The early poets and the neurosciences: What they have taught us about the history of psychiatry


De Montfort University, Osterley House-Wellshead, Harwell Village, Oxon OX11 OHD, England
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While most systems of thought crossing the borders between the neurosciences and psychiatry - ancient, modern, Charcotian, Freudian, Jungian, and now in the abundant models of neuroanatomical flow - allow for "middle states", few have defined these psychic zones either in neuroanatomical experiments or psychiatric theory. That is, they have permitted a fundamental Cartesian mind-body split to prevail despite their concession that other interior psychiatric states exist. I consult the realm of the poets and writers, especially early poets and imaginative writers, to demonstrate how much imaginative literature has to offer this crossing of boundaries from the neurosciences to psychiatry. I focus on three Anglo-Irish writers - Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), Virginia Woolf (1882 - 1941, and Samuel Beckett (1906 - 1989) - to make the point.

Sterne, the author of the first stream of conscious novel in any language, the English-language Tristram Shandy, constructed an interior mental world in which one's neuroanatomy is one's destiny ; and Sterne's perpetually perplexed narrator Tristram asked, how can such a state of affairs exist in which his nervous system has apparently had such dire consequences for his life ? Propitiously for the answer, Sterne was Virginia's Woolf's favorite prose writer, and she has supplied some of the reasons. This was in part because Woolf recognized the writer's neuroanatomical dependency and described it in her letters and memoirs. "I am exquisitely nervous when I write". And in the diaries of the 1920s : "Writing calls upon every nerve in my body to hold itself taut". Why should this be and what does it mean ? What exactly was this nervous condition in which Woolf placed herself, voluntarily or involuntarily, when composing her great canonical novels from The Waves to The Lighthouse and A Room with a View ? Samuel Beckett, the last of the small focused group, placed the burden on his listeners : those in the audience of his plays. When Estragon claims in Waiting for Godot : "We cannot go on, we do not know what we are waiting for", he displaces his own nervous state to the audience and incites in them - the audience - the essence of his own taut emotion : a nervous edginess unique to this playright that remains to be described in neuropsychiatric terms. Yet what precisely induces the nervous sensibility of Beckett's audiences, and how is it transferred from words to neuroanatomical states ? This last is the supreme question I wish to ask. The question itself suggests that emotions have submerged verbal lives - or at least verbal substratums through nervous synapses capturing aspects of memory.

The conclusion is twofold and ought to be of interest to a broadly-based group of historians of medicine and psychiatry. Scholars and historians who separated words and things, perhaps in the sense harbored by Foucault in Les mots et les choses, were wrong. Words and things cannot be separated, certainly not in these postmodern times, especially if the "things" are the nervous apparatuses of human beings on which their entire emotional life depends. Such a theory demonstrates, furthermore, that however advanced the neurosciences may become at the point of the chronological millennium of 2000, they have much to learn from early poets and writers before the 20th century.


Panel 1C   (Images and Metaphors)
Tuesday, 14 September 1999

The Neurosciences and Psychiatry: Crossing the Boundaries

Joint Congress of the European Association for the History of Psychiatry (EAHP), the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN), and the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland, 13-18 September 1999