GOOD BUT NOT GREAT: ROBERTO CALASSO’S DIAGNOSIS OF CURRENT LITERATURE

setembre 27th, 2016

Italian writer and editor Roberto Calasso has been recently news in Spain for winning the quite new Premio Formentor de las Letras, also awarded so far to a few Spanish-language writers that he names among his favourite: Carlos Fuentes, Juan Goytisolo, Javier Marías, Enrique Vila-Matas y Ricardo Piglia (no women…). In at least two interviews, in El País and La Vanguardia, Calasso states that although many good books are published today, few are truly great. He attributes this to a revolution started in the mid 19th century which by expanding the territory of Literature ended up problematizing the very definition of this term. Confusingly, he names, in the Vanguardia interview, Borges as a main contributor to this new trend, which I myself would connect with someone far more popular, like Charles Dickens or Stephen King (a Recipient of the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, 2003). In this interview, plagued by an amazing series of typos…, Calasso explains that the overambitious aims of writers as different as Musil and Joyce appear to be no longer relevant today.

I haven’t had yet the pleasure of reading Calasso, a gap in my education that I will solve as soon as a I can (it turns out that my local public library is better equipped than my university library when it comes to titles by this Italian author). Calasso has been on my list of books to read since he published in 1990 Las Bodas de Cadmo y Harmonía (Le nozze di Cadmo e Armonia, 1988) back when I was about to start my doctoral studies… Suddenly, I lost track of the European intellectuals that, according to El País, then a very cultured newspaper, any educated Spanish reader should be interested in. I needed to focus on my thesis and, as we know, the anglophone world is not exactly conversant with the European intellectuality, despite the academic fashions built around Derrida and company. Perhaps I should have read Calasso then, after all, for my dissertation was hell-bent on showing, precisely, that Literature extends beyond high-culture and into the best of so-called popular fiction. This is why I chose a multi-level, cross-cultural subject as my topic: monstrosity.

In preparation for this post I have read “Roberto Calasso, The Art of Fiction No. 217”, a not very exciting interview of 2012 by Lila Azam Zanganeh which you may find in the Paris Review website (http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6168/the-art-of-fiction-no-217-roberto-calasso). This text begins with the claim that “Roberto Calasso is a literary institution of one”, as editor of Adelphi, “Italy’s most prestigious publishing house, for forty years” and writer of more than a dozen books. Calasso, Zanganeh assures us, “has come to stand for a lost ideal”, which I will label ‘the person of letters’, the sum total of the reader, writer, critic, editor and intellectual. The word ‘erudite’, now so quaint, also comes to mind to define him. He wrote his PhD dissertation on the theory of hieroglyphs in Sir Thomas Browne; his supervisor was Mario Praz. He speaks Italian, French, English, Spanish, German, add to this Latin and Greek, learned in school, and Sanskrit which he studied “on my own”.

I fully agree with Calasso’s view that, in our days, many books and writers are good but lacking in ambition to be truly great. I am sure that his impressions are far more accurate than mine, as he is a superlative reader both professionally, as an editor, as personally, as a writer, and in many languages to boot. My subjective, impressionistic, far less erudite opinion, however, is similar and, I would add, applicable to all kinds of fiction I read, in all genres. The number of solid novelists seems to be increasing in all fronts (though this does not mean that the best writers are the most hyped ones), yet I personally feel constantly dissatisfied as a reader. I am not impressed, as I was when I read Thomas Mann as a young girl, or later, to name a living author, when I read Salman Rushdie’s prodigious Midnight Children. I’m not awed by any living author. Yes, of course, I have been expressing here my total devotion to Terry Pratchett, Iain M. Banks, and now Patrick O’Brian, but this is not the same. Wonderful as they were, they have not changed the face of Literature. They are singular worlds each one of them but not world-changers, which is what I miss.

My friend Laura Gimeno and I had a shortish conversation about Calasso’s opinion (for in our hectic university, there is not even time for one hour spent over coffee). She believes that originality is the problem, for it seems impossible to narrate something new or to innovate narrative technique as thoroughly as, she says, the Modernists did. I am more sceptical about the importance of innovation since taking it too far leads to Joyce’s Finnegans’ Wake, and, really, this is a dead end. Also about originality in the choice of subject matter, for although this is not lacking today at all, chancing upon a new tale does not guarantee greatness. Laura argues, very convincingly, that greatness is not compatible with the current shape which literary careers have taken, with a notable first book written away from the limelight and then a series of mediocre works produced under pressure from publishers and critics to consolidate commercial success, even in the case of writers with unwavering literary ambition. No doubt. We, academics, have a similar problem, caused by the pressure to work for the career rather than have the career develop out of work that should be creative but that feels mechanical.

A hurried pace of writing, then, can result in good but not outstanding literary work (unless you are a genius, that is, a concept I will leave aside for the time being). Now let me go back to erudition. And the mid-19th century.

I don’t think you can be truly ambitious as a writer without being an erudite. By erudite I understand here a careful student of the field of Literature, in any of its many sub-genres. One thing is being well-read and another being an erudite, which means that you can command a vast list of resources that will fill your pages with this something else that awes readers. Let me use an image. Suppose that Literature is a mountain and that you, as a writer, want to reach the top, as other writers have done. It makes sense then to study their methods by reading their books and so, once you know all the paths they took, attempt your own. All the way up to the top with ambition and determination. My impression is that today’s writers are in a hurry to reach the top of a lower peak, say Annapurna instead of Everest, and that they’d rather take shortcuts –an award, for instance, of the many given today, from the Nobel to the Nebula (for best SF and fantasy…).

Now, if you are a writer you probably want to strangle me at this point. Here I am complaining that all of you lack ambition and the mettle to reach true greatness. Navigating your way into today’s ferocious literary market is enough to dampen the most ferocious ambition, I am sure about that, yes if you do not raise the bar, who else is going to do it? You must also be thinking that this idiotic idea about erudition can only come from someone who gets a regular monthly salary and who is, basically, paid to read and teach a few hours a week. Fair enough. But, then, what do we make of a Literature in which writers are not erudite? Or less erudite than their prospective audience expects. This is a recurring conversation I am having these days, about many different writers: I find him/her clever but not overwhelmingly intelligent, and when I feel I know more than the writer, I disconnect. Replace intelligent with erudite and here we are.

Having offered the argument that erudition is the source of literary ambition (or should be), I must consider of course whether Calasso’s kind of erudition is still possible today. The answer is no. I think that the only ones defending erudition are the much maligned nerds (‘frikis’ in Spain), for they are the only readers with a passion for increasing their knowledge of the genre they love, both in breadth and depth. In science-fiction, in particular, a double erudition is required: literary (connected with the genre) and scientific (connected with its topic of interest). In contrast, the literary novel (at least the anglophone variety) is being flattened down by writers who mistake detail for depth and by readers who, as a student told my friend Laura, believe that Henry James is a bad writer (too dense). Trapped between writers with little time and interest in being erudite in their own field and by readers for whom a man like Calasso is a strange freak, Literature cannot soar. Perhaps Calasso is being generous by calling ‘good’ what others might call ‘mediocre’.

I am not forgetting the mid-19th century. Erudition is connected with leisure, meaning here time at your disposal for study. When the Industrial Revolution rebuilt our time around the merciless ticking of the clock, it destroyed leisure–that of the aristocracy, of the gentleman but also of the peasant. Leisure was regained little by little by the urban working classes as a new concept: time for fun after work, not for cultivation. Some of us still use leisure for both, fun and cultivation, but in such short stretches that erudition can hardly become an earnest pursuit. The very rich, by the way, have abandoned erudition altogether, consuming their everlasting leisure in fun. A figure like Lord Byron, who had as much capacity for fun as for erudition (and literary ambition) is now unthinkable.

And I’ll stop here, see if I can use the little leisure left in this Sunday afternoon for some reading. To increase my erudition… And hopefully have some fun.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just be warned that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be online. Follow the blog updates on Twitter: @SaraMartinUAB and download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

WHAT FOR?: ON GIVING OURSELVES TOO MUCH (ACADEMIC) TROUBLE

setembre 20th, 2016

I have just announced the third one-day workshop TELLC (Teaching English Language, Literature and Culture), which is a very modest Departmental event aimed at gathering together my colleagues to discuss what we do in class. Last year I invited the English Studies specialists at the Universitat de Barcelona to join in and this year I have extended the same invitation to the other English Departments in Catalonia (Lleida and Tarragona). A friend emailed me back asking me whether I really wanted to set this in motion, as neither the workshop itself not the corresponding publication (see http://ddd.uab.cat/record/132688) could count for our official CVs. His is the kind of remark that makes me pause and think with dismay, sure, what is all this for? So here I am trying to explain myself.

I first thought of TELLC because, as happens in other Departments, possibly around the world, we are constantly discussing bureaucracy but not pedagogy. When the time comes to revise the Syllabus, around April, we exchange a flurry of emails about whether we need to alter any matter and that only if we share the course with other teachers. If we don’t, then basically we do as we please, with little real feedback from colleagues (or students). If we share a course, we discuss possible innovations by email because since so many teachers are part-time associates with two jobs it is simply impossible to have team meetings, as we should (also more than once a year). The most we have managed is introducing the novelty of publishing in the Department’s website a joint reading list for everyone to see what everyone else is teaching, yet a list gives you by no means an impression of what we do in class. And here I am not even mentioning the Language teachers who teach mysterious matters such as CLIL.

So, I just thought that it would be healthy and a nice investment in team building to spare one Friday a year to tell each other about what happens in our classes. Now, to appease concerns that this was worth nothing for our CVs I convinced UAB to certify the workshop as a teacher-training event of the kind we are supposed to attend regularly, hoping that this will also be helpful for our teaching assessment every few years by the Catalan Government. I also made a very pretty diploma, a kind of document we academics fondly collect in Spain, where authorities seem to suspect university teachers of being inveterate liars and where you need to present certificates for every single activity. The first two TELLC meetings (2015 and 2016), I believe, have been enjoyable and productive and I’m happy enough. We’ll see how TELLC progresses in the future. If the workshop fades away into oblivion at least I will have done my best.

Organizing this workshop, like writing this blog, is something I could very well not do: it is a self-imposed task which takes time away from my research. You know what it is like: answering lots of e-mail messages, booking a room (no easy job in my overcrowded university), producing a programme, chasing colleagues for them to hand in the text for publication, editing the booklet… you name it. These days I have some extra time to spare for pursuits like this because I am one of the privileged researchers granted the benefit of doing less teaching thanks to Minister Wert, now gone from the Government. My not teaching two classes explains my apparent hyperactivity, also expressed in the translation of Pedrolo’s Mecanoscrit del segon origen and in my current editing of two monographic issues for Science Fiction Studies (on Spanish SF) and for Alambique (on Mecanoscrit). I don’t know how to explain this better but after wasting my time in endless bureaucracy for three years as Degree Coordinator, I suddenly feel very, very happy to be investing my time in matters more closely related to my teaching and research. Here is another one, the booklet I have produced with my BA students and aimed at guiding readers to navigate their way into SF short fiction: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/163528

I am very well aware that those of us who have our fingers in many pies are a pest for those who want to be left alone. Sorry about this but, well, an invitation can always be rejected. I acknowledge that I am active on many fronts but, among other motivations, I always bear in mind the double daily routines of my associate colleagues (and friends) in the Department; I owe it up to them to make the most of my time as a privileged tenured teacher. I don’t support, however, and will never support the obsessive research type who thinks that we should not enjoy any spare time and, although I am certainly guilty of using at least part of my weekends for work, I make a point of limiting my daily work.

I think this is a lesson we still need to learn in Spain: 8 hours a day can be extremely productive, much more than 12 hours, if you do not procrastinate. I love the sound of my computer closing down by 17:00 at the latest, earlier if my day before the screen begins by 8:00. Otherwise, what is the point? There is always, of course, the tricky matter of whether reading (or seeing films and TV series) post 17:00 counts as work but, believe me, I’m the first one to subscribe to the idea that daily leisure is an unalienable right. I recently employed one afternoon in making a pair of shoes for a doll and I had a whale of a time… A second pair is soon coming. So, not at all, it’s not always work, work, work…

Now that I have established that one can run a reasonable academic career by avoiding the pitfalls of procrastination and by setting limits to your daily routine to always enjoy leisure (I don’t have kids, that would make a difference…), I’ll address the matter of how these 8 daily hours can be used. And I will acknowledge that I suffer from the main Spanish academic malady: I do lots of activities because I find no way to focus on the one activity I really want to carry out–writing books. You must be thinking well, just stop doing everything else and you will have time to write the books. But here we go back to the ‘no cuenta’ mantra and the power of the CV in our lives.

If you can, imagine a CV with nothing else but, say, 6 books, produced in 25 years (this is how long I have been active as a teacher/researcher). No conferences (either attended or organized), no articles in journals or collective volumes, no extras such as giving seminars or taking part in tribunals. Just pure book-writing besides the exact amount of teaching you need to do (this is how I imagined my career when I was 18). I might be wrong but even if the books were first rank, would prospective employers and tribunals be impressed? I doubt it. We live in the age of the bulky CV and of the fisherman’s strategy–by which I mean that we need to be constantly active because we never know whether the fish will bait. I have just been told, for instance, that a book chapter I handed in one year ago might be published in 2018. If I had counted on that work for urgent assessment, then I’d be lost, hence the need to multiply myself and my work for we never know when work will be published and what really counts for the Ministry.

Take, and with this I’ll finish, my being part of the Eurocon team (again, something I am doing because I have less teaching to do). This is an SF and fantasy literary festival addressed to fandom, of no academic import. Technically, a waste of time. Yet, Eurocon has brought to me very many new contacts, some of which have led to wonderful academic activities (like the ones around Mecanoscrit) which I would have never embarked on. I’m struggling to find a label for the kind of activity that brings in unexpected academic perks… The case is also that I am learning very, very much because, after all, I am constantly surrounded by very keen readers, most of them really erudite in the SF and fantasy film. And, well, I’m airing my brain beyond the university walls, which is always healthy. I gave a talk about Harry Potter before an audience of 200 enthusiastic readers a couple of Sundays ago at PotterCon and although I could have spent that Sunday morning on the beach, I knew where I would more fun. And it did not count for my CV.

To sum up: I’m trying to downplay the impact of the ‘no cuenta’ mantra and just enjoy myself. I enjoy organizing TELLC because it is about bringing colleagues together as I enjoy being part of this little mad world which is Eurocon. If I didn’t enjoy myself, then I would not do it, for one thing is clear to me: engaging in academic activities for the sake of an ultimate goal like fattening up your CV feels to me like duty, and that is not enjoyable. I think that enjoyment is essential for creativity and duty a total dampener, even though I am a most dutiful person (I teach Victorian Literature, how could I not believe in duty?).

So, odd as this may sound, I’m all for fun to increase creativity, which increases productivity. Never ever forgetting that our CV should not take the place of our life.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE PROBLEM OF THE DWINDLING ATTENTION SPAN: HOW IT AFFECTS TEACHING LITERATURE

setembre 13th, 2016

If you check the internet you will soon come up with a flurry of news items and articles explaining that the human attention span is now shorter than that of goldfish. Whereas goldfish can focus their whole attention for 9 seconds, humans can only manage 8. The figure for 2000 was 10 seconds, which is why researchers in psychology are claiming that our crazy, highly addictive use of smartphones and tablets has much to blame for attention span deficit (the smartphone-tablet revolution started more or less with the 21st century).

My own impression, allow me to digress, is that the dwindling attention span is also (or mainly) connected with the editing styles of music videos since the 1990s. When MTV started back in the 1980s music videos were often narrative, rather than performative (=showing musicians playing and singers singing), and used much longer cuts than today; in some cases they were mini-films, like John Landis’s landmark video Thriller (1983) for Michael Jackson. Today most music videos boast a convulsive editing style which seems designed to show the corresponding (female) star in as many outfits as possible; choreographies are also chopped down to the point that it is hard to say whether performers can dance at all, or for more than 3 seconds. I used to enjoy watching music videos but now I find myself unable to watch one for 3 minutes as, ironically, I get bored with so many different shots… Our attention span, as you can see, depends on each media and within these, on each text.

The editing style of music videos was transferred in the late 1990s not only to cinema (as video directors became film directors) but also to many new-style children’s cartoon series and, more recently, to the self-presentation strategies of the myriad YouTubers, who, like modern-day Hamelin players, enchant the young and are destroying TV. All–music videos, Hollywood films, cartoon series, YouTubers videos and, I’m sure, plenty of video games–affect the younger generation by shortening their general attention span, no doubt about this; at the same time, all these media must adapt their storytelling strategies to the diminishing attention span they have generated, resulting in your classic vicious circle.

Funnily, films are much longer than they used to be: 90 minutes was the classic Hollywood measure, now most films run to 120 minutes or more. At the same time, children and, above all, YA fiction is also full of very long series, beginning with the Harry Potter heptalogy. As I’m sure you, reader, have noticed, the films–and I mean here the blatantly commercial Hollywood films using genres such as SF, fantasy, superhero comics or videogames–are a messy succession of independent scenes that hardly cohere into a logical sequence, if at all. They are intended to be full of thrills to keep (young) audiences engaged but most often turn out to be as boring as any current MTV video. This is fine with film studio executives as they expect to make money in just the first two weekends, enough to fill their pockets and keep the machinery greased. However, many are commenting on this summer that this kind of expendable blockbuster is flopping hard–perhaps because older audiences, who enjoy a well-told story, are turning their back on them. The 1959 Ben-Hur remains a solid achievement whereas the 2016 version is painfully embarrassing.

Now, for the books. And teaching Literature. I learned from my experience with the Harry Potter books as a lecturer that the attention span of the very young (7 upwards) can stretch amazingly if given an exciting text. I am also learning, nonetheless, that not even Harry Potter works if the child in question rejects reading as entertainment. The young, here is my point, are divided and have always been divided into two classes: persons with a remarkable attention span (good readers, hence good students) and persons with a short attention span (poor readers, hence poor students). I’m afraid that what is fast diminishing is not the attention span of all young children but of those who do not have an inborn long attention span. Since children with a long-lasting attention span are always in the minority, and since the impact of the computer-related technologies on all the young (and not so young…) is undeniable, the current panorama is moving towards a situation in which only a few (readers) will be able to compete with the goldfish. This is tragic for humanity in general and for Literature teachers in particular, as we, needless to say, work with texts that require a very steady attention span from readers.

I’m not going to get again into the matter of why young persons who simply loathe reading register for a degree in the Humanities. I want to make the point that the resistance to reading is connected with this problem of the diminishing attention span. In the age of Twitter and the 140 characters 8 seconds are all we are willing to give up of our time and attention, both to read and to write. Here in this blog I have been gradually aiming at readers with a longer attention span: I started with 500-word posts six years ago, now I’m past the 1500 word count in most posts. For many, this will be too much, but, then, I’m not satisfied that 140 characters express anything worth considering (this is, ironically, a very good measure for insults, hence the many trolls plaguing Twitter users).

Children’s attention is scattered among the many invitations by different media to do something fun and in a short period of time. Reading seems to them time-consuming and very laborious in comparison to, for instance, watching YouTubers. As we know, the less we read, the worse our reading is: constant practice not only increases speed but also attention span. The fastest readers can read for the longest periods because they’re extremely practised in reading. Ask yourself, teacher or student: How many pages of a fiction book can you read in one hour? How many hours can you read for, non-stop? I know you’ll tell me that, no matter how experienced you are, sometimes reading a sonnet exhausts your attention span… Yes, I know. Let’s take Dickens’s Oliver Twist, which I am to start teaching next week: how much time do you need to read it? Did Dickens, incidentally, introduce serialization because he noticed that the diminishing attention span of Victorian readers required selling them stories in little bits? (Remember that in fast-paced 19th century USA readers preferred short stories to novels; Moby Dick was some freak phenomenon…). If 8 seconds is the average attention span, how do I keep students interacting with me for the 4500 seconds that a 75-minute session has? We, teachers, are told that we need to change tack every 10 minutes or so, but even 10 minutes are 600 seconds…

I have recently learned from the children in my family something else about attention span that connects with repetition and with the difficulties that many students have to summarize plots, highlight main points and establish connections. I was watching Despicable Me 2 with my youngest niece (aged 7), and she started reciting all the dialogue for each scene before it was uttered by the characters. This was my third time seeing the film, but she claims to have seen it… fourteen times. No wonder she knew the dialogue. However, when I asked her to summarize the plot (she might like to tell a friend why the film is so cool) she had no idea where to begin and simply did not manage to produce any coherent summary (which frustrated her enormously!). Typical among the kids her age, she’s good at retaining detail, even at memorizing many favourite bits, but not so good at understanding and building logical sequence. Repetition is, for that reason, always a pleasure, for whereas it irks us, adults who can recall plot, it offers children every time a renewed pleasure which is not spoiled by the anticipation of the known bits, quite the opposite.

In this sense, films are necessarily far more pleasurable than reading since they are narrated to a quite passive spectator. This is similar to the typical situation in which children unable to read on their own ask their parents to read them the same story again and again and again. Trouble begins when we tell children to start reading alone and take an active role. Some love it (fewer and fewer…) and most hate it (their numbers are increasing). The Setmana del Llibre en Català recently announced that sales for children’s books in Catalonia have diminished by 3% in the last year, which means that we, adults, are buying fewer books for children because they reject them. Nobody knows what makes some children connect with reading; you may raise two kids in exactly the same way and one will turn out to be a reader and the other won’t. Surely, it must be some kind of neurobiological predisposition attached to the pleasure centres of the brain which happens to be activated by consuming printed type. If the other children lack this predisposition, then there is nothing any reading programme can do for them–unless we start considering genetic engineering. I worry, not only as a Literature teacher but also as a plain citizen concerned about the future, for no culture can survive without passing on its knowledge in writing. If you don’t love Literature, fancy loving mechanical handbooks…

Finally, allow me to use a few lines to consider retentive memory, for perhaps in the end this matters even more than attention span. I mean here specifically the ability to remember what you read, which in turn helps you both to offer coherent plot summaries and to recall books read long ago. You may have a considerable attention span and read for hours but this does not mean that your retentive memory is guaranteed. I can read Dickens for hours but I always have tremendous problems to retain his convoluted plots, which is why I need to plot summaries, either borrowed or my own. I can offer a nice plot summary of Oliver Twist because I have read it many times but I can’t do that with any of the other Dickens books I have only read once. If you’re studying or teaching Literature, then, there’s no way around this: we need to summarize the plots of the fiction and drama we read, or the main arguments for essays, non-fiction and so on. Working on your retentive memory does increase attention span for it trains you to identify the highlights in the text.

What fails when you give a book many tries but you do not manage to read is your attention span, which is absolutely flexible, never rigid, and connected with your preferences. I’m happily reading the twenty Patrick O’Brian novels but no way I could go past page fifty of Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge . This is, in any case, much more than 8 seconds.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

ON THE VERGE OF OBLIVION: HOW WRITERS (MAY) FADE FROM SIGHT

setembre 6th, 2016

We, readers, seem to believe that the permanence of writers is automatic. Nothing needs to be done to have any book we want at our command, whether it is first-hand or second-hand. Only irrelevant authors and works sink into nothingness. We smile smugly whenever someone praises a long-forgotten author nobody else has heard of, never mind that this person was a best-selling writer in his or her time. Matters, however, are not that simple and the process by which the machinery that moves forward a writer’s career grinds to a halt is always worth-considering.

These musings come about because of the two dead authors occupying much of my time this summer and for very different reasons: Patrick O’Brian and Manuel de Pedrolo. I have now started reading the ninth novel in the highly addictive Aubrey-Maturin series by O’Brian, which expands to twenty finished volumes and an unfinished one. As I have narrated here in this blog, I have translated Pedrolo’s SF masterpiece Mecanoscrit del segon origen from Catalan into English (I’m celebrating that Wesleyan University Press has accepted publishing it!). Both writers have something in common, despite their very different positioning at an international level and in terms of their success: they hardly exist for academia and, thus, being dead, they depend now on their readers for their survival into literary immortality. In very different circumstances.

The size and the depth of the Aubrey-Maturin cult is simply staggering. It’s what we call in Spanish ‘un secreto a voces’, which sounds more colourful than the English ‘open secret’, for we mean ‘loud’. I recently came across an article in The Guardian, “Why Patrick O’Brian is Jane Austen at Sea” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/28/why-patrick-obrian-is-jane-austen-at-sea) and I was fascinated by the many comments from readers, explaining that they have read the series several times over, each time loving it even more. I was mystified by a woman who objected to the view that you can enjoy the books without caring very much for the nautical detail by answering that in her all-female weekly reading group they discussed all that detail down to the last nuance. I don’t quite see myself discussing when topgallantsails should be displayed. Um, perhaps not yet.

Since the series is rich not only in nautical lore but also in other matters such as the state of natural philosophy in the early 19th century, O’Brian has inspired that kind of internet resource and companion book that unpacks all the research that he packed into his books. It’s a wonderful nerdish pursuit but I worry that the work done to clarify what kind of dessert is a ‘drowned baby’ (a boiled suet pudding with raisins, see http://www.wwnorton.com/pob/vol3ii.htm#pudding) may throw the baby out with the bathwater. No matter how much information you assemble about a favourite narrative, whether this is the Aubrey-Maturin series or SF equivalent Star Trek, data cannot satisfy if analysis is missing (and for the SF nerds, yes, maybe I’m cracking a joke at Data’s expense). As I noted in my previous post about O’Brian, the number of MLA-registered academic pieces on the series is a scant 32, not including the thesis that my colleague John Styles penned and almost managed to lose. How’s that low figure possible, I wonder?

The negligible academic attention paid to O’Brian (and to many other writers of a much higher impact like Terry Pratchett) apparently obeys the classic prejudice against so-called escapist fiction. In an attractive collection of articles by Neil Gaiman which I have read this summer, The View from the Cheap Seats, he wrongly attributes to C.S. Lewis a witty retort against escapism, which actually came from the mouth of Lewis’s friend, J.R.R. Tolkien: “What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and hostile to, the idea of escape?”, he asked Lewis. Tolkien himself gave, Lewis tells us, “the obvious answer: jailers”. And so, as crowds of readers enthuse over O’Brian, academics take him with pincers and in very small doses, and just because he reminds them of Jane Austen. This, in view of the frantic activity that Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin display in their journeys and of the massive research that O’Brian displays in his books, is a very lazy comparison. Yet, the academic lashing of O’Brian onto poor Jane’s back has given Jack and Stephen’s father at least a foothold onto Literary history, if only as a footnote, and what a strange one, in Austen’s modern legacy.

I don’t think that O’Brian and Manuel de Pedrolo ever met, though O’Brian, who lived in Colliure (Northern Catalonia) and created in Maturin the most important Catalan character in international literature, would have enjoyed the meeting. After all Maturin and Pedrolo share the same political views on Catalan independentism. The lesson I’m learning these days about Pedrolo is that it is not always clear why writers approach the brink of oblivion. Let me explain the case.

Pedrolo is remembered for Mecanoscrit, the best-selling, most widely read novel in the Catalan language, with sales up to 1,300,000 copies since publication in 1974 (we are approximately 10 million speakers). It turns out he loathed its success and often declared that if he’d known he’d be remembered for Mecanoscrit, the book would have never been written. In the excellent documentary by Eduard Miguel Manuel de Pedrolo: Trencant l’oblit (2015, https://vimeo.com/131804610), Antoni Munné-Jordà aptly compares Pedrolo’s case to that of French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a highly accomplished author today remembered only for the children’s book The Little Prince. Understandably, Pedrolo, who poured his endless energy into more than 120 volumes, felt chagrined that a book he regarded as a minor piece would represent all his production and even obscure his best work (the 11-volume series Temps Obert). This is why his daughter Adelais has poured her own energies but limited resources into building the Fundació Pedrolo (established 2005) to maintain the memory of her father alive. Not that this is an easy task.

When I attended this last Sunday a presentation of Pedrolo’s novel Procés de contradicció suficient, rescued and re-issued by Hugo Camacho’s small press Orciny, I learnt from Adelais de Pedrolo herself that only four of her father’s long list of books are available from Catalan bookshops. She is hopeful that by 2018, the centennial celebration of the author’s birth, the list will extend to 10 titles. I’m speaking of an author who is simply indispensable in Catalan literature, a man who was, as Jordi Coca has said, a complete Literature by himself–he wrote poetry, drama, essays, articles, memoirs, letters, short fiction, novels… and in all possible registers from the poetical experimental to the functional prose required for fast-driven plots. Yet, the bibliographical search I have been doing these days has resulted in a list of similar dimensions to the one for O’Brian in MLA, perhaps with just a few more monographic volumes but still with no major study of the works. Even more surprisingly, the number of doctoral dissertations on Pedrolo which I have located is only four, of which none has been produced by a Department of Catalan in Catalonia.

One of these dissertations was submitted in Salamanca, within a doctoral programme in aspects of Spanish fiction, which would have horrified Pedrolo. The author never appeared in the Spanish media and always maintained that Catalonia was a colonized nation. Now, here’s the paradox: having suffered terribly from the restrictions of Franco’s irrational censorship (Pedrolo was the most heavily censored writer between 1950 and 1970), he nonetheless managed to antagonize the Catalan political and literary establishment of his time. Hence, the story goes, his odd ostracizing.

According to Adelais, he was a painfully shy man who was simply bad at small talk and who hated the socializing rituals of his writing peers. Yet, if, despite having been honoured with the Premi d’Honor de les Lletres Catalanes (in 1979), he was buried in 1990 with the only company of his wife and his daughter, something else is amiss. Eduard Miguel’s documentary suggests that Pedrolo’s fierce independentism earned him the enmity of the Catalan nationalists then involved in the delicate process of the Spanish Transition. These nationalists, so the thesis goes, would have blocked Pedrolo out of any significant public positioning, implicitly including the study of his work at a university level. Arguably. Twenty-six years after his death the political situation has changed so much that Pedrolo’s opinions have been embraced by the same political party that back in 1980s labelled him a problematic writer. Yet, he does not seem to be re-emerging from academic limbo, or only very slowly. In the meantime, let’s recall, his books have been practically abandoned by those with the power to make decisions about publishing them. It seems to me that, for whatever reasons, the potential cultural capital embodied by the 1,300,000 persons who bought a copy of Mecanoscrit and its many more readers has been sadly squandered. Please, Catalan Literature colleagues, do something!

All this brings me back to my starting point: how dead writers approach the brink of oblivion. O’Brian, who died in 2000, is still alive in the many readers who praise his work. From what I see in GoodReads, he seems to be recruiting new young readers, some of whom might eventually produce the academic work that turns a popular classic into a canonical figure. Here I’m using canonical in the humble sense of worth writing about from an academic point of view, and not meaning ‘firmly in the canon’ (like, um, Jane Austen). The Anglo-American university is demonstrating a notable flexibility in the incorporation of successful, popular, cultish fiction.

The case of Pedrolo is far more worrying because there is an ill-defined ideological component interfering with the purely academic approach. The rise of independentism may benefit the cause of Pedrolo but let me tell you that I didn’t see any young readers waving independentist flags, literally or symbolically, in the presentation I attended, which was part of the Setmana del Llibre en Català. We’ll see, then, whether the 2018 centennial pushes Pedrolo away from the brink of oblivion and for the best possible reasons: our admiration for the high quality of his immense literary output.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

PHILOSOPHISING ABOUT GARDENING: A SINGULARITY OF BRITISH CULTURE

agost 16th, 2016

Although this is a short volume, it has taken me a while to read David E. Cooper’s A Philosophy of Gardens (2006), which my philosopher friend Marta Tafalla recommended to me. I had assumed that reading post-structuralist criticism had prepared me to deal with most kinds of abstract thinking in the Humanities. I was wrong. Before passages such as “The meaning of The Garden, if there is one, is what exemplary gardens exemplify. The Garden is appropriate to what it means through exemplifying it” (129), I was still baffled… Also, Cooper insists again and again that he aims to discuss ‘The Garden’ as an ideal concept, beyond its socio-cultural material realities and his is a position that I found myself resisting as a Cultural Studies specialist. I ended up eventually combining my reading of Cooper’s book with the delicious documentary mini-series presented by Monty Don, The Secret History of the British Garden (BBC, four episodes, available from YouTube).

Both Cooper, emeritus professor of Philosophy at Durham University, and Don, a popularizer or horticulture famous for presenting the BBC television series Gardeners’ World (started in 1968…), are very British in their taste for gardens. This doesn’t mean that other nations do not care for gardening (just think of Japan, or see Don’s series Around the World in 80 Gardens). What I mean is that a foreign student of British culture is often mystified by the intensity of the British devotion to gardens and gardening. When I started reading English Literature in its original version one thing I noticed is that flowers and plants were very often mentioned, of types I could by no means identify in my own two languages. I marvel at how many times I have come across the word ‘nasturtium’ in fiction. As for the famous poem with the daffodils, I learned when first reading it and trying to understand all its words that the flowers are called ‘narciso’ in Spanish (I first saw one in England…).

The Spanish gardens most often named and praised are those of la Alhambra in Granada, the royal palace at Aranjuez, the Reales Alcázares in Seville–and that’s about it (I know the list of notable gardens is much longer, but here I mean popular). The city where I live, Barcelona, is a disaster when it comes to gardens and parks. Madrid boasts of the extensive El Retiro park next door to the botanical gardens, all downtown and easily accessible. Yes, we have Ciutadella, the equivalent of Retiro in Barcelona but, discounting the zoo, it’s not as big nor as popular. The mountain of Montjuïc has several gardens (one even specialising in cactuses) but, well, it’s a mountain, which means it’s not particularly accessible, no matter what the Town Council preaches. One needs absolute determination to visit the botanical gardens there… I see park Güell from my window but, leaving the crowds of tourists aside, I find no aesthetic pleasure of the kind Cooper praises in its so-called gardens, too dusty, too unkempt.

Having enjoyed daily evening strolls in the central park of the small Spanish city where I have spent my holidays I wonder what is wrong with Barcelona and its gardens. Turó Parc, a very pretty little garden which I love, designed by the city’s most revered garderner–Nicolau Maria Rubió I Tudurí–is now in a pathetic state which is hard to believe. Something then, having to do perhaps with the merciless heat of summertime, which kills so many plants and demands constant watering, has made us, Barcelona citizens, less than keen on gardening. I see the wilting plants in the few window sills adorned with plants at all and I positively want to scream… particularly when I think of what you can see in Andalucía (extremely hot, remember?) and the north of Spain, where even the palm trees imported by the nostalgic ‘indianos’ thrive.

I don’t have a garden, that is to say, a plot of land to grow plants in, but I do have (rent…) a biggish terrace, where I battle daily with stubborn plants that refuse to stay healthy and survive the season. This is why I have read Cooper’s book with a bit of scepticism, perhaps because he does not care for the down-to-earth details of actually growing a garden. I think he makes a wonderfully valid point of remarking that the pleasure we take in gardens is distinctive, and not at all a mixed pleasure derived from our parallel enjoyments of the artistic and natural values of gardens. A garden is a garden is a garden. Now, his main philosophical argument, once the rules of appreciation have been established is that “The Garden, then, is an epiphany—a symbol, in the Romantic sense—of the relation between the source of the world and ourselves” (150). He himself jokes that you might be “liable to draw a blank” (132) if you approach you neighbour with that kind of sophisticated thought. Nonetheless, he is really in earnest when he insists that The Garden (the ideal place, not any specific garden) exemplifies “a co-dependence between human endeavour and the natural world” and is “an epiphany of man’s relationship to mystery. This relationship is its meaning” (145). In gardening, we strive to achieve the “good life (…) led ‘in the truth’”; in tending to our plants we learn “care, humility, and hope”, informed “by a sensibility towards a fundamental truth of the human condition” (157). If in tune with The Garden, we engage in an “appreciation of the place of human beings in the way of things” (157).

I see you, dear reader, raising an eyebrow, as I did, and thinking that this is overdoing it and that although parts of Cooper’s ideas ring true the whole argument is overblown. In taking care of one’s garden and in appreciating the beauty of someone else’s garden, private or public, we engage in a unique aesthetic pleasure, I grant that. Yet, I fail to see the epiphanic quality of that experience and I feel that it is a much more direct kind of pleasure, attuned to our love of being in places where you can relax and feel in peace with yourself and the world. Um, or is this what he means all in all?

Monty Don’s mini-series provided me with what I was missing in Cooper: a history of how the aristocratic privilege of owning a park and garden is in our times combined with the privilege of owning a few square metres to grow your own garden. Yes, privilege. As a working-class city dweller raised in a flat with just windows (and not even flowers in the windowsills much less fresh cut flowers in vases), I have always felt truly envious of people who could grow plants at home. As a little girl I felt envy of my grandmothers because they had each a tiny balcony to grow flowers in (to this day, I love hydrangeas because one grandma preferred them). Whenever we visited relatives in my mum’s village or saw some house with a garden outside the city, no matter how modest, I grew really moody and resentful. Just by chance I got my terrace, and now one of the main problems in my life is that I cannot afford to buy a bigger flat with an equivalent-sized terrace in absurdly overpriced Barcelona. Terraces, by the way, are often called ‘solariums’ by local real-estate agents, which gives you a clear idea of what people prefer doing with them: sunbathing.

The thought of giving up my terrace is simply inacceptable to me. Why? Because no matter how much effort municipalities may put in designing public gardens and parks for their citizens, the real privilege is not having to leave home to relax surrounded by bits of green. This is the privilege that neither Cooper nor Don address. The difference between Britain and Spain (or Catalonia) is that suburban sprawling gave the privilege of owning a garden to low-middle-class and even working-class British persons. In Catalonia geography is our enemy, for the terrain is mostly hilly and you see even in expensive ‘urbanizaciones’ houses placed in steep inclines, occupying plots in which there is hardly any room for a strip of grass. Having said that, I think that even when we have the space, either in a terrace or a proper garden, we in Spain lack the cultural background that makes gardening a rewarding activity, as it is in Britain or other countries. Perhaps, just perhaps, gardening is too close for comfort to the backbreaking agricultural work many of our grandparents fled as migrants to the city and we want no soil to dirt our hands.

Watching another documentary, I learned that the major British newspapers have ‘gardening correspondents’. Also that Prince Charles is a much more respected figure than you might think in the gardening world, which, by the way, has its long list of celebrities (Monty Don is one). I’m even beginning to worry that there might be already a discipline called ‘Garden Studies’ which I have completely missed (wait for Routledge to notice the gap…). The list of resources connected with gardening in Britain available online is simply staggering and has by no means an equivalent in Spanish (though I recommend the lengthy Wikipedia article on gardening in Spain, https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historia_de_la_jardiner%C3%ADa_en_Espa%C3%B1a). You might think that gardens make a small cultural difference, and one quite easy to overcome as everyone enjoys a beautiful garden. Yet, my impression is that this is a deeper cultural difference than it seems. Just think of how unlikely the existence of a ‘corresponsal de jardinería’ for El País or La Vanguardia is and you’ll see my point. Or try to imagine Queen Letizia showing an interest in gardens beyond the ones at la Zarzuela Palace.

One last word (or not). Here are three beautiful spots with gardens: El ‘señorío de Bértiz’ in Navarra (an extensive natural park and gardens), El Habana (a hotel with a lovely garden in La Pereda, near Llanes in Asturias) and the Casa Sorolla in Madrid, which will give you a very clear idea of the kind of privileged urban seclusion which a wealthy Spanish person might aim at in the 20th century.

May you enjoy an epiphanic moment in them.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

WORKING FOR MEN’S CHANGE (II): LESSONS FROM JOHN STOLTENBERG

agost 4th, 2016

John Stoltenberg calls himself a ‘radical feminist’ activist, though in my view he appears to be one of the few genuine anti-patriarchal male fighters. There are two reasons, however, why he prefers using ‘feminist’, as I deduce.

One is that feminism made him aware of patriarchal injustice. As he writes in his main work, Refusing to Be a Man (1989)–the volume on which I’ll comment here–“In various ways, feminism has blown like a gust of fresh air through a lifetime spent agonizing and anguishing about the place of other men in our lives”. I’m hesitating to provide this piece of information but the case is that Stoltenberg, who identifies as gay, learned his feminism from Andrea Dworkin, his partner and wife for a total 31 years. His is, then, a classic case of a man learning to defend anti-patriarchal justice from a woman he loves, though I’d rather leave aside the gossip about the actual arrangements in their marriage (I assume everyone knows that Dworkin was a leading American radical feminist). On the other hand, unlike hooks (and myself), Stoltenberg prefers calling the enemy ‘male supremacy’ rather than ‘patriarchy’. For him, all masculinity is tainted by patriarchy, which is why he calls for men to reject being a man and embrace feminism; likewise, he believes that racism can only be eliminated if white people reject whiteness. Now, if you’re a white man and you are wondering what you can call yourself if you reject these main features in your identity, the answer is ‘person’.

Reading Stoltenberg’s complaints against how Elizabeth Badinter misrepresented his position as ‘male self-hate’ in her book XY: On Masculine Identity (1992), I realised that she may have prejudiced me against his work, which is why I have taken so long to read him. However, I have found Refusing to Be a Man (which is actually a collection of essays), an extremely lucid, well-argued and sensible book, deserving to be much better known. Badinter, of course, is not to be blamed for Stoltenberg’s marginal position as an author but, rather, the immense resistance which his critique of male supremacy elicited from patriarchal men–as it was to be expected. Stoltenberg refers to “a mass retrenchment, a counter-refusal, as it were, refusing to refuse to be a man” including the “earnestly liberal academics” in Masculinities Studies. In his view, which I share in part, this discipline “does not get at the problem” of how the blatant lies upholding male supremacy survive from generation to generation. He claims that our academic approach “serves theoretically only to deceive another generation yet one more time” though I’d argue that progress is slow because there is not a male anti-patriarchal civil rights movement similar to feminism. Unlike Stoltenberg, I don’t believe that men should join feminism: rather, my view is that both women feminists and men in need of liberation should join in their common anti-patriarchal fight.

“Male supremacy”, Stoltenberg explains, “is the honest term for what is sometimes hedgingly called patriarchy” (which he limits, rather, to the father). Stoltenberg places the material penis rather than the symbolic phallus at the centre of male supremacy, complicating in this way women’s contribution to this noxious social system (see bell hooks). The biology of sex is, thus, central in his view although he stresses that both the sex itself and male supremacy are constructions. For Stoltenberg even penile sensations are socially constructed, that is to say, men do not feel during sex anything we might call natural but what male supremacists tell them they should feel (mainly, the pleasure of domination). He even denies that sex exists as a class of individuals: “The penises exist; the male sex does not”. Of course, he worries that the ‘male sex’ does exist for those who maintain it as a social construction, since this is “a political entity that flourishes only through acts of force and sexual terrorism”. In Stoltenberg’s view of male supremacy, individuals accept the “values and interests of the class”, for which the “habit” of “sexual objectification” of women is essential: “Male sexual objectifying is not simply a response to male supremacy; it functions to enforce male supremacy as well”. What perhaps surprised me most in his argumentation is the idea that “male supremacy requires homophobia in order to keep men safe from the sexual aggression of men”; without homophobia, he claims, men would be raped as often as women (think of what happens in jails).

Stoltenberg’s volume is so varied in the topics it touches that it’s truly hard to summarize his main points. I’ll have to skip, then, aspects as important as how male supremacist fathers terrorize their boys into accepting the rules of patriarchal manhood. Also the shocking idea (for me) that the penile erection which confirms male supremacy is not limited to sexual arousal but to many other mundane experiences like feeling danger. I left unfinished a complicated article in which I tried to explain terrorist bombings (including Hiroshima and Nagasaki) as the ultimate patriarchal orgasms but, if I credit Stoltenberg, I was not really wide off the mark… Let me turn then to two central topics in Refusing to Be a Man: pornography and, of course, change.

It comes as no surprise that Stoltenberg’s views on pornography are very close to those of Andrea Dworkin in her best-known volume Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981). Dworkin, together with Catharine MacKinnon, defended the view that pornography should be outlawed not depending on vague obscenity legislation but because it attacks women’s civil rights. Dworkin’s views generated a massive confrontation between feminists who decried pornography and those who defended women’s rights to choose in any matter connected with sex. She and Stoltenberg describe in their works the kind of hard-core pornography based on humiliating women that any right-thinking feminist should reject; they do not even contemplate, however, the possibility now defended by many young feminists that women may create and enjoy their own kind of pro-feminist porn. When Stoltenberg claims that “Pornography is the theory, and rape the practice” or that “Pornography tells lies about women. But pornography tells the truth about men” I tend to agree simply because like him I don’t believe that real sexual freedom, accompanied by what he calls sexual justice, exists. “Essentially”, he writes, “sexual freedom has been about preserving a sexuality that preserves male supremacy” and in which porn is central. With true equality, if that ever comes, sex will not be at the service of male supremacy and only then will we find out whether porn can be dissociated from domination, humiliation and hatred. In the meantime, yes, by all means, let’s persecute abusive porn which infringes civil and human rights. And let’s question whether we need porn at all, pro-feminist or otherwise.

Another very important point which Stoltenberg also disputes is the widespread idea that men can’t express their feelings. As a “class”, men “have always expressed their feelings, eloquently and extensively”, he observes, through religion, nationalism, militarism, the diverse social institutions and even sciences such as psychiatry: “whether or not a particular man is feeling the feeling at a particular time, the feeling is being expressed through the institutions men have made”. Logically, only if the number of “men of conscience” ready to face these institutions rises can we hope male supremacy to be shaken to its foundations. Stoltenberg, is, however, quite pessimistic about the ‘man of conscience’, for “he won’t do anything until it is clear to him how it affects him and his brethren as men”. Thinking of the men of the 1990s (the men in the decade after the book’s publication), Stoltenberg makes a series of very negative predictions, which can be summarised this way: they will do nothing but will claim this is because they don’t know what is politically correct, and will feel good nonetheless for at last discussing their feelings. I’m sorry to say that this describes very well Masculinities Studies… though to be fair the current men of conscience are still facing an extremely recalcitrant male supremacy (see my post of 27 March).

I am currently reading an excellent book by American historian Adam Hochschild focused on WWI: To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (2011). In this volume Hochschild examines how a variety of male and female activists opposed this brutal war in Britain (feminist Emmeline Pankhurst, let’s recall this, sided with the Government). Hochschild gives very many examples of how the patriarchal institutions behind the war were opposed at a very high personal cost, and thus pays homage to the individuals who changed the private and public view of the Great War. When Stoltenberg writes that “The core of one’s being must love justice more than manhood” or that “The pride to which we aspire is not in being men but in being men who…—men who are living their lives in a way that will make a difference. We must be transformers of selfhood—our own and others”, then, what is missing is a specific programme of acts of resistance that can bring about this transformation, in imitation of other movements in other historical periods.

We might argue that the liberation movements that crystallized around the time of WWI (feminism, pacifism, anti-imperialism, communism) have failed in many ways but at least they have succeeded in others. The same can be said about the anti-racist civil rights movement of the 1950s. 27 years after the publication of Stoltenberg’s denunciation of ‘male supremacy’, however, there is not yet a visible public movement engaged in its destruction with men’s massive participation–the very existence of male supremacy or of patriarchy is still denied on a daily basis despite the evidence that links couple-related abuse and widespread military terrorism. Women are certainly divided between feminists and patriarchal collaborators but at least feminism has made us aware of the division and of who our enemy is. In men’s case, patriarchy totally prevails thanks to having convinced men that there is no possible collective action against it; I even suspect that the figure of the outsider has been glamourised to pre-empt, precisely, any collective anti-patriarchal reaction. Patriarchy tolerates the partial erosion of some of its main tenets (misogyny, homophobia, racism, slavery, militarism, capitalism) at particular points but has so far managed to survive by pretending it’s not open to change because it is basic human nature. How long for we are going to accept this appalling lie is really up to us.

Refuse being a man, and refuse being a woman. Let’s all be persons.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

WORKING FOR MEN’S CHANGE (I): LESSONS FROM BELL HOOKS

agost 4th, 2016

[I’m still enjoying my three-week summer break, which is why I feel today particularly rusty. In academic terms, my holidays consists of a) not answering work-related email and b) not thinking of my extremely busy agenda from next week onwards. Beyond this and as all academics do, I’m reading all I can manage between outings. Above all, I’m enjoying the luxury of thinking about what I read in leisure, which is why we academics should have much longer holidays… The holiday also explains why this post comes in two instalments.]

Today’s post will turn out to be intensely personal for I wish to deal with the thorny topic of patriarchal man’s recalcitrance in the face of necessary change and I know of no more recalcitrant patriarch than my father. His unwillingness to change despite the universal criticism and rejection of his appalling private and public behaviour is the colossal rock against which my own personal feelings and my training as a Masculinities Studies specialist crash again and again. This is why I always find some kind of comfort in reading about other Gender Studies male and female activists who also have the misfortune of having terrible, unmanageable, uncaring fathers. In this case, the volume providing some solace this summer is bell hooks’ The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love (2004).

I find myself quite comfortable with bell hooks’ ideas for I share many points in her own brand of feminism, which she calls, perhaps excessively, ‘visionary’. To begin with, I do agree that 1970s radical feminism was too angry “to imagine a culture of reconciliation where women and men might meet and find common ground”, based on forming a shared front against patriarchy. Like hooks, I stress all the time a most basic point: one thing is patriarchy and another masculinity–there’s no reason at all for masculinity to be always patriarchal, and it is in men’s interests as much as in women’s to get rid of patriarchy, the ugliest system of social organization ever invented. Patriarchy needs to be outed and named again and again as our common enemy, for its most insidious piece of social engineering is pretending that it is simple human nature, thus pre-empting any possible alternatives.

Like hooks, I have often placed myself in the very uncomfortable position of telling other feminist women that hating men (that is, engaging in androphobia or misandria in response to misogyny) leads nowhere, for we happen to share the planet with them. Some radical feminist SF writers have imagined in many stories what life would be like without men and, tempting as some of these stories might be, I don’t wish to participate in the extermination of the male half of the human species if only in our imagination. Like hooks, I’d rather build bridges among what often feels like separate alien species. At the same time, I do belong to the collective which wishes on a daily basis that particular men die so that the suffering they cause may end. This is our only hope in a situation in which patriarchal men simply refuse to change though, here’s the downside, wishing that someone dies feels terrible–a black hole sucking into the void the positive energy required to build those necessary bridges.

“Men cannot change”, hooks writes, “if there are no blueprints for change”. Here’s the question, though: who will provide the blueprints? We, the feminist women who believe in men, have been trying to help for decades now with an alarmingly low rate of success. hooks argues that, paradoxically, women love patriarchal men despite their not loving us back (“they would cease to be real ‘men’”) because our longing for “father love” overwhelms our better judgement. Also, I would add, because we believe against all evidence in the power of love to transform men–you see how cheesy this sounds. Thus, hooks plunges fearlessly into total sentimentalism when she argues that “the deep inner misery of men” springs from a “longing for love” that we, “feminist thinkers” must dare “to examine, explore, and talk about”. Patriarchal culture “really does not care if men are unhappy”, which is why it provides no outlets for the expression of feeling and, so, “The masculine pretence is that real men feel no pain”. Quite provokingly, hooks accuses women of not wanting “to deal with male pain if it interferes with the satisfaction of female desire” for a ‘real’ man.

Her recipe, then, looks something like this: find unhappy men, listen to them, sympathise with their woes, explain how patriarchy works, offer comfort, provide the blueprint for change. Been there, done that, and quite often, since I was a teenager. However, and this is where I diverge from hooks, a woman needs to be careful when choosing who to invest her sympathy on. As she notes, the only emotion that patriarchy values is anger and, as most victims of couple-related abuse can tell you, this often bursts out when the woman is offering emotional empathy: if there is a thing which recalcitrant patriarchs hate is being exposed as (in their view) weak men before ‘inferior’ women. Quite logically, then, “Fear keeps us from being close to the men in our lives; it keeps us from love” for too often our attempts to approach these men have been rebuked with violence, either verbal or physical.

Unlike hooks, then, I have learned to distinguish between deserving and non-deserving men, that is, between potential allies in the anti-patriarchal struggle and downright patriarchs. The former are the object of all my love, respect, interest and attention. The others I hate with the passion of 1,000 radical 1970s feminists for there is NOTHING to love in them. I have made mistakes in my life, like any other woman, but at the ripe age of 50 I am experienced enough to know when argument (whether emotional or rational) will make no inroads into patriarchal brains. I no longer speak, then, of ‘men’ in general but of two classes of men: ‘patriarchal men’ and (hopefully) ‘anti-patriarchal men’, or, simply, good men. To make my point clear, suppose you are an anti-Nazi person trying to survive in 1940s Germany: surely, you would try to find allies of your same ideology to build a common anti-Nazi front and would never make the mistake of trying to persuade Nazis that all they need is love. So, yes, hooks does sound quite naïve by proposing that we learn to love men in general…

“To create loving men”, hooks writes, “we must love males”. Obviously, as she highlights, this passes through loving boys, of which the highest measure is teaching them to avoid the patriarchal pitfalls as soon as possible. As things are now, families, including new-style fathers, have learned to love their boys much better; however, as everyone knows, patriarchal society is so all-pervading that an anti-patriarchal father’s love provides hardly any protection against the bullies his boy will find at all levels. We women can love men as much as we can but if men still hate each other in order to prove their patriarchal credentials there is little we can contribute to changing their ways. It’s really up to men… Like hooks, I’m aware that women contribute much to upholding patriarchy, whether as victims or as perpetrators and it is true that often sons who wish to free themselves from patriarchy have to fight both father and mother. Indeed, few fathers and mothers understand that their behaviour is conditioned by patriarchy’s need to renew itself; this is why the monster needs to be named, exposed and destroyed. The point of the brutal patriarchal psychological violence parents inflict on children is to “reinforce a dominator model” of “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” which few see with as much clarity as hooks. So, yes, let’s name it as often as we can.

I must also agree with hooks when she writes that patriarchy “promotes insanity”. Patriarchal men lash out against children and women because they cannot get satisfaction out of their lives, having been promised a degree of power and respect they never earned nor deserved. “The patriarchal manhood that was supposed to satisfy does not”, hooks sentences, adding that “by the time this awareness emerges, most patriarchal men are isolated and alienated”. Rage serves “as the perfect cover, masking feelings of fear and failure”; anger, she observes, “often hides depression and profound sorrow”. It is also a formidable barrier. My own father appears to be a textbook case: nothing any member of my family can say to help him out of his rage resonates with him; he sees himself, rather, as a deeply misunderstood man, a victim of our collective ill-will against him.

“To this day,” hooks writes, “I hear individual feminist women express their concern for the plight of men within patriarchy, even as they share that they are unwilling to give their energy to help educate and change men”. I close this post with the same thought I closed her book: a man can only wish to be educated and change if a) he understands what patriarchy is, b) he is willing to abandon it. Yet this is a classic example of tail biting: a man dazzled by patriarchy will reject all attempts to be re-educated and, as patriarchy works now, already baby boys are too stepped in its mystique to embrace an alternative. So, when exactly are we to save boys from patriarchy? And how does hooks expect to establish any kind of conversation with the adult patriarchs? Going back to Nazi Germany, this is charging the Jews with the task of convincing Hitler and company to abandon their evil ways.

It seems to me that we, feminist women, can help to educate the good men we come across into our anti-patriarchal stance. Then it’s up to them to take the front line in the fight against the patriarchal aggressors. Turn now to my next post to see what happens in this case…

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JANE AUSTEN FOR BOYS?: ENJOYING MALE INTIMACY IN THE AUBREY-MATURIN SERIES BY PATRICK O’BRIAN

juliol 13th, 2016

An important function of film adaptations is calling the attention of potential readers to works they would have missed otherwise. I am one of the many readers who became familiarized with the world of the Aubrey-Maturin series by English writer Patrick O’Brian thanks to Peter Weir’s excellent film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). Supposing I saw the film in 2004 this means that it has taken me 12 long years to finally come round and start reading the novel series. Why? The obvious reason: there are 20 volumes (1969-2004). And I was busy in the meantime going through a similar number of volumes by Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin in his series on rebellious Detective Inspector John Rebus. This led, incidentally, to an article, “Aging in F(r)iendship: ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty and John Rebus” (Clues: A Journal of Detection, 29:2, 2011, 73-82, http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116052), which might now be obsolete depending on events in Even Dogs in the Wild, which I have not read yet. Since O’Brian died in 2000 there is no danger, sorry to be so callous, of yet another Aubrey-Maturin novel unless, that is, someone decides to continue the series, left unfinished at the author’s death.

Sooner or later English Literature specialists come across O’Brian’s name as this is often coupled with that of Jane Austen. Even though two centuries separate both authors, O’Brian’s saga is placed in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), which are also the background of much of Austen’s fiction. As every specialist knows, there is now an ongoing academic operation to claim that despite the scant references to historical and political events, Austen’s novels are perfectly grounded in the public national reality of her time meaning that they are much more than just domestic fiction. I am personally quite irritated by this stance since it suggests that domestic fiction needs to be muscled up to be really ‘serious’ literature and, to be honest, I find the whole operation quite sexist. Austen is perfect at what she does and I see no need to distort it by pretending it is something else, whether political or feminist fiction. O’Brian does not have at all the kind of reputation that Austen enjoys, suffering from the opposite condition: his novels are too often seen as ‘just’ genre fiction, whether this is adventure or historical fiction and, even worse, as just pap aimed at unsophisticated male readers. Both opinions are quite wrong as a) O’Brian’s work is the product of impressive philological research on the language of the early 19th century, which makes them, at least in my view, literary enough, b) check GoodReads and you will see that I’m far from being the only woman addicted to them.

Did I say addicted? Yes. I’m writing this post to try to explain to myself what on Earth I am doing devouring fiction dominated by naval battles of which I only understand a tiny part, as O’Brian’s nautical vocabulary is colossal. Before I forget, let me say that the Aubrey-Maturin series deals primarily with the friendship between English Navy captain Jack Aubrey and his ship surgeon Stephen Maturin, an illegitimate child born to an Irish father and a Catalan mother who grows up to be a physician, keen naturalist and sly spy. If I recall correctly, the compound Irish-Catalan is never mentioned in the film, in which Paul Bettany plays an English-accented, much prettier version of Maturin. So, yes, here’s one reason for my being hooked: Maturin is a fierce independentist in his two national identities and Catalan is one of his mother tongues. O’Brian was a resident of Colliure in Southern France (or Northern Catalonia) which is why he’s very well informed about our tongue. Yet, the ones who are not paying attention are Catalans themselves, as I have found no article, academic or otherwise, analyzing ‘Esteva’ Maturin. He is, after all, the most prominent Catalan character at an international level so far.

However, I know that this is not the main reason behind my addiction. Let me backtrack. I have read so far three volumes and I’m into the fourth one. When I started Master and Commander (1969) I was so dismayed by the vocabulary that I decided to keep my cell phone at hand to check on the bits and pieces of each ship. I must have looked pretty desperate because this led my husband, concerned that I would spoil my eyesight, to buying me a tablet… I did the corresponding MLA search, found a few articles on O’Brian and Austen (an issue to which I’ll return), and on the novels’ genre but nothing on the Aubrey-Maturin friendship, nor a book covering the whole series. Asking around, I found out that there is indeed a dissertation written by none other that a dear colleague at URV, John Style: Patrick O’Brian, Questions of Genre (1998). I contacted John at once but, oh my!, he has no computer files of his thesis. A print copy is now waiting on my desk for me to read. There is here some kind of lesson about our undervaluing our own research…

So, anyway, I read Post Captain (1972) and that was it. HMS Surprise (1973) followed and seeing that I’m running the risk of losing track of any other fiction I should be reading, I told myself that I would alternate O’Brian with other books. The result was that I found myself rushing through Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice to return to Jack and Stephen. I’m now sailing towards the Pacific Ocean in The Mauritius Command (1977).

Leckie’s space opera made me see that there is somehow little difference between the spaceships of the future and the tall ships of the past, which might be an advantage for me as a reader of the Aubrey-Maturin series. I’m used to coping with all kinds of weird neologisms in SF which is possibly why I’m quite patient with O’Brian’s nautical lingo (more or less). Austen might also be a factor as, particularly in Post Captain, O’Brian does a wonderful job of showing the men’s side in her time. In this novel Jack is the new neighbour in want of a wife soon beset by a widow with five marriageable daughters, a harpy who puts Mrs Bennett’s feeble efforts to shame. In O’Brian’s intensely masculine world men are very imperfect and, as captain, Jack struggles to discipline his unruly men taking it for granted that turning them into decent fellows must be his priority (he loves a ‘happy ship’). He himself and Stephen are far from being Darcys in public and go to odd lengths in private that would scare away many women. I’m sure, though, that Austen would have enjoyed the humour: O’Brian puzzles Mrs Williams tremendously by having Jack employ his own seamen to run his house –she can’t understand why there are no women there. Nor what role Stephen plays.

So here we go: the main attraction of the novels is the intimacy between the two friends. This is a word which O’Brian uses himself whenever he needs to explain how Jack and Stephen are friends and on what implicit rules their intimate bond relies. A female friend who disliked Weir’s film told me she was annoyed they didn’t clearly say that Jack and Stephen are gay. Well, they are not. As I have argued in my most recent publication (“The Loving Soldier: Vindicating Men’s Friendship in Ernest Raymond’s Tell England: A Study in a Generation (1922) and Wilfrid Ewart’s The Way of Revelation (1921)”, http://www.brill.com/products/book/writings-persuasion-and-dissonance-great-war) paradoxically the unmasking by Gay and Queer Studies of male affection as repressed desire has negatively affected the representation of male friendship. I have no doubt that O’Brian was a homophobe as ‘sodomites’ are mocked in the novels but I simply do not think that we reach a deeper understanding of friendship by claiming that Jack and Stephen secretly desire each other. They do not. One can insist that Jack’s paramour Sophie and Stephen’s femme fatale Diana are inserted in the text precisely to dispel any hints of homosexuality. Again: this is missing the point, which is that (asexual) friendship (probably) is a far more important bond in the lives of many people than overrated love, not to mention extremely overrated sex. I wrote the article amazed by how the male characters in both novels express downright love for each other and although I still jump every time Stephen calls Jack ‘joy’, ‘heart’, ‘soul’ and I don’t know what else, and Jack reciprocates in his own away, I’m getting used to the idea that not all human affection needs sex as an outlet.

This, in the end, is the reason why men and women love the Aubrey-Maturin series: as happened in WWI, which provided men with an excuse to express affection beyond the usual homophobic restrictions of ordinary life, the Napoleonic War sea battles provide male readers with an excuse to enjoy this extraordinary intimacy between these two disinhibited men. As for women, everyone knows we’ll go to any lengths for a drop of intimacy –including having to read about extremely violent but also extremely boring naval engagements. Also, after Austen, I enjoy reading about men who are less than perfect, not at all good-looking, even coarse and, yet, good company to each other… and to the reader. Jack and Stpehen are both extraordinary and incredibly real, and I think this is why I must praise O’Brian.

Um… 16 novels to enjoy…

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FROM MECANOSCRIT TO TYPESCRIPT: TRANSLATING PEDROLO (AND THE QUIRKS OF INTERNATIONAL CULTURAL COMMUNICATION)

juliol 7th, 2016

Allow me to take Manuel de Pedrolo (1918-1990) as the centre of the argumentation I want to develop here. Pedrolo is a key author of Catalan literature, to which he contributed about 100 works in all genres (poetry, drama, novel, journalism) and also his translations of first-rank international work by American and European novelists. He was also the author, as I explained in my previous post, of the best-selling Catalan novel ever, Mecanoscrit del segon origen (1974). He worked, in addition, at all literary levels: from the popular (he made significant contributions to detective fiction and to science-fiction) to the post-modern experimental.

Now, if you check the very useful data base TRAC (Traduccions del català) available from the website of the Institut Ramon Lull (http://www.llull.cat/catala/quiesqui/trac_traduccions.cfm), you will see that his name appears only 46 times –mostly translations of Mecanoscrit. This is the only book of his translated into French. Pedrolo has been translated into German only four times and in all cases within short story anthologies; once, in identical circumstances, into Russian. In English the only translations of Pedrolo’s works are Final trajectory (trans. Albert M. Forcadas & Selley Quinn, New York, Carlton Press, 1985) and Touched by fire (trans. Peter Griffin, New York, Peter Lang, 1993). Mecanoscrit, by the way, has been translated into Castilian, Galician and Basque within Spain, and abroad into Dutch, French, Rumanian, Portuguese, Italian, Bulgarian, Estonian, and Macedonian.

As it is obvious from my previous post, I’m extremely happy to have had the chance to translate Mecanoscrit into English for the first time ever. Luckily for me, this is a shortish novel (45,000 words only), otherwise the task would have been absolutely daunting. Translating from one’s own language into a second language one does not speak as a native is a complete nightmare, as you can never be sure of what you’re doing in the same way natives are. Of course, native speakers also need to have a very deep knowledge of their own language but at least they have a clearer sense of what sounds ‘correct’. I did consider working in tandem with a native speaker but finally decided to face the translation alone and rely on a good number of English readers for corrections and suggestions. I have only translated one book –the collection Siete relatos góticos: Del papel a la pantalla, which I myself edited, see http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116808) – and I must say that I have great admiration for translators, for their task is incredibly difficult. In the case of Mecanoscrit the main obstacle for me turned out to be the most common words, those instances in which a second-language speaker is lost in a sea of get, have, do… I’m certainly happy that the work is done and that my translation will reach the 800 Eurocon participants, hopefully also American readers through Wesleyan UP. And, no, I have not received any fees yet; besides, I am embarrassed to apply for grants as, after all, I’m an tenured academic with a regular salary and not a self-employed translator. I would be actually happier to find a sponsor for Wesleyan.

Apart from the translation itself, and the edition of the trilingual volume this summer, I have produced a good number of shorter documents about Pedrolo and Mecanoscrit, including an entry for the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction. It just turns out that the ESF does not have an entry on Catalan SF, and so I asked Antoni Munné-Jordà to write one, which I translated (our two entries are currently being edited by John Clute, who welcomed very warmly my offer to write them). To my infinite surprise, Antoni sent me an article longer than the corresponding ESF entry for Spanish SF, which opens up the chance to expand the Catalan presence in ESF with many other entries. The question is where I am going to find the contributors among the Catalan Literature specialists… I happen to be the board member in charge of academic contacts of the Societat Catalana de Ciència-Ficció i Fantasia and, well, that should be my main task. I’m also editing for the online academic journal Alambique the first monographic volume in any language on Mecanoscrit (to be published in August in 2017 in English, and then to be followed by the Catalan version).

But, wait a minute, you must be thinking: aren’t you an English Studies specialist? Yep! Will all this work on Catalan fiction count for your CV? Nope! So… why do it? The obvious answer is that this is an academic labour of love, the kind you do because you love a certain book. The situation is, however, much more complicated than it seems at first sight.

To begin with, translations of any kind are not considered as proper academic work in Spain and, so, do not count for research assessment –even when they are critical editions. We, academics, produce them anyway because we think they are a relevant part of our jobs, particularly in the case of those of us working in second-language areas. ‘English Literature’, supposing you can imagine it as a single entity, can trust that we’ll do the job of transferring to our languages its most relevant works. Nonetheless, as we know very well, not even the immensely important Anglophone Literature can be certain that it is fully represented in other languages. Think now of minor language Literatures, like Catalan, with a very restricted circle of academics preaching its beauties abroad and you’ll see the problem. We, Catalan speakers, need to cross our fingers and hope that someone will choose to put their energy into doing us the favour of translating our works. And the money, of course.

Literary translation is, I’m trying to say, an extremely haphazard process. It would make perfect sense for each language to have a body of experts whose job would be to ensure that an agreed-upon list of works received translations into the major languages. No such body exists, as far as I know. In Catalonia the Institut Ramon Llull offers grants to translators and for the promotion of Catalan culture abroad but these depend on the applicants. I might be wrong but, apparently, no Catalan organism is checking that our most prominent authors are indeed translated. The problem, as it is obvious, is that many relevant authors in one language are completely unknown in another. This, by the way, affects both the classics and the contemporary works for the root of the problem is finding a readership big enough to guarantee business.

After all, translations are published by companies that expect to make a profit and there is no way around this hurdle. Unless, that is, official institutions decide to invest money in making these translations available themselves (perhaps as ebooks). This might be expensive but, even so, relatively cheap thinking of the authors whose copyright has expired. In the case of writers whose copyright needs to be respected the problem, of course, is that local publishing houses expect to get foreign rights fees. There is, nonetheless, a world of difference between the benefits that a first-rank living author may bring and the very limited market open to someone living but less prominent or someone dead and little known abroad.

So, back to Mecanoscrit: no native English-speaking Catalan Studies specialist has offered to translate this book. Local native Catalan specialists may translate foreign works into Catalan but they do not translate Catalan literature into other languages; hence, nobody has volunteered, either. This is how I have found myself at this strange crossroads: I’m a Catalan native speaker with an English solid enough (excuse me!) to attempt the translation. The rules of the translation game, however, are limited as regards the circulation of the translation: we, the Eurocon team, are very lucky that we have permission from Planeta, who owns the rights on Mecanoscrit, to publish the trilingual volume, and, most crucially, a sponsor, the Institut d’Estudis Ilerdence. Planeta is willing enough to have Wesleyan UP publish the translation but, logically, Wesleyan worries that there are not enough potential readers in the USA to cover the expenses. Since the commercial publishing houses I have contacted have not even replied to my emails, if Wesleyan rejects the translation Typescript of the Second Origin risks remaining in a limbo. I could try to convince somehow Planeta to let me find a public online platform to publish Typescript –like my university’s repository or others– but, of course, they’ll demand a fee. And who is to pay for that? So you see the conundrum. Now apply this to any other case you might know about and if you find a brilliant solution, do let me know.

To be continued…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

TYPESCRIPT OF THE SECOND ORIGIN: THE MASTERPIECE OF CATALAN SCIENCE FICTION

juliol 5th, 2016

[Please, note: This is the prologue I have written for the trilingual edition of Manuel de Pedrolo’s Mecanoscrit del segon origen (1974). The text explains why and how it has been produced.]

When I joined the team in charge of organizing the Barcelona Eurocon, back in the autumn of 2015, little could I imagine that I would fulfil one of my dreams as a reader turned into English Studies specialist: translating into English the extremely popular novel by Manuel de Pedrolo Mecanoscrit del segon origen (hereafter, Typescript of the Second Origin). Someone—apparently Cristina Macía—had come up with the brilliant idea of commemorating our Eurocon with a trilingual edition of the book (Catalan / Spanish / English); this would be given to the 800 participants of the event, thus helping to place Pedrolo on the map of the best European science fiction. When I learned about the project through fellow organizers Hugo Camacho and David Alcoy—with I whom I have collaborated in the task of producing it—I naively asked who would take care of the translation into English. This was one of those questions that one asks despite knowing that they will lead to unpredictable consequences (and much hard work). Of course, had I been given the name of another translator my disappointment would have been immense. I was fortunate, therefore, to be in the right place and at the right moment to fulfil, as I say, one of my dreams.

As Antoni Munné-Jordà explains [in his own foreword about Pedrolo] Typescript (1974) appeared just at the time when Catalan literature could finally be made part of secondary education (from 1976 onwards). I myself am one of the beneficiaries of this new breath of wind and of the collective decision by Catalan Literature teachers to trust Pedrolo to interest us, young students, in reading. The copy of Typescript that I have been using as the basis for the translation into English is the one I bought in 1980 for my first year in secondary school—already the ninth edition of the 1976 book in the series ‘El cangur’ of Edicions 62. The cover shows an image iconic for my entire generation: that of a young woman, her face half-covered by her black hair, riding a huge tractor and staring at the horizon. Alba starts on the road towards survival aged only 14, the age I myself was when my teachers invited us to read the book—I cannot vouch for the impact which Pedrolo’s story had among the boys but I can declare with no hesitation that brave Alba became for us 1980s Catalan girls a simply wonderful role model. This felt, at the same time, very natural. We were then so young that we just did not know about the many restrictions limiting girls in post-Franco Spain and Catalonia (and that still apply…). Alba was definitely what we needed as women: a born survivor. Hence my dream to share with the world her story in English.

Alba’s example still persists: just a few weeks ago one of my students, thirty years younger than me, told the class that Typescript is her favourite book. Quite perplexed, she also confessed that she had not realized that Pedrolo’s novel is science-fiction. This statement in turn caused great perplexity among the SF fans in class: after all, Pedrolo narrates a post-apocalyptic story of survival, prompted by the destruction by extraterrestrials of all mammals (both human and animal), with very few exceptions. The terrifying vision of Barcelona devastated by the lethal vibrations used by the visitors, and with most of its buildings collapsed, is unforgettable. At this point, however, I can only speculate about why the teachers who aroused such passion for Typescript in us young readers chose not to teach this novel as science fiction but as… literature. Perhaps this decision—if a decision was ever made, maybe our teachers simply were not aware of the codes of SF—was, after all, a wise one; at the time Typescript was too close for comfort to the still very popular pulp SF novelettes sold by newsagents.

Typescript of the Second Origin is the most widely read work in Catalan literature; however, since it is not read mainly as SF, this may have prevented Catalonia from becoming a powerful generator of works in this genre. This statement may seem very unfair in view of the extensive bibliography compiled by Munné-Jordà himself (see the Archive of the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Catalan Society at http://www.sccff.cat/) and the SF series he directs (for Pagès Editors). There is no doubt at all that Catalan SF is plentiful and of good quality but in no way can it be said to be popular, as Typescript certainly is. If we asked the thousands and thousands who have read Pedrolo’s novel to name another SF Catalan author, only a tiny minority would pass the test.

I confess that one of my fears when undertaking the translation of Typescript was that it would not measure up to my powerful memory of the book. I had actually re-read it at least twice in the past, finding it still as satisfactory as any other classic read in adolescence. However, my biggest fear was that the intense reading which translation requires would reveal all its defects. In part this has been indeed the case: Pedrolo wrote very hurriedly and without many revisions, and I must confess that a couple of sentences have been absolutely impossible to understand. Typescript, in short, is not a literary masterpiece of the same rank as the perfect The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by R.L. Stevenson; yet it has the kind of imperfect charm that has turned other novels, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, into universal classics. That Typescript endures well the passage of time was for me proven by the capacity of its final segment still to move readers very deeply (at least those of us who love the book). Despite being concerned about the linguistic precision required to translate the book, Alba and Dídac’s fate once more touched me to the core. I hope its new readers will be likewise moved.

Although the ideal age to read Typescript, as I have said, is 14, I would insist that Pedrolo’s novel can find new readers among all ages. Adelais de Pedrolo, the author’s daughter—possibly the inspiration for Alba, though she denies it—confirms that her father never intended Typescript to be fiction just for young readers. The novel did certainly find a large young readership, but, then, in 1974 when Typescript was published, there were no boundaries between young and adult fiction. The label ‘young adult’ (YA), so popular today, arose precisely in the 1970s and in the English-speaking world partly to appeal to those adolescents less interested in reading, selling them products mostly designed to accommodate their preferences. Today it might seem that Typescript is part of this trend, simply because it is a very accessible book that has very often been read in a school context. I think, however, that reducing Typescript to the any specific age readership is doing it a disservice.

One last word on the volume now in the hands of the reader: this book is a labour of love, a long-deserved homage to Manuel Pedrolo and to his Typescript of the Second Origin. The initial impulse could not have materialized without the generosity of the Fundació Pedrolo headed by Ms. Adelais de Pedrolo and of Group 62, which have allowed us to reproduce the Catalan original. Planeta has also given kind permission for the reproduction of the Spanish translation made by Domingo Santos in 1975. The inclusion of Santos’s translation in our volume is also part of the homage that Barcelona’s Eurocon wishes to pay to one of the main personalities of Spanish SF. On my side, I must explain that since English is not my native language I would not have dared to publish the translation of Typescript without first having it pass through the careful scrutiny of several English readers. I would like to express here my deepest gratitude to Josie Swarbrick, Felicity Hand, David Owen, Donna Scott, and especially to Ian Watson, who has taught me that the art of translation is the art of good writing (at least, the art of doing one’s best). Of course, the mistakes—and I hope they are few—are my own responsibility.

Finally, on behalf of the whole Eurocon team and of the Societat Catalana de Ciència-Ficció i Fantasia, I would like to thank the Institut d’Estudis Ilerdencs of the Diputació de Lleida for the warmth, kindness and generosity with which they have supported our project. There was a time when the endeavour of publishing our dream trilingual volume seemed even more fantastic than the story Pedrolo narrates in Typescript. It is impossible to convey fully the joy we feel at the chance of making available to all European readers Pedrolo’s novel in this first English translation. We do hope that Typescript will soon be recognized as a universal classic.

[PS: my manuscript is currently in the hands of an American university press, Wesleyan, which hopefully will publish it. Please, keep your fingers crossed for me and, above all, for Pedrolo. And if you can in any way help, I’ll be very, very grateful.]

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE BODY AND THE BODIES: AGAINST UNIVERSALISM (IN AFFECT THEORY AND IN HORROR FILM)

juny 29th, 2016

I have read with great pleasure Xavier Aldana Reyes’s new volume, Horror Film and Affect: Towards a Corporeal Model of Viewership (Routledge). I’m very proud to see how he is fast progressing into being a truly first-rank academic, as it is always delightful for a teacher to see how someone who used to sit in her classes is now producing such excellent academic work. As happens, my review of Xavi’s previous book, Body Horror, has just been published, long after I actually wrote (see: http://atlantisjournal.org/index.php/atlantis/article/view/359). This time, however, rather than write a review (the book is outstanding, believe me) I’ll delve into my disagreements with Xavi’s theorisation of the body in Horror (capitalized to mean the genre).

The model of viewership he offers is not just corporeal but, to be precise, corporeal-affective. As he puts it, “corporeal threat is by far the most common affective experience in Horror and (…) a more rounded understanding of how Horror seeks to make the viewer experience fear is necessary” (16). Certainly, I couldn’t agree more: basically, when we see Horror films, we fear for our bodies because, as Xavi (sorry, I can’t call him Aldana Reyes) argues very well, we connect with the threatened bodies on the screen through ‘somatic empathy’ (itself generated by ‘sensation mimicry’). We do not really feel identified with the characters (actually in many cases we may feel no sympathy at all) but we appear to feel with our bodies, as if these were their bodies. Correcting a generalized impression, Xavi argues that the Horror film viewer is not a sadist but a masochist, although here’s my first disagreement: hearing viewers very vocally demand that this or that is perpetrated on a victim’s body in the cinemas of Sitges during the popular fantastic film festival, I doubt very much that all viewers are masochists. Let’s suppose for the sake of argumentation that these bullies are just 5% of the audience and that they are not the intended target audience of the filmmakers. Even so, the risk exists to activate affects that go in the sadistic direction.

Sorry, but I know besides that this kind of reaction is much more common among men when watching female bodies under attack in Horror films than among women seeing male bodies destroyed (women are generally more empathetic). Xavi’s volume, however, is very clear regarding why he will not consider gender: “Arguing for the continued need for studies that highlight gendered representations, I propose instead that the body in Horror, as far as its affective powers are concerned (and here I mean their capacity to scare and horrify, not to titillate sexually, which is not a general intention of most Horror) is largely ungendered” (16). But how do you separate the horror from the sexual titillation, if only in that hypothetical 5%? I absolutely agree with Xavi that the feminist/psychoanalytical approach used by Barbara Creed in her seminal The Monstrous Feminine (1993)–based on Julia Kristeva’s notions of the abject as discussed in Powers of Horror (1982)–is not useful to illuminate how Horror film works. I praise Xavi for his demolition job and for cutting the Gordian knot: very obviously, when you’re seeing films like The Thing the fear you experience has nothing to do with “the primacy of the maternal body as principal guide or indicator of abjection” (29). It has everything to do, in contrast, with the state of special effects in the year that film was made, 1982, and with director John Carpenter’s skills in mixing image, sound, music, etc. Xavi, therefore, proposes that we liberate Kristeva’s abjection from the “psychoanalytical remit” (44), and re-conceptualize it as ‘fearful disgust’, which can be felt by any human being –any body.

Thus, he observes: “Because my approach entails a de-gendering of images of abjection, this means that the nature of affect needs to be theorised regardless of the gender or sexuality of the viewer and characters, and rather in terms of viewers’ acquaintance, tolerance and enjoyment of images of abjection” (71). Fair enough. Or is it? Accepting the importance of the cultural factors associated with the production and enjoyment of Horror films, but refusing to produce sociological analysis, Xavi stresses that his study is “theoretical and wishes to look at the way Horror ideally affects viewers” (98, my emphasis). This is where I begin to object, and quite strongly.

Affect Theory cannot be pinned down with precision for it is rather quite a heterogeneous collection of conflicting currents. However, at the core of the area there seems to be a staunch belief that the universal body exists in the same way the body exists for Medicine. This is propounded on the basis of the neuro-scientific foundation on which Affect Theory rests. I have, however, very serious doubts that the body exists in the sense intended here.

Surely, we are all one singular body and at the same time part of the universal body, a construction without which Medicine could not work. This science relies on the assumption that all human bodies function in exactly the same way, which is why, naturally, its techniques (from medication to surgery) are universally valid. That must be also the reason why every time I visit a new doctor and see them look at my body without caring who I am, I feel so confused. Anyway, I digress. Affect Theory, and generally speaking, neurology and the ever expanding neuro-sciences, are also applying the universalist view to the delicate connection between brain and mind. You can see by my recent posts that the study of this connection is slowly creeping into the Humanities, with, arguably, little resistance. This is, I believe, due to our low self-esteem and to the generalized belief that ‘scientists know best’. This new fashion is, however something that I dispute. As doctors know, Medicine is not mathematics and bodies respond differently both to disease and to treatment. If the condition of your heart and your clogging arteries is cultural (i.e. directly connected to your consumption of the toxic food on offer in your society), what is the ground to believe that affect is not also conditioned by culture? Meaning, in short, that I don’t believe that a theoretical model of corporeal-affective viewership can ignore particular bodies.

This is not, by the way, sociology but Cultural Studies and, in particular, Reception Studies (and Theory, if you wish). As Xavi points out, one inconvenient of studying Horror film viewers in a laboratory situation is that the ‘artificial’ environment conditions their response. Fair enough: visit the Sitges film festival. There you’ll notice a few interesting things. One is the age of audiences–you always find veterans who never lose their taste for Horror but the viewers are predominantly young (16-35). Also, let’s be frank about this, of the type colloquially called ‘nerd’, which, yes, does call for some kind of sociological study. Among them, the presence of girls has been growing in recent decades and it is now not much lower than the presence of boys. Young women are certainly enjoying Horror films in a way unthinkable for, say, the generation born in the 1940s; you certainly don’t see groups of nattily dressed elderly ladies queuing at the Sitges cinemas. If you asked the viewers why they enjoy Horror, you would get many incoherent answers, which is why academic theorisation is absolutely necessary. In this sense, my impression is that curiosity possibly plays a bigger role than we assume. Without leaving culture and personal identity aside at all, quite the opposite. Much less gender.

As I read Horror Film and Affect, I found myself considering whether I wanted to see some of the most extreme films analyzed there. As I have already noted here, Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) meant the end of my interest in Gothic Studies, as my ‘somatic empathy’ was too high to allow for any kind of enjoyment (also I totally rejected being academically complicit in the success of a film based on torture). Yet, reading about Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008), which appears to be far more graphic in its depiction of torture than Hostel, I felt dominated by curiosity (academic or personal, I’m not sure). Funnily, my husband already had this notorious film in his list of Horror films to see. I don’t think, however, that my curiosity will overcome my somatic empathy. I’ll rely, then, on his report…

Now, this somatic empathy is an emotion provoked by the affects that participate in Horror films’ effectiveness but also a cultural factor–a crucial one. It is what has made us reject the use of (legal?) torture universally, beyond our beliefs in human rights. It turns out, in the end, that the ideal body that enjoys seeing Horror film is by no means universal: not only because somatic empathy is absolutely personal (as personal as the taste for, I don’t know, strawberry ice cream) but also because Horror film itself is the product of particular cultures. Yes, I respond to the startle effects (or shocks) of Japanese Horror cinema but its codes are very alien to me–and I wish I had never seen Audition. I marvel that my favourite startle effect (the face hugger jumping out of the egg in Alien) works every time I see it, whether I see the complete film or the isolated scene. But fancy showing that to a member of an Amazonian tribe who has never seen a Horror film. Yes, she would be shocked, but not at all in the same way I am–her shock might be massive or she would burst laughing, I’m not sure.

Sorry to use my own personal experience, but it’s the only one I know. I love Horror films which suggest there is something else beyond humanity, whether this is the Devil or an alien monster, a supernatural or a natural threat. I realize, however, that I feel increasingly repelled by the Horror films in which evil is caused by a sadistic person–usually a man. When I presented my first paper ever, back in 1994, this dealt with Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), technically a thriller and not Horror, as the victims are killed off-screen (yes, Xavi, I agree). The feminists in the audience were horrified that I had enjoyed a film in which women were so savagely victimized; but, of course, the question was that you could not see this and I was (still am) fascinated by Clarice. As Hannibal Lecter moved, on, however, the franchise lost all its appeal for me, since it became a series about a guy hurting people. And I reject this… particularly if the victim is a woman. I have walked out of a cinema only once, my body totally overwhelmed by Steven Spielberg’s ultra-realistic depiction of the Normandy landing in Saving Private Ryan. I have, however, left my husband alone on the sofa countless times whenever the Horror film we had chosen to see together eventually focused on cruelty against female bodies. Xavi avoids the issue of rape, which, as any woman will tell you, does make you very much aware that you’re a different kind of viewer from a man. No way I could watch Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (2002), which might not be even Horror for a male viewer but is certainly Horror for a female one.

Let me focus on pain to finish. Xavi points out that “pain is normally either cast out or eradicated from public view” (176) and I’m wondering very seriously whether the fast advances in the special effects in Horror films (and in general in any film in which bodies are destroyed) has to do with this. I was watching a documentary on the Holy Grail on TV which argued that Saint Lawrence might have brought the relic with him to Huesca. The churches in this city abound in images of his martyrdom: the poor guy was… grilled. In public. Not only martyrdom but also other public events of bodily destruction come to mind: the spectacle provided by Roman arenas, Medieval executions (think William Wallace…). We have hidden the public spectacle of the broken body out of sight, as we hide disease and even surgery (how does a surgeon react to contemporary Horror film effects, I wonder?). And it might well be that, like Saint Thomas, we need to see in order to believe. We hear torture victims describe their ordeal and automatically we ask ourselves ‘but what was it really like?’. If porn satisfies our curiosity about how people engage in sex, then 21st century Horror film most likely satisfies a similar curiosity about how bodies are broken in pain. I’m writing this on the day yet another terrorist attack (this time in Istanbul’s airport) has caused a terrible massacre–bodies unseen on TV. The more we fear pain, in short, the more we need to face it vicariously and this is the urge that Horror film is satisfying. If you are already in pain or if this curiosity has never arisen, or is already satisfied, then there is no need for Horror movies.

I have many other questions to ask: after how many Horror films does an aficionado start losing the edge?; are the affects generated by Horror film different depending on the situation in which the viewer is placed? (alone/in company, at home/in a cinema, at night/at day); how do actors feel seeing their bodies used in this horrific way?; who provides the main innovations: directors or FX artists?; what about sound and music?

A theory, logically, is a proposition (a hypothesis) that needs to be tested and Horror Film and Affect is transparent about this: the volume is an invitation to go and ask. Forget psychoanalysis, ask filmmakers and everyone involved in Horror films how they pull the strings (and who they’re thinking of when they envision their terrible images). I’m sure that the more we ask, the more blurred the universal body will become and the more visible particular bodies will be.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

THE INCREDIBLY SHRINKING UNITED KINGDOM: ON BREXIT

juny 24th, 2016

This is a time-capsule post, of the kind that gets written with the author expecting to check in five-years time what really happened.

Like many people all over the world–as shown by the instantaneous collapse of the stock market–I expected Britons to have voted in favour of staying in the European Union. This is a people known (unless until today) for their pragmatism and common sense. Clearly, though, many things have gone the wrong way and we’re witnessing today, with a sour taste in our mouths, the success of the Brexit campaign. 24 June 2016 has been hailed by The Sun and by UKIP leader Nigel Farage as ‘independence day’… You know that something is bad when, in addition to this absurdity, Donald Trump claims that this is good (for the time capsule: Trump, who failed to be elected President of the United States by a landslide in 2016). ‘May you live in interesting times’, the Chinese curse goes.

I have titled this post ‘The incredibly shrinking United Kingdom’ because I see the UK even further diminished in its global position by this strange manoeuvre. Let me get a couple of ideas out of the way before I continue. To begin with, someone should change the rules of referendums, for in the end the percentual difference between the two options has been quite small: 52% to 48%. This is not a clear victory but a divided country. Now, if Brexit goes horribly wrong and throws the UK into the waste-basket of History (a phrase often used in Catalonia in the last year), can the overruled 48% demand any responsibility from the other 52%? Obviously not. This is why this kind of potentially very dangerous decision should be made by a much wider difference, at least 65/35. You need to be sure that your victory (or defeat) is final and this is not at all the case today. Second point: Brexit is, no doubt about it, a clear sign of the European Union’s failure to constitute itself as little more than a commercial union. I cannot imagine Donald Trump celebrating the secession of, say, California; the fact that he’s toasting today to Brexit means that the EU is not at all a union, as the United States are. I would not like as a Catalan to be left outside the EU, which is one of my main doubts considering a possible independent Catalonia. At the same time, the EU has utterly and completely failed to inspire in us, Europeans, the feeling that this is what we are, in the same way Californians feel that they are American.

I’ll add a third point: that the UK leaves the EU is particularly poignant because, of course, it was one of its founding members back in 1957, when it was born as the European Economic Community–a name bearing all the seeds of trouble to come. British disaffection for Europe is an extremely complex issue, which many others have analyzed with better, finer tools. Nonetheless, this disaffection has its roots in the perception that the UK is contributing more than it is getting out of the EU; European solidarity is based, after all, on the idea that the richer states must help the poorer ones, which is why Brexit will certainly be a terrible blow for us, in Spain. Now, this suggests that Germany should be happier than any other nation to abandon the EU but the Germans do see that the union is needed if only because, let’s be clear about this, cheap labour is to be found in its southern and eastern areas. The Britons are right now too blinded by an oddly euphoric chauvinism that won’t let them see that European migration is not the problem but the solution to their economy. I’m aware that much of Brexit has to do with Britain’s wish to decide for herself which migrants to admits to its shores but the vision of an all-British workforce is not only treacherous but also downright silly.

If we accept the argument that staying in the EU brings more economic benefits than staying out of it –and I think this is a powerful argument because the previous arrangement of nations in Europe led to WWI and WWII– then we need to wonder what is being pursued with Brexit. It is not impossible to think of a future scenario in which Scotland will be an independent nation and a member of EU, and in which Northern Ireland might be unified with Ireland for the same reason (or Gibraltar decide to return to Spain). There is, then, a very real danger of national dismemberment with even England/Wales being sharply split between pro-EU London and the rest. How British (English?) economy can thrive even supposing the UK’s split is prevented is beyond me. Norway is doing fine on its own without being a EU member (and so is Switzerland). However, part of their success has to do with their being very realistic about which role in the world they want to play: a marginal one (at least politically, I would not say the same about Switzerland and world finances). Oddly, Brexit supporters dream of a Britain which is not only free from EU restrictions (so they claim) but also a powerful nation in the world. Like in Victorian times.

This is the way in which Britain is shrinking: it has lost track of its dwindling importance both within Europe and in the world. In Spain we’ve gone through that: we used to be the biggest Empire in the world, remember? Being rich didn’t suit our (or rather, the Castilian) temper very well, which is why we went downhill all the way into bankruptcy and even invasion by Napoleon. A series of independentist uprisings eroded little by little the Empire until this was finished off in 1898 by the United States pushing us out of Cuba. The Civil War (1936-9) happened when the Republic was getting Spain used to the idea that we should be a modern European country rather than an ex-Empire. Yet the band of ultra right-wing nostalgics headed by Franco fought its way into what the Brexit campaigners now want: autarchy (or total self-rule). I do know that the parallelism between backward, isolated Spain, which only joined the EU exactly 30 years ago, and Britain does not hold. Yet the lesson we learned after Franco is that imperial glory will not feed people; we very humbly accepted the crumbles at the table of the rich EU, briefly believing before the 2008 crisis that we were finally one of the diners. The UK went through its worst economic crisis back in the 1970s and that 52% who have voted ‘out’ today seem to feel confident enough that, no matter what, they will stand on their feet and do fantastically well in terms of economics, politics and general prestige. As an English Studies specialist I can only call this position neo-Victorian.

This is, naturally, an extremely false position to be in. Whereas those who want to stay in the EU have given a long list of reasons why leaving it would be negative, the Brexit campaigners have given no truly valid reason to leave the EU, other than wounded pride. Most likely, they imagined a Europe in which the UK would be the leading country and cannot simply accept that the leader is Germany, the hated enemy of the past. Somehow, they have managed to convince themselves that the United States will play a crucial role in this post-Brexit British Renaissance, even though President Obama warned Britons against Brexit. As a Catalan I feel that the path taken is even much more uncertain than independence. Supposing the Scots voted to leave the UK, they should be doing so in the hopes that they would do much better on their own, including the possibility of joining the EU. But the UK has not voted for independence, no matter what UKIP says, but for isolation, which is a completely different matter. Britain was isolated in Victorian times, in the sense that it did not belong to any other international association, and was extremely powerful. Now the same solitary status wants to be recovered. But, then, what’s next? Leaving the United Nations?

I’m flabbergasted–that’s the word I was looking for. I simply don’t understand how a civilized nation can make this very obvious (right-wing) mistake in the 21st century. It must be the influence of so much SF but I always imagined the world converging eventually into a world-wide federation, Star-Trek style. What I wonder today is not why the Britons (well, 52% of the 75% voters, that is to say, 34% of Britons over 18) want to leave the UK but where they think they are going.

Among the many questions about the future of the EU I heard this morning on TV, here’s the one closest home, as an English Studies academic: will English still be an official European language? That’s a good one… Everyone, start learning French and German as fast as you can…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

RE-INVENTING EXAMS: AN EXPERIENCE

juny 21st, 2016

It’s June and these days we’re also busy marking exams. We’re also busy wondering why we give our students exams and what use they are (the exams, not the students!). What use assessment is, in fact. I have just entered the final marks for the course I have taught this semester and they are exactly the same marks I would have awarded each student one week after meeting them. Funnily, their marks did not depend on just a final exam but on four different items, with their corresponding percentages, etc, all that requiring Excel to be worked out… I don’t know what this says: that assessment only validates subjective impressions, that assessment that does not rate the exercises but the person, that I am such an experienced teacher that I know at first sight how students will perform (ehem!), that I could have saved myself a lot of hard work… Take your pick.

This was an elective course and I always prefer for assessing this type of course a paper rather than exams. This time, however, I decided to use exams for assessment, apart from a short essay written at home and a class presentation. I hated exams as a student and do not particularly like them as a teacher. One of my colleagues claims that we should never ask students to write papers, for they plagiarize all the time–which is an exaggeration… though also a constant fact in teachers’ lives. My position is quite the opposite: I do not see any equivalent situation in real life in which people would have to write a piece of academic work in a tightly limited time. I associate this, rather, with journalism and newspaper’s daily deadlines. Otherwise, why would anyone produce a piece on Wordsworth’s poetry, to name the first case that comes to my mind, in a very short time? It’s simply ridiculous. I’m rather of the persuasion, then, that exams only measure people’s ability to take exams. Or negative ability–I always performed well but only after bouts of nausea and vomiting that did nothing for my faith in the use of exams. I must have passed the last one in my doctoral days (I’m not counting vivas or oral examinations for tenure) and that surely was a happy day.

Accordingly, I play all kinds of tricks if I can manage to try to deconstruct exams. I believe that good academic work requires a reasonable time of preparation (not just of cramming) and I’m known to have given my students the exam questions in advance. I don’t care very much for failing students and I find that the students who fail in my courses usually trip themselves up by not handing in exercises or not taking the exams. If I get the chance, however, to help my students to do well enough for me to pass them, I’m happy. This is not the same as saying that no matter how they perform I’ll pass them, but rather that I don’t want anyone vomiting before taking one of my exams. I just want them to have studied and, above all, to have planned their exam question at home. I found out, however, that students given the exam questions in advance got quite nervous for a reason I failed to anticipate: if you know the questions in advance then a good deal of the justification to fail vanishes. Who would have thought that Prof. Martín would ask such a devious question? That seems to be the kind of thinking that comforts students that do poorly. Now, if Prof. Martín puts her questions in your hands, thus eliminating the surprise factor (not necessarily the deviousness), that’s another matter. Your inability to plan the answers is highlighted, which is, let’s be honest, much more embarrassing that simply being unable to answer a question you could never have anticipated.

You might argue that surprise is the whole point of exams and the target that collective groan you can hear when students find the questions too hard. This just happens to be a sound I do not enjoy (my exams, in contrast, seem to be the source of much sighing…). Anyway, what happened when I gave students an exam to take home, consider and plan is that still a few failed. I certainly felt less responsible for their failing, if you know what I mean. What I noticed was that the effort done in the actual writing in class was similar: the same stream of sighs, the same flushed faces and always the lack of time (some students would run out of time even if given five hours instead of two, it seems). The pressure had eased, the quality increased, hopefully there had been no vomiting, but, then, it was still an exam written by Prof. Martín.

For my latest course, I have tried another tactic: have the students write their own exam. In hindsight, I realize that no exam questions could ever match the deviousness of this proposal but let me say that I was not acting wickedly but in good faith. The group was small, only 15 students, and I explained that they should write a two-question exam using our habitual Department format: select a passage from the book we’ve studied (maximum 10 lines) and ask a question that can be developed in a short argumentative essay (maximum 500 words), referring both to the passage and to the book in question. It was clear to me that students would be very uncomfortable if I didn’t check their questions, so I gave myself the task of validating each exam a few days before the corresponding exam date. What I found is that students wrote, on the whole, perfectly valid questions just badly phrased. Some of the questions were simply too big in scope for a short essay but could mostly be re-used; others came multiplied by two or three (students seemed insecure about which version to use). None of the questions was insultingly easy to answer, and here’s where I noticed my own deviousness.

Imagine my students telling their peers in other courses ‘Sara has allowed us to write our own exam questions’. The answer from said peers should be ‘My!, you’re lucky, now you can’t fail!’. Now, most of my students probably replied at this point what one of them told me: ‘No way! This is the hardest thing I’ve done in my life!’ Why? Because they quickly realized that my proposal to let them write their own exams would not result in easier exams–no way I would validate shallow questions. Therefore, they had a twofold task: produce the kind of exam I would write myself and do it so that they could secure a pass. Lacking feedback from them (I have asked, and I’m waiting) I can only surmise that they told themselves: ‘Ok, so I need to make things as easy as possible for me while writing the exam as if I were a teacher’, demanding Sara Martín, in particular. Sure–only I had not gone that far in my own thinking when I proposed the experiment.

Exam one went well: nobody failed, though I believe that nobody performed either at a higher level than if I had written the exam myself. My guess (I need the feedback) is that students were more relaxed and confident about what they were doing, having got the annoying surprise element out of the equation. My colleagues say that written exams have the added bonus of offering exact information about the actual command of English each student has. Maybe. By giving students the questions or asking them to write their own questions, I also expect them to work on their English at home and produce far more polished exams (much easier to correct for me, too!). I don’t know how they do this: if it were up to me, I would write the answers at home (using the dictionary, etc, etc), try to memorize as much as I could and then write them in class. It might well be, however, that they have memorized outlines, I don’t know. I’m sure, though, that many language doubts and errors could be ironed out at home. This is fine by me for in this way they had to learn some English language in order to prepare the exam, in addition to the English Literature.

For the second exam I asked students to produce questions combining both a passage from the primary source and from a secondary source. I’m not sure whether this was my fault or not, but it seems that my instructions were a bit ambiguous about which secondary source to use. I had asked students to read one article for each novel and I expected they would use the ones I had selected for them. However, some students just chose other articles, which was a bit complicated to negotiate. I validated their exams eventually. What I found, and this was both silly and funny, was that the most complicated thing to do was validating the exams in which my own article was quoted. I sensed a kind of mutual embarrassment: students seemed to feel a bit awkward writing ‘As Martín claims’, which was not the case when they wrote ‘As Vint claims’, or ‘As Frelik claims’, for they didn’t know these academics personally. On my side, I found myself disagreeing with how students read my own article, even though their questions were perfectly valid. It felt very, very strange to be ‘Martín’ rather than ‘Sara’, as my students call me in our informal Department.

In both exams the contents reflected very accurately was what being discussed in class. The questions did refer with no significant exceptions to the issues we had discussed together though the passages chosen were not necessarily the ones I had selected for class discussion. The exams were, in short, more personal and less ‘parasitical’ of class discussion than I expected (this was my main fear). Some exams, particularly in the second series, were actually quite sophisticated. When marking them, I often marvelled that students who knew nothing about SF a few months back were confidently discussing artificial intelligence, genetic manipulation or post-humanism. Happy, then, as far as I’m concerned.

I failed, however, in just one thing. I decided to use exams because I wanted students to read the five novels in the course–if they wrote a paper, then they might read just one or two. What I failed to notice is that the second exam, covering three novels, should be much longer, perhaps two hours and a half, rather than one and a half. And we simply don’t have that kind of time. In old times exams had a separate schedule, apart from teaching time. One of my own teachers was famous for giving us exams that could run for four hours or more. Since 2009, however, exams are part of our teaching time, which means that the more exams you introduce the less time you have for actual teaching; also that they need to fit our 90-minute slots. Either I introduced a third exam, or I let students choose two of the three novels for the second exam, which is what I finally did.

Was the experiment worth carrying out, then? Certainly. I think that the class size was ideal, as validating the questions–not an easy task!–could be done in a reasonably short time. Also, these were fourth year students. I don’t see myself repeating the experiment with second-year students in my Victorian Literature course because a) they would panic, b) at about 50, the group s too big and validating the exams would consume too much time and energy. I believe that my experiment in tailor-made examination shows that asking everyone the same question is a bit of an absurdity for each student is motivated by different things in the same book. What we do when we ask all students in our class the same question, then, is just something convenient. We tend to ignore the fact that, beyond what each student has studied in preparation for the exam, some will automatically do well (or badly) because of the nature of the particular questions. I’m talking about Literature, not mathematics, of course…

Now, I would be really glad to get feedback from my students…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

GONE LOVE: FROM ELIZABETH BENNET TO AMY DUNNE

juny 11th, 2016

I assumed that there would be already a handful of academic articles on Gillian Flynn’s 2012 best-selling novel Gone Girl, adapted for the screen by David Fincher in 2014 from a script by the author herself. Not at all. My university’s meta-searcher, Trobador, has returned 712 results, only 2 of which appear in the MLA database–both turned out to be journalistic pieces (a third piece is a biography of Flynn). Cultural Studies has always been accused of being merely academic journalism, too concerned with the contemporary–with the transient and the banal in the worst cases. I’m sure that pieces about the Spice Girls read now as terribly dated and as obscure as the analysis of a 16th century villanelle, yet I do believe that academics should react promptly to their surroundings and I’m quite surprised that Gone Girl has escaped our collective radar. Perhaps it’s just too early and a flood of articles on Flynn’s novel are now going through the sluggish process of peer reviewing… After all, I decided to read this novel (not quite my cup of tea…) only after listening to my UB colleague Cristina Alsina deliver an excellent paper during a recent seminar on crime fiction and the family, so there you are.

June 2016 is, of course, too late to review a book published four years ago and this is not what I intend to do here: I wish, rather, to consider why the trope of love and marriage is receiving such a degrading treatment in contemporary fiction. For this is the case in Gone Girl to an extent that is simply painful to read.

One of the best books I have read on romance is David Shumway’s Modern Love: Romance, Intimacy, and the Marriage Crisis (2003), which I discovered only after the author finished a three-month stay in my Department, during which I found it impossible to connect with him at all… Shumway explains with great lucidity that what is destroying long relationships–at least in US society–is women’s constant demand for total intimacy, inspired by the traditional romantic discourse originating in fiction. This may sound misogynistic in my simplified summary but it is not at all: Shumway is also adamant about American men’s inability to respond to that demand for intimacy if only at a very basic level.

The main contribution, I believe, that Gone Girl makes to the fictional representation of love and marriage is turning intimacy into the most brutal form of hell one can imagine, a life sentence. The romantic ideology that women have incorporated into their relationships with men, Flynn argues, is fundamentally psychopathic, as her heroine Amy proves; men, like Amy’s average husband Nick, try desperately to avoid needy women for, understandably, the stress of responding to a constant demand to be loved and to be fully understood is impossible to sustain. The joke in Gone Girl, however, is that Nick tries to escape his wife’s extreme ideas of what constitutes a successful marriage only to find that his young mistress is as needy as Amy (though, of course, sexually more pliant). Ironically, Flynn does give Nick a perfect relationship with a woman, his twin Margo, perhaps suggesting that being siblings (free from “twincest”) is preferable for men and women to being married.

If you pare it down to a basic plot line, Gone Girl deals with the extreme measures to which a wife may resource in order to keep her cheating husband. Divorce is simply impossible because neither Nick nor Amy can go back to being the autonomous person they were before they met (if that’s what they were). Second lesson about modern love, then: marriage annuls the capacity to be yourself, as many recently divorced people find out. Gone Girl is a horrifying novel, then, not just for how far Amy takes her radically sick romantic ideology (and for how Nick eventually responds to it), but for what it tells about marriage, particularly in American life and fiction. The acknowledgements turn Gone Girl, besides, into an even more bizarre product if that were possible, since Flynn thanks with total enthusiasm her husband for his support (and for having married her!). If I were her husband I would, however, worry: Flynn’s grim novel was intended, as the author declared, to make couples consider each other with suspicion and wonder ‘who are you?’ Now: how does this connect with the author’s own happy marriage, I wonder?

Why, then, the insistence on the marriage plot if all couples we know are actually unhappy? There seems to be a kind of circularity at work: the romantic idea of the happy marriage for life was constructed by the first novels and now the novel is deconstructing it. This, of course, is based on a misreading of the original fictional romance. Take Pride and Prejudice (1813) and you will see that Elizabeth and Darcy are surrounded by unhappy married couples, beginning with her parents, the Bennets. Actually Austen plays a peculiar conjuring trick by placing the disagreements that eventually surface in most marriages at the beginning of the relationship between her heroine and hero. The fantasy of the happy-ever-after ending consists of supposing that in some magic way Elizabeth will avoid the pitfalls of her parents’ union as she’s marrying a man who shares her own idea of intimacy. In the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice with Keira Knightley as Elizabeth, English actress Rosamund Pike plays her demure elder sister Jane, a spider-woman patiently spinning her web to catch rich bachelor Charles Bingley (he and not Darcy is the “single man in possession of a good fortune” and “in want of a wife”). Pike also plays the patrician Amy Dunne in Fincher’s adaptation, which links Austen and Flynn very conveniently for my argumentation here. Jane and Amy, after all, are not so different in wanting a nice husband but the intervening 200 years have turned this aspiration into something aberrant.

The pathology of the good marriage is extended in Gone Girl to Amy’s parents, a couple of soul mates, as Amy describes them, who have cannibalized their daughter’s childhood as material for a successful series of children’s books, Amazing Amy (later, Amy calls her mendacious memoirs Amazing). Rand and Maryelizabeth Elliot appear to be truly committed to each other but also quite phony, no doubt because Amy, an only child, hates them for exploiting her economically and emotionally. If, then, the happy, long-lasting marriage is, as Amy claims, damaging for the children because it sets high romantic standards impossible to fulfil, than what should be the target for couples? Since Flynn’s own happy private life contrasts so sharply with that of her heroine Amy, or so she claims, perhaps what we are witnessing is not so much the degradation of the marriage ideal, as it exists in actual social practice, but the inability of current (American?) fiction to narrate happiness. Even worse, rather than plain unhappiness women novelists are offering a monstrously false form of happiness, twisted beyond all recognition. On the other side of the Atlantic, incidentally, Glynn’s British peer E.L. James has refashioned happiness as sado-masochism in her Grey series, perhaps concurring more than we imagine with her American colleague.

Initially, I was going to use Michael Kimmel’s controversial Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men (2009) to comment on the current degradation of the romantic discourse. The need for mutual seduction, Kimmel hints, is vanishing, replaced by a predatory view of sex common among American young persons aged 18 to 25. I realized, however, that this is not yet the generation that Flynn is addressing but rather that of the thirtysomethings in need of abandoning guyland (and girlland). Flynn is suggesting in Gone Girl that marriage has become a fiction which both members of the couple embrace when the hedonistic lifestyle of the twentysomethings runs its course and individuals start feeling a vague need to settle down. The biggest gap in her novel is not connected, ultimately, with Amy’s improbable masterminding of her elaborate final trap for Nick but with how and why Amy and Nick fall into the marriage trap of their own volition.

Amy offers quite a good diagnosis regarding Nick’s self-deception: he falls for the ‘cool girl’ which she so proficiently impersonates. Yet since plain Nick is so easy to read for Amy, I wonder why she targets him as the object of the obsessive marriage plot which she builds for both. In Flynn’s reading, indeed, marriage is a piece of fiction which we women write throughout our lives with men in secondary roles and if Amy is exceptional this is because she writes two versions: the one her diary captures, intended paradoxically for public consumption, and the private one she forces on Nick. Since Flynn makes Amy so exceptionally abusive, readers–like myself–who resist reading women’s fiction about violent women may miss her main point: the idea that men are also addicted to the trashy marriage plot that women churn out (Fincher’s film, in contrast, simply places Amy in the long line of dangerous blondes, a classic femme fatale, though married).

A reader called Gone Girl the story of “a jerk and a bitch” and even though Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensation masterpiece Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) is there to remind us that mean, scheming wives have not been invented by Flynn, it is still shocking to see that Amy and Nick are presented as an extreme instance of modern love. Try, if you can, to call Pride and Prejudice the story of “a jerk and a bitch” and you will understand at once what I mean by the contemporary degradation of the romantic discourse on love and marriage. Or to put it the other way round: while I very much dislike Austen’s novel as a dangerous fantasy about men’s willing submission to women through love, I am appalled by Flynn’s nasty little tale for, instead of denying Austen’s daydream it claims that it works–on the basis of the most atrocious mutual dependence you may imagine. Never mind that this is not love at all as it should be felt, for it is love as we have been told it should feel by countless romantic novels.

Not the girl but love is gone, burnt out by the cynicism dictating that sentimentalism is tacky. Amy never tricks herself that she and Nick are like Elizabeth and Darcy yet she builds her own repulsive marriage plot because she does want that fiction to be her life (and Nick’s). This is both cynical and desperate, a decision born of her realization that modern love is hollow at the core and intimacy two-edged, for there are things you might not want to know about your spouse. Is Gone Girl, then, a good novel that will stand the test of time like Pride and Prejudice? Not at all but it is fascinating as a symptom of the malaise that is rotting the marriage plot in fiction and in life from the inside (no wonder that Flynn’s background is also the economic decadence of Amy and Nick’s America).

This malaise is not, however, as Flynn might believe, limited to her pathetic couple: her novel participates of the terrifyingly decadent imagination surfacing all over American fiction (think The Hunger Games). What made me gasp for fresh air when I closed the book was not Amy’s wickedness but the sheer ugliness of Flynn’s fabulation, the hours spent plotting the hideous details of how Amy plots her own life. Bret Easton Ellis did the same, and arguably even with more bravado, for contemporary American men 25 years ago in American Psycho (1991). It has taken American fiction, then, a quarter of a century to present us with the female version. To many people this might read as a healthy exercise in female sincerity, even as a feminist step forward. For me, however, the decision to focus on a psychopathic woman as an instance of the psychopathologies of a whole society is a setback, for I still believe that for a society to progress its fiction needs to provide it with role models. The kind of urge that Amy, the anti-role model, satisfies is a luxury that women cannot afford in our patriarchal times–I know the argument is not new but think of Hillary Clinton and now think of how little she needs Amy Dunne to exist.

I’ll end, then, by bemoaning the way love has been dealt with in fiction: it deserves better than the implausible plotting that both Jane Austen and Gillian Flynn give it for drastically different reasons. I wish both Elizabeth Bennet and Amy Dunne were gone girls but I’m sorry to see that only love is gone.

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THE BIOLOGY OF CREATIVITY: A SECOND APPROACH

juny 6th, 2016

I published a post back on 26 April in which I quoted from an interview with American neurologist Alice Weaver Flaherty, author of the book The Midnight Disease (2004), an essay on neurology and literary creativity. I have read now her volume and although I do not wish to offer here a formal review I certainly want to consider (or re-consider) a few ideas based on Flaherty’s claims. I do not hesitate to recommend The Midnight Disease not so much for the rotundity of its arguments but for their many flaws, as they offer plenty of food for thought.

By the way, Flaherty finds it necessary to justify why she has written a book despite being a scientist, since her colleagues communicate with each other by publishing papers. “A melancholy fact,” she writes, “is that in the sciences, the book has become as marginal a literary form as the sestina or the villanelle”. Torn between her impression that academic books will soon disappear under pressure of online paper publication and her need to narrate “an unusual personal experience” (the sad death of her two premature twin boys), Flaherty tells supercilious scientists that “writing this book was something I could not stop myself from doing”.

Flaherty, who has always written, went through a very serious post-partum depression which manifested itself, among other symptoms, through ‘hypergraphia’, “the medical term for an overpowering desire to write”. This, she explains, is due habitually to alterations in particular brain areas and overlaps only partly with ‘graphomania’, or “the desire to be published”. Hypergraphia, she speculates, seems connected with the temporal lobes, the brain areas in charge of facilitating our understanding of meaning. Many hypergraphic patients appear to have suffered temporal lobe epilepsy.

It is important to clarify that hypergraphic writers are dominated by a mania for writing, by an unstoppable drive to scribble, no matter what the results are in terms of quality for, remember, this is a pathology. The ‘problem’, as noted in my April post, is that this is a condition for which sufferers demand no treatment, as they derive pleasure from writing. If you’re reading this and thinking ‘oh, well, I am certainly not at risk of being labelled hypergraphic’ you should be aware that many of us, readers, appear to be hyperlexic. Do you belong to the “subset of avid readers whose reading has an especially compulsive quality”? Do you need a book to prevent you from reading “the newspaper used to wrap the fish”? There you are: you’re hyperlexic –the proud owner of a brain in thrall to an unruly bunch of print-mad neurons. I can see the t-shirt: ‘Hyperlexia rules!’

Flaherty’s sweeping statement that “A surprising proportion of writers are manic-depressive”, is open to all kinds of jokes (‘no wonder they’re depressed seeing the state of the book market’… and so on). Surely, you can see for yourself that a) not ALL writers are manic-depressive (or have epileptic temporal lobe seizures like Dostoevsky), b) not all manic-depressives become published writers and c) if this were the case, creative writing courses should start by plunging their students into deep misery at once. An additional problem that Flaherty simply hints at is whether writer’s block, presented as a mental condition treatable with the right combination of pills and therapy, “may be culturally determined”. The phrase ‘writer’s block’, Flaherty explains, was coined by American psychiatrist Edmund Bergler and although many writers from other nations suffer from block, “there is a paradoxical sense in which suffering from writer’s block is necessary to be an American writer”. Flaherty names Russian-born, hypergraphic (=absurdly prolific) Isaac Asimov as an interesting exception but she seems confused by him; her list of writers “contains few genre writers because of the convention that genre writing isn’t quite writing”. It’s just hypergraphia, you know?

Funnily, although I intended to keep the tone of this post as straight-faced as possible my repressed sneering is surfacing throughout… Perhaps this is because I’m scared that Flaherty is right in her main claim: that the mind has a material basis in the brain; hence, alterations in the brain result in abnormalities regarding the average mind. Basically, she speculates that the passion for writing and reading might fall within the gray area of the brain alterations that, while not being pathological, are uncommon and even exceptional (abnormal?). We write and read with glee because, in short, we have funny temporal lobes that connect in a funny way with our limbic system. She may be making a totally valid point: if Usain Bolt’s body is worth studying for what it says about the abilities of record-breaking athletes, then perhaps Toni Morrison’s talent as a writer stems from the subtle chemistry of her brain. As Flaherty writes, “By scanning people thinking creatively (with the usual caveat that judging creativity is difficult), researchers may soon be able to see which patterns of brain activity underlie creativity”.

Flaherty softens the impact of her chilling scientific claims by stressing that “literature can also help us to understand science, the way it is both driven and sometimes misdirected by metaphors and emotion”. No doubt. Her arguments, however, are distressing (I can’t find another word). A point Flaherty stresses is that medication is advanced enough so that, for instance, bereaved people need not go through the intense pain of their grief by simply taking the corresponding helpful little pill. She understands why many grieving individuals reject this chemical aid, believing that lessening the intensity of grief amounts to betraying their lost beloved. To be clear about this: Flaherty claims that the more we know about our brain the better our chances will be to control emotion and mood. Like many others, I resist this idea because taking pills is for me too closely connected with taking illegal substances but, then, most people get by in this way (read Roberto Saviano’s analysis of cocaine consumption in Zero, zero, zero…). Yet, going through a very black mood this week I caught myself thinking, ‘oh, boy, my temporal lobe is misbehaving, I wish I had a little blue pill’ to go on (happily) marking exams.

How does this connect with literary creativity? Patricia Highsmith once said that writers’ favourite drug is coffee and, of course, there is a long list of literary and non-literary authors controlled by their chosen or unchosen addiction. In Flaherty’s book writers are a bundle of brain and mind irregularities, as you can see, which ultimately begs the question of whether we prefer, as a society, happy individuals or unhappy authors. That’s the only conclusion I can reach after reading her book since the well-adjusted, happy author seems not to exist in her vision of literary creativity. I wonder whether this is why literary biography always insists on presenting literary genius as practically a pathology (yes, I’ve been reading Claire Tomalin’s biography of bipolar, manic, hypergraphic Dickens). At least this is a pathology we admire.

As I read The Midnight Disease something else bothered me: the future of education. Education works on the principle that all children should start at the same point and be taught a little of everything, regardless of their abilities and preferences. Little by little, each child navigates their way into being an engineer or a star piano player (supply your own worst-case scenario). Primary and secondary education are, thus, a compound effort to teach children a common minimum denominator and to find out which particular abilities each child has. Now imagine a near future in which we will be able to scan the brain of a four-year-old while engaged in creative play and determine how his/her brain conditions his/her mind. This imaginary brain scan would have detected, for instance, my hyperlexia (‘wow, this one is a Literature teacher!’) and my limited ability to imagine space (‘no stage designer, this one’). Flaherty never says that she wants to see this implemented. However, her view that our minds are our brains implicitly suggests that we will be eventually classified in this way, just as we will be soon classified according to our genetic make-up. Pass me the happiness pill…

From an extreme, alternative point of view one might argue that education works poorly precisely because we wrongly insist on the egalitarian approach. A timely brain scan would save the little ones many painful hours of mathematics or of English soon to be forgotten –which sounds tempting– and place the children with the most promising creative abilities on the fast track to… what exactly?? We are already hearing so much cant about the so-called ‘exceptionally gifted’ children that I shudder at what the further exploration of the human brain can do to human minds.

Clearly, neurology can help us to overcome the accidents of life caused by malfunctioning brains (and it’s impressive to learn the myriad odd ways in which brains malfunction). Nonetheless, it may be overstepping its boundaries– like all medicine today, with its suspicious endless pressure to connect good health with joining expensive gyms when you’re young and with taking absurd amounts of prescription drugs as you age. There is, however, a fundamental difference between, say, correcting the ravages of diabetes and forcing literary creativity into a sort of medical freak show.

There are also other dangers: if my students learn that I’m hyperlexic (am I?… show me that brain scan), then they may reject my preaching in favour of non-stop reading on the grounds that they’re not hyperlexic themselves. Or, as the trend seems to be now, they may claim that their massive use of the social networks, the internet and videogames, has re-wired their brains in ways that my 1960s hyperlexic brain is not equipped to understand.

Pass me the little blue pill…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. You may download the yearly volumes from http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/