Tag Archives: body

“Horror in Medicine” – a Response

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Dr. Catherine Belling (associate professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine), an event launching the “Imagining Health Project” series by the IHR Medical Humanities Initiative at ASU. This series is meant to integrate art and the humanities with medicine driven by the philosophy “health is a basic human need” that encapsulates a variety of physical and mental components.

Belling’s talk, entitled “Imagining Disease–Horror and Health in Medicine,” was hosted by the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale. While I have personally been to lectures taking place in art museums, cafes, and libraries, attending a humanities-driven event at a working medical treatment and research facility was definitely a novelty.  Tackling the themes of uncertainty and fear at the center of medical care, Belling’s lecture focused on what she termed “a poetics of medicine” in which the humanities offers ways to approach healthcare in all of its facets. She named three terms implicit in this discussion: imagining (or imagination), disease, and horror. I found her definitions and conclusions regarding imagining and horror to be the most compelling, and I will briefly summarize her key points below while also noting my own reactions to the material, posing questions I still need answered (perhaps you dear reader, can help!). Continue reading “Horror in Medicine” – a Response

Fellow-Feeling, Cognitive Science, and Keats

I’ve lately been dabbling in cognitive cultural studies in efforts to understand the physiological registry of emotions and how the second generation Romantics theorized the phenomenon as embodied or immersive reading. I thought for this post, I would give a little background on how I got to this area of study and why scholars have linked it to eighteenth and nineteenth century British thinkers and Romantic poets, in particular. I limit this post to Gabrielle Starr’s work, as her book Feeling Beauty focuses on the cognitive processes involved in aesthetic experience, and I am particularly interested in the aesthetic experience of reading poetry. Continue reading Fellow-Feeling, Cognitive Science, and Keats

Why Franklin’s Ship Matters to Romanticists

I was excited to learn, earlier today, that a Canadian marine expedition has located one of Sir John Franklin’s ships on the Arctic seabed, after a 160-year search for material evidence of the ill-fated Victorian voyage to find, chart, and claim the Northwest Passage. One archaeologist, William Battersby, has described the recent find as “the biggest archaeological discovery the world has seen since the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb almost 100 years ago.” The ship, now resting on the sea floor, seems to have been preserved in fairly good condition, and the searchers hope to find artifacts from the voyage — perhaps even photographs — on board.

Franklin's ship -- either Erebus or Terror -- on the ocean floor (photo: Parks Canada)
Franklin’s ship — [UPDATED: Erebus] — on the ocean floor (photo: Parks Canada)
Continue reading Why Franklin’s Ship Matters to Romanticists

NGSC E-Roundtable: “Three Ways of Looking at Romantic Anatomy”

Introduction

Emily, Laura, and Arden are three graduate students who share interests in Romantic medical science and anatomy. We illustrate our contrasting methods in responding to this article (“Corpses and Copyrights”), which discusses the history of dissection in England through pictures of a medical textbook, William Cowper’s Myotomia reformata, or A New Administration of the Muscles (London, 1724) and legal issues with respect to both bodies and texts as shared properties. The article celebrates the connections between literary and medical fields through its focus on Laurence Sterne’s body-snatched corpse, and the rediscovery of his anatomized skull in the 1960s. In this collaborative post, we each respond to the question: how can our distinctive approach cast new light on such a text? Within the specific field of dissection, we focus on different approaches and questions with respect to the imaginative work of illustration and fiction to depict the body, the power of the body (and its parts) as an object and artifact, and the gendered nature of dissection and the spectacle it created.

Laura Kremmel is a PhD candidate at Lehigh University, specializing in Gothic literature, particularly in the Romantic period, but with teaching interests across all manifestations of the Gothic. Her dissertation considers Gothic literature in the context of medical theory and the Gothic’s imaginative ability to experiment with the limits of those theories and offer literary alternatives. She has also published on zombies and is currently developing an online class on ghosts and technology.

Emily Zarka is a PhD student in Romanticism at Arizona State University focusing on gender and sexuality studies and representations of the undead in the period. She is interested in tracing the literary history of horror monsters from the modern period, and exploring the different ways in which men and women write about and reflect on the undead. Emily has given public talks on why zombies matter, and has an upcoming publication exploring the undead in Wordsworth, Coleridge and Dacre.

Arden Hegele is a PhD candidate at Columbia University, with a dissertation focusing on Romantic medicine and literary method. Her most recent work explores Wordsworth and Keats’s hermeneutic engagement with post-Revolutionary techniques of human dissection, and she will soon be teaching a self-designed course about Frankenstein.

Human torso, with arms tied behind the back
Human torso, with arms tied behind the back

Laura

I love the ideas brought up in this article that conflate the actual bodies on the dissection table and the bodies depicted in the illustrations, and I’m most interested in the aspects of this comparison that get left out in able to make that conflation possible. What immediately strikes me about medical images of the eighteenth century is the sterility of the body and the cleanliness of it, which would not be an accurate depiction of the body on the dissection table: we’re missing all the fluids and the deformity of decay that would have made the body an object of repulsion and abjection. These “ugly” aspects worried Dr. Robert Knox (of Burke and Hare fame), who was disgusted by the interior of the body and thought that seeing it would actually ruin an artist’s sense of beauty (Helen MacDonald writes about this in her book, Human Remains (2006)). In his Great Artists and Great Anatomists (1825), Knox pleads with the artist to always draw a dead arm next to a living arm in order to preserve a division between the dead body as an object of disgust and the beauty of the living. Earlier, in the introduction to his Atlas of Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus,” William Hunter explains that there are two ways to illustrate the cadaver: to draw it exactly as it is shown, thus accurately reproducing one single body, OR to draw it taking into consideration all of the other bodies you have seen, thus producing an informed idealization of the body. Hunter himself claims that he much prefers this second, more imaginative method of depicting anatomy.

Thus, the illustrations take on the ability to fictionalize the body to some extent, prioritizing a style that would serve a pedagogical purpose, if not a realist one. It emphasizes the act of seeing the body, but only seeing the right kind of body. The same is true for preparations made of the body, and John Hunter is famous for making thousands of these: isolated and “prepared” parts of the bodies that would become preserved for the purpose of teaching anatomy (and, indeed, to carry on the idea of the body as property and commodity, unique preparations and parts of the body were a common gift to and from physicians). This is also the way in which fiction plays with ideas of the body, uninhibited by the limits of current medical knowledge. Physicians understood the essential role of the dissected body for understanding anatomy, but physiognomy remained somewhat in the shadows: without opening a living body, it was difficult to grasp how it worked. Thus, they were frustrated by exactly the distinction to which Knox refers. The Gothic is particularly interested in the interior of the body–a large part of which produces fear and shock–and it has an ability to stretch the limits of the body, both living and dead, in ways medicine could not. Writers like Matthew Lewis took the opposite approach to most medical illustrations, embracing the abject body and all its dripping, oozing effects, exploring new ways for the body to function in the process, expanding ideas of vitalism, circulation, and digestion.

Many writers of the Gothic were physicians themselves or close to medical thought, such as Mary Shelley and Lord Byron (close to John Polidori), and dramatist Joanna Baillie (niece of John and William Hunter and brother of Matthew Baillie, who spearheaded an interested in autopsy). The underlying principles of dissection are inherent in many of these works, especially the emphasis on empirical observation of the body in order to understand it. Much critical work has been written about Baillie’s play De Monfort (1798), which ends by displaying two bodies side-by-side (a murderer and his victim) in a type of moral autopsy. The murderer, De Monfort, had been so affected by seeing the corpse of the man he killed that it drove him mad and caused his death. In cases like this, the emphasis on seeing the body, whether on the dissection table, the illustration, or the stage, enters into other areas, such as commercial gain (as the article explains), as well as justice.

Arden

What I find compelling in this article is the emphasis on body-snatching as a way of experiencing a privileged intimacy with a literary legend: here, the act of dissection becomes a physical method for the exegesis of both a literary body and a body of work. As “Corpses and Copyrights” describes, Sterne’s body was taken from his grave and recognized as being the author’s by students in the autopsy theatre. This particular grave-robbery of a literary lion was, apparently, a chance one, prompted by the medical school’s need for demonstrational corpses. As Keats’s hospital training confirms, most corpses for autopsy in the Romantic period were indeed procured by body-snatchers, who were paid off by Sir Astley Cooper and other major surgical instructors. And, since some European medical schools guaranteed their students 500 bodies annually, odds were good that students would eventually identify their “Man in the Pan.”

Skull, brain, and hand
Skull, brain, and hand

But, with the disinterred shade of Shakespeare’s Yorick hanging over Sterne’s corpus (“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well, Horatio”), we do have to wonder about Sterne’s actual disinterment as serving a more deliberate purpose. As Colin Dickey’s book Cranioklepty (2010) discusses, the purposeful body-snatching of artists was surprisingly prevalent during the Romantic Century. Other artists suffered similar fates to Sterne’s: Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart’s skulls were reportedly stolen from their graves by admirers (in Mozart’s case, since he was buried in a pauper’s grave, the future thief placed a wire around his neck before burial to help identify him later); in 1817, a malformed skull reported to be Swedenborg’s was offered up for sale in England; Schiller’s skull was mounted by a noble friend in a glass case in a library in 1826; and Sir Thomas Browne’s skull entered the Norwich and Norfolk Hospital Museum in 1848. More familiarly, the physical tokens of the Romantic poets continued to circulate after their deaths: Shelley’s heart was snatched from the funeral pyre and preserved in wine, while (in spite of his request to “let not my body be hacked”), Byron’s autopsy was published, his internal organs were scattered throughout Europe, and his corpse was disinterred in 1938 and lewdly examined in the family crypt. Even now, the Keats-Shelley house at Rome boasts various physical relics of the poets, including locks of their hair.

Why were (and are) Romantic artists’ dissected bodies so fascinating? For me, the anatomizing of Sterne’s skull, which bears marks of abrasions from medical implements, reflects on an important moment in the advances of surgical dissection and autopsy at the end of the eighteenth century, as the parts of the dissected literary body became relics for reanimative reading. Though Sterne’s dissection might be coming out of the anatomy in a satirical tradition (like Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy [1621]), as Helen Deutsch describes in Loving Dr Johnson (2005), at the end of the eighteenth century, the autopsy of a literary giant could bring the reader into an intimate encounter with the truths of his or her body, and even offer a kind of memorializing reanimation. In the case of Johnson, the Preface to the 1784 published account of his postmortem (“Dr Johnson in the Flesh”) described the corpse as “a work of art” that was still “of importance to his friends and acquaintances,” and the postmortem text is positioned as a way for the bereaved Johnsonian to reanimate the body through a deep encounter with its fragmented parts. Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791) picks up the same language of reanimation through dissection: the directly reported records of Johnson’s speech allow the reader to “see him live,” in contrast to other biographies “in which there is literally no Life.” For Deutsch, this is part of a broader eighteenth-century trend of sentimental dissection: the body of the eponymous heroine in Clarissa (1748), for instance, is “opened and embalmed,” and Lovelace promises to keep her heart, which is stored in spirits, “never out of my sight.” (The real-life corollary of this is perhaps the circuitous journey of Percy Shelley’s heart, the “Cor Cordium” acting as postmortem metonym for the poet’s self). For the Romantics, insight into a fragmented body part seems to have had a reanimating quality for the whole body, and, as I think about it in my dissertation, I find links between medical dissection of human bodies, and practices of excisional close reading of organic literary forms, during the Romantic period.

Dissected breast
Dissected breast

Emily

Upon examining these illustrations and the accompanying article, I was immediately struck by the gendered implications, namely the differences between male and female dissection and how those acts were illustrated. The article claims that “Usually, the bodies used were those of criminals or heretics – predominantly males in other words. The occasional dissection of a woman, it being a public event, attracted large numbers of spectators by the prospect of the exposure of female organ.” Given the ideas of the time that the female body was somehow more sacred or special because of the presumed virtue of the female sex, it does not seem unsurprising that the male body would be more readily violated after death in such a way. However, the connotations of penetration from the scalpels, forceps, and other tools of dissection seem relevant here especially because they all were wielded by a masculine hand. These sharp blades and other disruptive instruments separated, cut and otherwise maimed flesh in an extremely intimate way. When this was occurring with male corpses, there are of course homoerotic undertones, but what really seems relevant is how this violation of phallic metallic apparatuses was deemed taboo except in rare cases. This might in part explain the public audience that attended female dissections as suggested above. Not only was flesh usually hidden promised to be revealed, but the feminine body was in death capable of being poked and prodded in ways living human males could only dream of. The intimacy of such an act becomes fetish as the public gathers to watch the male scientist push the scalpel further and further into the most intimate areas of a woman’s body.

The framing images displayed in “Corpses and Copyrights” appear to validate the theory that even dead bodies were gendered and sexualized in traditional ways. The first image of the series is the front view of a beautiful, naked woman accompanied by props and scenery reminiscent of Neoclassical art and the Grecian and Roman sources that movement drew its inspiration from (see the Roman copy of Praxiteles’ Venus). The only two places marked on this woman’s body are the breasts (A) and vagina (B), highlighting the parts of her body directly associated with sex and reproduction. We can assume that those areas were meant to be detailed one another page in their segmented, dissected form; when the sex separates from the body and becomes an object of its own. Detaching the female form from the person it belongs to would hardly be considered shocking given the culture of the time. The final image in the illustrative series is another woman (possibly the same one, but with a different artistic arrangement), only this time is is her backside that is drawn and marked. Here the letters adorning her body are more numerous, with areas such as the spine, calves and shoulders given special attention in addition to her bottom. I am fascinated by the artists decision to show only a complete female form, although I am not surprised. To me it suggests not only that the female body, at least in its intact form, is considered more beautiful, but that again the connections between sex and death dominate.

Female torso
Female torso

Additionally, the “corpse as commodity” idea challenges the idea of death as escape for men and women alike. For in a culture where women were considered property of men both theoretically and legally, death might be a release from such patriarchal control, albeit in an extremely morbid way. As “Corpses and Copyrights” asserts, “the body was not regarded as property” once dead, and therefore the female could finally be free from her masters, at least in theory. The value given to corpses and prevalence of grave robbing for medical and scientific purposes perverts this supposed freedom by once again giving monetary value to the body, and as the popularity of public female dissections suggests, yet again makes the female form a more rare and valuable object to possess. All of which proves that during the period, nothing could be separated from the politics of patriarchy and gender.

(All images in this post are from Cowper’s Myotomia reformata, and first appeared in “Corpses and Copyrights.”)

Never Have I Ever Read

Photo courtesy of: http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/millais/drawings/50b.jpg
The Eve of St. Agnes Millais (1863) http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/millais/drawings/50b.jpg

At the beginning of summer, my husband, our two basset hounds, the cat and I moved into a little white rental house with a backyard. And once we had unpacked all our books, installed a makeshift closet in the back room (in the whole house, we have one tiny little 2×3 feet closet in the bedroom), and felt sufficiently settled to have company, we threw a housewarming party.

Naturally, ninety-percent of our guests were English grad students, and, as we were sitting around the fire-pit in our new backyard, someone suggested we play a literary version of the party classic “Never Have I Ever.” In the original game, the players take turns admitting to something they have never done (never have I ever been skiing–a sad truth!), and each person who has done the event loses a point until only one person is left with points, or something of the sort. In our version, we shamefully admitted works we had never read, and the other players were to put down a finger of the full ten with which they started. Of course, we awarded a slight handicap of negative five points to the only three non-bookish types (my husband the mathematician, a former history major, and a physicist) to make the game somewhat fair.

We were never quite clear on the goal of the game, since in our circle there seemed more pride in “losing” the game than surviving to the end with fingers still raised. In fact, one of our friends “lost” twice by the time we called the game. And we were all envious. But we went round and round, enjoying ourselves immensely.

“Never have I ever read Moby Dick.”
“Never have I ever read Huck Finn.”
“Never have I ever read Beloved.”

I have been studying for comprehensive exams for the past five months, and while I have read a significant number of the works on my lists in past graduate seminars, I feel like the whole process is a long game of “Never have I ever read…”

At the University of Kansas, where I am in my third year of doctoral studies, you compose three lists with your committee–two of which are time period lists (your area and an adjacent time period) and the third is a list of your own choosing (often an author, literary theory, a genre, etc). As a Romanticist with a fairly extensive background in Victorianism, I have chosen my period lists to form the full nineteenth century in British literature, and my final list is geared toward the Leigh Hunt Circle as I prepare for a dissertation focusing on Keats, the Cockney School, and how this context shaped his conception of “work.”

After reading criticism and biographies for the last two months as I try to whittle away at the dissertation list, I have switched to fiction for a much needed breather. I find it heartening to zip through a couple of novels in a week, when I have been slogging through nonfiction for what seems like a lifetime (and I will say I have read several “lifetimes” in that list, and highest praise must go to Nicholas Roe’s 2012 Keats biography. I have added it to the ever-growing list of books I wish I had written). In anticipation of the Halloween season, I scheduled myself several gothic novels in a row. And last week, I read Wuthering Heights for the first time.

Perhaps I just permanently altered your opinion of my clout as a nineteenth-century scholar. Well, so be it. I certainly admit the sad fact with a touch of shame. But now I have checked it off my list of never-have-I-ever-reads, and I have moved on to the next novel that somehow fell through the gaps in my long tenure as a literature student.

I feel this game “Never Have I Ever Read” haunts literature scholars. It certainly helps us flesh out syllabi–how else will we force ourselves to finally pick up Dombey and Son if we do not assign our students (and ourselves!) to read it?–and the game even fuels our research, it seems.

Three weeks ago, I had the pleasure of traveling to Portland and presenting on a Romanticism panel at the Rocky Mountain MLA. This conference has become a tradition for a couple colleagues and me, who would likely never travel and present together otherwise since our areas are so diverse. I presented on the connection between architectural structures and female bodies in Keats’s romances. I looked at the way in which the lived experience of female bodies, specifically in rape narratives, becomes abstracted into a symbol (the first step of which is the equation of the female body to the house or palace that protects her–i.e. Madeline is endangered because her house is penetrated in “The Eve of St. Agnes”). This cultural phenomenon is allegorical in so far as the female body comes to represent social bodies (structures) in various forms through literature and even political propaganda. The specific and material become crystallized into a generic trope that can be circulated, translated, and exchanged, depending upon the terms of its use, its ability to anger, inspire, manipulate.

In the Q&A portion of the panel, another presenter asked if I had read Cymbeline. I shook my head and shyly admitted I had not. Despite taking two courses in Shakespeare and Renaissance drama, never had I ever read, seen, or even heard a plot summary of the play. Nor is the classic John Middleton Murry volume Keats and Shakespeare listed among my secondary texts for comprehensive exams.

Nevertheless, I did my research that evening in my hotel room, and discovered much speculation on the play’s influence in Keats’s portrayal of Madeline’s boudoir. Indeed, Charles Cowden Clarke wrote, “I saw [Keats’s] eyes fill with tears, and his voice faltered,” as the poet read aloud from the play in summer 1816 (qtd. on page 56 of Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of Keats). In addition to speculation on the scenery, importantly, Imogen has been reading the story of Tereus and Philomela before falling asleep. According to Greek mythology, Tereus rapes Philomela and cuts out her tongue so that she cannot report the assault. Jove later transforms Philomela into a nightingale, and her song becomes an echo of sexual violence throughout literature, including T.S. Eliot’s “The Fire Sermon” in The Wasteland (a piece I have read many times since first crossing it off my never-have-I-ever list in high school).

Scholars speculate on what the literary greats have read (or not read) as an everyday practice. My fellow-scholar who asked if I had read Cymbeline was presenting truly stellar archival research that sought to uncover whether Keats had read various seventeenth-century ballads on nightingales. She lamented that we do not know to what volumes he had access while staying with Benjamin Bailey at Oxford in the summer of 1817. And as she had not yet read Roe’s recent Keats biography, she did not know the conflict between Bailey and Keats’s London friends, and why Charles Brown and other early biographers would not have contacted him to inquire about Keats’s reading that summer. Even in their lifetimes, Keats and Leigh Hunt gained the label “Cockney” as a class slur partially due to the fact that they never had ever read mythology in the original Greek, and instead got their knowledge of the classics through translations.

Next up on my reading schedule is Northanger Abbey, and I will be reading it for the first time. This will be my last novel for a while, and, as I want to preserve my reputation with you at least beyond my first blog post, I will not admit the Romantic poetry I will be reading next week–for the first time.

Life of the Mind – and Body

Ah, Summertime… that magical season when the New Year’s resolutions we made so many months ago to eat healthier and get more exercise become infinitely more feasible (and enjoyable), and when our motivation to do so is exponentially increased by the very real chance we will be wearing a swimsuit in public.  The weather in Colorado has been beautiful these last couple of weeks; the glorious morning sunshine seems perfect for a run, and the fantastic afternoon thunderstorms beckon me to throw the windows open for the fresh air and natural yoga soundtrack.  My husband, the man who loathes (and I mean loathes) exercise, is suddenly super-jazzed about P90X—such is the power of summer.

“But wait!,” you say—“Kelli, this isn’t a fitness blog!  What does exercise have to do with studying Romanticism?”  Stick with me; this isn’t just a tangent based on my (ahem) slightly greater desire to be outside on a bike than working on my prospectus.  It’s actually inspired by some advice from one of my faculty advisors.  Our university had been bringing in several potential new hires for job talks, and we happened to be chatting about the incredibly demanding schedule facing the candidates.  We joked for a minute about training for interviews like training for a marathon, and suddenly she got serious and said, “I’m not kidding.  In the time leading up to interviews is not the time to stop working out.”  At first I was surprised by this, but after pondering it for several weeks, it makes complete sense.  We might think we live the life of the mind, but the truth is, our schedules and work habits can be quite taxing on our bodies—and taking care of our bodies can indeed make us better at our jobs.

Now, I don’t have to tell you that academia and fitness don’t exactly go together like peas and carrots.   We all know that we spend long hours hunched over computers, books, and stacks of essays.  Chances are we also tend to over-caffeinate in order to make it through those long hours, and as a result might have trouble getting good sleep when we finally hit the sack.  If we commute long distances or have to eat in a hurry, our food choices will probably not be great,  and at the end of a day like that, exercising and cooking real food might be the last things we want to do.   Yet it’s exactly these propensities that make building fitness and nutrition into our habits all the more crucial.

Let me be clear: though we all like to see a chili pepper or two next to our names on RateMyProfessor.com, this isn’t about looking hot (though if you’re lucky, hotness may be a side effect).  It’s about taking care of ourselves so we can meet the demands of our profession, both now and long into the future, while feeling strong, happy, and more balanced.  In case you need convincing, Let’s explore some of the ways good nutrition and exercise can directly affect our careers for the best:

  1. Energy. Dynamic teaching, mindful grading, attentive research, and mind-blowing writing/revision all require energy!  So do patience, friendliness, and gregariousness, qualities bound to shine through in job interviews and administrative duties.  Both the tangibles and intangibles we get judged on in our work can only be improved by our having more energy–and real, long-term, sustainable energy comes from fueling our bodies with nutritious foods, and strengthening them with basic fitness.
  2. Brainpower. I don’t know about you, but I come across a LOT of studies exploring how children’s diets can affect their performance in school.  What we may not think about as often, is that food and brainpower are still connected when we grow up!  Check out some of the research HERE.  None of it is particularly surprising; eating a variety of whole grains, fruits and veggies, lean meats and dairy, good fats, and not too much sugar seems to be best for both brain and body.  Exercise has repeatedly been shown to help too, including breathing, stretching, and meditation (yes, I’m counting meditation as an exercise).
  3. Greater ability to prevent and combat repetitive stress injuries. Better posture, muscle tone, and overall body awareness might seem like nice but inessential little things, but they can help combat some of the most common ailments facing people in our line of work: repetitive stress injuries to the back, neck, wrists, elbows, and knees.  We get these injuries from slouching over our computers for hours at a time, and for regularly carrying around bags laden with laptops and books.  You can train yourself to recognize when you’re straining your body, and adopt some basic preventative measures. The stronger muscle tone you develop from regular exercise means you’ll have the strength to sit up straight and carry your backpack properly.  All those in favor of avoiding slipped disks please say “Aye.”
  4. Greater ability to connect with the realities of Romantic-period life. Okay, maybe this is a stretch…but I just got back from a research trip to England, and I must say that some of the greatest moments of connection I’ve felt to Romantic-period writers came while hiking in the Lake District, or tromping across miles of public-access pathway in the Midlands. Middle- and working-class folk of the Romantic period walked miles every day, a reality hard for us to connect with unless we do it once in awhile.  Our bodies will learn things our brains alone cannot.  Of course, we don’t need to live exactly like someone in the 18th-century to understand or appreciate the conditions in which they wrote (thank goodness!), but if we get the chance to feel, with our own feet, what it’s like to walk from village to village, or across a moor while avoiding sheep-dung, or up a rugged granite peak in the rain, we want to be ready for it!

Of course there are myriad other benefits to good nutrition and exercise, and you probably hear about them often enough that you can chant them in your sleep.  Chances are, you already have some sort of fitness regime that appeals to you, and some goals in mind.  However, I know I always like suggestions, and since minimal investments in equipment and gym fees are a must for graddies on tight budgets, here are a few effective things you can do on the cheap!

  1. Walk more. Park further away from your destination.  Take the stairs.  Even talking your “evening constitutional”, as one friend calls it, around the block will help clear your mind, get your blood flowing, and burn a few calories.  Enjoy the natural world around you—it’s summer, for crying out loud!
  2. Take advantage of your university’s or community’s rec center. Some U-recs offer free classes to faculty and staff (if you happen to fit in that category), and in any case, whatever fees they charge are probably cheaper than your local gym.
  3. Find a friend to work out with, or make friends while you work out. If you know you’re meeting up with someone, you’re far more likely to fight the impulse to skip.  If you can’t find a workout buddy, taking a class can be an excellent way to meet people and make friends—combatting feelings of isolation that can sometimes accompany folks in our line of work, especially when we feel it’s taking over our lives.  Jogging groups and community or club sports teams abound; check out your local Craigslist, or community rec centers.
  4. Find an activity you enjoy! Yoga might not be your thing, but you may love racquetball or swimming or hiking.  If you think it’s fun, chances are, you’ll keep doing it!  All the better if it’s free.
  5. Find things that you can work regularly into your schedule. This is where walking makes a lot of sense, but check your local library or Goodwill for workout DVDs, and look for free workout videos on YouTube or HULU.
  6. Make a goal – do something you never thought you could! Confession: after finishing my Master’s, the combined stress of school and the termination of a sad relationship saw me quite overweight.  I hated running (hated!), but decided I would sign up for a 5k.  And you know what? I did it!  And I felt so proud of myself that I signed up for another!  My next nemesis to conquer was biking; I was terrified of it!  But I made 2007 my “year of the bike,” and started small by taking a spinning class (mostly so that when jumping on a real bike, I knew I could make it to the top of my street).  I’m a terrible swimmer, but In 2008 I did my first mini-triathlon, accompanied by my 66-year-old mother (and by ‘mini’ I mean shorter than sprint-distance).  These things have built up a whole different side of my confidence, including my confidence on the job.  They were hard, but SO COOL.  Also a bit addicting.  Believe me, if I can do these things, you can too!  Races can be expensive, but they give you a concrete goal with a deadline, a built-in cheering section, and something awesome to post on Facebook when you finish, so you may find them worth the occasional investment.
  7. Find ways to eat right. This is really such a personal issue, and I’ll be the first to admit I’m not always very good at it.  We all have different habits, and foods that we like or dislike, or ethically oppose, or can’t digest.  Still, it is imperative that we find ways to eat healthy and nutritious foods that fit our needs even on a busy schedule. That schedule is probably never going to change, right?—at least not if we get those jobs we’re working so hard to prepare for.  Thus, we must take stock now of the ways we eat, and improve them (ideally through lifestyle changes rather than diets).  Do your research!  There are plenty of online resources to aid with this, but one little thing that helps me a lot is to make sure I pack easy, healthy snacks with me when I head to campus.  To me, “easy” means minimal preparation, and “healthy” means that the food provides nutrients, fiber, protein, and not too much sugar or saturated fat.  Nuts, seeds, fresh fruit, dried fruit, raw veggies, string cheese, yogurt, and bars with easily-recognizable ingredients and not too much sugar make good candidates.  If you balk at spending $1.50 on a Larabar, and have access to some form of blender or food processor, look up a recipe and make your own!  Good times.

Ultimately I’m no fitness guru, and my own beach body will still be staying far away from a bikini, thanks.  For sound, research-backed advice on fitness and nutrition, you’ll definitely want to look for better sources than this blog!  However, I don’t have to be a superathlete to know that when I’m exercising and eating right, I feel happier, stronger, and sharper, and I have a lot more energy (except, you know, after a workout when I drag my sweaty, red-faced, frumpy body back to my house and lay face-down on my floor because I can’t make it to my bed).  I also (minus aforementioned moments) feel a lot more attractive, even if my appearance hasn’t changed.  Whether or not I still have pounds to lose is beside the point; exercising and eating right means I have increased energy to do my very best, greater capacity to remember what I study, and more confidence to look people in the eye, flash a brilliant smile, and know I’m worth paying attention to—in my teaching, my research, my writing, and my job applications.  Win, win, win.

I hope you all have a great summer getting out into the sunshine (or into an air-conditioned gym), and working on your own resolutions! If you have a fitness/nutrition tip that has made your academic life even a little bit better lately, please share it in the comments below!  Then, pat yourself on the shoulder for doing something that’s good both for the mind and the body.  Way to go, superstar!

-Kelli

Making Means Meet: The Prelude and Risk in Retrospect

This blog represents a “jump-for-joy” moment in my studies where my reading relates directly to an activity that I dearly love: rock climbing. In the process, the news to me was how the act of close reading this small passage in The Prelude that taps into my adrenaline-performance-junky self became more about language and representations of identity. More specifically, it became about how Wordsworth lays bare the way in which the process of *writing* about memories changes them and merges selves in ways that logically conflict, and that teach.

* * *

Yesterday I reread a bunch of books in The Prelude as well as book 1 of The Excursion, and right now I’m rereading (for the first time since a sophomore year poetry class with Robert Pack at Middlebury College) “Michael”. In the process of diving back into all this Wordsworthian juice and joy, I’ve been thinking about individual connections to language, activity (mostly bodily), and histories.

It seemed to me while working through the Prelude, that one important pivot for WW is the body: its a place where outside (nature, society, history, words on a page) meets inside (nature [again], imagination, identity, desire, memory). It is a locomotive human frame that interacts with the motions of nature and that contains the whirrings of ideas and blood. In a very Lockean sense, the body is the gateway to thought and perception of the world at large.

I’m an avid rock climber, and this passage made my palms sweat (Book I (1850) ll. 326-356). Finally, my two worlds — academic and athletic — were colliding in my work. Like free gelato, it’s just too good to be true. (Why didn’t this passage catch me in previous Prelude readings?)

Nor less when spring had warmed the cultured Vale,
Moved we as plunderers where the mother-bird
Had in high places built her lodge; though mean
Our object and inglorious, yet the end
Was not ignoble. Oh! when I have hung
Above the raven’s nest, by knots of grass
And half-inch fissures in the slippery rock
But ill sustained, and almost (so it seemed)
Suspended by the blast that blew amain,
Shouldering the naked crag, oh, at that time
While on the perilous ridge I hung alone,
With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind
Blow through my ear! the sky seemed not a sky
Of earth — and with what motion moved the clouds!

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows
Like harmony in music; there is a dark
Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles
Discordant elements, makes them cling together
In one society. How strange that all
The terrors, pains, and early miseries,
Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused
Within my mind, should e’er have been borne a part,
And that a needful part, in making up
The calm existence that is mine when I
Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end!
Thanks to the means which Nature deigned to employ;
Whether her fearless visitings, or those
That came with soft alarm, like hurtless light
Opening the peaceful clouds; or she may use
Severer interventions, ministry
More palpable, as best might suit her aim.

The emphases on the “means” are mine, of course. My first thought when reading this passage was: I know exactly what he means when he describes the sensation of being quite high off the deck, “ill-sustained” on “slippery rock,” barely hanging on by half-inch fissures and protected by a bunch of knots (hopefully cams and/or nuts would be involved as well, but not in the author’s time!). Your senses pick up on the most interesting things when you are relaxed mid-route and can observe the vertical environment without being concerned about gear or falling. You find birds nested in cracks (who might poop on you); you notice the “exposure” or the “airy” feel of being up high and having a panoramic view, as if from the side of a tower; and you might notice how your shadow moves with you on the adjacent rock wall.

But in this passage, WW is not relaxed: he’s nervous, hanging by “grass” knots, on a “perilous” ridge. When that’s me (and I use a really good rope, not grass!), I am so NOT listening to the utterances of the wind, I’m not noticing the sublimity of the sky, and I’m definitely not tracking the motion of the clouds unless a storm is rolling in. I would be focused on executing the moves and placing/clipping gear to make sure I reach the top without taking a bad fall, (though I also happen to find this fun).

So WW here is taking a moment of real, physical danger, and mentioning how he notices the natural world in which he is suspended. The rock and the climbing are just a means to an end: that of gaining a different perspective on the elements, one that makes the climber feel incapable of falling, like the birds, and supported by the wind. The question becomes for me: how can the knowledge of bodily peril and discomfort and serene appreciation and enchantment by the motions of the wind and sky exist together? I argue that they can’t (unless you’re comfortably hanging out on a nice, big ledge, or belaying, or celebrating on the summit!). The body’s survival mechanisms don’t readily allow for those separate feelings and emotions to coexist simultaneously. And yet somehow they do in that stanza … Here’s some real-life evidence:

Focusing on climbing so that I can ...
... look around and appreciate the view from the summit!

In this moment, as a poet, and due to his engagement with his changing self, his history and his memories, WW can’t help but write or record tenuousness and fear-factor into this passage. As a kid playing around on steep, slippery, probably potentially fatal vertical rocky terrain, he was fearless (and stupid) and therefore could look around while dangling from a cliff. As an adult, both W and I would find it hard not to think about the painful ends – possible consequences – of falling.

In the next stanza, WW goes fairly “meta” and comments on the fusion of his child and adult perspective and language in the preceding stanza’s moment:  “there is a dark / Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles / Discordant elements, makes them cling together / In one society.” Suddenly, we’re not rock climbing anymore: were thinking about *writing about* rock climbing long ago. The “discordant elements” of fearless child’s play and adult awareness “cling together” as if hanging onto the rock for dear life. Crag meets poem, nature meets society, past meets present, reader meets poet. They don’t get the job done on their own.

The “means which Nature deigned employ”: he gives thanks to them, but precisely for what? For not killing him? Nature seems to encompass the narrator’s reckless desire to climb this rock, the rock itself, as well as an idea or a construct that exists in the author’s memory that urged him to do things that would make an impression on him (or break his leg). Even if the impression is only understood later (like the way in which his books from Cambridge mean more to him in later years than they did while in school). And what means? Why “deigned”? Nature is billed as a teacher here – but one whose lessons you have to learn while potentially soloing a crag and then live on to tell the tale. And nature is stooping to teach you. But doesn’t that sortof mean that we are stooping to teach ourselves, since we are not only affected by, but also create the natural world that we exist in? Is WW learning nature’s lesson not through climbing, or remembering climbing, but through writing about remembering this climb?

Does his attention to the work of writing poetry about memories then, which brings back all the risk that he never encountered in the moment, go hand in hand with an inherent realization of risk? Perhaps the risk in writing about memory is somewhere in the lacunae between now and then, the inability to ever fully return on our own, and the reliance upon readers or audience to make an imaginative “leap” (or climb) in order to attempt to preserve these things which do not endure. The risk infused in the climb was also, perhaps, the risk in recording it.