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Showing posts from 2009

Merry Christmas

Huzzah and High Cockleorum.
Today, the University of Exeter - in its infinite wisdom - finally decided to draw the semester to a close. I'm off to take a well-earned (I hope, perhaps I should ask my students to confirm this...) break. It'll also be nice to get some reading done, and with any luck I'll be able to research and draft a journal article by the time I return.
I hope anyone who has been following this blog this year has enjoyed my ramblings, so all that probably remains for me to say is Merry Christmas! I'll leave you with Monet's 'Floating Ice' (1880, Musee D'Orsay)

Radical Pope

Alexander Pope, at least in the guise of the polite, witty Pope of The Rape of the Lock, seems to be all about limited, closed and controlled gestures. He is surely the supreme Horatian satirist of the eighteenth century: his topics are the domestic, the social and the private. His railliery is as light as the fantastical sylphs that populate the verse. The fact that The Rape of the Lock was written to smooth over a quarrel between families seems symptomatic: the poem is more interesting in skimming harmlessly but amusingly over the culture that produced it, repairing the social fabric rather than slicing savagely into it. Yet could there be a more subversive Pope, a more radical reading of The Rape of the Lock?

Juxtaposition is the core of mock-epic: the text collides a trivial social event with the vocabulary and machinery of heroic poetry. We would usually interpret this collision as perfectly controlled - as controlled as (and often controlled by) the symmetrical, balanced coupl…

Derrida and Deleuze: The Differences Of Their Differences

This semester, a group of dazed lecturers, dutiful PhDs/MAs and ambitious undergraduates have ploughed through most of Gilles Deleuze's mind-wrenchingly difficult Difference and Repetition in an excellent reading group organised by Dr Alex Murray. This post is a little self-indulgent, since it's a way of 'marking time', as it were, in case I lose my thread over Christmas. From a personal point-of-view, I'm also very interested in how Deleuze differs from Jacques Derrida and the practise of deconstruction: a theory which, ever since an inspiring one-on-one research module taken with Dr Clare Connors in my undergraduate days, has become my own most persistent intellectual influence.
The theories of Jacques Derrida should be familiar to most English undergraduates. Deconstruction considers that meaning is always relational: any point (sign, presence, thing) is defined by its relations with other points, which are in turn defined by their relations with other points. We…

Fantasy and Literature (Note)

Have had a very interesting discussion on a chill walk home about some of the issues raised above (er, below, er, before...)
In particular, I've omitted to give a definition of what I mean by the 'fantastical' or 'fantasy'. I'd like to say nothing more than 'it's the attempts at re-enchantment practised from the 17th Century onwards against the Enlightenment', but that would be rather circular, and void if you aren't convinced by the above - even though I more or less believe that definition to be the best one.
I suppose in general I'd assume it's an effort to create a cohesive counter-world with a different 'physics' (e.g. one in which different causalities apply or possibly apply, or one in which different entities exist or might exist). I'd generally discount allegorical works, because the worlds they create are not fully cohesive (the 'mimetic illusion' that such a place 'exists' is absent because we know w…

Fantasy and Literature

A lot of texts that I've taught this semester - from The Odyssey to Beowulf, from Ovid to the Gawain-Poet - might be considered 'fantastical'. Some people might consider 'fantasy' to be integral to the very definition of literature: its capacity for joy, for idealism, in transcending the mundane, in the gift of other-worlds. But the fantastic has its own history, like all other things. And I am circumspect about what we might mean by it, and whether we should throw it around as if its meaning is self-evident. Consider, for instance, the following gorgeous painting of Paradise by Sienese 15th Century painter Giovanni di Paolo.
Now, I love this painting. It deserves to be seen in all the richness of its detail. But what I love about it is the excess of sheer happiness, the composition crowded with embracing figures from all walks of life. There's a lightness about the whole scene, and its scores of little, joyous narratives, each traced out with an individual touc…


William Shakespeare's Hamlet has often been read as a play which privileges interiority: indeed, as a crucial turning point in the history of the representation of subjectivity. Certainly, the density of meditation on motive and identity draw Hamlet and other plays of this period further and further away from the allegorical 'actants' and walking emblems of medieval drama like Mankind or Everyman. Coleridge witters on endlessly about Shakespeare's psychological acuity. The Prince himself thematises interiority as authentic, private, mental space. He claims mere outward forms fail to
denote me truly. These indeed 'seem', For they are actions that a man might play; But I have that within which passeth show (I.ii.83-5) Yet, although Hamlet thus stakes out something deep within us, inside us, ours alone, non-substitutable, a world 'which passeth show', it seems to me that the play also expresses a sense of the 'inside' echoing with hollowness and em…

Forms of Life - Nature Writing - Identity Politics

Two recent sets of discussions in my academic life - or, more particularly, my reflections and responses to them - have ended up bearing a definite resemblance to each other. At stake in both, for me, are the material forms of life (if this sounds a little bit Marxist, that's not accidental, although one could equally go to someone like Heidegger for a concept that could also function efficiently in the same kind of arguments). These 'forms' are bound up in the relationships between people - economic, social, familial, cultural, institutional - and they are not something we choose, but something we make our choices within. One might like to think of them as akin to a language - we all have freedom to say what we want within a language, but the language pre-exists us, and is a public possession not controllable by any one speaker (this is bound up in the priority of the social to the individual, or, as Ferdinand de Saussure would put it, the priority of langue to parole).

Gawain and a Winter's Wage

Only a relatively brief post on a rather haunting passage from the 14th Century poem, Gawain and the Green Knight. I've given the Middle English below, and then a translation of my own which doesn't attempt to recapture either the organisational alliteration, nor the rhyme in the shorter 'bob':
Bot þen hyȝes heruest, and hardenes hym sone, Warnez hym for þe wynter to wax ful rype; He dryues wyth droȝt þe dust for to ryse, Fro þe face of þe folde to flyȝe ful hyȝe; Wroþe wynde of þe welkyn wrastelez with þe sunne, Þe leuez lancen fro þe lynde and lyȝten on þe grounde, And al grayes þe gres þat grene watz ere; Þenne al rypez and rotez þat ros vpon fyrst, And þus ȝirnez þe ȝere in ȝisterdayez mony, And wynter wyndez aȝayn, as þe worlde askez, no fage, Til Meȝelmas mone Watz cumen wyth wynter wage; Þen þenkkez Gawan ful sone Of his anious uyage. (ll.521-35)
But then the harvest comes and hardens them swiftly, Warns them to wax ripely before the winter, It drives up the rising dust with droug…

New York Notes 3: Sculpture, Flesh, Art

This is Louis-Claude Vassé's eighteenth-century sculpture The Nymph of Dampierre. I've never really spent much time looking at sculpture, so it was good to see a wealth of white marble and dark bronze at the Met's sculpture court. This one caught my eye because I think it represents a kind of internal limit to very possibility of sculpture. As the photograph shows, so much of the sinuousity of the whole sculpture (the serpents and shells on the fountain pedestal, the elegant arch of the body) finds a concentrated emblem in the hair that she holds and washes.

At least when seen in three-dimensions with the fall of the light and the shade (see the following series of rather nice photographs), this really does express very well the struggle of sculpture to hew life and animation out of the coldness of raw, stony matter. There is something eerie about the way that such a fleeting and transient moment of embodied experience - the water running through the lissome coils of hair,…

New York Notes 2: Romantic Infinities/Romantic Infinitesimals

One of the plenary papers at the epic Romanticism conference (the ICR) I just attended in New York was given by Marjorie Levinson. Levinson wrote two massively important books - one on Wordsworth and one on the Romantic fragment - during the 1980s, so it was a pleasure to see one of American Romantic studies' biggest names in person. It was an enthralling, often incredibly complex, and deliberately provocative reading of Wordsworth's famous 'Daffodils' poem. If my understanding (and notes) are not too treacherous to her intentions, her main aim was to reorientate our understanding of the 'host of golden Daffodils...fluttering and dancing in the breeze' (ll.4,6) towards a Spinozan ontology. What?! You might cry... (It probably won't help to add it's a very Deleuzian Spinoza in question.)

What this involves, in this context, is arguing that under the various forms of nature appropriated and identified by the poet's 'inward eye' (21), is a much …