The frenetic mind: No’s Knife

It’s not often that one goes fresh and fragile into a  situation or encounter to be greeted with a bewildering recognition amidst the distracting newness of the thing. This was my experience of Lisa Dwan’s performance of ‘No’s Knife’ at the Old Vic Theatre.

‘No’s Knife’ is a selection of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Texts for Nothing’ (1950-52), 13 short prose pieces written shortly after his novel ‘Malone Dies’. I was familiar with this longer length text, characterising Beckett’s acknowledgement of, and working through, the inevitability of death. From the outset, ‘Malone Dies’ sets itself up to be a certainty , (‘the’ / ‘a’ death), but through the course of the text, readers are invited to assess the information they are given to work out why Malone is so assured in his convictions. The only certainties become the questions themselves.


The same is asked of us in ‘Texts for Nothing’. The title invites interrogation, with the ambigious preposition ‘for’ offering possible interpretations of purpose, value or motivation – are these pieces gratis, or are they purposeless; indeed, who might ‘Nothing’ be if not understood as ‘no-thing’? Quite simply, Beckett manages to disrupt certainty, and give possible importance to the seemingly inconsequential or themes that self-parade as such.

Beckett, and performances of his texts, are often lambasted for being inaccessible to all but the intellectually elite, or pretentious, depending on who’s making the accusations, but my readings and experiences of Beckett have never aligned with either standpoint. I’d never seen any Beckett performed live before, but I found reading his textual work forms strangely thrilling in the jumble of words and mentally worded sounds.

‘No’s Knife’ affected me in a way I hadn’t expected. I’d preliminarily prepared myself to be inspired by Dwan’s reportedly extraordinary performing tour-de-force, projecting accent, emotion and movement into what was effectively a 70-minute monologue, but otherwise to be left empty – ‘sans plus’.


All this happened – and more. It was impossible to experience Beckett or this performance passively. Humans automatically tune into words and make associations or connections, trying to draw threads and to make sense of nonsense. So the piece became both exhausting and rousing, taking on a life of its own to leave me somehow altered, but not necessarily changed. It has been claimed that Beckett’s texts leave one with nothing, but for me it felt like everything and nothing, not quite an emptiness but an unexpected introspection on what it is ‘to be’.

Perhaps this was, in part, because of the very evident contextual relevance of some of the allusions and concerns of the pieces. As Dwan commented during an interview with her co-director, “Beckett wrote these at a time when Europe was trying to understand itself after the war with resonances with the way we, and Europe are – or is currently – understanding itself”.


It may also have had something to do with the following. I have periods where I momentarily lose sense or experience of self; not in a rational questioning of life purpose but as a sometimes alarming, other times otherworldly, disconnect from a sense of being. It happens at the strangest moments, most recently while I was at the hairdresser. A rare event, and one I don’t find particularly enjoyable, I realised I had lapsed into this form of depersonalisation, looking back at a face that wasn’t even remarkable as a stranger’s let alone definable as my own. I’ve never been able to articulate it, but it doesn’t feel surreal, rather alien. For those few seconds until I consciously trigger a transition to ‘sense’, it is as though my existence is in a  vacuum.

It so happened that I had been experiencing a few weeks of this, after not having done so for several years, with episodes becoming increasingly frequent and extended at the time of this performance. There was resonance in the frenetic, often obscure thinking, the disconnect  between self and substance, between thinking and visceral – not that these are dichotomies, but questions raised, albeit actively, and consciously, in a way that demands your consideration as viewer and being.

And it would seem that I am not alone. Dwan comments of her first interaction with the texts: “what I saw was a transcript of how my mind works […]. They’re a real exploration into the self: into who we are – into identity”. In ‘No’s Knife’, Beckett puts the mind on stage, a stage which featured three sets or planes:  one as though looking down into a jagged, swollen, wound in the ground with Dwan strung across it in various Messiah-like contortions; one on the flat studded with rubble and pooling water and a final spotlight on, alternatingly, Dwan’s face and chest or full body sitting in a swinging chair.


The wounds of the stage landscape extend into the fleshy and mental disruptions of the audience, inviting us to examine them in the space of the performance within the prodding fingers of our own mental dialogue. In the first and final texts, Dwan was somehow constrained, either by the crevace of the swing, concentrating all activity into her core while the ambiguity over who, where and ‘if’ she was alive embodied Beckett’s notion that death is a state of being immobile.

The performance we went to was captioned. Aside from offering a ‘meta’ level, the visualised text was a surprisingly powerful addition, albeit one made for other purposes. While the reading or spectating process is not passive – it feels as though something is being done to you – the process of creating narrative is about anticipating the directions the plot might go from the information you are given. There is delight in this enterprise, and one that Beckett repeatedly turns to, only for him to take us in a certain direction that will be completely overturned later on.


We are in the habit of trying to answer these gaps because as social animals we step into the spaces occupied by other human beings to see how we would experience them ourselves. Gutteral, frenetic, comic, self-conscious, desperate, terrible, religious, safe, unstable, isolating, alienating, togetherness, illusion: all were a part of the performance, both explicit and implicit. I have no doubt that the piece will last with me, not only for the resonances I can pin-point, but also for the multiplicity in its brevity – its state of being whole but with missing parts; parts which will not let you rest.


Photo credits: Manuel Harlan

Let’s All be Free

Regular readers of these pages will know that while global health is prioritised as a general theme, the way it is explored ranges from artistic manifestations to coverage of specific clinical conditions and their context-dependent impact. As the ‘Writing Health‘ section demonstrates, I try to unpack what might be understood by health, globally, recognising its many facets, including mental and physical.

Of course, such understandings are limited by the extent to which anyone can really empathise with the reality of another’s daily life however proximal they might be geographically, but I am regularly presented with windows of opportunity that offer, at the very least, a viewing platform into these spaces. One recent example was an invitation to join the East London based ‘Let’s All be Free Film Festival‘ which explores and celebrates what ‘being free’ means to people all over the world, through artistic expression across 5 days, 37 films, 5 venues.

The medium of film is offered up as an opportunity for artists and viewers to enter a forum to  discuss what being  free means to them, and how peace, prosperity and understanding can be promoted through dialogue and discussion. I joined the festival at the Rich Mix cinema in Shoreditch for a weekend screening of their official selection of shorts aiming to help others see the challenges of life, including the struggles people go through in their daily lives.14694646_10154620701709730_1276603551_n

The line-up included short (maximum half an hour) fiction, documentary and expression films from directors in Palestine to the USA (for instance, ‘Ironhead‘, a documentary directed by Thomas C. Johnson & Neal Abbott) back to the UK. This jostling of origins, subject matter and types was surprisingly productive, inviting audience engagement across self-consciously brief time frames, inspiring emotion to jolt us from horror to sorrow to triggered laughter. Ten-minutes of ‘Till Death Do Us Part‘, a documentary directed by Penelope Antorkas, introduced us to the idea of freedom in abandonment from reality with an escape into a young man, Grant’s, obsession with horror films which he watches with compulsion and ritual but in a manner that brings him an overwhelming sense of fulfilment and pleasure. This freedom is, in his words, about being ‘terrified but safe’ in being able to inhabit the storylines and rote-learned scripts of Friday the 13th films.

Inherently meta, this sense of personal liberty echoed across ‘In A Flash‘, a non-verbal expression piece directed by Sophie Austin in which we follow a girl shopping in a Moroccan souk with her mother. Tired of waiting, we track the girl’s sighting of a cat and her pursuit of it until the scent goes cold and the piece ends abruptly. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, and Grant of ‘Till Death do us Part’, she discovers a strange and curious world that is somehow liberating, just as our own viewing of the screenings allow us to experience these expressions, albeit second-hand.

Meanwhile, ‘Piece Of Cake‘, directed by Ella Lentini, and ‘Wally’ (25 mins), an Andy Galloway documentary, explored freedom and wellbeing in a more recognisable interpretation marking the coming out of, in the first instance, a young woman to her parents about her same sex relationship, and in ‘Wally’ of a father, Christian and teacher in Jefferson City, Missouri, of being gay to his entire community. ‘Piece of Cake’ explored the run-up to this act of liberation from fears of parental rejection, disillusion or ‘pretension’, punning on the title, with the line ‘BTW, I’m gay’ iced onto a cake baked for her parents on their anniversary visit to her apartment life in New York.

‘Wally’ pieced together interviews with the protagonist’s three daughters, politicising the focus by commenting on the contemporary community and theological implications of verbalising freedom through an open expression of sexuality, and the tension between liberty and legality, social isolation and personal incarceration. The piece pitches from Wally now and then, covering ‘sickness’ and depression that he describes as being on ‘the inside’ and the transition to the heartsickness he experienced following his disclosure, including the supposed separation from his daughters.


Perhaps most recognisably, the longest length short in this screening, ‘The Black Friday‘ directed by Jozef Nateel, is a documentary covering the day of that name in the summer of 2014. During that period, Israel had launched a large-scale military offensive against the Gaza Strip that lasted for 51 days, with one day cited by Amnesty International and other Human Rights organisations as Black Friday exposing evidence of Israeli war-crimes committed in Rafah during this period with the deaths of over 140  Palestinians in the space of 24 hours.

The short struck a balance between interviews with locals who survived this offensive and superimposed text detailing statistics and events of the day. Above all, it literally fleshed out what it might mean to lose 140 people from your immediate community, and the awareness that history would, inevitably repeat itself. The loss of freedom is as much the substance of this film as verbal  impressions of what it might mean to live freely. The piece features conversations to camera with Hidaya Shamoon, a journalist and filmmaker based in Rafah. In a particularly moving response, she recalls how a woman questioned her motives in filming the attack on Black Friday, to which Shamoonn responded ‘this will not happen in silence’.

Perhaps this is reflective of the joy and success of this festival: it delivers on its promise to record expressions of freedom, and scales it in terms of experience, singular or plural, global location, all drawing on the inextricable impacts on the health of social interactions with those we share our most intimate lives.

For more information, follow Let’s All be Free on Twitter, or head to their website.


Image Credits: A. Bow-Bertrand

World Mental Health Day: in times of crisis

The importance of raising awareness of mental health, or mental ill health, is ever relevant. Today, Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, where I am Press Officer, joined the Heads Together campaign of which we are a partner charity, in marking World Mental Health Day. One of the key aims of the day was to recognise that all of us will experience a traumatic event or transitional period at some point in our lives, and be that involvement in a car accident; exposure to persistent bullying; or a specific mental health crisis, emotional fall-out is often to be expected. With such an expectation comes an opportunity to share how we can be supported through difficult times. Through such distress, psychological support from each other, as well as from professionals, can be invaluable sources of care-giving and therapy.

We supported an event held at the riverside County Hall and the London Eye, attended by Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry who met guests with stories of crisis and their supporting cast of friends, family, and education and clinical professionals who have played a role in helping them through these difficult times. Since starting in this role, such involvement with the Heads Together campaign has created a demanding but brilliant opportunity to rapidly implement and develop press skills and promote awareness for psychological wellbeing in a way that carries integrity to the real experiences of those showcased or helped through the work of the Centre.




Of course, working in London, for a national charity, it can be easy to forget that this day is celebrated globally and, further, that such commitment to supporting one another and normalising the conversation on mental health must be a continuous endeavour, rather than the perceived efforts of a single day. With this in mind, and having recently submitted my Masters dissertation looking at the psychosocial impacts on persons affected by leprosy (PAL), it seems as good a time as any to highlight, again, the work of Lepra, the organisation who hosted me so brilliantly in Bangladesh during my primary data collection research in the Sirajganj district. In an article published on their website today, they cited preliminary findings from this research  which set out to: 1) Assess the psychosocial impact of leprosy-related disability by employing mixed methods 2) Determine what is understood by ‘psychological’ and ‘mental health’ among this population and  3) Explore perceptions of leprosy at both personal and policy-levels, and its relation to mental health.

Key messages from this exploration into mental health initially highlight that:

  • Lack of education around leprosy is the primary reason for delayed presentation to appropriate medical services.
  • Within this context, leprosy-related disability is figured solely in physical terms classified under medical frames of reference.
  • ‘Alienation’ conceptualises the life experience of the PAL in this study, influenced by trauma, mental and physical disability, and lack of explanatory theoretical frameworks.
  • Following education, economic seed projects were identified as a sustainable, acceptable intervention to tackle the psychosocial impact of leprosy-related disability on past and future PAL in this region by promoting social integration and financial self-sufficiency.

What these findings show is that education of mental health is critical, acknowledging that it needs regular ‘checks’ and appropriate response to challenges i.e. that parity between physical and psychological health must be prioritised and remain a focus for us all.


Image Credits (all): A.Bow-Bertrand

Header image: Felix E. Guerrero, Flicke

Literature and Mental Health: Heartbreak

Somehow, working fulltime seems to be less conducive to finding inspiration or time for writing on Matters du Monde than an intellectually exhaustive Masters degree. The transition to professional living has brought with it a slow and not altogether comfortable realisation that no longer are the majority of my days filled with the people, activities and academic focuses that I have actively chosen.

Inevitable transitions and adjustments aside, I’ve also found that the routine and demands of my press role sap all creative energy in a way not too dissimilar from that discussed as a part of the Literature and Mental Health virtual learning course which I mentioned I was pursuing in my past blog.

Over the past weeks, the course has explored a series of conditions bracketed by mental health, or mental ill health, through a mix of videos, readings and discussions with actors, clinicians, lecturers and writers. Professor Jonathan Bate is one of the co-conveners, and a particular draw given that he authored many of the texts on Shakespeare I studied as part of my undergraduate degree and of the primary biography of John Clare, whose work I explored in my final year dissertation titled ‘The lost in John Clare’s writings of space and memory’.

The themes explored so far are: ‘Stress’, ‘Bereavement’, ‘Trauma’, ‘Depression and Biopolar’ and ‘Heartbreak’. Across the latter, the course conveners question whether heartbreak is a medical condition. As with all of the themes, the most interesting parts of the course are those where medical professions are invited to contribute their professional and personal insights, in a way that seems to most legitimately bridge discussions of creativity within a biomedical discourse, for instance the psychosomatic experience of heartbreak within and beyond poetry.

The course introduces its themes, which are also broad clinical diagnoses, with a light touch, either unwilling to restrict understanding or to immediately associate with specific literary and biomedical frames of reference. This extends to the set texts, many of which are familiar for being wheeled out at school assemblies or commemorative days, but through the ensuing discussions and participant forums, the texts are afforded reflective considerations that frequently, and brilliantly, manage to extend and challenge the most infamous critiques and interpretations of them.

It doesn’t do the course justice to pull out aphorisms, but there are many to choose from, particularly in the week focusing on heartbreak. Through discussions on poetry writing Ben Okri, we are offered the view that ‘what really good poetry does is coalesce that which you did not know you were feeling into a body of feeling and words’. Perhaps unconsciously, the lexicon of ‘body’ invites interpretations that are both textual and physical, an imperative that echoes across the course and one which is of most interest during discussions around ‘heartbreak’.

GP Andrew Schuman highlighted that recent research suggests that heartbreak can be a physical phenomenon variously called ‘broken heart’ or Takotsubo syndrome, momentarily disrupting normal cardiac rhythms via a surge of adrenaline to the left ventricle of the heart. This chamber pumps oxygenated blood around the body, but while temporarily paralysed it balloons up mimicking a heart attack even though normal cardiac beating normally resumes immediately. Self-titled psychiatrist and poet, Richard Berlin’s Takosubo Cardiomyopathy offers an anatomy in words of this state or transition:

Takotsubo Cardiomyopathy

I’m reviewing a left ventriculography
from a man with chest pain, MI ruled out,
his wife dead for a post-crash hour.
The scan shows his cardiac apex
bulging with each beat, shaped
like a takotsubo, an octopus trap
a Japanese cardiologist recalled
from his childhood fishing village,
the scan just another broken heart’s
beaten down story of futility and resilience.
And I will say, “I am sorry for your loss,”
explain the image, reassure him
his heart muscle will recover in a week,
all the time wishing I could hug him
with eight strong arms instead of two.

Richard Berlin

Such insights are, of course, fascinating and typical of the course, but it is problematic that the nature of being ‘in’ love is not explored, instead dissecting heartbreak or ‘love melancholy’. As one might expect, discussions start with Robert Burton’s seventeenth-century work The Anatomy of Melancholy. The title suggests linking of emotional experience with physiology and, in one sense, the work is wholly true to its title and it remains, to appropriate Kevin Jackson’s assessment, ‘the most exhaustively detailed work in the English language on the subject of that terrible affliction’. However, moving beyond the preface, through the pages, one realises that Burton cannot constrain himself to matter pertaining solely to psychological concerns.

In the same way that the course introduces more than it can cover, the digressive and hyperbolic interests of Burton divert the text from its encyclopaedic titular claims. What Burton does achieve is a re-writing of the characteristic aim of proponents of utopias – an ideal for all – instead, creating an anatomy of feeling and experience that is subjective, personal and to ‘satisfy and please myself, make an Utopia of mine own, a New Atlantis, a poetical commonwealth of mine own, in which I will freely domineer, build cities, make laws, statutes, as I list myself. And why many I not?’ (Holbrook Jackson, p.3).

Burton’s articulation resonates with the uncertainty surrounding the psychological and physiological symptoms of heartbreak, and echoes the course discussion which highlights that heartbreak is different for each individual because the contexts, subjects and spaces that shape wholeness of heart and circumstances that lead to it being metaphorically, or otherwise, ‘broken’, are never equivalent to another’s. The first section, or partition, of the book grapples with possible medical terms or explanations for heartbreak, for instance ‘where the melancholy blood possesseth the whole body with the brain, it is best to begin with blood-letting’ (Holbrook, p.144; from the Second Partition).

However, by the close, Burton’s understanding sits more closely to that of the course discussion – along a spectrum between ventricle and verbal, emotion and electrical impulses, with the envoi: ‘I can say no more, or give better advice to such as are anyway distressed in this kind, than what I have given and said. Only take this for a corollary and conclusion, as thou tenderest thine own welfare in this and all other melancholy, thy good health of body and mind, observe this short precept, give not way to solitariness and idleness. Be not solitary, be not idle’ (Holbrook, p.172).

Perhaps the most engaging question I am pursuing from course discussions is can such a feeling of breakdown (mental, physical, and so forth), determined neither by clear reason nor by accident, constitute a tragic sense of life – one that aligns melancholia more directly to depression than to heartbreak. Surely any question founded on ‘why?’ is key for looking at the idea of melancholy, heartbreak, and creativity and it is from these interrogations that, to my mind, the most intriguing discussions have arisen.


Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Holbrook Jackson (New York: Random, 1977)

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy. A Selection, ed. Kevin Jackson (Manchester, 2004)

Image Credit: debaird, Flickr