Tag Archive | Humanities

Five Psych-Humanities pieces for Mental Health Awareness week 2018: Van Gogh, Dickens (x3) and Jack London

Warning: believers in ‘Down with diagnosis!’ may feel that some of these are ‘disorder-mongering’

Vincent Van Gogh: did he have ADD / ADHD?

An unusual treatment for depression in Bleak House

How Dickens could have improved on the alcoholism and suicide plot in A Tale of Two Cities

Was Scrooge on the autistic spectrum?

The alcoholic Eng Lit professor, and Jack London the creative drinker

 

From atom-splitting to mind-healing

I had to miss a session on The Two Cultures, at last month’s Literature and Science conference in Oxford, because I was myself speaking in a parallel session (see previous entry).

Never having read CP Snow’s original 1959 lecture before, I did so, and was struck by several things which seem to have been filtered out in the huge amount of media and academic commentary it has spawned over the last five decades.

Barely having made a few opening remarks, Snow the promoter of science and scientists puts the boot in to ‘literary intellectuals’ by saying that uncritical admiration for fascist sympathising poets such as WB Yeats, Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis was an important cause of Germany’s extermination program in the Second World War.

Well, I happen to have looked at some rather large books on the historical causes of the Holocaust recently, and they did not mention Yeats, Pound, Lewis, or any other poets. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Snow was wrong, of course, but his judgement does not seem to have ‘stood the test of time’.

When he talks about scientists, Snow mostly mentions physicists, such as the atom-splitting Nobel-Prizewinning Rutherford, who he had known personally. Perhaps that just reflects how the wider role of science was discussed in the 1950’s, but it’s interesting that having mentioned the Holocaust and its causes, Snow does not make any point about the very dodgy biological and medical science of Nazi Germany, or the rather less dodgy (and also quite often Nobel-Prizewinning) biomedical science which meant that Britain had little resembling an extermination program itself.

I’m fairly sure that Bad Science, rather than allegedly Bad Anglo-Irish-American Poetry, was more prominently in the minds of those who thought up the Final Solution. To some extent this relies on hindsight, as it was only in the 1980s and 1990s that the British Historian Michael Burleigh more fully outlined the importance of German biomedical eugenics, sterilisation and ‘euthanasia’ of the mentally and physically disabled, as necessary steps which then led to racial genocide.

And as euthanasia (or ‘euthanasia’, as the medically-dominated pressure group Care not Killing might still write it) is very much part of today’s public biomedical discourse, I think that a proper updating of Snow’s Two Cultures argument about ‘literary intellectuals’ would have to properly take account of the general shift of public interest in science, away from atom-splitting and towards …(allegedly) disorder-mongering mental health professionals, perhaps?

My 2012 conference presentations on Benjamin Franklin and ‘Poor Richard’ in Dickens’ fiction

What does this have to do with a psychiatry blog? Look at just about any character in Dickens (especially from the middle and later period) and there are likely to be hints of psychological problems, at least. In these presentations I will be looking at how different aspects of Franklin’s life and works are alluded to in several of Dickens’ works from Martin Chuzzlewit to Little Dorrit.

12th April 2012, Oxford, British Society for Literature and Science annual conference, ‘Benjamin Franklin’s phrenological presence in Bleak House and Little Dorrit’

6th-8th July 2012, Portsmouth, The Other Dickens Conference. ‘Little Dorrit, letters from America, and biographical tracklaying’

10th to 12th July 2012, Edinburgh, Carlyle Conference. ‘Benjamin Franklin as a Carlylean ‘Demigod’: an under-recognised influence on Charles Dickens’s fiction?’

10-12 September 2012, Queen Mary, London, Emotions, Health & Wellbeing Conference. ‘Phrenology, mesmerism and the reptilian personality in Little Dorrit’

The Charles Dickens Bicentenary

 

Born 200 years ago today, in Portsmouth, what difference did Dickens make, in the nearly-180 years since he started writing fiction and journalism?

Scrooge, Oliver Twist and Fagin are so familiar to us, that it’s perhaps easier to imagine some other writer(s) coming along and filling Dickens’s place on the broad-brush social reform issues, if he had been prematurely taken away by cholera or some other early nineteenth century affliction.

But there are so many other eccentric, strange, mentally unwell and physically disabled characters, who were also very well-known to millions of Dickens’s readers, perhaps even more so after his death, and well into the twentieth century. No other writer of fiction came close to creating awareness of these kinds of human diversity.

Just one example: probably the most severely, clinically, depressed character in Dickens is Bleak House’s Mr Jellyby. He sits with his head “against the wall” and almost never speaks. He’s a failure, and becomes bankrupt.

Illness and death occurs in most Victorian novels, and it is tempting to draw conclusions about the conscious and unconscious motives of the author from who suffers what. I’m uneasy about Dickens’s portrayal of the alcoholic Sydney Carton’s suicidal behaviour in A Tale of Two Cities (1). Dickens himself, in A Christmas Carol, draws attention to the fact that the crippled Tiny Tim “did NOT die”.

And the overwhelming majority of his eccentric and unwell characters do live on, sometimes bizarrely, but never in my view wholly implausibly. Mr Jellyby finds a friend, who talks about himself all the time. Most people would find this friend unbearable, but for some reason Mr Jellyby doesn’t: he listens, and he cheers up. Probably not a complete recovery, but enough to enjoy life again.

 

(1) https://drnmblog.wordpress.com/2011/09/02/a-far-far-better-ending-for-a-tale-of-two-cities/

 

Back to School

 

I went back to school myself yesterday, starting an MA in Victorian Studies at Birkbeck College, part of the University of London. This follows on from my last blog piece, because quite a few other “Dickens obsessives” have done this course, and some of those teaching on it seem to acknowledge similar afflictions…

Many of my patients, especially those with ADD / ADHD, have thought about picking up where things went wrong in their own education. This may mean going back to do a similar course to the one which they dropped out of; or deciding that was the wrong choice anyway, and studying something quite different.

Although I have dropped out of a couple of courses myself in the past, I’m pretty sure it won’t happen this time. To some extent this is because I believe that I understand my own mild ADD tendencies better (1): my nineteenth-century interest is not an “obsession” in the clinical sense of being related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but more of a recurrent ADD / ADHD “hyperfocus”.

 

 

(1) See https://drnmblog.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/how-mentally-healthy-should-mental-health-professionals-be/

A far far better ending for “A Tale of Two Cities”?

 

I am obsessed by the novels of Charles Dickens, although this is a mild-to-moderate rather than a severe obsession, because I have not read any of them more than two or three times. Nor have I properly read more than a small fraction of the dozens of biographies and book-length critical studies published since Dickens’ death in 1870.

The recent riots in London, after the riots in Paris of a few years ago, got me thinking about Dickens’ descriptions of mob violence and mob rule in A Tale of Two Cities. The capture and execution of French aristocrats by the revolutionary Government provides an opportunity for the alcoholic and morally ambiguous lawyer, Sydney Carton, to do something unselfish for once.

I usually disagree with the view that Dickens is an overly sentimental writer of fiction, in the sense of false or distorted emotions being used for propaganda (for example, to promote a non-progressive view of the role of women). But this charge may be correct when it comes to Carton’s fate in the novel: in helping an aristocrat (who he happens to physically resemble) to escape, he deliberately gets himself imprisoned.

On his way to the guillotine, he speaks one of Dickens’ best-known lines: “It is a far far better thing that I do, than I have ever done”.

But is it? Carton’s supposedly noble action can be seen as promoting the idea that alcoholics are inferior beings who cannot change their personalities or behaviour, and do the rest of us a favour when they choose to die. Such was the hybrid of mistaken science and morality which developed in the last decades of the nineteenth century, and went even further in twentieth-century Nazi Germany.

The novel could easily have been written differently, with Carton revealing his true non-aristocratic status, backed up with a hidden physical attribute or some other identifier. Dickens had been the leading English novelist for decades, and had the skill to produce any number of original, plausible and memorable plot-lines based on Carton’s keeping, or at least trying to keep, his head.

 

This post was drafted by 2nd September, and published at DrNMblog.wordpress.com on 6th October

 

The Human Condition

 

This was the title of a talk by the philosopher and journalist Robert Rowland Smith, at London’s School of Life two days ago.

I have known Robert for a couple of years, during which he has published two books exploring how philosophy is relevant to the everyday dilemmas of modern life: Breakfast with Socrates and Driving with Plato.

The essence of the talk, I think, was that despite regular reminders throughout history of humanity’s less than fully rational nature, we still tend to overestimate our self-control. The constant development of technology not only distracts us from evidence to the contrary, but creates neurotic 
dissatisfaction which we tend to worsen by seeking relief in materialism rather than by improving our interpersonal relationships.

I’m not sure that Robert is right in seeing the Western rational “Enlightenment” as perhaps now needing some sort of counter in the form of an Endarkenment”, because I think that contemporary philosophies and psychotherapies, as well as older Romantic Western culture, offer a whole range of ways to explore what Jung called our “shadow aspects”. And some people who are stuck in over-rational ways of life are suffering from biologically-based problems such as depression (1) or autistic spectrum disorders: they may need medication or other treatments to fully take part in philosophical or psychotherapeutic discourse.

It might seem odd that medical technology is sometimes necessary to enable a less technologically-dependent life. But in my view this is just a particular case of science liberating rather than oppressing (2). Philosophy too contains many paradoxes of this kind, such as Wittgenstein’s recommendation that we should simply stop chattering about “things of which nothing can be said”: his non-silence was required first, so that therapeutic silence could follow.

 

 

(1) In general the more severe and long-lasting the depression the greater is the need for medication. But some severe depressions may respond well to psychotherapy and/or philosophy, and some mild depressions may respond only to medication.

(2) Of course, technology and science are often used oppressively, or at least with neglect, whether deliberately or by mistake. Antidepressants prescribed after a ten-minute consultation with a GP (rather than a much longer consultation with a GP, psychiatrist or clinical psychologist), including little or no discussion of psychotherapy, amounts to state-sanctioned neglect in my view.

Published at www.DrNM.org.uk on 15th April 2011; transferred to DrNMblog.wordpress.com on 7th October 2011

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