Metamorphosis: Poems inspired by Titian 
Tuesday, July 24, 2012, 04:49 PM
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I bought this little book at the Titian: Metamorphosis 2012 exhibition at the National Gallery. Fourteen poets were asked to respond to the three Titian paintings on display, Diana and Actaeon, Diana and Callisto and The Death of Actaeon.

Patience Agbabi’s ‘About Face’ zooms in on the faces of Diana and her African attendant, her poem’s narrator. Both Ovid’s poem and Titian’s paintings play with various echoing and mirroring effects, and Agbabi cleverly extends this motif by making the two halves of ‘About Face’ near perfect reflections of each other.

The first stanza ends ‘Look how your fate reflects itself in water’ which is then immediately picked up in the opening line of the second stanza: ‘Look! How your fate reflects itself in water’. Then we reread each line from the first stanza in reverse order – and appreciate the various clever ways in which the new transitions between lines create quite different meanings. Thus:

I want you, Actaeon. I wish I were
Shroud white; O that you’d notice me and mouth
Each monumental curve. Her handsome face …

metamorphoses into:

each monumental curve, her handsome face
Shroud white. O that you’d notice me and mouth
I want you. Actaeon, I wish I were …

Many of the poets seemed to be responding both to Ovid’s text and Titian’s paintings, creating an effect of shimmering ecphrastic uncertainty. Simon Armitage’s ‘Diana and Actaeon’ begins:

The whole hillside being smeared and daubed
with the blood of the hunt, I dropped down
to a stream whose water ran clear and cool,
and followed its thread through a wooded fold.

‘Daubed’ reminds us that the blood we see is paint, and the reference to the water’s thread suggests the texture of canvas. Carol Ann Duffy is still more preoccupied with paint. Each line of ‘Titian: Diana and Callisto’ ends with a word or phrase - ‘point’, ‘pout’, ‘planet’, ‘plant’ - which anticipates the poem’s punch line:

'My point,
ladies, is this – it’s all about paint.'

A moment in the middle of the poem when the rape of Callisto is described:

'each bruise on her skin his fingerprint'

seems, particularly in retrospect, to elide the predatory god with the artist himself, both powerful creators. It also perhaps echoes Ovid’s own description of Pygmalion, as he shapes his statue into life. He:

'Explor’d her, Limb by Limb, and fear’d to find
So rude a Gripe had left a livid Mark behind.' (Dryden’s translation)

This hint that artists and gods have something in common is echoed in Frances Leviston’s ‘Woodland Burial’, a poem which seems to respond to the way in which, in The Death of Actaeon, Titian makes Actaeon merge into the landscape as well as turn into a deer. It begins:

'Thrown water touched him and where it touched it said
his body was the same brownness leaves turn
when autumn is upon us …'

and ends:

'and nothing left of him was in the picture she composed.'

It is as if we are supposed to imagine Diana as a kind of divine anti-artist who, after the transitional moment captured by the painting, will go on to blur and smudge Actaeon out of existence. The poet – or perhaps the reader – becomes godlike in Lavinia Greenlaw’s ‘The Dark’ which ends simply ‘The gods turned the page’. However, if this makes us feel in control, Tony Harrison may make his readers (at least if they are male) uneasy:

'And you, sir, yes, sir, you who just began
to read these lines you’re, maybe, a marked man …

As you exit through the gallery’s glass doors
that antlered head reflected, is it yours?
For survival’s sake when leaving best beware
of baying bloodhounds in Trafalgar Square.'

The tiny detail from Diana and Actaeon which accompanies Harrison’s poem is particularly intriguing – and makes me want to go and look again at the painting. There is an uncannily doubled trace of a hand on the pillar on which the stag’s skull rests. It’s almost as though one is a reflection of the other, even though the surface is stone rather than glass. And the volume itself is also full of internal echoes, just like Ovid's own poem. The exhibition - which is free - is on until 23 September.

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My five favourite Hitchcock films 
Saturday, July 7, 2012, 10:53 AM
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This post was prompted by a recent Normblog poll – the deadline is July 10th if anyone wants to submit their own list:

“Here's the brief: please let me have the five Hitchcock movies you like best (though you may send fewer than five if you want). Rank your choices or leave them unranked, just as you prefer, but do indicate one way or the other.”

My immediate first thought was Vertigo, and it remains my #1 choice. It’s full of haunting echoes – both internal and external. (I have been writing about its complex relationship with other texts such as ‘The Sandman’ and the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice for my forthcoming book on Allusion and the Uncanny.) It’s full of repetitions – and it occurred to me when I last watched it that the scene in which Scottie takes Judy to try and find the right dress for ‘Madeleine’ must itself be a repetition of an earlier scene, one we don’t see, in which Elster takes her on a similar errand so that she can act as his wife’s body double. Although it’s got an ingenious plot, and is visually stunning, perhaps the element in the film which clinches it as my favourite is the music.

I don’t suppose anyone could take exception to my #1, but my #2 choice, Dial M for Murder, is perhaps less obvious. It seems very stagey, for a start, and less sophisticated, much less ‘arty’, than Vertigo. But – although I’ve seen it several times – I always find it both completely compelling and completely enjoyable.

It probably ranks about equally, for me, with North by North West, although I suppose the latter is the better film of the two by most measures. I can never quite remember how each bit of the plot leads onto the next – it seems like a series of vignettes – but that doesn’t mean the whole experience isn’t always fully satisfying, and Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant are nicely matched.

My #4 was Notorious, a film I haven’t seen for a long time (so must watch again). What I remember most from it is the sense of vulnerability communicated by Ingrid Bergman as the daughter of an American Nazi persuaded into becoming a spy by American agents. Like the ambiguous heroine of Wilkie Collins’s No Name she is put in the unsettling (for her and the reader/viewer) position of being married to the villain of the piece.

Finally, I chose The 39 Steps as #5, simply because it is such fun – particularly the romantic comedy element which most certainly isn’t in Buchan’s original novel.

I am well aware that I’ve missed out some obvious choices. If the poll had asked for the five best or most important Hitchcock films, then of course Psycho would have been there. I just don’t honestly think I like it all that much. Rear Window is another odd omission perhaps – but although the film’s atmosphere, setting and premise are memorable – I actually think it’s a bit boring.

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Allusions and Echoes (Continued) 
Saturday, June 23, 2012, 06:42 PM
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The next panel opened with Anna-Lena Pihl’s ‘Translating Intertextuality: Poems as Part of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse’. This thoughtful paper explored the particular problems presented to Woolf’s Swedish translators by the many quotations from well-known English poems in her novel. How can one best replicate the particular effects created by fragments which encourage a well read (English) reader to import a much wider poetic context into his or her reading? Anna convincingly argued that, when faced with lines from Tennyson’s ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, the translators, IngaLisa Munck and Sonja Bergvall, subtly altered the wording in order to cue, for the Swedish reader, memories of an 1818 Esaias Tegnér poem, dedicated to Swedish war hero, King Charles XII. To create fresh resonances (if not the same ones as those triggered by Tennyson) allows the translation to retain more of the texture of the original. Later someone suggested that a direct, full quotation from a Swedish poem might have been substituted for the Tennyson. But it was felt that such a radical move would be distracting given that the novel’s characters are, even when translated, clearly British.

Everyone was very grateful to Amy Crawford for stepping in at short notice when two speakers had to pull out for unavoidable reasons. She gave a very engaging presentation on the Bluebeard story’s significance for Margaret Atwood. In The Robber Bride the story’s patterns are reversed, for it is a female, Xenia, who plays the role of Bluebeard. A further subtle variation on the theme is played out in the short story ‘Bluebeard’s Egg’ in which only very gradually do we begin to wonder whether the heroine’s husband, although ostensibly mild and harmless, might be a kind of Bluebeard. Unsettlingly his very dullness, his obtuseness, is figured as the wall which hides a hidden chamber, here a mysterious corner of his mind rather than an actual room. Allusive uncertainty was one of several themes running through the day’s papers, and there appeared to be a special power in the story’s refusal to confirm or deny our worries about the heroine’s predicament in this tale. Amy’s final Bluebeard figure was Odysseus in the Penelopiad – this was a totally convincing reading, and I wondered whether the Commander in The Handmaid’s Tale might not represent yet another example of the type, particularly in the light of Offred’s speculations about her predecessor’s fate.

Rob Hancock’s presentation brought together Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Hadestown, a recent folk rock concept album. He posed some fascinating questions about the ways in which different versions of a narrative act on one another. I particularly appreciated a simple but compelling point he made – which was that a text (such as the Metamorphoses) might be just as good a lens through which to view other texts as an ideology. Rob gave a rather rueful account of his brief meeting with the artist behind Hadestown, Anaïs Mitchell, in which it transpired she had never read a word of Ovid. When he jokingly characterised himself as a ‘fanboy’ I started to think about the ways in which there might be something erotic, not just in the relationship between a translator and a translated text, as described by say Steiner, but also in the critic’s quest for allusive certainty, by which I mean the certainty that the allusion you think you have spotted isn’t just a product of your overactive imagination.

By the end of the day I had many items to add to my ever growing to read (and to listen) list, and I am particularly keen to catch up with The Science of Discworld, the focus of Imola Bulgozdi’s entertaining paper, partly because it sounds great fun, partly because I feel annoyed with myself for not identifying it in time to include it an essay I wrote a while back about the relationship between Shakespearean theatre, magic and sf. This book apparently draws on the popular alternate world/history trope, whereby our own reality becomes a subject of scrutiny or conjecture in the fictional world. And, as Imola demonstrates, The Science of Discworld also plays with some fascinating ideas about the relationship between creativity (here represented by Shakespeare) and evolution.

For some in the audience the next paper, from Berit Åström, opened up some surprising new horizons – into the worlds of slash fiction and MPreg. ‘Re-writing the Troubadour Effect?: Male Pregnancy Fan Fiction’ began with a discussion of the proposition that many romance narratives are really about two men, for only a man can be a perfect woman, and went on to explore conflicting responses to slash, seen by some as misogynistic and by others as homophobic. The locus classicus for slash is probably Kirk/Spock, although Blake/Avon is another stalwart of the genre. However Berit turned to the much more recent Supernatural as the subject for her paper. I’m a recent convert to this series which I value for its cleverly self-conscious postmodernism and well written scripts. Although I still don’t quite understand why people want to write stories in which one or both of the brothers falls pregnant, it was certainly interesting to hear about the various weird and wonderful permutations taken by Supernatural MPreg fan fic.

We were all very pleased that Raphael Lyne was able to deliver the keynote paper of the day, 'Yet Once More: Lycidas’. This wove thought-provoking reflections about the earlier papers into a subtle and suggestive presentation about Milton's poem, and returned to some of the questions about the terms we use for describing moments of textual interplay which I touched on in my own paper. Memory is central to Raphael’s recent work, and he explained why he felt that memory, an experience which may manifest itself either as the result of conscious effort or a sudden startling discovery, is a particularly useful way of figuring allusion. He revealed how allusive moments in ‘Lycidas’ open up gaps, pathways to a source, complicating the reader’s experience of the poem. He demonstrated, in a meticulous analysis, the way in which apparently spontaneous ‘memories’ within ‘Lycidas’ start, if pressed, to look more consciously considered. And looking at the relationship between fragments of Milton’s poem and The Winter’s Tale gave one the odd feeling that Milton had written first, an effect which nicely echoed a playful idea to be found in The Science of Discworld, that the contents of books yet unwritten can be deduced from books already in existence. I felt I definitely needed to return – yet once more – to‘Lycidas’.

Thanks to all speakers once again and to Una McCormack and Tanya Horeck for chairing!

I do hope we – and others with similar interests in echoes, allusions and cultural recycling – can continue these conversations in the future.


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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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