Sunday, June 28, 2009, 07:40 PM
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Usually I choose to go to conferences whose themes relate to the topics I research – such as mythology, metamorphosis and the uncanny. But the conference I’ve just come back from, ‘The Critic as Artist / The Artist as Critic’ at Lancaster University, involved taking a step back, reflecting not on what I write about but how I write – and why. The conference got off to a very good start - with drinks at the rather splendid Sun pub followed by supper at the Sun Cafe.

The first plenary paper was about ekphrasis, a phenomenon which I’ve always found intriguing. Valentine Cunningham gave an extremely suggestive account of a series of paired poems and paintings from the nineteenth century including Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting Found and his poem with the same title. Both works of art can be read as commentaries on each other; in other words they are simultaneously creative and critical.

I then broke a cardinal rule of conference etiquette and abandoned old friend Ewan Fernie (reading from his novel Dunsinane with co-author Simon Palfrey) to attend a rival panel. John Goodby’s ‘A stAnger / visioN’ argued that students ought to encounter poetry through experimental writers rather than exclusively through more establishment figures such as Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney – and cast his argument in the form of a poem. Sarah Jackson’s striking ‘In touch: Writing Con-tact’ explored the idea of poetry as ‘a symbolic touch experience’ using H.D.’s account of her experience of analysis with Freud as a starting point. Finally Duraid Jalili’s ‘Tennyson’s (Post)maud(ern) Lament’ was a tour de force, a re-envisioning of Maud as a parody of the act of criticism – and of itself.

After my own paper (‘More Creative than Creation: Confessions of a Creative Critic’), in which I reflected on moments of speculation, self-conscious reflexivity, rhetorical exaggeration, and even the odd lie (mostly to do with page numbers – it was a long time ago) in my own practice, we listened to Harold Schweizer’s arresting performance of ‘Of the Immateriality of Stones’, a metaphysical reflection on duration and (im)materiality. The session concluded with Will Slocombe’s ‘Where Three (Barthian) Roads Meet: Fiction, Criticism, Metafiction’, an engaging account of the ways in which metafictions pre-empt critical moves.

The final paper of the day was another plenary ‘You’re gonna wake up one morning and KNOW what side of the bed you’ve been lying on’. The title was derived from an iconic T Shirt and poet Paul Farley introduced a series of poems about beds, exploring how the bed might function as a metaphor for the poem – and for the relationship between a poet and its readers.

So – many thanks to John Schad for devising and organising such a stimulating day!

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Jon Pike resigns from UCU NEC 
Saturday, June 6, 2009, 12:26 PM
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After resigning from the UCU after the adoption of Motion 25 I decided, for a combination of reasons, to rejoin the union a few months back and try to oppose its SWP dominated agenda from the inside. The only active step I’ve taken so far is to vote in the recent UCU elections – something less than 10% of members chose to do.

Like, I suspect, the majority of my colleagues I don’t feel tempted to get more involved in union politics – the very thought makes even that large pile of marking I’ve been putting off seem strangely appealing by contrast. I therefore have great respect for those, like Jon Pike, who have spent so much time working on the (thankless and Sisyphean) task of representing members’ views on the union’s National Executive Committee.

Sadly, though understandably, Jon has just resigned from the NEC following the adoption of resolutions calling for an academic boycott against Israel at last week’s UCU congress. Here are two key passages from his resignation letter.

“Both Congress in 2008 and 2009, and a senior committee of the union have rejected calls for a ballot of the membership. An amendment from my branch, to this year’s conference, calling for a ballot of the membership on this proposal was ruled out as a ‘wrecking amendment.’ It seems there is something incendiary about asking the members directly to express their views. The call for a ballot has been rejected in the knowledge that, and because, such a ballot would lead to the overwhelming defeat of the boycott proposals.

When proposals for boycott of Israeli universities have been considered by branches of the union and its predecessors, they have been overwhelmingly rejected. Members at Reading, Open, Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, Bath, Warwick, UCL, Strathclyde, Lancaster, Kingston, LSE, KCL, Birmingham, Bristol, UEA, Sussex, Cardiff, LSHTM, The Institute of Education, QMWL, Aberystwyth, Swansea, Southampton, and others, have voted, at branch meetings, to reject such proposals. Previous similar proposals have been repudiated by individual branches, and overwhelmingly rejected by branch ballots of their membership.”

My favourite quote from the debate at congress on the boycott resolutions was this response to a call for a ballot on the issue: ‘We cannot rely on votes. Let’s not make this a bureaucratic procedure.’

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Rereading Georgette Heyer: A Colloquium 
Monday, May 25, 2009, 01:58 PM
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Several of my female academic colleagues, past and present, are closet Georgette Heyer fans. Although our main research interests lie elsewhere – in Ricardian poetry and the plays of James Shirley for example – we thought it would be interesting (and fun) to organise a conference on Heyer’s historical romances. We’ve teamed up with colleagues at Lucy Cavendish College, and this is where the colloquium will be held on Saturday 7 November 2009. I’ve pasted our call for papers below – I’m planning a short presentation on Lady of Quality, inspired by the writings of the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick ...

“This conference, organised jointly by Lucy Cavendish College and Anglia Ruskin University, is aimed at all those with an interest in Heyer's historical novels, whether academics or general readers. It will include formal papers and more informal discussion sessions. We would welcome papers on any aspect of Heyer's historical novels. Possible topics might include:

sources and influences
theoretical approaches to her works
critical and popular reception
class, gender and sexuality

Proposals for 20 minute papers should be sent to me, Sarah Brown (contact details to left of page), by 30th June 2009.”

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Reinventing the Renaissance Occult at Anglia Ruskin 
Saturday, May 2, 2009, 12:27 PM
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Our department is currently hosting a Leverhulme Visting Professor, György Szönyi from the University of Szeged. Professor Szönyi will give two Leverhulme Lectures: ‘Exaltation and Power: The Historiography of Renaissance Magic’ (6.5.09) and ‘The Lure of the Occult: Renaissance Magic in Modern Cultural Representations’ (10.6.09).

Our Reinventing the Renaissance Research Centre is also hosting two related colloquia in the Autumn. The first, ‘Western Esoteric Traditions in the Renaissance’, will take place on Sunday 20 September. Speakers will include Stanton Linden, György Szönyi and Angela Voss.The second, ‘Reinventing the Renaissance Occult in Modern and Postmodern Culture’ will be held on Saturday 14 November. We have already confirmed some key speakers – including Ewan Fernie, Urszula Szulakowska, MarinaWarner and Rowland Wymer – and have also issued a call for papers. Here it is ...

“Over the last hundred years many creative writers, critics, thinkers and artists - for example Peter Ackroyd, Derek Jarman, Carl Jung and Marina Warner - have turned to the magicians and alchemists of the Renaissance period for inspiration. Some have been drawn to the intriguing remoteness of such figures from our own more scientific and sceptical age. Others, by contrast, have sought to discover unexpected points of contact between the mysteries of the occult and more modern mysteries, such as quantum science. The lure of the occult today may partly be explained by a growing dissatisfaction with Enlightenment rationalism and its perceived failure to address fundamental human concerns.

This conference, which will take place on Saturday 14 November 2009 at Anglia Ruskin University, will explore these more recent aspects of the afterlife of the Renaissance Occult. We welcome brief proposals for 30 minute papers from creative writers and scholars in any relevant field. Please send your abstract to Sarah Brown (contact details on the left) by 31.5.09.”

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Faustus and Falstaff 
Saturday, April 11, 2009, 01:49 PM
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I’ve recently been writing a paper about the Actaeon legend in Renaissance drama. Rereading Dr Faustus straight after The Merry Wives of Windsor made me wonder what further links there might be between two plays which, on the surface, seem to have so little in common.

There are two (apparently rather inconsequential) references to Dr Faustus in Merry Wives. Some horse thieves are described as making their getaway ‘like three Germane-diuels; three Doctor Faustasses’ in what seems to be a reference to the scene in Marlowe’s play in which Faustus swindles a hourse courser. And at another point in Merry Wives Pistol invokes the name of Mephistopheles.

Looking beyond these two obvious points of contact, I started to wonder whether Falstaff’s final comeuppance could be seen, in part, as a comic reprisal of Dr Faustus’s final shocking end. There is a similar sense of midnight drawing closer in each play. When Falstaff says ‘The Windsor bell hath struck twelve; the minute draws on’ (5.5) I was reminded of Faustus’s ‘The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike’ (5.2).

Both Faustus and Falstaff dwell on the idea of metamorphosis into a beast soon afterwards:

Why wert thou not a creature wanting soul?
Or why is this immortal that thou hast?
O, Pythagoras' metempsychosis, were that true,
This soul should fly from me, and I be chang'd
Into some brutish beast!
All beasts are happy, for, when they die,
Their souls are soon dissolv'd in elements ... (Faustus 5.2.)

Now the hot-blooded gods assist me! Remember, Jove, thou wast a bull for thy Europa; love set on thy horns. O power ful love! that in some respects makes a beast a man; in some other a man a beast. You were also, Jupiter, a swan, for the love of Leda. O omnipotent Jove! how near the god drew to the complexion of a goose! A fault done first in the form of a beast-O Jove, a beastly fault!-and then another fault in the semblance of a fowl - think on't, Jove, a foul fault! When gods have hot backs what shall poor men do? For me, I am here a Windsor stag; and the fattest, I think, i' th' forest. (MWOW 5.5)

A further possible Faustus memory might be triggered by Falstaff’s ‘I think the devil will not have me damned, lest the oil that’s in me should set hell on fire’ (5.5). And there is something portentous – albeit in a comic vein – in the warning Falstaff receives from a disguised Hugh Evans:

Sir Iohn Falstaffe, serue Got, and leaue your
desires, and Fairies will not pinse you (5.5.)

Compare the similar warnings of the angels in Faustus:

EVIL ANGEL. If thou repent, devils shall tear thee in pieces.
GOOD ANGEL. Repent, and they shall never raze thy skin. (2.2)

If we remember that Hugh Evans is dressed as a satyr (in other words he looks very like a devil) at this point we may feel more inclined to link Falstaff’s comic fate with Faustus’s tragic and violent end, and to see in Falstaff’s complaint a parodic invocation of the torments of Hell:

Haue I laid my braine in the Sun, and dri'de it,
that it wants matter to preuent so grosse ore-reaching as
this? Am I ridden with a Welch Goate too? Shal I haue
a Coxcombe of Frize? Tis time I were choak'd with a
peece of toasted Cheese ... (5.5)

Shakespeare’s rare use of the verb ‘o’er reach’ also links Falstaff with Faustus. Although Marlowe is strongly associated with the figure of the over-reacher he only used the word once.

... now his heart-blood dries with grief;
His conscience kills it; and his labouring brain
Begets a world of idle fantasies
To over-reach the devil. (5.2)

It’s interesting too, that The Merry Devil of Edmonton (a play sometimes attributed to Shakespeare) seems to combine plot elements from both Dr Faustus and The Merry Wives of Windsor (which it predates).

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