Category Archives: Literature, Medicine and Science

Metaphor in Literature and Science #bslswinter2017

#bslswinter2017

by James Rakoczi, PhD Candidate, Department of English 

There is a gravity to this situation. He has broken my heart. We are waging a war on cancer. Our closest neighbour is Andromeda. Synapses permit neurons to communicate with each other.

Warning: this post is ripe to bursting with metaphors.

Thomas Kuhn argued that you don’t see something until ‘you have the right metaphor to perceive it’ (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962). How then might we perceive the literary and scientific dimensions of the metaphor in itself?

Metaphor negotiates across the ‘two cultures’ of science and humanities at the university. Does the metaphor stay the same in its transmission/translation or does it transform, transgress, transcend? Are metaphors necessarily rooted within a particular historical context or can productive analogies between literary and scientific texts across disparate historical periods be discovered? Can we (should we?) read a neurological metaphor into a text which pre-dates neurology? Should we (can we?) read a scientific metaphor aimed at pedagogical elucidation like we might a poetical metaphor: an immanent stitch of image which nevertheless troubles and growths beyond itself (by our invention or its design)?

On Saturday 4th November 2017, the Centre for Humanities and Health and the English Department will host the British Society of Literature and Science’s (BSLS) annual winter symposium. The symposium will be an opportunity for many of us to try our hand at solving these questions, or asking even more.

Wiki commons Varsha_ys
A message from one synapse to another. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Continue reading Metaphor in Literature and Science #bslswinter2017

The Poetics and Politics of Alzheimer’s Disease Life-Writing

by Martina Zimmermann, honorary Associate Professor in Pharmacology at Goethe University Frankfurt, with an MA in Literature and Medicine and a second PhD in Health Humanities at King’s College London.

I am a pharmaceutical scientist by training who specialised in neuropharmacology. For over 15 years, my research interests have been the molecular mechanisms that cause the death of brain cells in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. While pursuing, and later supervising, laboratory based experimental projects, I more and more often wondered how patients actually experience the condition which I only knew from studies in cell culture and other disease models. The methodologies, models and approaches I used were unsuited to answering this question.

Still, Alzheimer’s patients would not write…

I began looking for patient accounts about a decade ago. At the time, I found only just over a dozen of books published in English, and one diary in French. I was astonished that there were so few, especially because I felt that the popular press had long preferred Alzheimer’s disease to any other subject in its health and wellbeing pages. Also, patients usually have five to ten years between diagnosis and death, and, at the time of clinically perceivable onset, can continue to articulate themselves proficiently in writing, as well as retaining figurative language. Still, Alzheimer’s patients would not write. Continue reading The Poetics and Politics of Alzheimer’s Disease Life-Writing

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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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.

Continue reading The long read: Arabic illness narratives and national politics

Book Review: Literature and the Public Good

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

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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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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