On ‘Beckett and Brain Science,’ Breath, Voice and Embodied Learning

It was a great pleasure yesterday to participate in the final Beckett and Brain Science workshop coordinated by Elizabeth Barry and her colleagues at Warwick University. The project, funded through the AHRC Science in Culture stream, is the brainchild of Elizabeth Barry (Warwick), Laura Salisbury (Birkbeck) and Ulrika Maude (Bristol, formerly at Reading University), three Beckett experts who have been at the forefront of investigations into the complex intersections and interdependencies between literary modernism, neurology, psychoanalysis and neuroscience.

Podcasts of the first two workshops at Reading and Birkbeck testify to the intellectual breadth, scope and dynamism of the project’s interdisciplinary inquiry into Beckett’s work and its significance for contemporary philosophers, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, theatre practitioners and clinicians, as well as anyone who has ever in their own lives encountered the limits and materiality of language, memory, identity and sociality (all of us, in other words). A central focus of the Warwick workshop was Beckett’s 1972 play Not I, brought to life in two stunning performances by Fail Better Productions. Artistic director Jonathan Heron, who is also a Beckett scholar and pioneer of performance-based transdisciplinary pedagogy, followed the performances with a workshop for with medical students, trainees and practising clinicians, co-faciliated by psychiatrist and philosopher of psychiatry Matthew Broome.

I’m not sure that I know what an ‘average’ medical humanities theatre workshop might be, but I can say with certainty that this was truly exceptional. There are only two characters, if they can be called characters, in Not I: ‘Mouth’, invisible on stage except for her spotlight mouth, delivers an urgent fragmented monologue; ‘The Auditor,’ a shadowy nondescript figure, gestures four times in ‘helpless compassion’. Through a series of brief and deceptively simple activities involving both the articulation of our own ‘inner monologues’ and readings from the play, Heron created a space of spontaneous revelation – about the relationship between thought and speech, prosody and affect, embodiment and linguistic sense-making, non-sense and modes of listening. By inhabiting Beckett’s text, even for a few minutes, we discovered aspects of its rhythm and its (refusal of) sense that might otherwise have eluded us, and were able, seamlessly, so it seemed, to reflect on how these discoveries could in turn illuminate the dynamics of the clinical encounter.

Far from opposing, or even complementing, the intense scholarly work being pursued in Beckett and Brain Science, this interlude of embodied learning (something I find myself increasingly fascinated by) ‘spoke,’ so it seemed, directly to the questions at the heart of the project (as eloquently summarised here). My feeling is that this mode of interdisciplinary inquiry – one that engages us experientially and intellectually, one that relentlessly gathers, syntheses and teases apart insights from literature, phenomenology, neuroscience and psychiatry –has radical, and perhaps not yet fully realised, potential for research and practice in the medical humanities.

About Angela Woods

Editor-in-Chief, The Polyphony Deputy Director, Institute for Medical Humanities, Durham University
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1 Response to On ‘Beckett and Brain Science,’ Breath, Voice and Embodied Learning

  1. Pingback: » January 14 2014: Helpless Compassion’: From Samuel Beckett’s ‘Not I’ to the Francis Report Art of Psychiatry Society

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