Question-able Research

 Posted by at 5:39 pm  Atelier, IN Conversation  Comments Off
Jan 292009

I have been in London these last two weeks. My New Year present to myself perhaps? Well yes, perhaps. I have started a postgraduate medical course in London in Palliative Medicine. That is the care of the dying.

And so I am going to be in London every few weeks, and I think that makes for interesting possibilities; mmj in London, and ak in Rome, our respective trainings this year, and our monthly conversations here on this walkingtalkingwriting blog.

Here is my contribution for January, a poem, or 'Field Note' if you prefer, under the heading Question-able Research.


Question-able Research

(MRC Guidance 2008 [*1])

Motion around four cardinal points

In both directions

Spinning [*2],

Where all the sounds of the world are one,

The suffering of the last hundred years,

And all our groans and cries


Around an empty centre,

Because the wise ones,

There are no wise ones,

There is only the unscaled evidence of our eyes,

And the centre is absent,

Without a heart

Or home


Because equality,

But we are not the same, differs,

I protest, as we have protested in the past,

Our fathers fought wars

And mothers

We lost, except

The choice to acquiesce dispiritedly

Or run away, postwar,

Either way we became agents

For terror, renamed


The dissidents within or the vagabonds without,

Of course it is not as bad as that,

We say kindly,

And I agree, this is no soap,

And there are no proofs,

Nor interpretations adequate

For the absence of a heart

Or home,


Let us agree, and before we do anything Evil [*3]

Silently assent, and nodding

Turn towards the centre [*4]

To reflect


Towards the silence there.



 FOOTNOTES (see also below [**] ‘about FOOTNOTES’)

[*1.] The Medical Research Council Guidance 2008. These latest recommendations by the MRC propose a four-way dynamic process of Development, Feasibility, Evaluation, and Implementation for developing and evaluating research on complex interventions in medicine.

[*2.] I was shocked by the intensity of my adverse reaction on seeing a diagram showing the ‘four cardinal points’, which the MRC Guidance 2008 proposes should inform and assist research on complex interventions. What was the source of my strong reaction to this four-way symbol? I do not really know.

On the history and power of symbols, there is of course a rich literature, of which I have read only a very little, and in piecemeal form. A spinning energy, both clockwise and anti-clockwise, around four cardinal points is known as a Swastika, the symbol being present in all cultures of the world, and having a long history. Of the origins, history and iconography of the symbols of Fascism and Stalinism in the twentieth century I know nothing, but I strongly suspect that notions of a dynamic spinning energy influenced their choice.

[*3.] In 1945 Hannah Arendt wrote in an essay entitled Nightmare and Flight (Partisan Review, Vol 12, No 2), “The problem of evil will be the fundamental question of postwar intellectual life in Europe – as death was the fundamental problem after the last war”. This was our inheritance as children of the postwar. Except that it wasn’t. What we experienced as children was a silence, nobody spoke about it, hardly about the war and even less about evil, and never of a non-contingent evil. While we grew up, the diabolical in our human hearts was explained through the distancing lenses of specialist languages, mainly those of science, psychology, politics, war comics and other fiction. And religion of course (mostly fundamentalist or apocalyptic language), but even the best minds of the Catholic Church seemed strangely mute. Then in 1989, certain artificial barriers were removed, mirroring perhaps the changes in Europe, and we, the children of the postwar, began to find clearer questions arising in our hearts concerning the nature of evil in the world. How could all these terrible things have taken place? How could they still be happening now?

But still we mostly lack adequate means to engage in this conversation. For two recent attempts to look directly at the problem of evil, see Leszek Kolakowski (Senior Research Fellow, All Souls, Oxford), ‘The Devil in History’, and ‘Leibniz and Job: the Metaphysics of Evil and the Experience of Evil’, in his book of essays My Correct Views on Everything, St Augustine Press 2005.

[*4.] Is centering on a capacity for stillness an essential pre-requisite to the work of complex interventions? I am open to the possibility. For an exploratory discussion of a scientific methodology which explores a ‘turn towards the centre’, see Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology Spirituality, Shambhala Press 1995. Wilber, a philosopher working from Colorado USA, develops the idea of the authentication of subjective scientific insights from both individual and collective perspectives. I do not know if this idea is present or has been at all developed in the literature on the methodology of complex interventions. One implication of Wilber’s approach as regards complex interventions in medical research (say) is that it would lead to the creation and perhaps prioritization of local foci of evidence-based knowledge over a centralized focus of knowledge. So be it, the evaluation of complexity demands an authentic wisdom which emerges out of the ground, bottom-up, not top-down.


[**] ‘about FOOTNOTES’

Many would argue vehemently that the adding of discursive footnotes to a poem is transgressive, a taint which removes the right for the writing to be called a poem at all. I do not really disagree; transgression is essential to my writing, the moving from a place to place. I do not know really why, but the capacity to speak with a lyric voice (‘my lyric voice’ in this instance, capable of speaking on a subject from a stable viewpoint) is not available to me the way it was to the poets of my father’s generation. I am thinking of good English poets, the likes of Charles Sisson, and especially Danny Abse, the title of whose Collected Poems 1948-1988, White Coat Purple Coat, perfectly describes the separation of his poetic work from everyday work, in his case between his life as a lyric poet and doctor.

Being transgressive, it may appear something of a “scandel” to others, and so I keep on the move as I have said. Call these ‘Field Notes’ then, but I have found fellow travelers who continue to provide guidance and encouragement, especially those poets and writers of mitteleuropa, whose experience of dislocation and movement are so much more profound than most writers from the English speaking world of my (or my mother’s and father’s) generation.

I am thinking at this precise moment of the poet Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004, Nobel Prize for Literature 1980), who wrote plenty of prose into his poems. For more on this, see – Donald Davie, Czeslaw Milsoz and the Insufficiency of Lyric, University of Tennessee Press 1986.

History in the making

 Posted by at 12:50 pm  OVER and BEYOND  Comments Off
Jan 242009

Today, the day of Barack Obama's inauguration, I've found myself not totally focussed on him and HISTORY, but forcibly occupying an unexpected role: that of patient. The sequence was along the lines of: wake up one morning last week, perhaps it was Tuesday, aware of a slight itchiness that suggested insect bite. This one though was on my backside. I didn't dwell for long on the HOW!! of it but noted it and meant to apply some antiseptic ointment, but maybe it was one of those endless little tasks that don't quite reach the top of the 'to do' list. Three or four days later I had the suspicion that it was becoming infected – oh yes – a high-pressure swelling, sensitive to touch, painful, disturbing my sleep. Go to the doctor! Yes. But it's not just a question of making an appointment at the GP surgery – I'm in Rome. And there's a system I'm not familiar with. It starts in the college with the infirmarian team. After that if a trip to the medics is deemed to be necessary, then we go to a private hospital that the college has an arrangement with. So I waited a couple of days to see if my body's defence mechanism could do anything apart from swell up in fright.

Monday was the day I decided action was needed. And so together with 'my' infirmarian I set off by means of a two bus journey across town to reach the hospital in time for the 6 pm clinic. Sitting had become something of a tricky act; trying to find the posterior body parts that were least painful and it never seemed to be quite the same. If you don't know them the Rome buses (run by ATAC) have very simple seating – rigid plastic. And the Roman roads are often cobbled and in a poor state of repair. Better stand, I think.

The hospital – the Salvator Mundi International Hospital – is in a part of Rome I didn't know, on the hill above Trastevere. A modern hospital, set in well cared for gardens. As far as I could see the nursing staff were warm, friendly looking nuns plus reception staff and medics. The Beda's arrangement is with a charming and kindly doctor who at first addressed me as Alan and then switched to addressing me as father – a mistake which I never quite got round to correcting. Why was that? I was more preoccupied with other matters plus I didn't want to do anything to 'change' his perception of me; if he sees me as a priest we don't need to get into the faulty misapprehension for the moment.

After listening to my lungs and checking my blood pressure, he looked at the offending infection, he prodded and the pain produced a reflex shock of retreat, to get away from the intrusive digit. 'I think I should cut this,' were his words. He was up for doing it there and then but as the treatment room was not available the abscess was going to be given a reprieve until this morning (Tuesday) meanwhile some major (judging by the size of them when I picked them from the pharmacy near the bus stop) antibiotics were to be started.

So this morning had me making my way back to the hospital to keep my appointment with the scalpel. Needless to say it was briefly but excruciatingly painful: one sort of pain for the cut – somehow sharp and watery – and then quite a different sort of pain for the squeezing – hard twisting and violent. Whatever will power I possess was totally involved in holding myself on the table and not do what every instinct is telling me to: leap up. I gripped on with both hands and attempted to suppress my quivering muscles.

And survived – and rode back on the two buses standing up. It took me a while to work out that I could in fact still sit down.

And I've spent the rest of the day reading Henning Mankell's The Man Who Smiled. Have you read this Swedish detective-story writer? He's great! If you're in the mood for a crime novel, try Henning.

Hopefully my patient status won't go on for too long because we've got end of semester exams looming and if I remember correctly Mr Menkell wasn't on the syllabus.