Erdös Numbers and English

I had brunch yesterday with a secondary-school maths teacher I know. He was telling me about a Hungarian mathematician called Paul Erdös, who was one of the most prolific researchers ever. He had over 1100 papers to his name, most of them as coauthor. Mathematicians have devised something called the ‘Erdös number‘ to describe how many degrees of separation there are between any mathematician and Erdös’s output. So being Paul Erdös gives you an Erdös number of zero, being a coauthor on an Erdös paper gives you an Erdös number of one, working with someone who worked on an Erdös paper is two, and so on. You’ll probably get an Erdös number of eight or better by publishing a maths paper.

My maths-teacher friend is a great believer in collaboration when studying maths. He doesn’t think maths is about solitary geniuses: he likes to see groups of people huddled round a board or table pinging numbers and symbols around (this sounds like a great maths lesson to me). This may seem like another difference between maths and English: people often read books alone, come up with individual interpretations, and can’t work together to find the right answer because there is no right answer. To do well in English exams you need to stand out from the crowd, not join it. And so on.

But English studies would be nothing without collaboration. The humanities are where we learn how different people have lived and thought, and how they interact. Language is communication, and literature is a conversation. Readers and writers have a voice in that conversation, but that voice is always in dialogue, not a soliloquy. Studying literature has taught me, and many others, that my thoughts have all been had before. Original thoughts only happen because I’ve not read enough. My life is unique–no-one’s lived exactly the same life as I had–but my reflections on what it means to be human are nothing new. So I learn where I fit in, and discussion is vital to that. This means that English lessons, essays and exam scripts will do well to involve lively exchanges of ideas too.

Renaissance thinkers looking back to classical antiquity knew this, and so did English modernists (like T.S. Eliot). We may not have Erdös numbers in the humanities, but there is not much space for lone geniuses either. Conferences, seminars and research projects show collaboration in action in humanities research (there are scholars who team up too). As the questions we’re asking as researchers become more complicated and specialized, team-work is going to become more and more necessary (Jonah Lehrer has written a good piece about solitary scientists– I think his point will become relevant for the humanities over time too). We can make progress in learning about history, language and human experience, but collaboration also helps us learn about our limitations, about what we can’t know.




Christopher Page and Quentin Skinner Lectures

I’ve been to two lectures at the Oxford Exam Schools this week, both given by leading academics associated with Cambridge University. On Monday I heard a talk, with sung interludes, given by an authority on medieval music, Chris Page (he has recently published a book on the first thousand years of music in the Christian West). He stressed the importance of music in the medieval liturgy: people sang the bible more than they read it, and plainchant evoked emotions in the listener and singer. He spoke about neurological and psychological aspects of auditory experience, but worried that these approaches don’t take account of the historical moment where music is produced; i.e., how society and culture condition our response. This extends to the vocabulary we use to talk about medieval music. So, rather than just talk about ‘zygonic memory’ (referring to music that’s easily memorized), Page considered how the word ‘compunction’ was used in the first millenium to discuss emotional responses to music.

This interest in the language, the terms being used to make argument is closely identified with the so-called ‘Cambridge School’ of historical thinking. Quentin Skinner is closely identified with this approach to intellectual history, and he is giving this year’s Clarendon Lectures–the first lecture was on Tuesday. The series’ title is ‘Shakespeare and Rhetorical Invention’, and already the connection with his broader methods of analysis is clear: he’s going to see how Renaissance theories of rhetoric (the art of persuasion) help us to understand how Shakespeare was writing speeches in the plays.

It’s nothing new to argue for rhetoric’s central importance to understand what’s going on in Renaissance literature: it’s a key part of the classical heritage that was being reclaimed across Europe, and in England all grammar school students, including those at Stratford, would have been immersed in it. Skinner’s argument focuses on ‘invention’ (what you put in a speech), but sounded original to me mostly in its specific claims about when Shakespeare was most interested in rhetoric–from the end of 1596 (when he’s writing Romeo and Juliet) until about 1604 (Measure for Measure and Othello). He claims to have found Plutarch’s Moralia (Philemon Holland’s 1603 translation) being quoted in Hamlet, which struck me as particularly provocative not only because scholars have been combing through that particular play for centuries, but also because, if true, it’d be relevant to the debate about how the three different versions of Hamlet relate to each other: it’d be a neat piece of evidence for arguing that the 1604 quarto really was made more literary by Shakespeare for print publication…but this is another story.

Skinner’s lecture was attended by a Who’s Who of academics in the Oxford English Faculty working on the early modern period. Some of them may have drifted off in the first half while Skinner was introducing rhetorical theories, which is to say that he was pitching it beyond the inner sanctum of Oxford dons, towards the outer sanctum of graduate and undergraduate students and beyond. The lectures are telling us how to read Shakespeare with a better sense of the historical ideas about language that are informing his writing. This helps us appreciate Shakespeare’s plays and his dramaturgy (writing drama). More globally, it encourages us to think about how language is shaped by its historical circumstances that give words meaning. This applies to literature written five hundred years ago, a millenium ago and just yesterday. Words change, gain and lose meaning–‘credit crunch’ and ‘Big Society’ being two examples of words with meanings specific to how they’re used in twenty-first century Britain. You could even analyze this blog post for traces of how my having typed it out on the screen makes it different from something handwritten. Rhetoric exists in many forms.

Reading Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Adultery’ and ‘Small Female Skull’

My cousin Alice recently asked for my opinion on a couple of Carol Ann Duffy poems she’s studying for her AS English literature. I had a quiet thirty minutes and was feeling creative, so I replied to her with the following little commentaries.

It’s a claustrophobic, intense and controlled poem. It has short stanzas and sentences, with not a word wasted. Words and objects keep twisting meaning: polo mints, faces, ‘darling’ all take on a darker meaning (it’s as if the whole poem is written with ‘dark glasses’). ‘Commuting’ seems a telling choice of word: exchanging things but ending up worse off (‘words’ into ‘bile’), while also trying to reduce guilt (‘commute a sentence’). The speaker’s point of view isn’t necessarily simple: how do we know (do we know?) that the speaker is female? Is she recollecting clues that she missed, or creating an imagined situation (is there any difference for us as readers)? Is she being assertive or defensive? ‘The same thing twice’ twice is uncomfortable and damning, but can be heard as mournful or angry, as can most of the poem. Talk of ‘abstract nouns’ indicates the tension between rationalising the situation (i.e. using a term like ‘abstract noun’), but having deep feelings invested it (i.e., using this particular abstract noun). Same with ‘commuting’. Even as the objects and well-chosen words shift meaning in the poem, ‘you’re a bastard’ has only one meaning though….

Small Female Skull
The poem felt like a comic memento mori (memory of death) poem. The skull certainly seems like a memento of some sort. Why is it being playfully ‘balanced’ –is it the speaker’s head, or something not noticed before (both of which are surprising)? And why does the scene take place in a toilet? It may make the reader take the poem less seriously, but the toilet is also a place where people think about the human body and its needs. Skulls don’t have scars, so the speaker must be making an association with something else painful in the third stanza– ‘shattering’ could apply to skulls again, and ‘braille’ is one of several eye-images in the poem. So the poem isn’t just a warning to the reader, a memento: it provokes memories in the speaker as well as containing them. The poem doesn’t just describe an object, but describes a particular situation in which that object exists, as seen through a pair of eyes. As in ‘Adultery’ the poem is a space where objects change meaning as the speaker writes about it.

So both poems, as I saw it, show how language doesn’t just describe objects, but contains the feelings and thoughts of the person using it. My closing tip was that if she had to chose one to write about, then I’d recommend going for the one she finds more difficult, because it could give her more to write about.

These little pieces do several things, such as asking lots of questions that pick at some of the poems’ complexities, explaining and trying to understand my reaction to reading the poems, writing about how the language and the speaker’s viewpoint shape meaning, and trying to unravel difficult points in both poems. The final task was to write about this clearly and concisely. In short, I tried to think critically about the poems and my reaction to them. The poems are like objects that I inspect and play with in my hands, all the time looking to sharpen my judgement and sensitivity.

Fees Discussion in Oxford

I was pleased to hear David Norbrook, a Professor of English I know, speak out at an Oxford Congregation meeting earlier this week (he speaks at 35.40 in this recording). Professor Norbrook speaks about how the university needs to ‘stop apologizing’ for what it does, and stand up for its core values of promoting ‘truth, honesty and independent-mindedness’. Against political and market pressures exerted on universities, he reminded those present that universities are vital cultural institutions (like the BBC or the British Museum), regardless of how their existence suits the current political agenda.

This argument does not entail that univerisities should ignore what’s happening in the outside world. Far from it. Universities are institutions that nurture and cherish important democratic ideals, such as critical judgment, disinterested inquiry and pluralism. They do this by establishing a supportive scholarly community in which individuals pursue their own course of learning and research that has purpose and relevance initially within that community. Neuroscientists write papers that neuroscientists will read, and art historians write papers for other art historians. And by circulating ideas, methods and discoveries, universities become a beacon for these values.

There is no need to apologize, then, that research in English studies won’t immediately create jobs, and won’t be something that secondary school students or broadsheet readers will always want to hear about first-hand. Doctoral students in English at Oxford–all two hundred of them–pursue diverse and highly specific topics: see here and here for research topics. At some point these will become available online at the Oxford Research Archive, but many won’t be widely read, and certainly not by those outside universities.

This is just as it should be. English studies, just like every other discipline, is becoming more specialized as people learn more and employ new research methods to understand literature. There aren’t many scholars today who could hold forth professionally on a wide historical range of topics, as older and still active critics like John Carey and Christopher Ricks can. Today the usual way to promote the values Prof. Norbrook talks about is to have advanced students research small areas with great rigour, discipline and careful analysis. Established scholars can branch out, but not as much (it seems to me) as they once could. This research can become ‘useful’ to others later down the line: it’s good for scholars to communicate their ideas to a general audience, but this is not the primary purpose of scholarship. Research projects the high standards that went into its creation, as well as its discoveries about nature and culture.

* Note: the discussion is now available to read on the Oxford website.

Libraries and the NHS

Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, recently called public libraries ‘the NHS of the mind’ (see this article). Books, audio books, magazines, CDs and DVDs promote mental well-being in numerous ways: they help us exercise our minds, find advice and new perspectives on problems, and help us develop interests that can give life colour, meaning and purpose.

The NHS is about more than keeping people alive as long as possible. Disease prevention and quality of life are both central to its mission. The arts help promote these goals, and provide many examples of people agreeing that they are vital to living a good and happy life. Someone who lives to a hundred don’t necessarily lead a ‘better’ life than someone who dies at thirty.

The BMJ blog ran a post in December arguing that the health-care profession can learn lots from people who have thought hardest about the human condition and its implications for our health service:

“Perhaps the most urgent problem in health care is to change attitudes to dying, and here, I suggest, the humanities have far more to offer than medicine. Medicine is good on the statistics of dying and what we die of but poor on how to contemplate death. If we want to think more deeply about death then we need to study not medical textbooks but Montaigne, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein, Illich, Saramego, and Julian Barnes.”

And it’s not just philosophically-minded white males who can contribute to the debate. Here are two therapeutic poems by the American writer Edna St Vincent Millay:

‘First Fig’
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–
It gives a lovely light!

‘Second Fig’
Safe upon the solid rock the ugly houses stand:
Come and see my shining palace built upon the sand!