The Limits of Allusion: Derek Walcott’s Omeros 
Sunday, June 20, 2010, 03:05 PM
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I’ve just about completed one of my sabbatical tasks, completing my monograph on the relationship between allusion and the uncanny. In the introduction I’ve included some discussion of the different terms used to describe the various ways in which texts seem to connect to one another – allusion, echo, quotation, intertextuality – and I’ve also noted some of the questions we ask when trying to establish whether something is, or is not, an allusion.

Does the allusion rest on a single word or the quotation or near quotation of a more extended phrase? Are the words striking and distinctive? Is the alluded-to text well known – in other words would almost any educated reader identify this as an allusion? Is there some aptness or interest in the fuller context of the alluded-to text which we can import into the new text?

Derek Walcott’s Omeros is named after Homer, uses the terza rima of Dante and includes references to Virgil and Shakespeare. The poem’s surface intertextual richness encourages the reader to probe it for more covert allusions. But is it going too far to try to make an allusion out of this?

‘This wound I have stitched into Plunkett’s character.’ (V.2)

And read in it an echo of Eliot’s

‘These fragments I have shored against my ruin.’ (The Waste Land, l.431)

In most cases such a faint echo, resting on a few common words and similar syntax, wouldn’t qualify as an allusion. But the iconic status of Eliot’s line and the fact that Walcott seems so aware of Eliot as an influence – in Omeros XII.1 he includes a reinvention of the ‘familiar compound ghost’ episode from The Four Quartets for example – encourages me to continue seeing the line as a possible allusion. Another moment of allusive uncertainty is this:

the rage of Achille at being misunderstood
by a camera (LIX.3)

which reminded me of this aphorism from the Preface to Wilde’s Dorian Gray

‘The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.'

The connection seems even more tenuous here, but perhaps the extremely charged significance of The Tempest within a postcolonial context justifies the enquiry. Achilles’ anger is admittedly proverbial, but as it is far more usual to refer to this as ‘wrath’ rather than ‘rage’, perhaps Walcott’s choice of ‘rage’ strengthens the case for seeing an echo of Wilde here. Oddly, although I can’t find any discussion of this fugitive allusion, this site seems to acknowledge the link without spelling it out, stating that:

'The first two stanzas of this section begin with an allusion to Caliban from Shakespeare's Tempest “The rage of Achille at being misunderstood by a camera” (298)'

One connection I draw between allusion and the uncanny in my book is the way both benefit from uncertainty. Texts like The Turn of the Screw are widely agreed to be more effective because we don’t know whether the ghosts are real or not. Allusions too, I would argue, are sometimes most intriguing and powerful when – as is the case with the two examples discussed above – we aren’t quite sure whether or not they even exist.

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A Reading Meme 
Friday, May 28, 2010, 07:20 PM
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Via Normblog, also Harriet and Karen

Do you snack while reading? Rarely.

What is your favourite drink while reading? If anything, tea. Or wine in the evening.

Do you tend to mark your books while you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you? I write in books, particularly if it’s a book I’m writing about rather than just reading for fun – but I usually use a pencil.

How do you keep your place? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book open flat? Open flat – or improvised bookmark.

Fiction, non-fiction or both? Nearly always fiction.

Do you tend to read to the end of a chapter or can you stop anywhere? End of the chapter, preferably.

Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you? No – I just stop reading.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away? Probably – if the internet is to hand.

What are you currently reading? Frances Trollope’s Jessie Phillips

What is the last book you bought? Ian McEwan’s Solar – a present for Alex.

Do you have a favourite time/place to read? I particularly like reading on trains and outside in the sun on holiday.

Do you prefer series books or stand-alones? Mostly stand-alones – beginning a series always seems like a big investment, although I was glad to discover Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series.

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over? Longer term, Diana Wynne Jones and Georgette Heyer. More recently – David Mitchell, Dorothy Whipple, Sinclair Lewis and Shirley Jackson.

How do you organize your books (by genre, title, author's last name, etc.)? I don’t.

Barbara's additional question: background noise or silence? Silence, but it’s not essential.

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Crossing Qalandiya: Exchanges Across the Israeli/Palestinian Divide 
Wednesday, May 19, 2010, 09:31 AM
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Shireen Anabtawi , a Palestinian from Ramallah, and Daniela Norris, an Israeli, were introduced to each other by a mutual friend at a party in Geneva. Both were initially rather disconcerted by the encounter, but the two women found they had plenty in common, including young children of similar ages, so decided to meet the next day for coffee. Daniela writes candidly about how she nearly didn’t go:

"I have a confession: I hesitated before I went to meet you the next morning. After all, you are supposed to ‘The Enemy’, and who knows what The Enemy has in store for them?"

And when Daniela later invited Shireen over for lunch it was her turn to hesitate:

"Over the last decade, the only Israelis I’d had contact with were soldiers, and in my eyes all the Israelis were the same – occupiers and enemies."

Despite initial uncertainties, a strong friendship grew up between the two women. However they realized they would have difficulty meeting back home, so decided to write to each other in order to keep in touch. Their letters are reprinted in Crossing Qalandiya. Both women are honest and indeed critical in their letters, yet self-critical too. Each wants the other to understand her own point of view, and both try to appreciate the other side’s perspective.

Part of the proceeds from the book will go to Children of Peace, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to represent the charity at last night’s book launch at Daunt Books, and hear Shireen and Daniela read the book’s opening letters.

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Cephalus and Syphilis 
Thursday, May 6, 2010, 08:50 PM
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My recent work on Tudor translations of Ovid has made me wonder about the derivation of the word ‘syphilis’. The name for this disease is derived from a Latin poem by Girolamo Fracastoro, ‘Syphilis sive morbus gallicus’ (‘Syphilis or the French Disease) in 1530. I have not read this poem myself, but apparently it tells of a man, Syphilus, who was cursed with venereal disease by Apollo as a punishment for his defiance.

According to the Wikipedia article, the name Syphilis may be derived from one of Niobe’s children, Sipylus, mentioned briefly by Ovid. But I’d like to suggest another possible source, a much more prominent character in the Metamorphoses. This is Cephalus, whose story is told in Book 7 of the Metamorphoses. The story of Cephalus and Procris is comparatively little known today, but was well known in the Renaissance.

The goddess Aurora abducts and seduces Cephalus soon after his marriage to the beautiful Procris. Aurora then encourages him to test his wife’s own fidelity while in disguise. After holding out for a long time, she hesitates, only to flee with shame into the forest when Cephalus reveals his true identity. Eventually they are reunited, but later tragedy strikes when someone overhears Cephalus addressing the air, ‘aura’, as a wooer. The eavesdropper assumes this is some nymph, Aura, and tells Procris. Suspicious, she follows her husband to the woods and hides in the bushes. But when he spots her moving he shoots, thinking she’s a beast, and kills her.

So why associate Cephalus with Syphilis? This was a well known story and spelling was more fluid in the sixteenth century. In Thomas Howell’s 1570 version of the tale his name is spelled Sephalus, for example. Also, this is a story about a man who has an affair with a woman after marriage and kills his wife without meaning to. The tale could easily be glossed as a warning against the perils of venereal disease.

One version of the tale, by Thomas Heywood, was included in his long Troia Britannica (1611). This poem was later republished as part of John Benson’s 1640 edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and other poems. It is placed immediately before the final sonnets of the sequence, both of which deal with the power of Cupid’s arrows to bestow magical qualities on the water of a spring. The Cupid sonnets are widely felt to deal with the dangers of venereal disease. Perhaps the poems’ editor, like me, sensed a link between Cephalus and syphilis.

UPDATE

By chance I've just come upon a reference to another relevant aspect of the myth. Apparently in Apollodorus' account of the story Procris was given the javelin which eventually killed her (she presented it to Cephalus as a gift) as a reward for curing Minos of some genital complaint.
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Borrobil at Beltane 
Friday, April 30, 2010, 04:17 PM
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It’s Beltane tonight – an excellent time to read Borrobil, a book I liked very much as a child and have just reread. William Croft Dickinson’s children’s novel was first published in 1944, just a few years before The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. The adventure begins on Beltane Eve when Jean dances around the fires which have been lit in a mysterious circle of stones. She and her brother Donald are immediately transported into the mythical past where they meet Borrobil, a kindly though mysterious little man who acts as their guide through a series of exciting adventures.

It was interesting to note which bits had stuck with me for 30 (Ok, maybe nearer 35) years, which I'd completely blanked out, and which I simply hadn’t understood. The rather static and heraldic set piece fights proved forgettable, whereas I remembered some of the novel’s jokes and wordplay word for word.

One aspect of the novel which completely passed me by as a child was its Scottishness – Borrobil can be seen as a kind of Scottish answer to Puck of Pook's Hill. Kipling’s novel begins very similarly, with two children unwittingly tapping into ancient mysteries. Dan and Una perform scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and summon Puck to their side. He explains that he is one of the last People of the Hills, ‘the oldest Old Thing in England’, and tells them many stories from England’s past. Borrobil seems to have been William Croft Dickinson’s invention, but he can be seen as a kind of Scottish Puck, telling the children tales loosely based on Scottish myths and chronicles, and showing them the Brochs of Orkney to balance Puck’s focus on Wayland Smith and Hadrian’s Wall.
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