Context Stinks! 
Monday, May 7, 2012, 05:47 PM
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This has been a busy year, with many publishing deadlines and other tasks seeming to fall in quick succession, hence the lack of recent posts. One of the things one doesn’t always seem to have time for, as an academic, is reading new articles or books which aren’t immediately connected with one’s own research projects. I touched on that topic here.

One of the best pieces I have read recently – and I’m grateful to Berit Åstrom for calling it to my attention – is Rita Felski’s ‘Context Stinks!’. It resonated very strongly with our own research interests and questions, as reflected in the conference we organised on Transhistoricism a while back, and our upcoming event on allusions and recycling.

Felski’s feisty piece begins by suggesting that ‘context’ is something whose importance is unquestioned by literary scholars:

“But who, in their right mind – apart from a few die-hard aesthetes mumbling into their sherry glasses – could feasibly take issue with the idea of context as such?”

But Felski goes on to interrogate the way in which ‘synchronic historicism’, the practice of seeing texts only in relation to the artefacts and discourses of the time in which they were produced, limits the ways in which we read, write and think about books.

Instead she argues that ‘pastness is a part of who we are’ – past texts are always part of any writer’s present, and part of our own present too. The critic who pores over minutiae of the early modern context to understand Shakespeare better perhaps forgets that Shakespeare was also fascinated by long dead writers, and that they are as, if not more, ‘present’ in his works than the political and religious controversies of his own day. Felski writes eloquently:

“We are inculcated, in the name of history, into a remarkably static model of meaning, where texts are corralled amidst long-gone contexts and obsolete intertexts, incarcerated in the past, with no hope of parole.”

My own forthcoming book on allusion and the uncanny is full of example of patterns which only become apparent once you start to see texts as agents with the power to escape this temporal prison, to move backwards and forwards in time, haunting both later and earlier texts, shifting and mutating to fit a new cultural context perhaps, but never adequately explained or defined by context alone.

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The limits of allusion #6: The Duchess of Malfi and Clarissa 
Wednesday, February 29, 2012, 08:11 PM
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I’ve been thinking about parallels between The Duchess of Malfi and Richardson’s Clarissa, and thought these were perhaps almost too obvious to discuss under the heading ‘the limits of allusion’. But Google didn’t seem to throw up any discussions of this possible link.

Perhaps it was the Duchess’ apparent threat to commit suicide by fasting which first made me think of Richardson’s heroine, whose anxiety to know just how little she can eat without being deemed a suicide casts doubt on her commitment to life. ‘The church enjoins fasting:/ I ’ll starve myself to death’ says the Duchess to her tormentor Bosola. Both heroines defy their families over the question of marriage, undergo terrible physical and mental suffering, are kept prisoner, and demonstrate great courage. Both texts end with a protracted aftermath as characters react with horror to the deaths of their central characters, repenting too late the parts they played in the tragedy.

There is a similar sense of domestic claustrophobia at the beginning of both texts. The Duchess is hemmed in by her sinister brothers, Ferdinand and the Cardinal. Clarissa is similarly beleaguered. Her whole family, particularly her envious brother, is determined that she should marry the odious Solmes. Both women's relatives covet the heroine's private fortune, a legacy from a godparent in Clarissa's case, her inheritance as a wealthy widow in the Duchess's. Webster's heroine escapes through a secret marriage to the man she loves, Antonio her steward. Clarissa escapes through flight with Lovelace, a rake. Both women demonstrate some recklessness, but don’t forfeit the reader’s/author’s sympathy.

Decent, loyal Antonio has nothing in common with the disreputable Lovelace. It is perhaps in Bosola, the play’s ambiguous malcontent, that we find the character closest to Richardson’s villain. He murders the Duchess, on her brother’s orders, but suffers remorse and dies by the sword, repenting the part he played in her death, as does Lovelace. Like Lovelace, his tragedy lies in the way good and evil are mixed in his character. Both men, like Ovid’s Medea, see the better path but follow the worse.

Perhaps these parallels are just chance ones. But they do invite the reader to wonder exactly why James is so anxious that his sister Clarissa should be forced to marry a man she could never love. (It is generally acknowledged that Ferdinand's feelings for the Duchess are to some degree incestuous.) The Bosola/Lovelace parallel, on the other hand, doesn't make me identify a sexual element in his feelings for the Duchess - if anything it draws attention to the unusual absence of sexual charge in the tense and painful scene they share before her death.
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Allusions and echoes – cultural recycling and recirculation June 16-17, 2012 
Thursday, February 16, 2012, 07:03 AM
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Together with Dr Berit Åström,I'm organising a colloquium on the subject of allusion in June:

The many ways in which stories are recirculated is astounding – from relatively straightforward retellings of fairy tales and classical myths, to feminist, queer, postcolonial or ecocritical subversions of central themes, to fan fiction’s adaptations of beloved characters and story worlds.

The international colloquium "Allusions and echoes – cultural recycling and recirculation" is an opportunity to explore the various ways in which texts communicate over borders of space, time, genre and medium. What themes, motifs, backgrounds and details capture the imagination of authors, readers and viewers? How are they recycled and recirculated from one period, or one audience, to another? How and why do they gain currency again and again? Contributors are invited to cast their net widely and consider not only contemporary works, such as The Canongate Myth Series (2005-2011) and Cinderfella (1960, 2013) but also older texts, such as Chaucer’s The Physician’s Tale and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.

For more details, and information for those who would like to submit an abstract, please look at the full call for papers here.
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John Christopher 1922-2012 
Thursday, February 9, 2012, 07:46 PM
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John Christopher, the British sf writer, has died at the age of 89. I think I first encountered Christopher when I was about 9, and borrowed The Lotus Caves from the library. But it was the Tripods trilogy, which I discovered a couple of years later, which made a far bigger impact. This is the compelling story of young Will, who lives in a future world in which the earth is run by Tripods, machines controlled by alien invaders, the Masters, who have subjugated humanity through the mechanism of ‘capping’. This procedure takes place at puberty, and ensures obedience and compliance. But Will is determined to escape this fate, and wonders whether there is anywhere left on earth where people still live free. He manages to join a resistance movement, and becomes an undercover agent, working for the Masters in their ‘city of gold and lead’ where he discovers that still worse horrors are being reserved for humanity.

Christopher wrote several other memorable dystopian YA books, including the Prince in Waiting trilogy and the wonderfully depressing Empty World. But, after the Tripods trilogy, my own favourite is The Guardians. The future world of this novel is a little less grim than that of that of the Tripods, but still bad enough. Like many other near future sf novels it encourages the reader to think about existing class/culture divides by presenting them in exaggerated form. The country is split between The Country, in which the rich and nearly rich (and their servants) live out their lives in neo-Victorian tranquility, and the Conurbs where the poor and the poorish jostle together in overcrowded towns, their lives dominated by holovision, shopping and the odd riot. Rob lives in the Conurbs, but escapes to the Country in search of buried family secrets.

Also well worth reading is the profoundly depressing Death of Grass, one of two Christopher novels in my post-apocalyptic top ten, so described briefly here. Finally - if you are reading this because you googled ‘John Christopher’ do, if you haven’t already discovered it, and can get hold of a copy, read Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day, one of the best ever sf novels about rebellion against conformity. It’s ridiculous that it’s been out of print for so long.

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What ‘you’ can do. 
Saturday, February 4, 2012, 09:53 AM
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Last semester, after listening to Ian Burrows’ excellent paper, ‘”What’s the Point?” The study of punctuation marks and other characters in early modern drama’, I started to look out for significant commas in all the Renaissance plays I was teaching, and elsewhere, despite not having previously given them a great deal of thought. I think Tory Young’s recent paper on second person narratives will make me similarly attentive to the word ‘you’.

‘You’ can be used to create such a range of effects. Many narratives will include the odd direct appeal to the reader. ‘Reader, I married him’, from Jane Eyre, is one of the best known examples. It’s a sufficiently vague apostrophe to make all readers, whether 19th or 21st century, feel included. But other narrators, though they may use the second person, clearly aren’t addressing us – perhaps because, like Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, they are writing in our future.

A more obtrusive example of a second person narrative, cited by Tory, is Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller. Here we may at first feel that the narrator is speaking to us directly, and rather uncannily:

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, "No, I don't want to watch TV!" Raise your voice--they won't hear you otherwise--"I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed.

although gradually ‘you’ turns out to be less securely the ‘you’ who are reading the book, particularly if ‘you’ happen to female.

Tory analysed several other ‘you’ narratives addressed, not to us as readers, but to distinct imagined characters. Outside epistolary fiction, extended use of the second person is rare. One unusual example is Marguerite Duras’s The Malady of Death in which the narrator exhorts ‘you’, a man, to fulfil his desires with a woman. (Apparently it reflects the author’s wish to convert a homosexual man to heterosexuality.)

However this novel is untypical of ‘you’ narratives which are more usually associated with a fluid, open attitude towards both gender and sexuality. Thus in Ali Smith’s ‘May’ two lovers take it in turns to narrate the story, addressing each other as ‘you’, and it is impossible to say with certainty which sex(es) they are. (We heard how some readers adduce the fact the first narrator goes out to buy a drill as proof he is male, while others thought that this in fact proved she was female – because any man would have a drill already.)

It has been claimed by some that the second person creates an atmosphere of intimacy. But I agreed with Tory’s suggestion that, in fact, ‘you’ can have the opposite effect. This is slightly counterintuitive but is perhaps paralleled in the fact that some find 3D films - which ought to be more immersive - more distancing, more distracting, than conventional 2D.

I found myself reflecting that two of Ovid’s major works are written in the second person. The Ars Amatoria is a kind of advice manual for lovers (both male and female) and the Heroides is a collection of ‘letters’ by legendary women to their lovers. Having heard Tory’s talk I’d be interested to go back to the Heroides and try to spot examples where ‘you’ is used ambiguously – denoting both us, the real readers, and the more obvious narratee – Aeneas, Odysseus etc. Exhortations to the reader to remember, for example, might refer equally well to the lover’s memories of real events or to our memories of earlier treatments of the same mythical material.

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