Allusions and Echoes: Cultural Recycling and Recirculation (The first panel)  
Thursday, June 21, 2012, 09:45 PM
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This tremendously stimulating and enjoyable colloquium, co-organised by Berit Åström and myself, took place last Saturday at Anglia Ruskin. Although topics ranged from Ovid and Shakespeare to folk concept albums and MPreg fiction, a surprising number of common themes and patterns emerged in the ways we engaged with the processes at work when stories or motifs are ‘recycled’.

I introduced the colloquium with a paper on ‘the limits of allusion’. I began by sketching a taxonomy of terms used to describe the different kinds of interplay we may identify between texts- echo, allusion, quotation, imitation - before moving on to consider the pleasures of allusive uncertainty – the teasing ambiguity of moments which we want to think are allusions but which retain a degree of ‘plausible deniability’, defying a definite diagnosis. I discussed moments of ambiguous allusivity in the works of Norman Loftis, Derek Walcott and Louise Welsh.

The first panel opened with Rogers Asempesah’s ‘Call and Response: An examination of the summons motif in Everyman, Young Goodman Brown, The Trial and The Last Orders’, an analysis of the way powerful motifs can become vehicles for the circulation of ideas. Rogers described how, if we trace different versions of ‘summoning’, we can identify a shift from an epistemology of faith to one of uncertainty and doubt. Particularly suggestive was the idea that such moments of summoning might serve to summon, not just the main character, but the entire text. I was reminded of the strange way in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern describe how they were called to adventure by a shadowy (and authorial?) figure in Stoppard’s play.

In ‘In the Cave: Lawrence Norfolk revives Paul Celan’, Alan Robinson gave a fascinating account of the intellectually (and ethically) complex relationship between Norfolk’s novel In The Shape of a Boar and some troubling episodes in the life of poet Paul Celan. In The Shape of a Boar foregrounds the indeterminacy of historical reconstruction, offering different versions of the past. It also, disconcertingly, could be seen to distort the realities of Celan’s life, and this element of the novel prompted an interesting discussion about the ethics of co-opting and adjusting recent traumatic events for artistic purposes. . The novel’s title refers to Norfolk’s use of the myth of the Calydonian boar, transposed onto Nazi occupied Greece and used to replace things which cannot be known or described. This aspect of Alan’s paper reminded me of the unsettling Pan’s Labyrinth, and anxieties over ethics and aesthetics prompted questions similar to those raised by John Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer.

Lykara Ryder tapped into several audience members’ enthusiasm for science fiction in her paper ‘Fiction’s Attraction to the Perfect Language and the Story of Babel’. She charted the progress of ‘created’ languages from the story of the Tower of Babel, via the c.17 travel fantasy The Man in the Moone to more modern science fictional narratives such as C. S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy and Samuel Delany’s Babel 17. The idea that the perfect language might contain some secret power emerged as a motif which mutated through the centuries, beginning with the idea than a perfect correspondence between signifier and signified inhered in the original ‘Adamic’ language, and then inhabiting a more scientific discourse, whereby language can act as a ‘code’ with the power to transform reality – rather as in one of my favourite Dr Who episodes The Shakespeare Code. By suggesting that the idea of a perfect language began as an ideal and mutated into a mechanism of sinister control, Lykara seemed to echo Rogers’ account of changing uses of the summoning motif, which became something to be avoided rather than embraced as it moved through different texts.

In questions the mysterious Voynich Manuscript was touched upon – and I’ll take that as a cue to recommend Dan Simmons’ Voynich inspired sf novels Ilium and Olympus.

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Holiday Reading; Tom Holland's In the Shadow of the Sword 
Monday, June 11, 2012, 02:46 PM
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I loved Rubicon and Persian Fire (though I have so far neglected to read Millennium) but think In the Shadow of the Sword is possibly better still. It’s written with panache, it’s full of pungent detail, and it succeeds in bringing some complex and perhaps comparatively unfamiliar historical events to life. Although it’s got narrative drive in spades, it’s not just telling a story either – there are plenty of ideas in play here, some more clearly displayed on the surface than others perhaps.

Holland’s decision to take Muhammad and the rise of the Islam as his subject has attracted a good deal of attention. The first review I read, in the Spectator, dwelt on Holland’s bravery in tackling such a controversial topic. The Guardian’s review, infuriatingly, accused Holland of irresponsibility (a slippery word).

I have my suspicions that those who have picked up the book because they are interested in Islam (whether ‘phobes or ‘philes) will have read the opening chapter, suddenly realized that Holland has stopped talking about Muhammad, and skipped or skimmed the next 250 pages or so in order to get to Section 3, ‘Hijra’.

I assume the Guardian reviewer wasn’t this slack, but his assertion that the book begins with an ‘irrelevant’ anecdote suggests a failure to engage fully with Holland’s project. This anecdote is a brief account of an Arab King, whose treatment of Christians is summed up in this horrifying account of how he dealt with a woman who challenged him:

'[He] ordered her daughter and granddaughter killed before her, their blood poured down her throat, and then her own head to be sent flying.'

A few lines later we learn of his dramatic death by drowning. ‘So perished Yusuf As’ar Yath’ar: the last Jewish king ever to rule in Arabia.’

This can reasonably be said to set the tone – or one tone - for the book. Holland is described as challenging Islamic exceptionalism in the Telegraph review, meaning, I suppose, that he is treating Islam from the point of view of a secular historian. But he is also challenging another kind of ‘Islamic exceptionalism’, that which sees Islam as a uniquely menacing force, menacing partly because of the way it meshes politics, religion and conquest together. One of the things Holland seems to be doing, quite deliberately, is challenging that view of Islam, presenting it as more of the same rather than a completely new departure. Readers who read the final section out of context won’t appreciate this of course. Holland presents us with waves of invaders, of barbarians – and of barbarians who begin to settle down but are then themselves harried by new barbarians. And so, an infinitum. ‘In the Shadow of the Sword’ may be a quote from a hadith, but Holland demonstrates that Islam most certainly had no monopoly on aggression in late antiquity.

The reader is encouraged, for example, to remember that as Rome’s power decayed, Saracens weren’t the only scary invaders causing havoc at the borders of the empire. Up North, Scandinavian berserkers were creating similar terror. Holland also repeatedly demonstrates that Jews, Christians and Muslims have all used the same strategies to shore up their pretensions – whether that’s rewriting the past (the creation of the Talmud, the selection of the canonical Gospels and the establishment of the Hadiths are described in similar terms) or crushing their enemies with pitiless violence. Christianity is at times described as an alarming, alien force, which treated pagani either with brutality or contempt, as though deliberately echoing the way Islam is so often characterised.

Holland is particularly vigilant about reminding the reader that it was the norm rather than the exception to see temporal and religious power as bound up together, and the boundaries between all three faiths are also shown to have been highly permeable. The discussion of the Arian heresy, for example, could (though I don’t think Holland spells this out) remind us that even some Christians have viewed Christ in much the same way Muslims do. Other faiths are brought in to muddy the water further – Holland is, I assume, making a little point when he points out that the Samaritans scorned other faiths because they ‘neglect[ed] the principal duty of humanity: due submission to God’ (220). The chapter called ‘Making the deserts bloom’ describes the Arabs’ skill at cultivating oases. Etc.

Holland’s interrogation of orthodoxy on the subject of Muhammad’s origins, his suggestion that Mecca’s significance in the birth of Islam may be a later fabrication, has troubled some readers. But I think they rather miss the point. Even when Holland seems to be painting Islam in a negative light, focusing on the slave trade for example, the subtext is a veiled challenge to Islamophobia. The suggestion that the Muslims’ slaves started to embrace Islam because it provided them with arguments against slavery seems designed to encourage the reader to draw parallels with the later progress of the relationship between Christianity and slavery.

Although the devoutly religious of any stripe might find something to disturb them here,it is hard to see how anyone who has actually read the book can interpret it as in any way Islamophobic.

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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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