Sabbatical Sodoku?: 'The fable of Ovid treating of Narcissus' 
Sunday, February 21, 2010, 11:04 AM
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I’m spending (most of) my sabbatical editing an anthology of early modern translations of Ovid. It will include extracts from well known texts (by writers such as Marlowe, Golding and Sandys) and also obscure but engaging poems such as H.A.’s ‘The Scourge of Venus or The Wanton Lady’, a poem about Myrrha’s incestuous passion for her father Cinyras. Despite its tone of Christian censoriousness it’s actually a good deal more racy than Ovid’s original.

The volume will also include the snappily titled ‘The fable of Ovid treating of Narcissus, translated out of Latin into English metre with a moral thereunto, very pleasant to read’. It is thought that the same man, Thomas Hackett, both wrote and printed this 1560 work. That might explain the final four words of the title.

The ‘moral’ T.H. refers to is in fact a 9500 word commentary in which the poet summarises the interpretations of Narcissus’ story offered by other writers, such as Boccaccio, and offers (at length) his own reflections on the tale. His is a cafeteria approach to commentary – he offers you various options and allows you to pick and choose. Thus Echo may represent either flattery or good advice.

The text’s syntax is complex and sometimes bizarre. The poet often seems to forget how a sentence began some time before reaching its end. He seems unnecessarily fond of words which have several different meanings split between two or three parts of speech. His failure to distinguish between ‘to’ and ‘too’ adds to the confusion as does the fact that the text is almost completely lacking in punctuation. Because there are so many variables in play, working out what he’s trying to say is a bit like doing a sodoku puzzle.

Here’s a stanza (particularly the italicised bit) I was finding tricky yesterday – although in fact (looking at it again after a good night’s sleep) I think I get it now. ‘It is now so easy for self-love to propagate itself as long as one has a little bit to start with’.

Whereto he straight consents by judgement blind,
And grants to have as much as seemeth, and more;
So easy, lo, self love is now to kind,
So some is had
, so sweet a grievous sore,
So glad he is to keep his harms in store,
And much desirous for to abide his woe,
And eke so loth his mischief to forgo.

I’ve just come across a reference to Gordon Braden describing the text as ‘almost literally unreadable’. I’m glad it’s not just me.

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'Down Under' and 'Kookaburra': Plagiarism or Allusion?  
Thursday, February 4, 2010, 11:22 AM
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I happened to notice this story about how Men at Work had been successfully sued for plagiarism by Larrikin Music. They claimed the band had ‘stolen’ the flute riff from the 1981 hit ‘Down Under’ from ‘Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree’, written by Marion Sinclair in 1934.

This seemed an odd decision – not because I don’t think there was a borrowing but because it’s so obvious that ‘Down Under’ alludes to (or perhaps quotes from) the song. It’s a bit like saying T.S. Eliot plagiarised Hamlet when he inserted Ophelia’s ‘good night, sweet ladies’ into The Waste Land (or indeed that Lou Reed plagiarised Eliot).

The riff is separated from the song as a discrete element – it’s not being used as a substitute for composing something new. It seems to me that this is a deliberate and apt hommage to a folksy children’s song about Australia in a satirical pop song about the experience of Australian backpackers which invokes lots of Aussie stereotypes.

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Gender Issues in HE 
Thursday, January 21, 2010, 09:30 PM
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I was intrigued by discussions amongst colleagues about the (possible) unfairness of the fact that the BFWG offers funding only to female graduate students so I blogged about the issue here. I would always describe myself as a feminist. Certain issues concerning women's rights are so stark that it's hard to find any room for argument or debate. By comparison, any concerns feminists might feel about UK issues are likely to seem less pressing. The ’double shift' is one possible area which still leaves room for improvement and there are other contexts in which women may be discriminated against, perhaps at an unconscious level. Discourse, particularly in the blogosphere, is often irritatingly sexist - hardly a life and death issue but it can become wearing.

But there are some areas where both women and men may, in different ways, feel disadvantaged. The assumption that women are more suited to childcare, for example, may work against the interests of both sexes. On Harry’s Place someone suggests that women may prefer to remain unpromoted, focusing on teaching rather than bureaucracy. One might respond by arguing that society encourages women not to push themselves, not to aspire to the kind of job which is both more lucrative and more demanding. But this argument can be turned round. Both my father and my father- in-law felt they had to give up their preferred poorly paid (but very interesting) career ambitions in order to go into business and support their families.

Going back to academia, even if it can be demonstrated that there are systemic biases or barriers facing women, targeting money at postgraduates just because they happen to be female might not be the most nuanced solution. It might be better to ‘drill down’ to work out exactly why and when women fall behind and address the proximate cause – perhaps childcare.


Here's a little example of discrimination against men. If female parents seem to get a raw deal in the work place sometimes - male parents appear to be far more blatantly discriminated against when it come to parenting/childcare. Scroll down to the sleeping arrangements bit.
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WARNING: Contains moderate smugness 
Thursday, January 7, 2010, 10:06 AM
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I’ve always been fond of word games and literary quizzes. When I was little I used to love watching Call my Bluff (with Frank Muir and Patrick Campbell) and a bit later, as a teenaged bookworm in the 80s, was keen on a programme (The Book Game?) in which celebrities such as Germaine Greer had to identify books after hearing short extracts. One of my favourite games is Ex Libris where you have to fake a book’s first or last sentence – and persuade others that your version is the true solution. (This game seems to be unavailable but it’s easy to prepare your own homemade set based on the information given in the above link – could be a good distraction from the snow.) Over the years I’ve devised quite a few literary quizzes for students too – and always rather wish I could be playing on a team rather than reading out the questions. So I enjoyed tackling Norman Geras’ recent Boxing Day Literary Quiz – and, being unashamedly competitive, I also enjoyed reading the winning results.
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Batman and Vertigo 
Thursday, December 31, 2009, 09:37 AM
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I saw Tim Burton’s first Batman film again last night and was struck by the similarities between the closing scenes and the climax of Vertigo. As I’ve been doing some work on repetition (both internal and intertextual) in Vertigo, I wanted to think about why Tim Burton chose to include haunting echoes of Hitchcock in an apparently very different film.

Batman’s final showdown with the Joker takes place on a bell tower. Both the setting – and more crucially the camera angles used – recall two key moments in Vertigo. In the first the heroine only seems to fall to her death, in the second both fall and death are genuine. Others have noted these similarities.

But what is their effect? I only started thinking about Vertigo at the very end of Batman but reflecting back over the whole film I thought other possible echoes could be identified. In an earlier sequence Batman tries to save Jack Napier from falling into a tub of acid but to his horror sees his enemy fall to his apparent death. (Napier is hideously deformed and reinvents himself as the Joker.) Vertigo also features an earlier prolepsis of the bell tower scenes when Scottie fails to save his policeman colleague from falling off a roof. The detectives, like Batman, are chasing a criminal at the time.

In Vertigo Scottie is intent on transforming his girlfriend Judy into the double of his ‘dead’ love, Madeleine. (In fact Judy is Madeleine so the transformation works uncannily well!) Something similar happens in Batman but in this film it is the Joker who is determined to change the appearance of his girlfriends. He disfigures one girl with acid, forcing her to wear a mask, and tries to do the same to Vicki Vale.

This link with Scottie is again hinted at when the Joker finally falls to his death. His form as it lies on the ground seems to echo Scottie’s own nightmares of falling – the image which is reproduced on the film’s iconic poster.

So the virtuous Batman and the evil Joker are linked by their shared affinities with Hitchcock’s equivocal hero, Scottie. If this is the intention (or at least the effect) of the Vertigo strand in Batman it would link the caped crusader with other ‘good’ characters – Prospero, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, Doctor Who and Hamlet for example – who seem to have a curious bond with their antagonists.

My work on Vertigo is partly concerned with the uncanny sense of déjà vu the viewer experiences if s/he recognizes the way Hitchcock is recycling earlier texts. Batman represented a further stage in this repetitive, allusive cycle and last night, by an uncanny coincidence, I found myself watching yet another quotation of Vertigo - Death Becomes Her. Here one of the heroines is another blonde Madeleine who falls to her ‘death’, returns to life, and is transformed with cosmetics by her husband. The allusions to Vertigo in both these films are briefly noted in the Wikipedia article on Vertigo . But the fact that I watched both films on consecutive nights is just a spooky coincidence!

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