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