Video / Audio

New Books in the Society of Fellows: Celebrating Recent Work by David Russell and Emily Ogden

New Books in the Arts and Sciences at Columbia University: a podcast featuring audio from the New Books Series at Columbia University and interviews with the speakers and authors. This podcast features How Russia Learned to Write: Literature and the Imperial Table of Ranks by Irina Reyfman.

This book focuses on six brilliant women who are often seen as particularly tough-minded: Simone Weil, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Diane Arbus, and Joan Didion. Aligned with no single tradition, they escape straightforward categories. Yet their work evinces an affinity of style and philosophical viewpoint that derives from a shared attitude toward suffering. What Mary McCarthy called a “cold eye” was not merely a personal aversion to displays of emotion: it was an unsentimental mode of attention that dictated both ethical positions and aesthetic approaches.

Lucy Delap, University of Cambridge ‘Men, feminism and rethinking sex in late twentieth-century Britain’

Colin Barrett is the author of Young Skins, a debut collection of stories, which won the Guardian First Book Award, the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Barrett will read from some of his work and converse with Colm Tóibín, whose own highly acclaimed fiction includes The Master (2004), Brooklyn (2009), Nora Webster (2014) and, most recently, House of Names (2017). Award-winning author Sam Lipsyte, Chair of The Writing Program, will introduce.

In 1872, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "Science does not know its debt to imagination," words that still ring true in the worlds of health and health care today. We know a great deal about the empirical aspects of medicine, but we know far less about what the medical imagination is, what it does, how it works, or how we might train it. But it was not always so. In this lecture, Sari Altschuler will be talking about her new book on the history of the medical imagination. During the 18th and 19th centuries in the United States, doctors understood the imagination to be directly connected to health, intimately involved in healing, and central to medical discovery. Literature provided health writers important forms for crafting, testing, and implementing theories of health. Reading and writing poetry trained judgment, cultivated inventiveness, sharpened observation, and supplied evidence for medical research, while novels and short stories offered new sites for experimenting with original medical theories. Health research and practice relied on a broader complex of knowing, in which imagination often worked with observation, experience, and empirical research. In reframing the historical relationship between literature and health, The Medical Imagination provides a usable past for our own conversations about the imagination and the humanities in health research and practice today.

This talk contrasts the drug testing methods of two sixteenth-century alchemical empirics. Andreas Berthold validated his Paracelsian poison antidote (also deemed a cure-all) by letting learned physicians conduct poison trials at German courts, in which test subjects (several dogs and a convict) took poison, followed by the antidote. Georg Amwald, in contrast, scoffed at this method and instead included patient testimonial letters as evidence of the efficacy of his panacea poison antidote - a method also used by earlier alchemists such as Leonardo Fioravanti but derided by physicians. These cases elucidate the tricky problem of proof and evidence in early modern drug testing. While poison trials were used at princely courts all over Europe and appeared to give a definitive answer, they could also be dismissed as singular tricks. Testimonial letters, meanwhile, had perceived problems of trustworthiness. I argue that the boundaries of proof were contested and depended largely on the professional designation of the tester.

Highlights: The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is one of the plants that has stood longest at the side of humans — and one of the most ambiguous. It can be deeply harmful; it can also be miraculously helpful. It is a European native that somehow became an enduring symbol of Orientalism. Today, it continues to serve as the raw material for a host of copyrighted and hugely valuable pharmaceutical compounds, while also exemplifying a bygone medical tradition. This talk sketches out three ways of looking at opium within a bounded historical context. We will look first at the deep history of Papaver somniferum, which has an ancient heritage of medical and recreational use in Europe. The second way of looking at an opium ball raises the question of why opium became so closely associated with Persia, India, and eventually China from the seventeenth century onward. I link this shift to the emergence of new theories of medicine, biology, and empire in early modern Europe, and, perhaps even more importantly, to unheralded technological changes such as the invention of the opium pipe and the hookah. The third view of an opium ball is to look not at it, but inside it: opium itself is not in high demand today, but the opiate molecules it contains are more popular than ever. The final section of the talk will consider how the isolation of morphine from opium (circa 1803) transformed not just this particular drug, but the history of drugs and pharmaceuticals as a whole. These three views of an opium ball are meant to highlight both the protean identities of the drug in different times and places, and the surprising continuities between them.