William Burgess and Felicity H-Mackie of the MA 18th Century Studies course organised a conference in conjunction with the Centre for Enlightenment Studies, as an opportunity for 18th Century MA researchers from King’s and Queen Mary to discuss the first stages of their dissertations with students and staff. They share with us here their dissertation research journeys.
Like all good research journeys, my dissertation started with the discovery of a quotation that upended everything I thought I knew about literature.
Following my BA graduation, I spent the summer reading Samuel Johnson’s 1759 novel Rasselas. Aside from getting a lot of stick from my friends (most of whom were taking it easy with some crime fiction or re-reading Harry Potter) reading the novel revealed some unsettling complications to my idea of what literature means.
“If we speak with rigorous exactness, no human mind is in its right state. There is no man whose imagination does not sometimes predominate over his reason, who can regulate his attention wholly by his will […] all power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity.”
Samuel Johnson is telling us that everyone, to some degree, is a bit ‘insane’. Not only that, but – as he goes on to insist – the act of writing fiction is by definition slightly mad.
by Neil Vickers, Reader in English Literature & Medical Humanities
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.
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.