Literature and Transhistoricism: Colloquium at Anglia Ruskin 
Sunday, October 31, 2010, 03:36 PM
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Very many thanks to everyone – audience members as well as speakers – who helped make yesterday’s colloquium at Anglia Ruskin, ‘Literature and Transhistoricism’, so enjoyable and stimulating.

Helen Cooper gave the keynote lecture, ‘Medieval Shakespeare’. She demonstrated how readers have underestimated Shakespeare’s debts to Medieval texts and iconography, overlooking the traces of a pre-Reformation culture as well as allusions to romances, now little read, once highly popular, in his plays. This was a fascinating paper, which led to a discussion of what different critical practices might be embraced by the term ‘transhistoricism’. Whereas New Historicism typically privileges the relationship between artefacts produced in the same historical moment, Helen Cooper reminded us that we are often more aware of, and more influenced by, one’s predecessors than one’s precise contemporaries. But did her research methods, as someone suggested, constitute a more refined and precise historicism, rather than transhistoricism as such?

The next panel session opened with Daniel Ogden’s ‘Writing Utopia: Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home and Hypertext’. A number of intriguing parallels between these two ambiguous depictions of a ‘perfect’ society were discovered. Daniel suggested that the scholarly Le Guin may well have consciously drawn on More as a model. But the paper also raised important larger questions about the reasons why certain literary motifs seem to persist, albeit sometimes in mutated forms, through the centuries.

In ‘“Euphues” is dead’: the nineteenth-century rejection of John Lyly’, Andy Kesson introduced a further possible tension between transhistoricism and historicism. His lively paper on Lyly’s dramatic decline in popularity and status in the nineteenth century revealed an important possible flaw in the methodology of many ‘historicists’. Although such scholars aim to recuperate the past they often fail to escape modern (transhistorically produced) prejudices about who is worthy is study. To be truly historicist, one should pay as much attention to Lyly as to Shakespeare.

My own paper, ‘Tracking Eliot’s Familiar Compound Ghost: Sources and Successors’ , used the famous encounter with the compound ghost in the Four Quartets as an example of the way in which a transhistorical approach can enrich our understanding of individual texts. I argued that the compound ghost episode should be seen as one moment within a sequence of such encounters, beginning with the journeys taken by Odysseus, Aeneas and Dante to the lands of the dead, and continuing in the later twentieth century, when Eliot himself becomes part of the ‘compound ghost’ in recent allusions to his poetry in the works of Norman Loftis and Derek Walcott.

Mick Gowar discussed the way in which his own work as an adapter mirrored, albeit within a much shorter time frame, some of the processes we see at work when we track the transhistorical transformations of a narrative. ‘Yallery Brown: A Case Study of the Dynamics of Story Changes and Story Telling’ offered a suggestive array of reasons for some of the changes which stories undergo. A switch of genre, of audience, the influence of other intertexts – these are just some of the factors which can trigger mutations.

This made me think back to Daniel Ogden’s paper, and think about the way in which some elements in a story are so powerful that they may persist even when their raison d’etre seems to have vanished. Thus Hamlet, in the play’s sources, affects madness to make his uncle think he has no intention of avenging his father. In Shakespeare’s play the murder of old Hamlet is a secret so the motive for assumed madness would seem to have gone – yet it persists all the same.

Some of the same questions informed the final paper by Berit Åström, ‘Disney’s war on Mothers and its Historical Antecedents’. Berit, who also co-organised the colloquium, discussed the way in which dead and absent mothers persist through different periods and genres. Although it is possible to identify ‘rational’ reasons for their popularity, such as demographic statistics on maternal mortality, or a later twentieth-century backlash against assertive mature women, Berit convincingly argued that this did not seem to be the whole story. The persistence of the trope again invites the reader to ask whether such texts are more dependent on their predecessors than on the social conditions of each writer’s age – the same conclusion reached by Helen Cooper in the opening paper.

Berit and I hope to continue these discussions in the future and plan to arrange further events with a transhistorical slant.

Finally, Una McCormack suggested that there were interesting overlaps between the concerns of our colloquium and the Society of Friends of the Text.
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The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag 
Sunday, October 17, 2010, 10:37 AM
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I’ve just been reading ‘The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag’, a novella by Robert Heinlein. When I mentioned the book to a colleague, he noted that he had found it very effective, but wasn’t quite sure why. I’ve been trying to work out what makes it so striking.

The story begins when Jonathan Hoag asks a team of private investigators to follow him and tell him what his ‘profession’ is, for in the evening he can never remember what he has been doing all day. He is particularly disturbed by a reddish substance he has found under his nails. A doctor has told him it isn’t blood, which is what he had feared, but refuses to discuss the substance further and throws him out of the surgery.

A summary of the plot captures only part of the novel’s interest. Yes, it’s got quite a good punch line - Hoag is a ‘critic’, a representative of a superior non-human species who created the earth as a complex work of art, and in order to evaluate our world properly he needs to experience it as a human, and thus can only remember his profession in the day time. He also has to combat the sinister Sons of the Bird, mankind’s demonic precursors, who still walk the earth camouflaged as men.

But although the solution is pleasing, the book is at its most interesting before other explanations and possibilities are closed down. Thus before we learn that the reddish substance is the ichor of the Sons of the Bird, we are invited to puzzle over what else it might possibly be. Rather like The_Turn_of_the_Screw, its power lies in its capacity to generate meanings and associations in the reader. Because it begins with a puzzle it puts the reader in a detecting frame of mind, and the search for clues leads to many interesting red herrings.

For example one further mystery hinges on Hoag’s care never to allow the husband and wife detective team, Randall and Cynthia, a chance to get his fingerprints. This is never explained, although the reader is of course encouraged to speculate – does he perhaps have no fingerprints – or is he simply a criminal?

The story seems to invite the reader to compare it with Jekyll and Hyde as Hoag seems to move between quite different personas and has no recollection of the things he has done in his altered state. Towards the beginning of the story a child bumps into Hoag, who touches the child’s shoulder in order to dislodge him. This leads to an oddly intense response from the boy’s mother, and there is almost a disturbing hint at child abuse here – Hoag goes on to peer with an interest which is hostile but also sexual at young girls playing on the street – as well as a vague echo (for me) of the scene in which Hyde callously tramples over a little girl.

For some reason I also found myself thinking about the story of the Fall. Randall and Cynthia are a devoted couple. At the end of the story they have to choose between finding out the disturbing truth about their world or continuing to live in ignorance. They choose the former and sacrifice their peace of mind. At one point, when Cynthia says she wishes they’d never met Hoag, Randall says ‘too late for Herpicide’. This is a slogan associated with an early c.20 antidandruff preparation. But ‘herpicide’ also means something which kills snakes. As in Paradise Lost, particular peril is attached to the idea of separation between husband and wife. At one point when they investigate separately Cynthia nearly falls to her death, attacked by an apparently fake version of Hoag. The fact that Cynthia’s name is often shortened to Cyn somehow encourages this train of association.

I mention these ‘links’ with Adam and Eve, not because they are especially compelling perhaps, but because they reveal something about the power of the book which lies less in its ‘meaning(s)’ than in its power to make the reader work overtime trying to find some meaning. Other readers, I assume, have quite different responses. Here’s another parallel which struck me – Cocteau’s Orphée – for Randall goes to the ‘other’ world through a mirror (the same mechanism is used memorably in Orphée) and has to revive his wife from a living death. Yet in fact the film postdates the novel so, unless Cocteau was a Heinlein fan, that’s just a coincidence.

One final contributing factor to the text’s elusive oddness is its generic instability. It is a hybrid of Philip K. Dick style (ontological) sf, occult horror and hardboiled detective fiction. Although we are prepared, when reading fiction, for all sorts of strange things to happen, we do expect a degree of generic decorum – but Heinlein overturns such expectations. He also forces us to become exponents of the same supposedly 'unpleasant' profession as his title character.


Alex said he thought 'Jonathan Hoag' sounded like Dark City. By a spooky coincidence Dark City director, Alex Proyas, is apparently working on a film version of 'Jonathan Hoag' - and a film version of Paradise Lost.

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Roma in Milan 
Saturday, October 16, 2010, 09:48 AM
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cross-posted at Harry's Place

In a previous post on Harry’s Place I noted that it wasn’t quite enough to consider whether actions taken against Roma individuals or communities might be right or legal in themselves. The wider patterns also had to be taken into account. Are Roma being targeted differently from other people? What motives might lie behind such scrutiny?

Thus although the dismantling of Roma camps in Milan might conceivably be defensible, the words of Milan’s vice mayor, Riccardo De Corato suggest that the actions are not simply a neutral response to a crime or public order problem. “These are dark-skinned people, not Europeans like you and me.”

It is often asserted that actions against Roma are not racist, but a legitimate response to problems inherent in Roma culture. Roma who choose to integrate, it is argued, would be welcomed. But , as Anthony Faiola reports, this does not seem to be the case in Milan.

“Privately, even some in Triboniano say the camp maintains an unemployment rate of more than 60 percent and is home to some engaging in criminal activity. But Ilie, a carpenter who left Romania for Italy with his family in 1999, said Roma are being painted with a broad brush and that many, like him, are eager to integrate.

His children - Ana Maria, 16, and Luigi, 11 - no longer speak their native dialect. Both go to Italian schools and have Italian friends. “I don’t care what happens to this camp anymore; what I care about is my family,” he said. “We want to integrate, but they won’t give us the chance.”

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The Limits of Allusion #2: Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ and The Tempest 
Friday, October 8, 2010, 05:13 PM
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I discussed here the difficulties involved in deciding whether something is, or is not, an allusion. Here’s another little example, which struck me as I was preparing to teach Tennyson’s early poetry this week. Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’ contains many acknowledged allusions, mostly to Shakespeare, at least one to Paradise Lost. This is the full text. But here’s a possible allusion which doesn’t seem (though I’ve only checked online sources) to have been spotted. Ulysses’ assertion:

All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea:

reminded me of Miranda’s:

O, I have suffered
With those that I saw suffer
: a brave vessel,
Who had, no doubt, some noble creature in her,
Dash'd all to pieces. (1.2.5-8)

It could be argued, quite fairly, that the echo is too faint to qualify as an allusion. But the shared context of stormy sea voyages lends a little ballast to the argument perhaps, as does the interesting contrast between the sentiments of Ulysses and Miranda. Empathic Miranda’s suffering is caused purely by the sight of suffering in complete strangers. Ulysses, on the other hand, seems (particularly if you have a half memory of The Tempest at the back of your mind) as though he might be going to express a sympathetic pain for the sufferings of others, but ultimately he only appears to distinguish between moments when he suffered in isolation and other times when he suffered in company – with those who loved him, not those he loved. There is no difference to him between the alone/in company binary and the on shore/at sea binary. His ‘with’ only denotes physical proximity, whereas for Miranda it signifies fellow feeling.

The contrast with Shakespeare's heroine underlines his selfishness, just as the echo of Satan's 'and courage never to submit or yield' in the famous last line undermines the apparent dashing nobility of his urge to set out on another voyage.

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A Science Fiction Book Meme 
Friday, October 1, 2010, 05:20 PM
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This is a list of the 50 "most significant" science fiction/fantasy novels, 1953-2002, according to the Science Fiction Book Club. The instructions are to bold the ones you've read, strike-out the ones you hated, italicize those you started but never finished, and put an asterisk* beside the ones you loved.

1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
2. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov* (though it’s years since I read it.
3. Dune, Frank Herbert
4. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
5. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
6. Neuromancer, William Gibson
7. Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke*
8. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
9. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
11. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
13. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
14. Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras (I haven’t even heard of that one!)
15. Cities in Flight, James Blish
16. The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett
17. Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison
18. Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
19. The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
20. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
21. Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey
22. Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card*
23. The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson (yawn)
24. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman*
25. Gateway, Frederik Pohl
26. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J.K. Rowling
27. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams*
28. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
29. Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
30. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin*
31. Little, Big, John Crowley
32. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
33. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick*
34. Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
35. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon (I really ought to have read this)
36. The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith
37. On the Beach, Nevil Shute
38. Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
39.Ringworld, Larry Niven
40. Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys
41. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
42. Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut
43. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson
44. Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
45. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
46. Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein*
47. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock (not sure if I’ve read this particular Elric book or not)
48. The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks
49. Timescape, Gregory Benford*
50. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer

So what’s missing? John Wyndham seems like an immediately obvious omission. I think Dan Simmons might have figured somewhere too. There aren’t that many female writers here and (as my colleague Rowlie Wymer would be quick to point out) Maria Doria Russell’s The Sparrow certainly merits a place. Perhaps it could replace the Silmarillion.

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