Another Interdisciplinary Conference about the Nerves

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This one is called ‘The Stimulated Body and the Arts: The Nervous System and Nervousness in the History of Aesthetics’, and is occurring  this week in Durham England, where the raw wind is blowing hard over the famous cathedral.  It assembles a broad swath of historians, especially of science and medicine, and musicologists interested in the role the nerves played in the development of their fields. The topics range across diverse fields; no area of culture or creativity seems to have escaped nervous infiltration. The names being discussed include the great and the obscure, especially in science and medicine, art and music, literature and theatre. How did we overlook the nerves in Western civilization for so long, or imagine they were some backwater for crafty experimenters in musty laboratories? The conference program is available.

The conference organizer is James Kennaway, an historian of medicine who is also a professional musicologist and who demonstrates that interdisciplinarity succeeds brilliantly among those knowledgeable of several fields. Kennaway has convened some of the best minds in his own two disciplines, as well as in art history, literary history, and cultural history. I was dazzled by the talks about ‘Russian nerves’ between the 1905 Uprising and 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and, then, during Stalinism; and kept wondering what the current analogues are in the political revolutions occurring today in  North Africa and the Middle East. As these events unfold do we have any sense of the temperature of nervous tension – personal and collective – in Tunis, Benghazi, Cairo? Of their so-called temperature in the diaries being started, the novels drafted?

The future of nerves includes its historical past (still largely unretrieved) as well as unpredictable evolutionary unfolding. For over two centuries thinkers, notably doctors and writers, have commented about ‘diseases of civilization’ and ‘stresses of modern life’. The categories are old: late Georgians and early Victorians thought they were being jolted to death by some nerve-producing agent, and their art and music enforced the view that ‘nervous painting’ or ‘nervous music’ (think opera from Verdi to Wagner) could make you sick. How much more can evolving nerves endure? Or are they, like the brain, endlessly flexible and capable of expanding to any degree of nervous excitement before snapping?