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Three Thoughts on the Saatchi

At the risk of coming across like a cultural Tory, I'd like to jot down some thoughts I've been having since I spent some time in the Saatchi gallery in London. For those of you who don't know, it's a (free) space dedicated to contemporary and post-war art: Saatchi himself, as a collector, is most famous for his patronage of the generation of 'Young British Artists' like Emin and Hirst.

I'm speaking from a kind of double-degree of naivety - I know literature a lot better than painting, and my knowledge of painting is certainly stronger in the classic 'Giotto to Cezanne' line rather than contemporary art. But then again, there is no arguing about taste.

I liked a lot of what I saw. Something like Jānis Avotiņš ghostly canvases, somewhere between a luminously monochrome Rothko and a blurred photographic negative from Victorian times, which I found beautiful. I enjoyed the weird splicing of anatomy, industrial diagram and Piranesian fantasy in the imag…

Notes on Webster and Milton

The end is in sight! Next week is the final week of term, and after 108 hours of seminar teaching and 10 hours of lecturing, my first two modules - Romantic Revisions and Foundations - wind down. It's a hectic last few weeks, especially as I am also trying to write on Wordsworth two or three days a week at the moment, but I'd thought I'd sign off on Foundations with a series of thoughts on our last two texts: Webster's revenge tragedy, The White Devil, and Milton's pastoral elegy, Lycidas. It's been a really pleasurable course to be a part of, and I'm sad that I won't be running any first-year seminars next semester.

1. Absent Bodies in Lycidas. One of my students made a connection between the empty tomb in the Gospel stories and the hauntingly lost corpse in Milton's elegy
To strew the Laureat Herse where Lycid lies.
For so to interpose a little ease,
Let our frail thoughts dally with false surmise.
Ay me! Whilst thee the shores, and sounding Seas
Wash f…

Utopia and the 'Respublica Literaria'

Thomas More's Utopia is a text that begins to get away from you as soon as you note the slippage between Thomas More (the signature of the author) and 'Thomas More' (the name of one of the characters in the dialogue). It's a text of such slips, of course: between eutopia and utopia (and thus between idealism and fantasy); between English and Latin (the puns on names which subtly undermine their bearers); between a severe critique of Europe and a set of purported solutions; and between an appeal to empirical fact and the play of a fiction. It has been read as everything from a serious political tract advocating radical solutions on matters of property, labour and law to a cutting satire on the impracticality of such radicalism. Inventing the genre of utopian fiction, virtually as it goes along, one can make valid claims for it being as dignified as a Platonic dialogue or as freewheeling and anarchic as as a jeu d'espirit like Erasmus' The Praise of Folly. The po…

Wordsworth, Futurally

I suppose I've always thought of Wordsworth's spots-of-time primarily in terms of a tension between memory and the present. Here (at length) are their first appearance, in the 1798 'Two-Part' Prelude:
Twilight was coming on, yet through the gloom
I saw distinctly on the opposite shore
Beneath a tree and close by the lake side
A heap of garments, as if left by one
Who there was bathing: half an hour I watched
And no one owned them: meanwhile the calm lake
Grew dark with all the shadows on its breast,
And now and then a leaping fish disturbed
The breathless stillness. The succeeding day
There came a company, and in their boat
Sounded with iron hooks, and with long poles.
At length the dead man' mid that beauteous scene
Of trees, and hills, and water, bolt upright
Rose with his ghastly face. I might advert
To numerous accidents in flood or field,
Quarry or moor, or 'mid the winter snows,
Distresses and disasters, tragic facts
Of rural history that impressed my …

'Non May Hyden His Harme': Gawain and Lying

A student of mine pointed out this week, quite correctly, that the two courts in Gawain and the Green Knight are mirror images of each other. Camelot and the castle of Bertilak are fundamentally parallel places: constituted by rounds of feasting and revelry and ornamented with lavish finery and beautiful ladies. The rules - the codes of behaviour - are the same. This is, after all, the place that Gawain himself seeks in the wilderness, a place of refuge, prayer and restoration: 'if he my3t keuer to com þe cloyster wythinne / to herber in þat hostel whyl halyday lested'. After the facing bitter cold and violent foes, he wants the familiar: he desires a court and its hospitality. 

Why this is important, I think, is related to an ambiguity that first appeared with the Green Knight himself. Bearing the distinctly mixed signals of holly and axe, he is (as every Oxford undergraduate used to know) both 'inside' and 'outside' chivalry, familiar and alien, courteous yet …

Bytuene Mersh ant Aueril: Translating a Harley Lyric

Cornwall Campus has reached Reading Week (or, as we like to call it, Opportunities Week). I have taken the opportunity to go back to some of the Middle English that I studied at Oxford with Terry Hoad, and one of my favourite lyrics, sometimes just called 'Alisoun'. (Follow the hyperlinks for two scholarly texts, with real translations by real translator, from University of Southampton and the Luminarium.)

Of course, I'm not a proper medievalist, and my ME is pretty shaky all told, but I tried to create a  translation to use with my first-year undergraduates after the break which worked on three levels. I wanted it to be readable, but I also wanted to be fairly accurate. I also wanted to express the affection I have for this poem. I didn't attempt to recreate the poem's ABABAAACDDDC rhyme scheme, but I used rhymes where I could, and attempted to tie together the lyric's internal architecture using other things. I've included a few notes below on the transla…

Slave Bodies

A few thoughts that promised to coalesce in my head after studying abolitionist poetry with some third-year undergraduates this week, spurred initially by the interest of one in silence, sound and nonverbal forms of communication. She's interested in (among other things) eyes: I suppose I am interested in bodies. I'm still not sure how these reflections hang together, but here's a sketch.

Much is made in existing criticism on abolitionist poetry of a liberal double-bind whereby slaves only receive a voice through the mediating voice of white, bourgeois abolitionists. In a strange way, many racist tropes are therefore reproduced: the slave is re-silenced and re-objectified in a gesture which reaffirms assumptions about race. The slaves cannot save themselves, they must be saved by  European pity; political agency of the kind seen in the Haitian slave revolt just doesn't figure in the liberal imaginary.

Certainly insofar as one of the double-binds involves voicing and si…

Notes on the Odyssey

Another set of fascinating seminars. I hope to write something, very soon, about slave bodies following a pleasingly lively third-year class on More, Opie, Barbauld, Yearsley and others, but for the time being, here are some thoughts on Homer's Odyssey.

1. I think I've settled on an interpretation of the Odyssey as opening a transit in Greek culture to a post-war, even a post-epic, epoch. This involves a reorientation of values - away from the military glory of kleos and towards the domestic, social and familial - and also plays close to what we might call 'personal' conflicts: the trauma of those coming back from the wars (Odysseus, Agamemnon, Alkinoos), the place of mourning and memory, and the role of sons. Indeed, the more I read The Odyssey, the more persuaded I am that the first five books of the Telemachy are vital and that, really, deep down, the narrative is about Telemachus and living in his father's shadow.

On the other hand, it's good to note that e…

Origins That Aren't: Genesis and Prehistory

The fourth time I used this blog to support teaching was a post on Genesis in 2009, and strangely enough I am back teaching the KJV again on the long-lost descendent of Past and Present 1, the shiny and new-fangled Foundations module.

I had a great set of three seminars with my new students and through a strange process of miscegenation (I've been reading Tim Morton on ecology and Derrida's re-mark) something new came to light, for me, due to some first-year comments.

One undergraduate evoked Genesis 1-3 as a kind of 'State of Nature' fable. I'd never thought of it quite like that, but the passage from stasis to history evoked in Genesis gives it justification - from a world where everything is the same, to one in which humans must make their own way with the two modes of creativity (family and labour) rendered as new, more weighty demands by the Fall. At the point of this new beginning, the relationship with nature alters and therefore helps mark a kind of aliena…

Microlecture: eResources

A brief user's guide to some of the electronic resources available for students of English Literature at the University of Exeter. Covers a little bit about eJournals, archives of historical texts, and eBooks.
The "host/gateway" service I show here (EBSCO) is actually new to me, and I've since found out that one of the major journal archives - JSTOR - is not linked into it. So, it always pays to search JSTOR separately, since there will be lots of articles that won't come up on it. JSTOR has a very similar interface, and it shouldn't be too hard to work out how to search, browse, read and download.

Other than that, hope this is useful

September Notes and Thoughts

Occupying me currently: Wordsworth and democracy, sport and aesthetics, Wollstonecraft and misreading, Swedish cinema

Well, the Irish phase of this blog is over. I am now relatively settled back in the UK, ready to throw myself at a new term. Among other things, I have discovered my round-commute is 320km, the difference between a brougham and a barouche, and that Jamie Oliver's thirty minute meals take at least 45 minutes. However, I am slowly returning to an academic routine that ceased rather abruptly in mid-August, and look to be creating some interesting posts for this blog from my reading, teaching and research. In the meantime, some short notes.

1. I was re-reading Wordsworth's famous apologia for the French Revolution (often collected under the title 'Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff') today. One line of his pro-republican, anti-monarchist stance struck me:
To be qualified for the office of legislation you should have felt like the bulk of mankind; their sorrow…

The Beautiful

The way I was planning to start this blog has been, unlikely as it seems, stolen by the comedian David Mitchell. The difference he and I have been jointly pondering was sharper in the eighteenth century, when talk about the beautiful went under the identity of discourse about ‘taste’. The term ‘aesthetics’ didn’t really come into use, via the Germans, until slightly later. Yet we still use the metaphor of taste, as if we tear off a few pages of a novel and chew it in our mouth before delivering our aesthetic judgement. Someone is said to have good or bad taste. I have a taste for Mendelssohn and the angular post-rock stylings of Sonic Youth. The Flemish and Dutch realists are not to my taste, a fate shared by most graphic novels and fantasy fiction.
The metaphor of taste, as Mitchell's piece suggests, is an odd one. If someone dislikes sushi or cardamom, then in general we understand taste in a subjective way: personal, idiosyncratic and unarguable. One cannot convince and debate s…