Tales of Two Jameses: Literature, science and medicine at the end of the nineteenth century

Daniel Ibrahim Abdalla has recently joined Diseases of Modern Life as a Graduate Research Assistant. Alongside this position, he is finishing his DPhil in nineteenth and early-twentieth century literature at the University of Oxford. In this blog post, he explores the links between his current research and his doctoral thesis.

As a research assistant with Diseases of Modern Life, I will be looking at fin-de-siècle representations of mental illness and addiction, especially as these afflictions were conceived as being transferred among hereditary lines. Partially, these concerns emerged from fin-de-siècle anxieties about decline and decadence, which encouraged people to look for visible signs that their hereditary materials were deteriorating from generation to generation. On the other hand, psychologists like William James explicitly resisted this dangerous paradigm.[1] Were others, like his brother Henry James, inspired by him? By taking a more expansive view of the ways that science informed society in this period, I hope to show the diversity of ways science affected culture in the nineteenth century, and beyond.

My interest in this topic emerges from my doctoral research on the novelist Henry James and the psychologist William James. The two were not only brothers, but intimate friends, regularly exchanging letters until the ends of their lives. Both significantly impacted and changed their respective fields at the turn of the century, and, despite being American, were deeply woven into the British intelligentsia. An expatriate in England for most of his life, Henry was friends was with many of the members of the Darwin family, even at one point meeting Charles himself. From 1894 to 1895, William was English Society for Psychical Research, whose members included Edmund Gurney and Frederic WH Myers.

One of the best sources for seeing the living connections of science and literature during this period is found in the correspondences between these two illustrious figures. Both weigh in on the other’s work; remark on pressing topics of the day like the American civil war, George Eliot, Queen Victoria, anarchism, and psychical research; and discuss relevant gossip regarding their wide circle of family members and acquaintances. And yet, although we might expect that these two well-connected, ambitious, epoch-making brothers to be discussing the great leaps in biology attracting attention elsewhere–topics like evolution, heredity, and development–these topics hardly make an appearance.

When I first started my DPhil, I spent a lot of my time accounting for this absence. How could someone as central to the period as Henry James be so far removed from biological concerns? Scholars of literature and science have used various models to understand interrelations between the disciplines at this time, but how might one explain this seeming gap in the network? What I have come to see is that popular engagement with scientific ideas did not only happen in terms of fixed ideas and concepts, like sexual selection, but also in attitudes toward issues like gender, sexuality, behavior and inheritance. If we approach late-Victorian society from this angle then we can see that readers and audiences were very regularly engaging with some of the cutting-edge developments in science–sometimes without even realizing it!

My research, both for my thesis and my current project, considers one of the major topics galvanizing late-Victorian culture, biological mechanisms of heredity. I became interested in this topic when I discovered that it attracted not only scientists and psychologists, but literary authors as well.[2] Although many of the broad claims of an evolutionary worldview had been established by the 1870s, one of the major controversies of the period had to do with the way individuals passed on traits from one generation to the next. The physical mechanisms of inheritance–genes–would not be known until the work of Gregor Mendel was rediscovered and popularized in the early-twentieth century, thus leading many thinkers to offer their own theories. In many cases these were reactions to the strictly Darwinian worldview based on random variation. True randomness was terrifying because changes in one generation could not be reliably passed to the following generation.

Writers like Samuel Butler and George Bernard Shaw preferred what they saw as progressive and perfectible models of evolution–most famously offered by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck–which allowed for improvement in the member of one generation to be passed on to his or her offspring. This biological controversy mixed extremely well with late-nineteenth century fears of cultural decline, creating the potent cocktail called degeneration.

These considerations have led me to my current project on conceptions and representations of inherited mental health in the late nineteenth century. As the critic Tamsen Wolff’s observes, in the cultural realm, such tensions about inheritance put new emphasis on the relationship between the visible and the invisible, ie. the person we can see and their biological material that we can’t.[3] Victorians increasingly asked questions like, what might someone’s traits or behaviors tell us about their fitness as a member of the species? From this flawed premise, leading to stronger and weaker versions of eugenics, one might even begin to wonder things like, what does a family home tell us about the quality of the family? Or, even, what does a person’s taste in art signify about their mental health? But these questions and their outdated emphases on eugenics only tell part of the story; I will use my time with Diseases of Modern Life to explore the other  conceptions of mental health in the period from 1880 to 1900.


[1] For example, in a letter to Henry from 1893, William calls the paradigm of degeneration a ‘pathological obsession’. William James, [to Henry James, 17 March 1893], in William and Henry James: Selected Letters (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997), pp. 281-83 (82)
[2] For more on the central role of evolution in the culture of this period, see the chapter ‘Evolution, Society, and Culture, 1875-1925’ in Peter J. Bowler, Evolution: The History of an Idea (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), pp. 274-324.
[3] Tamsen Wolff, Mendel’s Theatre: Heredity, Eugenics, and Early-twentieth Century American Drama (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)

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Keynotes from Mind Reading: Mental Health and the Written Word

Both literature and clinical medicine deal with issues such as subjective identity, selfhood, and the social and cultural determinants of health and well-being. This is particularly brought to the fore in the complex relationships between mental illness, the patient, and the physician. At times, this may involve engagement with questions of pain, trauma, language, narrative, and expression, and the disruption and reconstitution of selves. As well as providing insight into these most basic and universal of human concerns, and the attitudes and experiences of people coping with illness or making decisions about their health, how might literature usefully inform the science and practice of clinical medicine?

Our one-day event at the dlr Lexicon Library, Dublin on Friday, 10th March, a joint collaboration between UCD Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Diseases of Modern Life Project based at St Anne’s College, Oxford, sought to locate and to explore productive interactions between literature and mental health both historically and in the present day. We aimed to identify the roles that writing and narrative can play in medical education, patient and self-care, and/or professional development schemes, and to share our experiences of using and reading literature in the context of mental health, from a range of different perspectives and disciplines.

Bringing together psychologists, psychiatrists, GPs, service users, and historians of literature and medicine within the beautiful spaces of the dlrLexicon, we asked questions about how literature might provide a point of therapeutic engagement. We considered the use of literary techniques such as close-reading and textual analysis in medical consultations, and the methods that might be used to increase the well-being and communication skills of medical learners, healthcare providers, service users, and family members.

Our first keynote speaker, Professor James Lucey, spoke about the importance of creating a space for people to tell their stories, and the importance not only of listening to, but of re-telling those stories. Fiction, Lucey suggested, simply doesn’t exist, for all stories are true:

Our second keynote, by Professor Fergus Shanahan, explored the possibilities of ‘mining medicine from literature’, noting the critical difference between the objective disease and subjective experiences of illness. With reference to Proust and Joyce, Shanahan argued that literature can offer a deeper understanding of the place of medicine in society, the historical forces that have shaped it, and the challenges it will face in the future:

In our third and final keynote  Professor Sally Shuttleworth provided a historical perspective on relations between literature and mental health, and argued that literary works in the nineteenth century often furnished frameworks for new theoretical and therapeutical approaches to mental health. In effect, literature brought about a shift in how mental illness was perceived:

Podcasts of these talks are available here, and a storify of the day’s events is available here.

We would like to thank all our speakers, delegates, and everyone who contributed to the discussion online and offline for helping to shape such a fascinating and thought-provoking day.

UCD Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Diseases of Modern Life team.

 

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

One Day Workshop 10th March 2017. Mind Reading: Mental Health and the Written Word

MIND-READING 2017: MENTAL HEALTH AND THE WRITTEN WORD

Venue: Studio Theatre, dlr LexIcon, Dublin

10 March 2017

Conference Organisers:

Dr. Elizabeth Barrett (UCD) and Dr. Melissa Dickson (Oxford).

Keynote Speakers:

Prof. James V. Lucey (TCD),

Prof. Fergus Shanahan (UCC) and

Prof. Sally Shuttleworth (Oxford).

This one-day programme of talks and workshops seeks to explore productive interactions between literature and mental health both historically and in the present day. It aims to identify the roles that writing and narrative can play in medical education, patient and self-care, and/or professional development schemes.

Bringing together psychologists, psychiatrists, interdisciplinary professionals, GPs, service users, and historians of literature and medicine, we will be asking questions about literature as a point of therapeutic engagement. We will explore methods that can be used to increase the well-being and communication skills of healthcare providers, patients and family members.

Conference Coordinator:

Victoria Sewell (UCD)

child.psychiatry@ucd.ie

Book here with UCD

Event Schedule

 

9.30 Arrival and Registration

 

10.00am–10.45 Introduction and Keynote Address: 

‘Listening to patients, telling their stories’. Professor James V. Lucey, Trinity College Dublin.

10.45–11.00 Coffee break 

11.00am –12.30 Workshops

Workshop A: Children’s Books Ireland and the Book Doctor Project.

Workshop B: Poetry of Disquiet: Professor Femi Oyebode, University of Birmingham.

Workshop C: Lived Experiences- Memoirs, meaning and mental illness.: With the RE:FOCUS group led by Dr Anne Jeffers, College of Psychiatry of Ireland.

12.30–13.30 Lunch at Brambles Café 

13.30–14.15 Keynote Address: ‘Mining Medicine from Literature’.

Professor Fergus Shanahan, University College Cork.

14.50 –15.40 Workshops

Workshop D: Bibliotherapy: The Power of Words Project and the HEAL Project: Health Education and Literacy for our Community,

Workshop E: Diseases of Modern Life: Nineteenth-Century Perspectives on stress and overwork: Dr. Melissa Dickson and Researchers from the ERC-funded Diseases of Modern Life

Workshop F: The Shared Experiences of Clinicians: Led by Dr. Elizabeth Barrett, Associate Professor, UCD Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Ms. Caroline Ward, UCD Student Counselling Service, Dr. Niamh Geaney, GP and writer, University of Limerick.

15.40pm Coffee break 

16.00 –16.45 Keynote Address: 

‘Literary Texts and Medical Case Studies’.  Professor Sally Shuttleworth, University of Oxford.

16.45 Feedback Q&A and Closing Remarks

 

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