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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Table Talk

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The solidly alliterative phrase "table talk" seems like it ought to originate in a novel or poem. In fact, surprisingly, it derives literally from the stomach.

According to Steven Shapin, the 15th century scholar Ficino wrote that "it is bad to strain the stomach with food and drink, and worst of all, with the stomach so strained, to think difficult thoughts," whilst an 18th author of a treatise on occupational diseases noted that "all the men of learning used to complain of a weakness in the stomach." From Thomas Carlyle, described as a "martyr" to dyspepsia, to Charles Darwin, who avoided public engagements because of his embarrassment about his belches and farts, there has been a strong association between intellectuals, and digestive suffering. Although modern medicine eventually downplayed this theoretical link between the hard-working mind and the ill-suffering gut, the sense of connection was enough to establish the etiquette of table talk, which was, Shapin explains "light, airy and undemanding stuff that didn't draw the vital spirits away from the stomach's proper work. It was a courtesy medicine paid to manners."

Perhaps this university lecturer, musing on the difficulties of organising an academic dinner party, ought to take note.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:44 am


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