Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thoughts on Mental Health 1




The Psychiatrist, the Classical Scholar and the Long Suffering Medieval Historian: Institutions versus Individuals 1

Quite recently the brilliant Irish psychiatrist Anthony Clare passed away suddenly at the early age of 64 just months before he was due to retire. He was both a renowned scholar and able broadcaster; this latter through his wonderful programme called “In the Psychiatrist’s Chair” on BBC Radio 4. He began his broadcasting career back in 1982 and is credited with doing more to popularise psychiatry than anyone since Sigmund Freud. In this marvellously insightful programme he managed to get a wide range of famous personalities from scholars to entertainers and from businessmen to politicians to reveal some of their most precious secrets to give us the listeners, or readers (3 volumes of transcripts with commentary from the learned professor were produced) starling insights into the psyches of some of the world’s leading celebrities.

Now to the rather strange title I put on this post. The psychiatrist of course refers to Dr. Clare while classical scholar and medieval historian refer respectively to Sir Kenneth Dover and Trevor Aston, a brilliant but long-suffering historian. I was drawn to page through one of Dr. Clare’s above transcripts – In the Psychiatrist’s Chair III (Chatto & Windus, 1998) – by way of personal reaction to the news of his untimely death. I noticed I had annotated rather more fully his interview with Sir Kenneth Dover. Hence I re-read this piece after an interval of 8 or 9 years. Hence my title and these reflections.

Why was this interview so compelling? Well Sir Kenneth is an outstanding expert on Ancient Greece, still possessed of a keen intelligence and sharp analytic mind who has written much in his area of expertise. Also he has had a distinguished administrative career – being a Professor of Classics, President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford and later Chancellor of St Andrew’s University. Clare in his commentary on this particular interview wrote interestingly that “Dover represented a typical example of one of the great stereotypes; some might say caricatures of our time with the emotions of a laptop computer.” (Clare, op.cit., p 81) Clare goes on to describe how after a blazing row with Sir Kenneth the very disturbed historian Trevor Aston ended his life by suicide. (Aston was a manic depressive and alcoholic.)

The chapter of Dover’s autobiography, "Marginal Comment" (1994) that deals with Dr. Aston's suicide from pills and alcohol in October 1985 at the age of 60 stands out as a modern morality tale. Some see it as the story of Sir Kenneth, who was the President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, defending his ancient and beloved institution by dealing firmly with a don who had become unmanageable as a result of alcoholism and mental illness. Yet others see it as a case in which the president - fed up with all the problems and aware of the don's despondency and a recent suicide attempt - pushed him to the brink by writing a letter expressing the college's disapproval of Dr. Aston's conduct at a time when his marriage was collapsing and he was particularly vulnerable. In a review of Dover’s autobiography, John Darnton said succinctly: “Even those closely involved in the problems Mr. Aston was causing admit to being shocked by the icy detachment of the language and, apparently, the feelings of Sir Kenneth…”

Obviously it is at a very far remove from the case to judge the actions of Sir Kenneth, but at least this much can be said: the then President of Corpus Christie College showed an appalling lack of understanding of mental illness and human suffering. However, we have also to bear in mind that we are dealing with the prevailing outlook on psychiatric illness of 1985. We have come a long way in our understanding of such issues since. But, this has to be underscored: Clare’s interview does show a coldly clinical and intellectual scholar’s mind at work, though Sir Kenneth is not icy cold. One gets the impression that there are feelings underneath struggling to get out, though our scholar seeks at all times to keep them in check. For him love of University (the Institution which represented all those classical values he and most others would espouse) was altogether more important than the life of one little man (especially one so disturbed and disturbing as Ashton).

To be continued.