Diagnosing the Past 
Sunday, December 10, 2006, 09:28 AM
Certain personality types and medical diagnoses seem particularly associated with modernity. Are such conditions new or only newly defined? If the latter, we might expect to find examples of such types in the literature of the past. I will focus on two conditions my son was tentatively diagnosed with in the past (meaning that I read up about them) Asperger’s Syndrome and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

Professor Henry Higgins, the hero of Shaw’s Pygmalion has devoted his life to a narrowly specialised field of enquiry at which he excels because of his extraordinary attention to detail and flair for pattern spotting within a closed system. However he is socially clumsy and tactless, even rude. (Rex Harrison’s portrayal of Higgins – in the film of the musical My Fair Lady – makes him much suaver and more ironically aware of the effects of his behaviour than Shaw’s original, I think.) Asperger’s syndrome was not identified until 1944 but Higgins’s combination of strengths and weaknesses seems consistent with this condition.

ADD seems a still more ‘modern’ condition. The restless impulsivity and low attention span with which it is associated can easily be aligned with the information overload of modern life. But can we diagnose the condition in characters created hundreds of years ago? Criteria include: a tendency to jump from one interest to the other, chronic procrastination, poor risk assessment leading to dangerous behaviour, a sense of impending doom, an attraction to situations of high intensity, an appetite for something ‘more’. This list seems to fit the character of Dr Faustus who picks up and discards one branch of learning after another at the beginning of the play before leaping into a situation of extreme danger in desperate quest of stimulus. If we think about some other diagnostic criteria of ADD, being more flirtatious in manner than we mean to be, an impulse to blurt the wrong thing out tactlessly, and, particularly, a tendency to misplace objects, we might also want to consider Desdemona as a candidate for diagnosis.

Our little boy has now been undiagnosed by the way. The paediatrician said that he was ‘just like his parents’. So that’s all right then.

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Iris - New Classics Magazine for Schools 
Sunday, October 22, 2006, 05:35 PM
I’ve just received the first issue of Iris, a new magazine about all things Classical. It is aimed at state school pupils and is part of a larger access initiative, the Iris Project, which runs workshops around the country and aims to support the teaching of Classics in the state sector. Some examples of Classics outreach in practice were covered in the magazine. Benthal Primary School in Hackney, which has a large number of bilingual children, is running weekly Latin lessons for all in Year 5 as well as Classics activities in its after school club. It was particularly heartening to read about how Christina Edwards, despite being discouraged from pursuing her interest in Classics at school and even being ordered not to apply to Cambridge by her headmistress, is now successfully pursuing a Classics degree at King’s College, Cambridge.

Iris also included features on ancient Greek cuisine, Roman witchcraft, an interview with Colin Dexter (the creator of Inspector Morse) and a quiz to find out which ancient hero you most resemble. To subscribe or contribute an article contact editor, Lorna Robinson http://www.irismagazine.org/editors.htm
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Make it so / Prospero 
Sunday, September 24, 2006, 07:51 AM
Have recently returned from a trip to Stratford with colleagues and students from Anglia Ruskin. The high points were The Tempest and Antony and Cleopatra – not least because both starred Patrick Stewart. His portrayal of Prospero was unusually sympathetic – and very impressive. Ariel (played by Julian Bleach) also very striking, though I couldn’t thinking they should have hired Brent Spiner in a reprise of his role in Star Trek as Commander Data, the robot with human aspirations.

As well as going to three plays (Romeo and Juliet was the also ran third) we attended useful lectures and workshops run by the excellent Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. For an alternative theatrical experience with more audience participation I recommend the Cymbeline Guesthouse on Evesham Road. Very alarming (in a good way).

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SF and the Canon 
Thursday, September 7, 2006, 08:18 AM
In advance of a formal call for papers, here is some information about a one day conference to be held at Anglia Ruskin University on Saturday 24th March, 2007. Provisional speakers include Michael Bywater, Tony Keen, Genevieve Liveley, Nick Lowe, Jonathan Sawday and Peter Stockwell.

Although SF is fairly widely taught on university English courses it tends to be studied in isolation, usually as part of a discrete SF module. Although this is a perfectly valid approach it can have a slightly ghettoising effect and deter the inclusion of SF in other, more general, courses, discussions and academic books.

As my last posting indicates, I think SF extends the genre of tragedy in all sorts of interesting ways, and one of the essays in the collection I'm editing, Tragedy in Transition, is on just that topic.

The conference on March 24th will focus on intersections between SF and different aspects of the canon - engagement with Shakespeare's plays for example (such as The Tempest) or with the Classical tradition. If you would like to offer a paper please contact me.
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Upwards Tragedy 
Sunday, July 30, 2006, 05:30 PM
I’m currently working, with Catherine Silverstone, on an introduction to a collection of essays about tragedy. Generally we think of tragedy as a movement down, a fall or loss. But is there such a thing as “upwards tragedy”? Can rising, in other words, be tragic?

In Arthur C Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End the benevolent alien ‘overlords’ who arrive to nurture and protect earth know that humanity is about to take an evolutionary step forwards, losing their individuality but gaining transcendence. It is a source of sorrow to the overlords that they cannot follow the same path, but to the old style humans their children’s transition from human to posthuman is itself reason for grief rather than rejoicing.

Rather similarly, the narrator of Tennyson’s In Memoriam anticipates his projected elevation to Heaven with poignant regret because he and his friend Hallam will lose their individuality and thus their relationship. ‘Farewell! We lose ourselves in light.’

In another vision, this time of Hell, Dante’s Inferno, we can perhaps locate tragedy in the shift, or ‘rise’, from a Classical to a Christian paradigm. The engaging adulteress Francesca elicits sympathy from both the reader and the narrator ‘Dante’. Although we can identify her sad story as in some way tragic perhaps the real tragedy here is in knowing that we are not allowed to sympathise with her and that to do so is in a sense heretical because she has been damned by God. There is something inhuman though about such perfection. We shrink from it or, in the case of ‘Dante’, faint.

Going back to Childhood’s End it is curious that the novel’s twist reveals that the ‘overlords’ resemble devils. This fact is ascribed to a kind of reverse morphic resonance. Humanity in a sense foretold its own ‘destruction’. It is curious that the novel’s transcendence, which is really closer to Heaven than Hell, should be anticipated by the collective consciousness of humanity with such horror.

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