Arts Week 2017: Grin and Bear It: Peter Fifield on Virginia Woolf’s Teeth

This post was contributed by Professor Martin Paul Eve.

george_charles_beresford_-_virginia_woolf_in_1902_-_restorationOn Wednesday 17 May, as part of Birkbeck’s Arts Week, I attended a talk by Peter Fifield on Virginia Woolf’s teeth. As Peter made absolutely clear, this was not some metaphor for her fearsome book reviewing, nor was it any kind of Little Red Riding Hood-esque pun: “my, what big teeth you have, Mrs Woolf”. Instead, he really spoke about her teeth.

Indeed, Fifield traced the curious history of the extraction of a set of otherwise healthy teeth from Virigina Woolf in the early 1920s. The official reasoning given was that Woolf had a “high temperature” and she was told that the extraction of these teeth would help to alleviate this. Unsurprisingly, a few days later, Woolf wrote of how she still had the temperature.

Yet Fifield astutely notes that there was an undercurrent in medical thinking at this time that theorised a set of localised sepses – that is, bacteriological infections – as the potential sources of mental illness. And, indeed, the 1920s was a period of rapid change in this space. The shell-shock victims of World War I had opened the gateway to a new model of mental illness, rooted in the psyche and unlocked by psychoanalysis, rather than in the hereditary or the surgical domains. Certainly, it was a period of change for the authority to speak on mental conditions.

The thesis of local sepsis, as Fifield recounted it, was a way in which a medical, surgical approach attempted to reassert its authority over and ability to help with mental conditions. The list of body parts that could potentially be removed in order to alleviate the mental suffering of the patient – as hypothesised by at least one influential American, who was in touch with Woolf’s own doctors – was extensive, in Fifield’s account. To put it mildly, one could be subjected to a series of medical horrors in the apparent service of healing.

Fifield also examined the ways in which these ideas of mental illness, genetics, bacteriology, and surgery fed into Woolf’s writing, diaristic and novelistic. For instance, in Mrs Dalloway, Fifield notes, Septimus has not only a Latin root for seventh, but also a resonance with the Greek root of “septic”. Mrs Dalloway does not quite say she will “do the extraction herself”, but she is nonetheless also convalescing at the start of the text from a condition with which Woolf believed herself to be afflicted: a tachycardia (rapid heart rate) brought on by influenza.

For me, Fifield’s talk also had a contemporary medical resonance. In the field of auto-immune conditions, contemporary medicine observes correlations between incidences of gum disease and lupus, vasculitis, and rheumatoid arthritis, for instance. Furthermore, it is believed in at least one new but credible theory that stomach bacteria – a local sepsis – could be the triggering cause of a set of epigenetic regulations of gene expression that send the immune system itself into overload. There are also many studies on how patients with these conditions are especially prone to depression and other mental illnesses.

In other words, to this day, the holistic approach that integrates the dental, the stomach, sepsis, genetics, and mental illness, persists. Of course, it is easy for us to look back and laugh at medicine of the past, as we will no doubt one day be looked back upon and laughed at. Further, nobody today, one would hope, is advocating the removal of teeth to help with a serious auto-immune condition. There is, though, more to this old theory than simple ignorance. It simply couldn’t be properly seen or understood at that time.

Finally, Fifield’s talk was also fascinating for its examination of photographs of high modernists smiling, or otherwise. Woolf’s demeanour in many photographs is easy to read as one of the depressed woman; that figure of tragic sadness whose photographed life, we now know, will be lost to that struggle. Yet Fifield did find several of Woolf baring her teeth. The same cannot really be said of James Joyce, although Samuel Beckett was photographed cracking the odd smile (perhaps because, as he put it in Endgame, there is nothing funnier than unhappiness). Nonetheless, in providing metaphorical food for thought, giving the audience something to get their teeth into, Fifield’s story of Virginia Woolf’s teeth was a fascinating tale of how, in the medical culture of her day, there was little for Woolf to do except to grin and bear it.

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , , ,

The Acts Between

This post was contributed by Éimear Doherty, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Arts and Policy Management.

‘The Acts Between is performance piece which aims to explore the themes of mental health and the passing of time’.

On the Arts Week programme page, it explained how ‘audience members can drop in and out at any time.’ However, on the ‘Events in the School’ it explained how The Acts Between was a ‘performance … which asks the audience to move around 43 Gordon Square. … The performance is around 20 minutes in duration – please book a time slot online.’

This left me a little confused. Unsure as to whether I was attending a performance or an installation; whether I was going to be a member of an audience or a viewer, I arrived at 18.00 (so as not to miss any important introductory explanations). With no information provided about the artists involved, I decided to be embrace the mystery of it and not research Between the Acts (the final novel by Virginia Woolf, published in 1941 shortly after her suicide), as I would have normally been inclined. In hindsight, this might have been a sensible thing to do, however I am of the opinion that one should be able to attend a performance or exhibition without extensive preparation and still be able to participate.

Due to this unfamiliarity with the referenced novel, I entered G10 curious, with a kind of nervous excitement, which lent itself to the experience. Feeling as though I had stepped into the mind of an over active imagination, I did not know where to start first. Kevin Barry describes how he flits and hops from book to book, in the same way we flit and hop from site to site. I wish I did not identify with this behaviour, the curse of modern society and technology, but I know I am not alone. At first, my impatient mind was quite satisfied by the overlapping of Sinéad O’Connor’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ and Britney Spears’ ‘Circus’. The problem with this amalgamation, alongside a loop featuring the sound of a crying baby and the infamous internet dial-up tone, is that I did not recognise the fire-alarm and thought the noise to be part of the show.

Sadly, this mass- exit and re-entry into No.43 by the audience was the only occasion when we did in fact move around the building. (Perhaps it really was all part of the piece?)

On return, I was ready to do some reading and found some Silvia Plath handwritten on dark rice paper, before moving on to a table filled with pamphlets on Bi-Polar disorder. Then I flitted off to a small table covered in diamonds and aspirin and listened to Marilyn Monroe sing ‘Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend’… this was complemented by a nearby overturned chair, surrounded by bottled liquor, make-up and hairspray.

Curious, but it wasn’t long before I was hopping in and out between the shoe-strings, which presented punched photocopies of texts, checking out the small pebbles and bagged popcorn along the way.

The Acts BetweenFor me, the most intriguing aspect of the installation was the black and white video being played on the screen, left of the entrance. I did not watch it at first, too engrossed by the flickering pink projection been screened on the central wall. However, it was this monotone video that maintained my attention above the other stimuli.

The viewer was invited into no.43 and guided up and down the building’s labyrinth of corridors and stairs. What made this video eerie was the fact that the performers were outside room G10 throughout the performance/installation, so even exiting The Acts Between had a sense of the surreal to it.

The video eventually leads us into The Acts Between installation, so that we are left watching a view of the very room we are starting in. Up until that moment I felt unsure about the space as a whole but I think this moment brought it together for me. The idea of recording. Of never really being ‘present’, too distracted and concerned about experiencing moments behind a piece of technology.

I am not going to pretend that I now (or ever did) know how this all links to Virginia Woolf, her work and life in Bloomsbury. However, I will say that it made me consider even more carefully the veils through which we view our daily lives and what we use to alter our impression, and people’s impression of us. Time did move quite quickly while in The Acts Between, feeling as though someone had pressed fast-forward. Perhaps the idea was to create an environment where guests had the opportunity to gain a sense of what living with anxiety can feel like. Or perhaps this visitor did not read between the acts, objects, space and lines in way the artist’ had envisaged one to.

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , , , , ,

Freshwater

This post was contributed by Roisin Lynch, an intern at Birkbeck’s School of Arts.

Virginia Woolf wrote her little-known and only play Freshwater in 1923, and revised it in 1935 for a single performance by her family and friends in her sister Vanessa Bell’s art studio in Bloomsbury.

Freshwater is a comedy, poking good-natured fun at Woolf’s great aunt, photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and the artistic and moral sensibilities of her Victorian set. In the Cameron’s home at Freshwater Bay on the Isle of Wight, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (played by Woolf’s brother, Adrian Stephen, in 1935) lurks about the house reciting Maud at every opportunity, while Julia Cameron (played by Vanessa Bell) searches in vain to find a policeman with manly enough calves to play Galahad in one of her Arthurian photographs. The plot centres on Ellen Terry (Woolf’s niece, Angelica Bell), the sixteen year old wife of George Frederic Watts (Duncan Grant). Bored by life as a model for her elderly husband’s paintings, at the end of the play she escapes – wearing trousers, no less – to the dissolute freedom of a life in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury.

As part of a series of events during Arts Week, academics from Birkbeck’s Department of English gave a lively and enjoyable rehearsed reading of the play in the beautiful Keynes library in the School of Art’s buildings in Gordon Square, once home to Woolf herself. The performance was enthusiastically received by the audience, in particular the various props – a copy of Maud, a helpfully annotated picture of a leg, a small model omnibus – held up by Professor Hilary Fraser to embellish the reading, and the very special guest appearance at the end of the play by Queen Victoria herself.

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts . Tags: , , , ,