In a fascinating article for The Guardian, A.S. Byatt considers the literary treatment of the relationship between the body and the mind, from the days of the metaphysical poets, through Tennyson and Browning, and Eliot and Woolf, to Roth, Thirlwell, and Franzen. While acknowledging subsequent advancements in neuroscience, she recalls the choices presented to women at the time of her own graduate training:
I see now, as I didn’t dare to then, that the mind-body problem of an intellectual woman in the 1950s was also one of rigorous conflict. In those days the body required sex and childbearing, and quite likely the death of the mind alongside. My thesis supervisor, Helen Gardner, truly believed that women scholars should be nuns, renouncing the body for higher things. She was a Christian with a Christian hierarchy of values. I was much more confused, and eventually wrote a novel, The Virgin in the Garden (1978), which played with the 17th-century imagery to explore the modern female desire to be undissociated. It became a quartet, and in the last novel of the four a university conference about Body and Mind takes place (in 1969) in which an idealistic vice-chancellor tries to make his university into an undissociated paradise, where all scholars talk to each other, arts and sciences inform each other, humanism unifies body and mind. The conference is broken up by the forces of anarchy and unreason – primitivist students and religious absolutists. There are two women suffering from the attempt to reconcile Body and Mind. One becomes a neuroscientist, studying the large neurones of snail brains. The other becomes a TV presenter in a flashing virtual Box. The world changed between the planning and the writing of these novels. Many of the vague ideas and metaphors I had had at 18 and 21 had become hard science by the time I wrote my dialogue between body and soul – or, now, body and mind.
Byatt will discuss how contemporary science informs our thoughts about character at The Winchester Festival of Art and the Mind, Saturday March 6.