Professor Pat Waugh has recently been elected as a Fellow of the British Academy in recognition of her outstanding contribution to research. Election to this prestigious body is a mark of distinction as only a very small number of scholars in any field are elected. In this interview with Durham University’s media office, Professor Waugh talks about literature as a vital ingredient in our understanding of the world around us and being an ambassador for Durham University.
Can you tell me about your main areas of expertise?
I have written on many aspects of modern literature and intellectual culture, on relations between literature, science and medicine, on aesthetics, politics and cultural theory. However, a fascination with the way the human mind creates, substantiates and negotiates worlds, imaginary and historical, has always been at the forefront of my interests.
I am currently writing a book, as part of Durham’s Hearing the Voice project, on Virginia Woolf’s voices: exploring relations between the ‘inner voices’ of creative thinking, the formal construction of ‘voice’ in narrative and Woolf’s own experience of psychosis and ‘hearing voices’.
What does it mean to you to be a Fellow of the British Academy?
I am deeply honoured to be elected to a Fellowship of the British Academy and I look forward to engaging with other Academy Fellows.I was given the honour of being invited to give the Academy’s inaugural public lecture in 2014 but was completely taken aback to receive my recent letter of congratulations informing me of the Fellowship!
I hope, above all, to be a true ambassador for Durham University, which already has wonderful relations with the Academy. My own work has benefitted immeasurably from working, for the last 28 years, in such a vibrant and diverse department as English Studies at Durham, as well as from the University’s much admired and widely recognised commitment to interdisciplinary engagement and enquiry, in my own case, through the Institute of Advanced Study, the Institute for Hazard, Risk and Resilience, and the Centre for Medical Humanities.
Where do you see the role of literary studies in our understanding of the world?
The future of English and literary studies as a training of the mind in styles of complex, critical and creative thinking is increasingly a vital ingredient in negotiating and steering the new interconnected, globalised, unpredictable and often fragile world in which we find ourselves.
The rich historical archive we find in English literary studies allows us to understand the many ways in which earlier cultures have conceived and reflected critically upon their worlds. More recently, with the growing awareness of English as part of a rich and varied world literature, it provides a means to engage too with literatures from diverse nations and continents, each with their own rich traditions, genres and inflections of the language.
I see myself firstly as a defender of the intrinsic value of studying literature: its capacity to open out new and imaginative ways of thinking; to illuminate our own and other cultures and histories; to revitalise language and enhance our understanding of ourselves and our worlds, imaginary and real. But I am also an advocate of looking outwards, of engaging with other disciplines and groups outside the traditional academic humanities and literary audiences.
Can you tell us more about your involvement in Durham’s Hearing the Voice project?
The Wellcome Trust-funded Hearing the Voice project aims to better understand the experience of voice-hearing by looking at it from different academic perspectives and working with clinicians, mental health professionals and people who hear voices themselves.
Drawing on disciplines as diverse as literary studies, neuroscience, clinical medical practice and theology amongst others, as well as working with voice hearers and the Hearing Voices Network, we are examining the phenomenon of ‘voice hearing’ from a range of perspectives: the way we think through ‘inner speech’, the creative building of inner voices into characters in the writing and reading of fiction ,the way people across the ages have heard and listened to the voice of God, as well as the experience of those for whom voice hearing may be highly distressing and intrusive.
I am writing on Virginia Woolf at the moment, a modern novelist who was also a voice hearer and wrote about these experiences in her fiction, diaries, letters and memoirs. However, like all of us on the project, I collaborate on a variety of activities such as writing a series of pieces for the Lancet, including my own article on ‘The Novelist as Voice Hearer’; writing a section on literary studies, narrative thinking and risk, for the Government Chief Scientific Adviser’s first Annual Report (2015); the making of a film, The Devil’s Pool, which explored relations between creativity and madness; as well as developing an innovative project with the Edinburgh Book Festival, entitled ‘Writer’s Voices’.
The next exciting development is a major exhibition and programme of public events, artistic works and activities around voice-hearing to take place at Durham’s Palace Green Library from November 2016.
Hear more from Patricia Waugh in this lecture on Fiction as Therapy, given to the British Academy in 2014.