Book Review: Balint Matters

by Neil Vickers, Reader in English Literature & Medical Humanities

Balint Matters
Cover image from ‘Balint Matters: Psychosomatics and the Art of Assessment’ by Jonathan Sklar (London: Karnac, 2017)

Michael Balint is mentioned in medical humanities circles as a revered ancestor, much as one might talk about William Empson as a significant figure in the history of English literary criticism. Everyone knows they’re important but surprisingly few people read either writer today or even know why they should. (An important exception is Josie Billington’s superb Is Literature Healthy? – reviewed here – which devotes a chapter to Balint.)

Empson did theory before Theory, and Balint did narrative medicine before Narrative Medicine. Both men were at least as interesting as what came after them, and yet both have become unduly sepia-tinted with the passage of time. Part of the reason for this fading in Balint’s case has to do with the fact that his clinical examples are firmly rooted in the sociological reality of the 1940s and 50s. The world Balint describes is hidebound by class. As a psychoanalytically-minded medical humanist, I occasionally press a copy of Balint’s classic, The Doctor, the Patient and the Illness (1957) on MSc students, but always with the caveat about his antiquated case material. ‘Someone should update it,’ I whisper, as they saunter out of the room.

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Book Review: Martino Sclavi’s ‘The Finch in My Brain’

by James Rakoczi, PhD researcher, Department of English

The cover image of Martino Scalvi’s ‘The Finch in My Brain’

Reading Martino Sclavi’s The Finch in My Brain (Hodder & Stoughton, 2017) took longer than expected. I found myself slowing down, re-reading passages, trying to work out how the text relates to itself, to its images, and to the people in Sclavi’s life.

My copy of the text is now defaced by marginalia, doodled over in an inky green.

Page 308, for example, tells me to re-read p. 215. I turn that page, and p. 216 directs me to p. 268, and so on. My copy has gone a bit rhizome: an ecology of self-citation…

In early 2011, living in LA, Italian film producer Martino Sclavi was experiencing bad headaches. He thought it was the coffee, or the stresses of script-writing to deadline. In fact, it was a grade 4 glioblastoma – an extremely severe brain tumour. During a script-reading, Sclavi became increasingly delirious. Driven to a hospital by a friend, Sclavi recalls how his friend’s words ‘stopped having a meaning for me… just sound with no information. A rhythm with no shape’ (p. 43). This loss of ‘meaning’ but retention of ‘shape’ characterised not only Sclavi’s immediate crisis but presaged the direction his life would take.

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Early Modern Verbatim Theatre: A Reflection

by Lucy Munro, Reader in Early Modern English Literature at the Department of English, and Emma Whipday, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at UCL

In 1624, a play entitled The Late Murder in Whitechapel, or Keep the Widow Waking was staged at the Red Bull playhouse in Clerkenwell. Written by Thomas Dekker, John Ford, William Rowley and John Webster, it was based on accounts of two recent crimes. The first was the murder of a Whitechapel woman, Joan Tindall, by her son, Nathaniel, which became the subject of at least two ballads, one of which survives. The second was the forced marriage of a 62-year-old widow, Anne Elsdon, to a much younger man, Tobias Audley.

tavern scene
A woodcut from Samuel Rowlands’s ’Tis Merry When Gossips Meete (c. 1613), showing a widow, wife and maid drinking in a tavern

Tobias lured Anne to a tavern, where he plied her with alcohol and tried to persuade her to promise to marry him – a promise that could be legally binding if it was said before witnesses. After several days he eventually seems to have got some kind of agreement from her, and a priest hired for the purpose married them. However, the ‘marriage’ became the subject of a series of cases in the secular and religious courts.

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The long read: Arabic illness narratives and national politics

by Faten Hussein and Neil Vickers in conversation

Faten Hussein (FH) is a LAHP-funded doctoral researcher in Comparative Literature and the Medical Humanities at King’s College London. Her research investigates representations of illness in Arabic literature. She is specifically interested in what literature reveals about cultural and social attitudes towards illness, and the political, social, and economic determinants in access to health. She is about to take up a fellowship with the House of Common’s International Development Committee, through the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST).

Dr Neil Vickers (NV) is Reader in English Literature and the Medical Humanities at the Department of English, and co-director of the Centre for the Humanities and Health. He is associate editor of the journal Medical Humanities, published by the British Medical Journal group. 

NV: Hello Faten. It’s a real privilege to be able to discuss your work with you, and to bring it to wider public notice through this blog interview. Why don’t you begin by telling our readers what you work on?

FH: I work on written accounts of illness from the Arab world. These can be fictional or autobiographical and in any form, so long as illness has a central place in them.

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Book Review: Literature and the Public Good

by Farah Chowdhury, Master’s student in Medical Humanities, King’s College London

rick
Rick Rylance’s ‘Literature and the Public Good’, published by Oxford University Press, 2016

Rick Rylance’s Literature and the Public Good is a monograph in Oxford’s The Literary Agenda series, which seeks to investigate the state of literary studies in education and demonstrate the worth of studying literature within the wider world.

Rylance’s contribution is expansive, reaching far beyond the traditional parameters of what constitutes literature by situating the book alongside discussions of the value of art and music within society. While at first this might conflict with expectations drawn from the title, as the discussion continues, the subtle thematic links drawn across chapters are a testament not only to Rylance’s style, but also the vast amount of research conducted to produce this work.

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Conspiracy and Enlightenment: ‘Speculations’ Series at King’s

by Carleigh Morgan, former Fulbright scholar and current PhD candidate in the Department of English

The seminar series ‘Speculations’ at King’s hosted a conversation on 27 April about conspiracy theories in relation to the political spectacle of Trump and the upsurge in global conversations about disinformation, ‘fake news‘, and the alarmist sense that trust in expertise is crumbling. Two interventions – one from myself and one from Clare Birchall – structured the focus of the event on a closer inspection of what we mean by the term ‘conspiracy’. How can conspiratorial thinking be useful for solidifying formative political movements? Can it, perhaps, mount counter-oppositions to some of the more disturbing mobilisations of right-wing political activism?

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The long read: Just Women and Violence

by Ella Parry-Davies, PhD researcher funded by King’s College London and the National University of Singapore, working on performance, place, and memory, and Myka Tucker-Abramson, Lecturer in Contemporary Literature. With a postscript from Kélina Gotman,  Lecturer in Theatre and Performance Studies

“The male is a biological accident: the Y (male) gene is an incomplete X (female) gene, that is, it has an incomplete set of chromosomes. The male is an incomplete female, a walking abortion, aborted at the gene stage. To be male is to be deficient, emotionally limited; maleness is a deficiency disease and males are emotional cripples.

SCUM is too impatient to wait for the de-brainwashing of millions of assholes. Why should the swinging females continue to plod dismally along with the dull male ones? Why should the fates of the groovy and the creepy be intertwined? A small handful of SCUM can take over the country within a year by systematically fucking up the system, selectively destroying property, and murder.”

(Valerie Solanas, “The Scum Manifesto”, 1967)

“If sexism is a by-product of capitalism’s relentless appetite for profit then sexism would wither away in the advent of a successful socialist revolution. If the world historical defeat of women occurred at the hands of an armed patriarchal revolt, then it is time for Amazon guerrillas to start training in the Adirondacks.”

(Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women”, 1975)

“Homoexplosion is a radical queer/ trans group of fly fatherfuckers. We advocate people fucking in the street and burning shit—especially cops.”

(NYC Queers Bash Back Against NYPD, 2009)

Image via AP: Two protesters wearing black carry a black banner emblazoned with 'Queers Bash Back: Bash Any Face the Many'
Image via AP, 2009: Two protesters wearing black carry a black banner emblazoned with white text that reads ‘Queers Bash Back: Harm any face the many’.

We live in a moment of amplified violence, or at least a time in which certain kinds of violence have become more visible. New forms of surveillance, and heightened attention to the reported arming of both so-called individual terrorists or terrorist cells, as well as hostile nations, often speaks less to new threats than to carefully crafted states of emergency. However, at the same time, we are seeing an increasing incidents of hate crimes, intensified and increasing police brutality and state violence, and the continued expansion of the War on Terror.

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Leaves of Silk

by Clare BrantProfessor of Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture and Co-Director, Centre for Life-Writing Research

The Dear Diary exhibition is now open, until 7th July! Promotion got underway well before opening, with various radio features including Radio 2’s Jonathan Ross Show on 4th May, and  BBC London, Monocle Radio, Radio Oxford and other outlets; on 3rd June, I take Dear Diary to Radio 4’s Saturday Live show (listen from 9:00 BST).

One publicity commission was for the Sunday Times series ‘6 of the Best’. I thought long and hard and put together a list only to discover that ‘Best’ is determined by what the picture editor thinks can be illustrated best. Several suggestions hit the cutting room floor. One was  British artist Ian Breakwell’s visual diary – an idea I owe to Lucy Bayley, a PhD student at the ICA (thank you, Lucy). You can see a selection of Breakwell’s work at the Tate, including The Walking Man Diary (1975-1978).

A diary’s lure of intimacy…

Breakwell has made various experiments with the diary form. One of the most compelling is the photographic diary he made of an unknown man who regularly walked past Breakwell’s flat in Smithfield in the City of London, where from his third floor window the artist was often looking out. The images all have the same vantage point and the same mysterious subject; the passing of time is captured through the diary unevenly, so that some photographs are taken seconds apart while others are separated by months. The resulting pattern of similarity and difference, heightened by collage, plays with a diary’s lure of intimacy: by denying us even incremental knowledge, Breakwell makes his diary intriguingly baffling.

W.P. Barbellion
W.P. Barbellion, or Bruce Cummings, unknown photographer, via Wikimedia Commons

Another suggestion was W.P. Barbellion, The Journal of a Disappointed Man (1919). This diary has an extraordinary story. The author’s real name was Bruce Cummings; he made his pseudonym from Wilhelm, Nero and Pilate as examples of the most wretched people to have lived. Continue reading Leaves of Silk

Confessions of a Medical Humanist

by Neil Vickers, Reader in English Literature and Medical Humanities, Department of English

When I first came to King’s more than 10 years ago now, I was dubious about ‘the medical humanities’. I knew what the medical humanities were, or at least I thought I did. It was a name that could be applied to any attempt to make sense of matters in which medicine has a say, using ideas or frames of reference derived from humanities disciplines. But I would never have described myself as a medical humanist. My work – which until then had largely been rooted in the historical study of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literature – belonged in ‘English’. ‘English’ had an intellectual and institutional history I could admire (if only I had the talents of William Empson or Helen Vendler!), unlike the medical humanities, which seemed by comparison so diverse, so underdeveloped, and so wannabe. Continue reading Confessions of a Medical Humanist

Book Review: Thinking in Cases

by Neil Vickers, Reader in English Literature and Medical Humanities, Department of English

thinking in cases
Thinking in Cases, by John Forrester. Published by Polity, 2016

John Forrester, who died in 2015, was the most original historian of the human sciences of his generation. His great love was the history of psychoanalysis – he was for 10 years the editor of the journal History and Psychoanalysis – and he published no fewer than four major books in that field, including the classic Freud’s Women (which he wrote with his wife, Lisa Appignanesi).

Thinking in Cases is the first of two books to be published posthumously, the second being the monumental Freud in Cambridge (co-authored with Laura Cameron), due out later this year. It comprises six essays written over the last two decades on what he memorably termed ‘case-based reasoning’. Forrester, along with many historians of science, believed that case-based reasoning had embedded itself in a variety of disciplines, in ways that experts were often reluctant to acknowledge. It might be thought that in the era of evidence-based medicine, medical education no longer needs the case. Yet, as Forrester argues in his classic essay, ‘If P, Then What? Thinking in Cases’ (1996), novice practitioners learn their science by absorbing a handful of standard experiments from scientific textbooks. These case studies – for that is what they are – serve not only to make the underlying principles more memorable, they also provide something like a shared professional memory. Continue reading Book Review: Thinking in Cases

From the Department of English at King's College London