A Wildness of Mind: The Arts & Humanities at Zinc

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Photo by Patrick Tomasso, Unsplash

Dr. Laura McKenzie is an ECR with an AHRC-funded Ph.D in English Literature from Durham University, where her research spanned the fields of classical reception and the medical humanities. She has held Visiting Fellowships at Harvard University and the Harry Ransom Center, Austin, and since completing her doctorate has worked in the space between academia and the subsidised arts, leveraging research to deliver outreach and engagement projects designed to support children and young people’s (CYP) mental health and wellbeing. She is currently completing a 12-month Research & Development Fellowship with Zinc, with support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. You can read more about Zinc’s R&D activities here

In November 2021 I began my latest ‘Next Thing’, the fourth in a series of relatively random and precarious career shifts which filled the years between that moment and January 2018, when I completed a Ph.D on – of all things – the relationship between trauma, classical translation, the First World War, and an esoteric matriarchal mythology in the work of two major British poets, Robert Graves and Ted Hughes. None of this, on the face of it, equipped me for my current role, an AHRC-funded R&D Fellowship at Zinc. I knew nothing about Venture Capitalism or start-ups or tech or user research (although three months in I’m somewhat further forward), but I did know something about the domain of Zinc’s fourth ‘Next Thing’, the latest iteration of their mission-led venture builder, which focuses on children’s mental health. The connective tissue that drew together my previous postdoctoral roles (which include managing a strategic partnership between Newcastle University and Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books, and delivering reader development projects to underserved CYP as part of Durham Book Festival) have translated into the underpinnings of what I bring to VB4: a belief in the power of literature to improve children’s lives, and a certainty that the skills and expertise endowed by humanities training – in particular the interdisciplinary, playful form of critical thinking that literary scholarship demands – can achieve meaningful impacts beyond academia.

Part of my role is attempting to define these impacts. How can the Arts and Humanities drive innovation that will address the crisis in children and young people’s mental health? My answer to this can be drawn, with a pleasing circularity, from my doctoral research. Writing about the epistemological breakdown that characterised the horror of the Somme front line, Hughes proposed that Wilfred Owen’s war poetry operated as a “telescope into the cluttered thick of it” – the ‘it’ in this case being both the conditions of that experience and the traumatised internal world of the men who moved through it. Like Hughes, I believe that literary work and the critique of its form, content, and production can help us understand the myriad problem areas that comprise mental ill health. If we can understand a problem, we can start trying to solve it. So, to that end– let me tell you a story.

*           *           *

Around four minutes on foot from Eversholt House, where the Zinc offices are housed, you will find Woburn Walk, a pedestrianised Georgian street designed in 1822 by the master builder Thomas Cubitt. It was on this street that the Irish poet and dramatist W.B. Yeats lived between 1895-1919, during which time he published Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902), Easter 1916 (1916) and The Wild Swans at Coole (1917). It is also where, in 1902, Yeats first hosted James Joyce as he made his way from Dublin to Paris, having offered the exile the opportunity to “lie down on [his] sofa” after alighting at Euston Station. On the morning of November 25th Yeats met Joyce at Euston, took him to the Woburn flat for breakfast, then on to the offices of two periodicals to pitch poems and reviews to their editors – an endeavour that aligns Joyce, in spirit, with our founders.

The Euston district came to assume an iconic significance for Joyce, and he based himself in the Euston Hotel whenever in London. He was very fond of the establishment’s Night Porter, to whom he gifted a first edition of Ulysses (today a signed copy would fetch you just under £75,000), and in 1925 he wrote to his patron Harriet Shaw Weaver: “I am glad to hear you are coming over [to Paris] but as I dream all day of the Euston Escorial[1] and the heavenly landscape of smoky engines I cannot understand anybody ever coming here.” I am struck by the idea of Euston – ostensibly the home of VB4 and its mission – as a ‘heavenly’ Joycean space. Unlike our Founders, who have travelled here from international reaches to grapple with the crisis in children’s mental health, Euston offered Joyce respite from that very dilemma. His daughter Lucia, born in 1907, was treated by Carl Jung for the supposed schizophrenia she developed in her teens, a disorder her father characterised as “her King Lear scenes”. In 1932, aged 25, she threw a chair at her mother at Joyce’s 50th birthday party, leading her brother Giorgio to commit her to an asylum. Following the death of her father nine years later, Lucia was left inside Nazi-occupied France in an institution at Ivry, near Paris, and was later moved to Northampton’s St Andrew’s Hospital for Mental Diseases at the age of 43. She remained there until she died in 1982.

Lucia’s story follows a familiar pattern. We know that most people who develop mental illness do so in young adulthood, between the ages of 16-25. We know that incidences of mental illness are far higher within lower socioeconomic groups, to which the Joyce’s – serially evicted, perpetually without food – undoubtedly belonged during Lucia’s childhood in Paris. We know, too, that a significant risk factor for children’s mental ill health is the mental wellbeing of their parents: Joyce drank heavily and, in Jung’s view, was as schizophrenic as his daughter, made ‘functional’ only by his genius. They were, for Jung, “like two people going to the bottom of a river, one falling and the other diving”.

Whether there is truth to this or not, by all accounts Joyce found himself incapable of supporting his daughter. Lucia’s deterioration spanned the seventeen years over which he wrote Finnegan’s Wake (1939), an intensely complex and at times unmanageable text which both reflects and is haunted by her neurosis. In the end, her wellbeing was sacrificed for the novel. When Joyce declared with characteristic self-importance that he expected his audience to spend as much time reading his work as he had taken to write it, he meant that the text was designed to insulate the reader from the rigours of everyday existence just as surely as its production had done for him.

What I am trying to achieve by means of this Fellowship is, I think, the opposite of this ‘insulation’: an attempt to lay bare, via literature and its analysis, the experiences, causes, and effects of mental ill health in a way that supports the creation of innovative solutions. Could Finnegans Wake, which looted Lucia’s experience for perceptions, offer any insights to Founders working on schizophrenia (take, for example, the novel’s Lucia-figure of Nuvoletta, with her “myriads of drifting minds”)? Joyce’s work brings the unconscious to the forefront – an attempt to get at the actuality of cognitive and emotional experience. Throughout VB4’s Bootcamp we repeatedly asked the Founders to do something similar, to empathise with and centralise users’ experience. It makes sense to me that literature can be an effective tool in this space, that these cultural contexts can support incisive and creative thinking.

Yeats closed that 1902 evening by escorting Joyce to Maida Vale to meet the symbolist poet Arthur Symons. It was a collision of literary worlds: the veteran fin-de-siecle decadent and the fledgling ‘high priest’ of modernism. Symons flat, Joyce’s brother Stanislaus recounts, was “furnished with studiously decadent elegance”, among which trappings the elder statesman serenaded the company on a Broadwood piano designed by Edward Burne-Jones. As a mise-en-scène, it is characterised by the extreme aestheticism rejected by Joyce and his fellow modernists. Profoundly influenced by the technological and scientific advances of the new century, they eschewed languor for confrontation and sought to reinvent the way culture made sense of the world, the body, and the mind. Yet Symons would become one of the staunchest supporters of Joyce’s work, playing a central part in his early publication; significantly broadening the reach of Joyce’s literary venture – a Portrait of the Artist as start-up – Symons’ efforts ensured he was received ‘at scale’. There is something to this relationship which speaks to the AHRC Fellowship, which is itself an experiment in collision of approach, perspective, and method in a moment when, once again, technology is realising possibilities previously undreamed of.

Symons said of Joyce that “in his own wandering way he has been a wild vagabond, a vagabond of the mind and of the imagination”. I have, as a literary scholar, somehow vagabonded my way into the start-up space. But it is the very nature of the humanities, which if nothing else encourages the ‘wildness of mind’ which seems a prerequisite to innovation and ideation, that might end up keeping me here.

[1] Joyce’s affectionate term for the Euston Hotel.

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