Michael Neve

Michael Neve is a lecturer in the History of Medicine at University College, London.

Something an academic might experience

Michael Neve, 26 September 1991

A small news item with a large history behind it: John Sylvester, an inhabitant of Lancashire, was released last month from a life spent in mental hospitals and institutions, aged 81. He had been incarcerated when he was six years old, and his offence had been the stealing of an apple. His mother had died soon after this first confinement, and so when declared ‘mentally fit’ in 1929, he became the responsibility of his father, who was disabled and could not take up his case. Sylvester was 19 at the time, and speaks of an entirely wasted life – a view shared by the social services who now look after him.’


Michael Neve, 8 November 1990

It is the great merit of the literature on ideas of ‘the double’ that asking questions about the mysteries of the Devil gets such good historical answers. From Tymms (1949) to Miller (1985) to the touchingly named Herdman (is he trying to keep us safe, inside the yard?) the literary study of doubles roots itself in Christian accounts of the world, describing how, by trick, by election or by sin, characters break open, split apart, see things that may be themselves, even meet the return of their true selves. And, of course, get to meet the Devil. Over a dram, or out in the gale, or in some German place of retreat and learning, the fiendish splits are revealed. The time may be the early 19th century, the cultural atmosphere Romantic, but the origin lies in the Christian account of the struggle for the soul. Despite some of the amazing speculations in Karl Miller’s 1985 study, the doubles question does not flourish as an Enlightenment theme, and receives a dismissive scientific ‘explanation’ in the post-Romantic psychology of the 19th century. It is, above all, a discussion within Calvinism, within esoteric Christianity, and within European Romanticism.

Time to think again

Michael Neve, 3 March 1988

It used to be argued that a feature of Conservative political philosophy was its fundamental irrelevance to the main task of acquiring – or re-acquiring – power. The heady idealism that characterised a great deal of 18th and 19th-century political thought, in Britain and Europe, was itself an index of the distance between such thought (and such thinkers) and the centres of political control. In the gap between thought and action, those anxious to achieve authority spent their lives theorising: Conservatives, with their sense of natural aristocracy, need not devote time to the empty business of imagining what power might be like, or ought to be like. In Britain especially, it was simply a question of getting on with the practical job, the job as determined by political economy, or something conceived of as ‘common sense’. Philosophy, political philosophy, was the product of alienation, of exclusion. At the centre, where nature could take its course, the forlorn seeker after complex thought was absent. Of course there was Coleridge, but he was incomprehensible. The rest was just the written evidence for the fact of endless liberal dissatisfaction. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, write On Liberty.’

Contra Galton

Michael Neve, 5 March 1987

This much-debated study of eugenics contains a love song to British science – indeed to British size – that has gone almost unnoticed as the Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, preparing for his departure from these shores, gives at least a plausible account of why the situation is now so bad in the arts and the sciences. In the Name of Eugenics arrives, in its Penguin version, groaning with American honours: done over by the Checking Department at the New Yorker, then Knopf’d, then winner of the ‘Page One Award for Science Writing in Magazines’ and, in 1985, runner-up for the American Book Award in Non-Fiction. It is an affluent work brewed in a culture of affluence, and some of this shows in its analyses of eugenical selection – who should breed, who not.’

Animal Crackers

Michael Neve, 22 May 1986

Along the beautiful coastline of California live the northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris). When the females are ready, they emerge from the waters of the Pacific to nurse their newly-born youngsters, on land. They are then surveyed by several enormous bulls, one of whom comes to dominate during subsequent copulation-time, which starts about a month after the birth of their young. During copulation, the females utter a kind of snarl: this is thought to be a way of encouraging other males to intervene and compete among each other. How do we know this? Because on hand, in California, watching the struggle for ‘viable sperm’ is a mammalogist. Name? Burney Le Boeuf.


Michael Neve, 17 October 1985

Delay, the reasons for delay, the question as to what kind of behaviour is going on in the business – indeed, the industry – of delaying, is worth some time. For one kind of modern mind, there’s no problem: delay is simply the tedious exterior of the lazy sod, the sod beneath the skin. Delaying isn’t an activity, with hidden meanings that may be of interest: here, it’s a gap in nature, or a sign of complete inactivity. This seems an increasingly unattractive line to take, usually emanating from people unable to grasp that some kinds of ‘work’ are pathological, and that a life that cannot work at a number of things besides ‘work’ is not always a good life. There are certainly new kinds of manager around, unable to stop ‘working’ (or face the weekend void), who see delay as a nuisance, and who seem quite happy to confer a universe of delay, and unemployment, on others, partly as a form of self-protection. Here the possibility – as with so many so-called neuroses – that delay is a struggle for health, or at the very least a way of stalling disease, is not permitted. You’re late. You’re out.’

Queen Mary

Michael Neve, 20 December 1984

At certain moments, which, given there is less and less time to think, may be fleeting, one question surely crosses the mind of most adult readers: do we actually need to hear from professors? Do we, for example, need professors of music to tell us about the songs of the Beatles, or professors of philosophy to tell us that philosophy is dead, or professors of linguistics to tell us about children’s speech, or professors of film to tell us how the sign system is working in Psycho? Aren’t there moments when we are all liable to turn into Uncle Vanya, and start wondering where we left that revolver?

It’s got bells on

Michael Neve, 21 June 1984

Oliver Sacks is the Jules Verne of the neurological interface. Knowledgeable about science, he also wishes to summon a host of readers to a great adventure, a journey to the centre of the body and ways of knowing about bodies. As with Verne’s skilful use of half-understood scientific symbols, the project that Sacks has come to make his own has brought into public view a gallery of exotic events and phenomena that, precisely in their strangeness, remain memorable to the untrained reader. People have slept, and have been awoken. Others have mistaken people for hats and failed to recognise their nearest and dearest. News has come, too, from inside, and not just outside, other people. People, people who have to be thought of as patients, have been pushed to the side of their own lives; they have lost parts of their body, and started to lose themselves. The neurological sciences, as written up by Sacks for a wide audience, have opened up the abyss: under the impact of certain physical injuries, individual men and women become gaps in their own nature.

Opera Mundi

Michael Neve, 1 December 1983

Opera and opera-going proliferate at very strange times. The opera revival of the last decade is a matter of considerable interest, since in some ways it seems so inappropriate, so profligate, when all the talk is about tightening belts. Opera booms when the expense of it is most ruinous, and events seem most ‘operatic’ when they are huge, scary and very much for real. Opera as a cultural form lays bare the fact that there is money to sustain it while at the same time – the same Wagnerian time, one might say – it calls into question the base that sustains it. Something was changed utterly when the children of Switzerland decided a few years ago to seek out and destroy the national opera house. Opera in Switzerland had become the symbol of an EEC style of bloatedness, of financial mismanagement on a scale that only the financing of opera could rival. After the riots in Switzerland, punks against Puccini, it really did seem that Herbert von Karajan was a Nazi; that Luciano Pavarotti was the ultimate Italian mother’s boy, bent on world domination, and that opera would be subsidised in the industrial wastelands of a Europe unable to employ vast numbers of its own citizens. History repeats itself, appearing first as tragedy, then as farce, and then as opera.–


Michael Neve, 20 October 1983

How do minds close? Under what series of angers, of single visions, does the deliberate deafness take hold? Not an easy question to answer, since part of the dialectical nightmare of this argument is that the only way a closed mind might be opened is by a mind single-mindedly bent on the task. And you end up with two closed minds, as in a quarrel. It is salutary to reflect how comparatively rare is the expression ‘I don’t know,’ and to admit that arguing with (say) John Wesley, or Bertolt Brecht, or even – to be banal – Roger Scruton, would be a pretty grim business.–

Is Michael Neve paranoid?

Michael Neve, 2 June 1983

‘Havelock Ellis has sent me the sixth volume of his studies, Sex in Relation to Society,’ Freud wrote to Jung, in late April 1910. ‘Unfortunately my receptivity is consumed by my nine analyses. But I shall set it aside for the holidays along with the wonderful Schreber.’ Freud is here referring to the famous case of Daniel Paul Schreber, whose Memoirs of his nervous illness had appeared in 1903, and constitute one of the most celebrated case-studies of paranoia in the literature. The letter of 1910 to Jung goes on: ‘Schreber, who ought to have been made a professor of psychiatry and director of a mental hospital …’


Michael Neve, 18 November 1982

The town of Stockbridge, in Massachusetts, is weird. Not in the diminished, all-too-contemporary sense of merely odd, or strange, but weird as Shakespeare might have meant it: ‘having the power to control the fate or destiny of men’, ‘partaking or suggestive of the supernatural’ (OED). Weird, too, in the way that Tennyson meant it, particularly as the word appears in his poem ‘The Princess’. The visitor to Stockbridge is liable to feel certain ghostlinesses in the town: a gloomy Puritan history lingers, a trace, perhaps, of the ferocious Calvinist divine Jonathan Edwards. There is also the eerie emptiness of nature in New England, the dark, wooded landscape that seems hollow, and menacing, without a history. Even the streets of Stockbridge seem empty. No one is around. They are, no doubt, in their cars, and another poet of weirdness, New England weirdness, Robert Lowell, knew also about cars: ‘A savage servility slides by on grease.’ There are antique shops in Stockbridge, where antique seems to mean the day before yesterday. And grand white wooden houses, behind evergreen trees, houses which turn out to be lunatic asylums. Stockbridge, peaceful home of Norman Rockwell, the people’s artist, who gave Middle America what it wanted. Stockbridge, where Melville said something unmemorable to Hawthorne. Stockbridge, the site of the family grave – known, weirdly, as ‘the Pie’ – of the Sedgwick family.

Walking in high places

Michael Neve, 21 October 1982

It is time for a change, even in the small world of historical epithets. For ages, philosophers and historians have been haunted by intellectual tags, such as Was ist Aufklärung? There have been a number of distinguished replies to this question of what the Enlightenment consisted in, but its resilience has appeared to be connected to its unanswerability. Indeed, it seemed better practice not to answer it at all, but to leave it hanging, like some family motto for generations of baffled European intellectuals, an MCC tie for the wandering intelligentsia. Similar problems hold for Romanticism. It appears to be something to do with opposition to the Enlightenment, and to do with new emphases placed on individual experience and ‘the Self’. To do with walking in high places, with sudden, untranslatable visions, with the Infinite. The problems of the Enlightenment may be unanswerable, beyond certain remarks about secularism and the march of Reason, but the siting of Romanticism is no less difficult. It may be said that it’s to do with German idealist philosophy, with political art, with opposition to science: but the travelling, conference-attending party is suddenly lost in mist; the sun vanishes, the path is unclear. Perhaps Romanticism is to do with being lost?


Michael Neve, 3 September 1981

Hech, sirs, yon bit opium Tract’s a desperate interesting confession. It’s perfectly dreadfu’, yon pouring in upon you o’ oriental imagery. But nae wunner. Sax thousand draps of lowdnam! It’s a muckle, I fancy, as a bottle of whusky. I tried the experiment mysel, after reading the wee wud wicked work, wi’ five hunner draps, and I couped ower, and continued in ae snore frae Monday night till Friday morning.

Guilty Men

Michael Neve, 5 March 1981

Philip Larkin’s lines have taken hold over the years, calling to them the confirmatory evidence of family histories, uniting disparate and apparently unconnected offspring under their aegis. Few authors in recent fiction have addressed themselves to the universal family romance with Caroline Blackwood’s bleakness. In her previous novels, The Stepdaughter and Great Granny Webster, the outlines of parental tyranny, of domination and resistance, were memorably etched. Mum and Dad could fuck you up in the simplest of ways – by simply not wanting you. These stories, which do not of course confine themselves to mums and dads, seem to have become a kind of public record: no longer ordinary fictions, however elegant, brutish and short, but something larger, with a historical reach that makes the issues of abandonment and waste something to be answered within the community, and not merely half-remembered at the novel’s close. Whose children are they, in the end, these orphans, fictional and yet also real presences? She seems to be writing a history of the family, but one that is not confined to History.

Sexual Politics

Michael Neve, 5 February 1981

The British were the only people who went through both world wars from beginning to end. Yet they remained a peaceful and civilised people, tolerant, patient and generous. Traditional values lost much of their force. Other values took their place. Imperial greatness was on the way out: the welfare state was on the way in. The British Empire declined: the condition of the people improved. Few now sang ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. Few even sang ‘England Arise’. England had risen all the same.


Michael Neve, 16 October 1980

Cleanliness has always been next to godliness: Christopher Isherwood (‘this rebellious son of a British lieutenant-colonel’ – Time Magazine) has found the two things in California, where they have become One. My Guru and his Disciple, an account of Isherwood’s relationship with the Swami Prabhavananda in the gentle climes of the West Coast, is clear-sighted and clean-limbed, a relaxed vision of love and devotion, a diary that records difficulties effortlessly and remembers trials as periods of intense relaxation. The wisdom of the Vedas is now found in the Pacific ocean in the early morning; God inhabits a blank and quiet world, where the sun always shines and all backgrounds have become foregrounds:

The Sun-Bather

Michael Neve, 3 July 1980

After sex, sexology. The making of many extravagant theories about nature’s mysteries is not particularly new, and wasn’t even in the 19th century. Indeed, that century can be seen as a spawning ground for all kinds of ambitious intellectual projects, grand ‘totalisations’ of the varied phenomena of nature and society. Sociology, itself the product of a general feeling that mére history was too narrow a form, has perhaps been the most resilient of these creations. Sexology is certainly the most curious. As writers such as Stuart Hampshire have reiterated, almost all the grand syntheses attempted by the 19th-century intelligentsia share a common aim: to replicate, as far as possible, the achievements and accuracies of the natural sciences. This is as true of the tedious volumes of Herbert Spencer, who needed a special chair, fitted with nails, to stop him falling asleep, as it is of Marxism. It holds, too, for the spate of scientific programmes, many of them German in origin, that were laid down for the attack on the final citadel: sex. Towards the end of the 19th century, science turned its gaze on the thing itself. Unsurprisingly, the campaign produced its own particular range of prophets, seers and sages. Almost all of them were men, and men who shared some physical similarities, if nothing else. Sad eyes, perhaps; beards certainly. Freud remains by far the most powerful and influential, possibly because he was the most pessimistic. Havelock Ellis (1859-1939) seems more elusive.



25 January 2001

I am sure Alan Tyson told the following joke to a lot of people but his being recalled as ‘good value’ by Alan Bennett (LRB, 25 January) prompts me to record it here. Booming, sweating and joking away at an All Souls dinner, Tyson was being quizzed in a pretty dull way by a fellow guest as to what it was ‘really like’ to have translated Freud, be a practising psychoanalyst,...

Contra Galton

5 March 1987

Michael Neve writes: A group of mainly Jewish historians of genetics is counterpoised here with ancient, presumably Anglo-Saxon, scientists. Perhaps this is what Jean Bone means by ‘nativism’.


20 October 1983

Michael Neve writes: The problem facing a reviewer of E.M. Thornton’s book is that of imagining what drives her to unite a range of individuals and movements under a single explanatory device, in order to accuse them. This is true, albeit mildly, of William Halsted (whose surname she continually misspells, in book and letter) and true also, in a more violent way, of her account of Breuer and...


25 October 1979

SIR: It appears from Rosalind Mitchison’s account in your last issue of Patricia James’s new biography of Malthus that one of the book’s strengths is its portrayal of Malthus’s ability to change his mind (LRB, 25 October). We are asked to see the producer of a ‘chilling’ social theory as being prepared to alter his positions with ease, as ‘someone who saw the...

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