…”

Pessoa continued

“I know you’re watching and don’t understand what sadness it is

That makes me look sad.

It isn’t regret or nostalgia, disappointment or resentment.

No..It’s the sadness

Of one who, in the great prenatal realm,

Must have received from God the Secret –

The secret of the world’s illusion,

Of the absolute emptiness of things –

The incurable sadness

Of one who realizes that everything’s pointless, worthless

That effort is an absurd waste,

And that life is a void {…]”

Pessoa’s response to this existential melancholy was writing. In other words, it was the business of creating and ‘embracing the unreal dimension’ of fiction that allowed him to transcend the ‘incurable sadness’ of living. Pessoa concluded

“My world of dreams fashioned in broad daylight…

Yes, that is what gives

My face an oldness even older than my childhood,

And my gaze an anxiety within my happiness”.

I think that with Pessoa we come full circle to the idea that writing itself, literature can be mined from medicine, from ailments and afflictions. It is not just medicine that is being mined from literature but that there is a mutuality of relationship between medicine and literature. The conference showed this interdependence between medicine and humanities to the participants’ advantage. It was absolutely clear that this interdependence was enriching.

Femi Oyebode

ERC 10th Anniversary Week

The Diseases of Modern Life project was featured on the Humanities Division website as part of the ERC’s 10th anniversary week celebrations and events in March. The article is available here

Professor Sally Shuttleworth, Dr Melissa Dickson and Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown also appeared in a video made for the 10th anniversary, which featured a number of Oxford recipients of ERC funding. The video is available here

 

Sally Shuttleworth on BBC Radio 4

Professor Sally Shuttleworth has been a panellist on two BBC Radio 4 programmes broadcast on 9th March 2017.

For  In Our Time hosted by Melvyn Bragg, Professor Shuttleworth discussed Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South. The programme is available here. 

As part of Radio 4’s Mars season, Professor Shuttleworth was a panellist on “What We Saw from the Ruined House” to discuss HG Wells’ science fiction novel The War of the Worlds. The programme is available here.

Victorian Dietetics and Sugar-Free February.

It’s coming to the end of what has been for me, and for many other New Year’s resolution-keepers, “sugar-free February”. A whole month without any added or refined sugar. This move was partly inspired by my work, and partly inspired by a general commitment to self-care. I wasn’t ready to commit to “Dry-January”, but “Sugar-Free Feb” seemed manageable and aside from a few lapses (Valentine’s day for one), it’s been a successful experiment. I was dutifully horrified by all the things that have needlessly added sugar and so manage to sneak themselves into our diets, and I suspect I’m healthier for it – sugar certainly tastes sweeter now, no pun intended! Working as I do on gastrointestinal health in the nineteenth century, I am regularly visited by contrition as I read periodical essays, short stories, poems, and medical tracts about how important it is to attend to one’s dietetic needs.

The Victorians were preoccupied by food and the practices of eating, and gastrointestinal health was privileged as a lens through which to measure society. This seems particularly germane at a time when we are now more obsessed with our own dietary choices than ever before. Consider the rise of gluten-free, diary-free, vegetarian, vegan, and organic options in the supermarket; consider the obesity and diabetes “epidemics” that feature in the news on an almost daily basis, and it’s not hard to draw parallels between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first. Just this month, we had “roastie-gate” – or “toastie-gate”,  depending on your carby preference – where we were told that too crispy a roast potato (or too crunchy a PB and J) might pose a risk to our long term health – a panicked overreaction that appears to have little basis in the science.  Whether or not acrylamide poses a tangible risk to our health remains to be seen; however, the regimented attention to correct dietary practices might certainly be traced back to the nineteenth century.

The nineteenth century brought us the beginnings of organised vegetarianism (for health and ethical reasons), the recognition of the dangers of sugar and fat—“Pies and cakes are poisonous”⁠1 (Bow Bells 1871)—and the developing recognition of allergies and intolerances. ‘Strawberries’ noted one writer, as early as 1868, ‘that are so delicious to almost everybody, are poison to many,’ also remarking that figs in some people give rise to ‘a sensation like the tickling movement of ants upon the palate’—a clear description of anaphylaxis.⁠2  Articles explored the value of now-recognised dietary vices with amusingly entitled pretexts like ‘Coffee, is it a food?’ and ‘Alcohol: food, drink or poison?’ In the early decades of the century, our attitudes to sugar were too very different. ‘The plentiful use of sugar in diet is one of the best preventatives that has ever been discovered of the diseases that are produced by worms’, claimed Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, ‘Nature seems to have implanted a love for this aliment in all children, as it were on purpose to protect them from those diseases.’⁠3 The article goes on to deem sugar an antidote to fever, disorders of the breast, and even styles it an antiscurbotic. But the interest comes when the article turns to the aesthetic implications of sugar. The Cochin Chinese, it claims, require the body-guard of the King to take daily amounts of sugar (gotten by a small allowance of money) in order to do honour to their master by their handsome appearance. Indeed, contrary to current trends, the corpulence of an individual was often deemed a measure of their wealth, worth, and beauty. As the century drew on this began to change and the relative desirability of fatness was fiercely debated in the medical and popular press.

‘Is there any harm in getting fat?’ asked articles about diet – a question that now seems bewildering in its naivety. One writer concluded that it is only a problem since the introduction of seats in assemblies and the confined spaces of vehicles (particularly public transport) where ‘fat men and crinolined ladies have become annoyances’.⁠4 In the 1860s, a plethora of articles addressed the ‘Banting method’, which might be taken as a model for the first fad diet. This diet, which will be familiar to you all in one guise of another, consisted of limiting one’s intake of sugar and carbs, and eating more vegetables. Although by today’s standards this “diet” seems more like sensible life style advice, some writers still warned against taking it to extremes and saw it as their duty to remind the public of the bodily requirements of some fat in the diet: ‘Like every man who rides a hobby, having mounted his Pegasus, he would rise till he scorches himself, or sink till he cannot recover. We shall endeavour to rein in this ill-regulated steed.’⁠5 This attitude is unsurprising given that contemporaneous opinion pieces were still celebrating the delights of sugar as ‘not only a condiment; it is a most important article in diet, and aid to digestion’.⁠6 This same article noted that ‘throughout the whole of the great class of animals headed by man, from elephant down to shrew mouse, there is one sort of tooth—the sweet tooth—common to all.’ ‘Even the canary bird understands sugar,’ writes the author, arguing for its function as a tool for garnering affection and training animals.

Along with the growing recognition of the dangers of excess fat, came a sense of social responsibility and a renegotiation of national identity. Depictions of John Bull were particularly controversial, a national representation that The Leisure Hour deemed a ‘sad relic’ at the end of the century.

‘This heavy overfed individual is still held up to our rising generation, and the world, as the type of British perfection […] surely there are members of the Royal Society who could undertake to give us some better representation of a physically perfect gentleman of the nineteenth century?’⁠7

As societal values began to shift, articles encouraged the public to ‘pity’ rather than ‘despise’ those who are overweight, ‘people are often too cruel to the fat person who helplessly plumps down upon them in the crowded ‘bus, or wedges them into a corner in some throng round the door of a place of amusement.’⁠8 However, sentiments like this did little to empower overweight individuals, who were framed as “jolly fat friends” or as miserable loners who lived in denial and helplessness. Both of these perspectives are showcased in a poem published in Fun in 1867, in which an unhappy sugar-broker piles on the pounds following hollow success.

His bulk increased—no matter that—
He tried the more to toss it—
He never spoke of it as “fat”,
But “adipose deposit”.
Upon my word, it seems to me,
Unpardonable vanity,

screen-shot-2017-02-20-at-22-59-09

‘A Discontented Sugar Broker’ Fun 1(14 Dec 1867) p.137. 

(And worse than that!)
To call your fat,
An “adipose deposit.”

The final lines reveal the bodily impact of his excess weight, as well the social judgement that follows.

Despite the stigmatisation of corpulence that accompanied changes in dietary knowledge, there were some positive lessons that we might benefit from remembering. Writers speculated on the importance of meal size, eating times, the quantity and quality of food, of exercise and of mental attitude in ways that ultimately paved the ways for a more personalised approach to health. Dietetic treatments enabled individuals to take control of their health in new ways, as is evidenced by the many letters written to the popular press reporting of self-experimentation.

In pursuit of the treatment of indigestion, headaches, and depression, the general public experimented with “free from” diets, and many with great success. However, as an article in 1886 highlighted, what was healthy for one person was not always the case for another, ‘in some cases abstention from pastry might be desirable, in others from cheese, and so on.’⁠9  In the Daily Telegraph today (21st Feb) one article criticised the ‘10,000 steps a day myth’ arguing that the one-size fits all rule could do more damage than good. Dr Steve Flatt of Liverpool University is even quoted as comparing the plethora of health-related apps to the ‘snake oil salesmen of the 1860s’. Another article, just below that in the print edition, claimed that even yo-yo diets are better than not dieting at all (despite the supporting study having only been carried out in mice). Thus, I think it behooves us all to listen to the good advice of All The Year Round who maintained that ‘in the matter of diet, everyone should be guided by experience and not rely on the experience of others.’⁠10 As I come to the end of what has been a (mostly) sugar-free February, I am pleasantly surprised by what self-experimentation has taught me about my own body. So I’ll cross my fingers for continued resolve in the spirit of being attentive to my dietetic needs, as I contemplate taking on “meat-free March.”


Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown

Postdoctoral Researcher, Diseases of Modern Life
@drparasitegirl



‘Notes About Health’ Bow Bells: a Magazine of General Literature and Art for Family Reading 13(18 Jan 1871)338 p.612.

‘Facts About Food’ Bow Bells: a Magazine of General Literature and Art for Family Reading 8(15 April 1868)194 p.286.

‘Medicinal and Nutritious Properties of Sugar Cane’ Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal 25(21 Jul 1932) p.195.

‘Corpulence’ The New Monthly Magazine 131(May 1864)521 pp.116-26. (p.116-17).

Ibid, p.116.

‘Sweets’ All the Year Round 5(8 Jun 1861)111 pp.246-49. (p.246).

Alfred Schofield, ‘The Great Food Question’ The Leisure Hour (Sept 1897) pp.736-740. (p.740).

‘Leaves from a London SketchBook’ Bow Bells: a Magazine of General Literature and Art for Family Reading 29(11 Jan 1895)367 pp.54-55. (p.54).

‘Diet and Dyspepsia’ All The Year Round 37(6 Feb 1886)897 pp.545-48. (p.548).

10 Ibid, p.546.

Lunchtime Talk: Germs Revisited

On Thursday 16 March 2017, Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown will be giving a talk with Dr Jamie Lorimer (School of Geography and the Environment) and Dr Nicola Fawcett (Medical Sciences Division) on the subject of Germs Revisited.

The talk will discuss bad germs, friendly bacteria and whether we need to rethink our relationships with the microscopic world! The talk will draw on past and present ideas from medicine, fiction and art to discuss new ways of thinking about human-microbe relationships along with developing trends in microbiome studies.

The talk will be at 12.30 at St Luke’s Chapel, Radcliffe Humanities, Woodstock Road. All are welcome and sandwiches will be provided.

The event has been organised through The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, and is free to attend. Booking is recommended via the TORCH website.

The talk is part of a programme of events to celebrate the European Research Council’s 10th anniversary week from 13-20 March.  More information on the anniversary is available on the ERC’s website.

erc-10th-birthday

Magic Lantern and Science Workshop: 17 March 2017

The Constructing Scientific Communities, Diseases of Modern Life and the Million Pictures projects are pleased to announce a special workshop, hosted at London’s Royal Institution, to consider the multiple relationships that existed between popular science and the magic lantern, with an emphasis on the long nineteenth century. Papers will consider magic lantern slides, instruments, and instrument makers, as well as considering issues of curation and performance.

A special attraction will be Jeremy Brooker’s evening entertainment concerning John Tyndall’s celebrated lectures at the Royal Institution. All workshop attendees will be also welcome to join this public lecture without charge.

Attendance is free, but space is limited. To attend, email: gb224@le.ac.uk by March 1st, 2017

A copy of the event poster is available here

Programme

9:30-10:15 – Coffee on arrival

10:15-10:30 – Introductory Comments. Sally Shuttleworth (University of Oxford) and Geoff Belknap (Leicester University), Constructing Scientific Communities Project. 

10:30-12:00 – Panel 1: Approaches to Science and the Magic Lantern

  • Iwan Morus (University of Aberystwyth), ‘Seeing the Light: Fact and Artefact in Victorian Lantern Culture’
  • Sarah Dellmann (Utrecht University),  ‘Images of Science and Scientists: Lantern Slides of Excursions from Utrecht University, NL (c. 1900-1950)’
  • Emily Hayes (Exeter University), ‘Fashioned by physics: the ‘scope and methods’ of Halford Mackinder’s geographical imagination’

12:00-1:00 – Lunch

1:00-2:30 – Panel 2: Magic Lanterns and Museums/Curation

  • Charlotte New and Meagan Smith (Royal Institution), ‘Shedding light on yesterday: Highlighting the slide collections of the RI and relevant preservation’
  • Frank Gray (Screen archive South-east, Brighton), ‘Working with Archive Collections: Development, Access and Historical Context’

2:30-3:00 – Coffee break

3:00-4:30 – Panel 3: Materiality of the lantern

  • Phillip Roberts (York University), ‘Science and Media in the Industrial Revolution: Instrument Makers and the Magic Lantern Trade’
  • Kelly Wilder (De Montfort University), ‘From Lantern Slides to Powerpoint: Photography and the Materiality of Projection’
  • Deac Rossell (Goldsmiths University), ‘Changing Places: Tracking Magic Lantern Culture from Physics to Chemistry to Cinema’

4:30-4:45 – Closing Remarks. Joe Kember and Richard Crangle (Exeter University), Million Pictures Project.

6:15-7:15 – Drinks Reception

7:30-9:00 – Evening lantern show for the general public:

  • Jeremy Brooker, A Light on Albemarle Street: John Tyndall and the Magic Lantern

The talk is part of a programme of events to celebrate the European Research Council’s 10th anniversary week from 13-20 March.  More information on the anniversary is available on the ERC’s website.

erc-10th-birthday

 

Doctor, Doctor: Global and Historical Perspectives on the Doctor-Patient Relationship – One-day Symposium – Registration now open

We are pleased to announce that registration for the one-day symposium on global and historical perspectives on the doctor-patient relationship is now open. The event is being held at St Anne’s College (University of Oxford) on 24 March 2017.

You can sign up here. Tickets are £30 for standard delegates and £20 for concessions. This includes lunch, refreshments and a drinks reception. Please note that there are separate registration options for speakers and delegates – do ensure you select the right one.

A draft copy of the programme is available to download here: doctor-doctor-symposium-programme. The keynote speaker is Anna Elsner (University of Zürich).

This one-day symposium is generously supported by St Anne’s College, The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH) through a Medical Humanities Programme Grant, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project Constructing Scientific Communities.

The symposium is organised by Alison Moulds (St Anne’s) – DPhil Candidate on Constructing Scientific Communities – and Sarah Jones (Oriel). You can contact them here: doctorpatient17@torch.ox.ac.uk.

For more details, visit the symposium website: https://doctorpatient2017.wordpress.com/.

 

The Stresses and Strains of Modern Life

Professor Sally Shuttleworth’s blog for the British Academy on The Stresses and Strains of Modern Life is now available to read here. The blog is part of a series by British Academy Fellows who hold European Research Council Awards.

Professor Shuttleworth was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2015. Elections are made annually in the humanities and social sciences for distinguished academics in recognition of outstanding research.