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?
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’
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.
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”.
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
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.
Aware that this Blog has not covered psychotherapy as much as originally intended, I have spent the last ten days catching up with two best-selling books by the psychologist Oliver James: They F*** you up (2002), and Affluenza (2007).
My verdict? Very interesting, lively, recommended. But…
…perhaps the thing that struck me most were certain passages in Affluenza, which develop TFYU’s warning that the UK should not “follow in the footsteps of the most pathological developed nation on earth, the USA…[but should]…emulate the example set by so many of our European neighbours, like Denmark and France”(1).
By 2007, this trans-national analysis has focused on two particular evils: the “American way” of marketing, advertising and consumerism (2) and “the hollow ring of…American positive psychology”, with its “crude deletion of negative thoughts (3).
The basic idea is: “Studies from fourteen countries reveal that people who favour the key Virus values – money, possessions, physical and social appearances, and fame – are at greater risk of emotional distress”(2).
The author provides apparently clear answers: seek “authenticity” in activities and relationships; although beware that some apparently non-consumerist activities may be pursued for inauthentic “people-pleasing” reasons (4).
Conversely, if you “would like to be rich”, this may well be an authentic means to pursue such ends as “not to have to work all the time…[leaving] enough time to hang out with friends and family”(4). Presumably this applies to James himself, who happens to be in the “upper echelons” of society (5)
(although I doubt he would describe himself as “rich”).
To sort these pitfalls out is partly the task of psychotherapy, and I share the author’s approval of cognitive-analytic therapy (CAT), having myself had some experience of practising it in the early nineties, and knowing a senior CAT therapist for many years.
Few would argue that the US is not a world leader in marketing, advertising and consumerism, however I think there is a bit of grit in the oyster of James’ well-marketed argument. He relies on international data recording rates of distress and depression; but these are “soft”, difficult to make non-subjective, and depend on translation between languages and cultures.
The ultimate “hard” data relating to distress and depression are suicide rates, and the statistics have for decades indicated that Danish and French people deliberately end their lives much more often than Americans (6), despite living in cultures of “Being” rather than “Having”.
(1) They F*** you up (2002): paperback p300-301
(2) Affluenza (2007): paperback p12-14 (3) p142 (4) p180-2 (5) p97
(6) http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/country_reports/en/index.html The suicide rate of Denmark has come down markedly since 1990,
and in 2005 was the same as the USA, whose rate has been stable (and not high in international terms) since the mid-1950’s. Oliver James states that
Denmark’s suicide rate is lower than that of Edinburgh (p109), but he gives no reference for this. The French suicide rate has also fallen, however in 2005 it remained 50% higher than that of the USA. The 2005 USA suicide rate for 15-24 year olds is double that of Denmark and 150% that of France: Affluenza mainly discusses older age groups, but it could be predicting sustained shifts in psychology and behaviour.
Why is Scrooge “secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster”: does he have a developmental disorder such as autism?
At the end of A Christmas Carol, “some people laughed to see the alteration in him”. Presumably, such a dramatic change was seen as unlikely. But does that mean we should be so sceptical as to conclude his “self-contained” nature is biologically-based, and therefore unable to be altered?
When he revisits his early adulthood, with the first ghost, he sees himself as having been not at all solitary then: the younger Scrooge happily helps to get ready for Fezziwig’s party, and joins in the dancing, eating and drinking, along with everyone else (1).
It is only a few years later that Scrooge begins to be dominated by his “master-passion” for money. At the same time, he loses interest in ordinary human relationships, although he is arguably right about the hypocritical and (un-) “even-handed dealing of the world”.
So he is not autistic, at least in the sense which would fully explain “old Scrooge”, in terms of a continuous, life-long, pattern of thoughts and behaviour.
Of course, he is only a fictional character; and some might find the description, of his early adulthood, to be as implausible as his later transformation.
At the end, he is still Bob Cratchit’s boss, and although he promises that he will “endeavour to assist your struggling family”, we have to trust Dickens that Scrooge followed up the impulsive gift of a ”Turkey…as big as a…boy”, by really being “better than his word”.
(1) I refer to Dickens’ original 1843 book. All quotations can be found in the text at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/46. Film and television adaptations have often subtly altered the story.
(2) On Christmas Day, Dr Who: A Christmas Carol was broadcast by the BBC. Loosely based on Dickens’ classic, the Scrooge-like central character needs the intervention of the time-travelling Doctor, altering his young adult past to include non-solitary experiences and memories. The dramatic force of the Dr Who story perhaps depends on the fact that film, television and stage adaptations have tended to omit the original content pointed out in my piece. Note added 27th December.
A recent study from Sweden, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry (1), appears to confirm a link between high ability and bipolar disorder. Over seven hundred thousand teenagers were followed up to see if they were admitted to psychiatric hospital in their twenties and thirties. Then their school examination grades at 16 years were compared with those of the other students who had not developed such severe mental and behavioural problems.
The adults with bipolar disorder had done better in exams as teenagers, especially in humanities subjects such as Swedish and History (but not Art). Those who had been good at Sport seemed to have a lower chance of developing bipolar disorder later.
This is an interesting study which is in keeping with the suggested link between bipolar disorder and creative ability. However, it does not mention the possibility that adult ADD / ADHD, which also can sometimes lead to hospital admission, may have been the real problem in many cases. Like much research of this kind, the diagnosis was made a long time ago (1988 – 1997), when there was even more scepticism about adult ADD / ADHD than there is now (2).
(1) Excellent school performance at age 16 and risk of adult bipolar disorder: national cohort study. http://bjp.rcpsych.org/cgi/content/abstract/196/2/109
(2) For an example of how creative ability may be linked to ADD / ADHD, see my Blog piece on Vincent Van Gogh: http://drnmblog.wordpress.com/2010/02/05/vincent-van-gogh-did-he-have-add-adhd/
In a letter, written in English and currently on display in London, Van Gogh describes procrastination and hyperfocusing:
“My dear Russell…for ever so long I have been wanting to write to you – but then the work has so taken me up. We have harvest time here at present and I am always in the fields…when I sit down to write I am so abstracted by recollections of what I have seen that I leave the letter. For instance at the present occasion I was writing to you and going to say something about Arles as it is…instead of continuing the letter I began to draw on the very paper the head of a…little girl I saw this afternoon whilst I was painting a view of the river with a greenish yellow sky.”
There is also a suggestion of the regret and self-blame which many adults with ADD / ADHD experience:
“I enclose the slip of scribbling, that you may judge of my abstractions and forgive my not writing before as such.”
Van Gogh calls his subjective inability to control and focus attention his “abstractions”, and he refers to this again towards the end of the letter:
“I must hurry off this letter for I feel some more abstractions coming on and if I did not quickly fill up my paper I would again set to drawing and you would not have your letter.”
Biographies of Van Gogh do not provide much detail of his earliest childhood years, but in his late teens and twenties he certainly showed a restlessness and impulsivity in work and relationships which would be compatible with ADD / ADHD. A more difficult question is whether treatment, in perhaps enabling him to combine his artistic talents with just a little commercial success in his lifetime, would have dulled his creativity. I don’t think so, because that is not what ADD / ADHD treatment appears to do, when used properly.
This letter to John Peter Russell, written in April 1888, was on display at the Royal Academy in London when this piece was written. The exhibition was called The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters.
The letter can be viewed online at Amsterdam‘s Van Gogh Museum site: http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let598/letter.html