THE LOVING GAZE: FIFTY YEARS OF LEGAL INTERRACIAL MARRIAGE IN THE USA

September 19th, 2017

[I’m celebrating today the seventh anniversary of The Joys of Teaching Literature!!! Thank you for reading the blog. Please, find all seven yearly volumes in .pdf here http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328]

It is one of those beautiful coincidences in life that the surname of the couple whose union ended state legislation in the USA against interracial marriages was Loving. The love story between Richard and Mildred was narrated last year in a quite successful film, simply called Loving, directed and written by Jeff Nichols http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4669986/. This was based on the 2011 documentary by Nancy Buirski, The Loving Story (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1759682/). Curiously, and this is more and more frequent in US cinema, neither actor playing the Lovings is American: Joel Edgerton is Australian and Ruth Negga–who received an Oscar nomination for the role–though born in Ethiopia to a Ethiopian father and an Irish mother, was raised in Ireland. This constant use of foreign actors deserves perhaps another post but before I start rambling, just let me say why the film Loving, whose title plays so nicely with the surname, is so fine: it’s because how Mildred and Richard look at each other with a loving gaze, hardly ever seen in contemporary cinema.

Nichols took his inspiration for his presentation of the Lovings from Grey Villet’s photos of the couple in the intimacy of their very modest Virginia home, published in 1965 by Life magazine, and now gathered together in a book, with an obvious title, The Lovings: An Intimate Portrait. Take a look at some of the pictures for instance here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/gallery/2017/mar/29/the-lovings-in-pictures. What you see is a white man and a non-white woman (Mildred was of mixed African-American and Native-American descent) happily enjoying their home life with their three children. Since the Lovings were working-class (Richard worked as a builder, she was a housewife), the photos have nothing to do with the middle and upper-middle class idealized families with whom we tend to connect a happy home life, quite stereotypically. What the photos plainly transmit, as this is Villet’s merit, is that these five persons, specially husband and wife, love each other very much. Believably and credibly, as you don’t often see in our jaded times.

Nichols’ film eventually reaches the tipping point when this mixed-race couple, initially the victims of racist Virginia legislation like others, become a fundamental case in the annals of the US Supreme Court. This is in the second half of the film. The first five minutes are, however, the most challenging ones. Why? Because before the legal arguments are built and presented, you simply see how deeply Richard and Mildred love each other, and how happy he is made by her announcement that she is pregnant. Indeed, the naturality of this opening segment is such that uninformed spectators might initially believe that this is a romantic fantasy and not a real-life story, for we’re not used to the very simple idea that love does happen between individuals of different races. And we hardly ever see this kind of couple portrayed. It’s about time we wonder why.

I have the legal details of the Lovings’ struggle to earn their right to live freely as a married couple from the film, and, so, they might be incorrect or limited. Basically, since as residents of Virginia they could not marry in this state, due to its cynically named ‘Racial Integrity Act’ of 1924, in 1958 the couple travelled to Washington D.C. to get married there. They, however, returned home. Soon, they were arrested (at this point Mildred was heavily pregnant) and given a sort of exile sentence, which prevented them from being in Virginia together for the following 25 years.

They moved back to Washington D.C., visiting family separately for a few years. Tired of city life and missing the country, Mildred decided in 1964 that they should go home, where they faced a harsh prison sentence and risked losing custody of their children. She sent then a letter to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, who referred their case to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Volunteer attorneys Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop started then the journey that would eventually lead the Lovings’ case to be heard three years later by the Supreme Court. The film explains that the Lovings kept themselves apart from the process to avoid hearing the Virginia legal team referring to their children as bastards.

The Supreme Court judges reached on 12 June 1967 a decision on ‘Loving v. Virginia’. They ruled, in Chief Justice Earl Warren’s words, that: “Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man’, fundamental to our very existence and survival (….). To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law”. This put an end to anti-miscegenation legislation, still applied then in 15 American states. 12 June is now National Loving Day in celebration of interracial love. By the way, Warren’s argumentation was also recently invoked by defenders of lesbian and gay marriage.

Many issues overlap, then, in Nichols’ subtle film and in the story of the Lovings. One is how come that their names are not better known? Is it because the USA are somehow hiding their embarrassing anti-miscegenation legislation that there is an interested silence about the heroes who resisted it? Reading about the Nazi Nuremberg Race Laws (1935) banning Jews from marrying ‘Aryan’ Germans as an absolute horror, I was dismayed to read that many American states in the Union had their own one-drop rule. That is to say, they passed legislation to prevent whites from marrying blacks, thus preventing racial mixing or miscegenation. The one-drop rule determined that, regardless of whether a person appeared to be racially white, if this person had a black ancestor, then s/he was regarded as black, and, hence, banned from marrying a white individual. Laws defending this principle were passed in the southern States from the 1890s onwards, peaking in the 1920s with, for instance, Virginia’s 1924 infamous act. This was, you see?, before the Nazi anti-miscegenation laws. And, as Loving narrates, this kind of detestable legislation stayed put until the late 1960s.

Let me go back to the film’s narrative style and its focus on the loving/Loving gaze. Just by coincidence, I was reading this morning a paper by Darko Suvin in which he wonders whether scopophilia is somehow connected with the Freudian death wish. Let me explain: ‘scopophilia’, or ‘pleasure in looking’ is a central piece in Laura Mulvey’s feminist attack against classical cinema, famously expressed in her article ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ (1975). As Mulvey argued, invoking Freud, cinema was (and still is) aimed at eliciting the scopophilia of the male spectator by using the female body as an erotic object. I think that Mulvey, like Freud, forgot about how important women’s erotic gaze is (whether lesbian or heterosexual) but I don’t want to pursue this argument now. What I want to stress is that whether diagetic or extradiagetic–that is to say, whether this is actors looking at each other, or spectators looking at actors–the contemporary male and female gaze has been so sexualized that it is actually excluding love. I think this impression underlies Suvin’s claim that scopophilia is today fundamentally cannibalistic and destructive.

This is why I was stunned, this is the word, by Loving. You may have seen thousands of actors avidly staring at each other, trying to transmit some kind of electric feeling growing between them, but this is not love–it’s passion, or lust. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga look at each other and, as the spectator gazing at them, you understand that Richard and Mildred love each other, a feeling that goes far beyond in depth than the sexual desire currently dominating the human gaze in audio-visual production (both cinema and series). Perhaps this is so because the actors and the film director are copying what is documented in Villet’s photos, presenting for once love as it is in reality, not as it is fantasized about. Since Nichols is making a moving picture, and not a still picture like Villet, his problem is how to avoid the intense melodrama of the Lovings’ life. The result is a slap in the face of all those films that fail to represent love, convinced instead that–excuse me for sounding so prudish–love is best portrayed by showing the couple in question having sex. It turns out that love is most lovingly shown by the simple touch of a (white) hand on a (black) hand.

Racism is one of the most absurd aberrations produced by the human mind and it would be nice to see it over, the sooner the better. Loving helps us very much to understand the nature of the aberration (as another beautiful film, Hidden Figures, does). Yet, we must recall that although one-drop rule legislation is, happily, a thing of the past, the racist misgivings against miscegenation might not be. I wonder, for instance, whether Barack Obama would have been elected President if Michelle had been white and their girls mixed-race. Not to mention the fact that even though Obama’s mother is white, he is labelled (and self-identifies) as black…

Not there yet, then. In the meantime, enjoy loving/Loving.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (follow updates from @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Please be warned that I check them for spam and this might take some time. Download the yearly volumes: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

A WEALTH OF ALLUSIONS: WEAVING THE WEB OF CULTURE

September 11th, 2017

I have just read Marc Pastor’s novel L’any de la plaga (2010) and this post deals with two matters suggested by comments on this work in GoodReads. Pastor, who works as CSI for the Mossos, the Catalan police, has published so far five novels, of which I absolutely recommend La mala dona (2008). He narrates in this atmospheric book the gruesome real-life crimes of Enriqueta Martí, a dreadful woman who preyed on the children of the poor (mainly of prostitutes) to cater to the tastes of the Barcelona upper classes, both on the cosmetic and the sexual fronts. Read the novel to understand my cryptic sentence… I found Pastor’s novel Montecristo (2007) just average but I truly had a great time this summer reading his colonial thriller Bioko (2013), set, of all places, in the Spanish colony island of Fernando Poo (in the 1880s). This is what lead me to read L’any de la plaga; next, it’ll be Pastor’s last novel, Farishta (2017). Pastor, who is, no doubt, the most interesting Catalan writer together with Albert Sánchez Piñol in the field of popular fiction will be, by the way, a guest of honour at the oncoming CatCon, the first festival devoted to Catalan SF (November 24-25, Vilanova i la Geltrú).

L’any de la plaga is, plainly, an adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers (1955), and, in particular of the 1978 film version directed by Philip Kaufman, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (you might be familiar with the more popular 1956 adaptation directed by Don Siegel). Pastor’s novel contains direct allusions to the Kaufman film, which the protagonist, social worker Víctor Negro, does know very well, and what I would call indirect allusions, particularly the ugly scream that the transformed individuals utter. Marc Pastor never tries to hide his inspiration and, if I am correct, his project for this novel consists of proving that Barcelona works perfectly well as the setting for horror SF. I enjoyed very much the challenge of suspending my disbelief and the invitation to replace American locations with real streets and buildings in Barcelona. Pastor indeed makes the point of only using places he knows personally and of setting many key scenes not in downtown Barcelona but in working-class neighbourhoods, like Nou Barris. An excellent choice.

Reading the comments on L’any de la plaga in GoodReads, I came across a post by a trainee doctor, Arantxa. Apart from noting that some medical terms used by Pastor are incorrect, she made an interesting observation but also a much more questionable comment. Her observation raises a complicated issue: if, as Pastor acknowledges both in the book and in diverse interviews, his novel is basically a retelling of Kaufman’s film, shouldn’t we call it fan fiction? A few chapters into L’any de la plaga I started worrying whether this was, rather, a case of plagiarism until Pastor acknowledged his source. The word ‘homage’ suggested itself next but, to be honest, I never thought of Pastor’s novel as fan fiction for the very simple reason that its is a professional novel in print and not an amateur online text.

Arantxa’s comment, however, makes us wonder at which point allusion goes too far and, of course, this has to do with our worship of originality. Young readers who know nothing about Finney or Kaufman may feel cheated by Pastor on discovering Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as I felt when finding out that John Milius’ screenplay for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now! is an adaptation of Heart of Darkness. In this case, matters are much worse for Joseph Conrad is not even mentioned in the film credits. Perhaps with L’any de la plaga, Pastor is telling us that all stories worth narrating have been already told and the only thing we can do now is tell them again from a new angle. Thus, instead of the implicit homage that Bram Stoker pays in Dracula to Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, his inspirational text, we have explicit homage and direct allusion.

I should check whether Pastor borrows this from Stephen King, who loves to pepper his novels with all kinds of allusions to real, ordinary life, but I always wonder why characters in fiction never ever refer to other similar fictions as existing in their world. Perhaps I am completely wrong and the trend has changed but as far as I recall most alien invasion stories fail to allude to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. To complicate matters even futher, take the 2013 version of Carrie, based on King’s novel, published in 1974 and already the object of a very popular adaptation filmed in 1976. Shouldn’t the young Carrie of 2013 know about the 1970s film and novel? Why does everyone pretend in the new film that they don’t exist? What kind of background reality is built for the main character in that way?

Let me return to Arantxa’s comments on L’any de la plaga. Pastor chose to use Víctor Negro as a first person narrator, which means that he speaks as ordinary people do speak in the early 21st century: constantly alluding to popular texts. At one point when he is risking his life, Negro decides to ‘play a Jedi mind trick’ to persuade his opponent to let him go; at another, he complains of a headache which feels like being the bad guy in Hellraiser (that’s Pinhead…). For most readers in GoodReads, and for the author of this post, the very many allusions that pepper Negro’s speech are part of the charm of Pastor’s novel because they make it real. Besides, the shared allusions work very well in building complicity with the reader and ballasting our sympathy.

There is, however, a major snag: as another reader notes, the allusions may be lost on anyone under 30. And, well, Arantxa complains that the many references to films, series, music and books are just a constant obstacle in the reading. Funnily, she makes her point by using an allusion: “Every time something like that surfaced, I felt like Tawny in Sunny entre estrellas (Sonnie with a Chance) when she’s told something she doesn’t know and doesn’t care for”. I have used Wikipedia to learn that Sonnie with a Chance is a Disney Channel teen sitcom, broadcast 2009-11, which proves my point: allusions are essential to weave the web of culture. Now I know something I didn’t know five minutes ago, which is good. Arantxa feels annoyed because Pastor’s allusions are not for her but for his generation and upwards, those born in the 1970s and 1960s. I, however, felt curious about her allusion, for I don’t belong to her age group and I always feel anxious about the time when I might not understand any stories produced by Arantxa’s generation (born late 1980s, I guess).

Allusions, then, in all texts, from James Joyce to Marc Pastor, should never be taken as an obstacle but, rather, as an invitation to learn more. As Andrew Delahunty, Sheila Dignen, and Penny Stock, the authors of The Oxford Dictionary of Allusion (2001), explain, allusions “can be used as a kind of shorthand, evoking instantly a complex human experience embedded within a story or dramatic event”, or “to entertaining effect”; also, obviously, to show off (I suspect this was Joyce’s case…). The problem with the ‘entertaining effect’ is that it excludes audiences who are not into the joke, which can be very annoying to them. In Pixar’s Zootopia (2016) there is a delicious allusion to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) which only adults can catch. This is a great strategy to interest adults in taking kids to cinemas; yet, it frustrates children to spot jokes in films intended for them from which they are excluded. And this is the irritant: the sense of exclusion, which makes you feel ignorant and, at worse, mortified.

Age and the passage of time combine in strange ways regarding allusions. To begin with, it would have been absurd for Pastor to have his protagonist use allusions that only teens could get, for he is an adult man born in the 1970s (like the author). However, YA writers, obviously, need to make sure that their readers understand their allusions–if you don’t get the references to Greek mythology in Rick Riordan’s series Percy Jackson & the Olympians (2005-9), then much of the fun is lost, though I would agree that readers are also schooled as they read. Allusions, logically, always have an educational value and this is why the better educated persons enjoy them best. That is to say: the older you are, the more allusions you recognise (um, except those that come from younger age groups…).

Other kinds of allusions risk being lost in time. The Oxford Dictionary of Allusion surely is no help to read Bret Easton Ellis’ novel Glamorama (2000), an extremely violent, angry novel narrated by a male model, Victor Ward, and full of allusions to his celebrity-studded 1990s universe. On a first name basis… I recall in particular a reviewer wondering whether in ten years time anyone would recognise Victor’s allusions to Johnny and Kate, that is to say, actor Johnny Depp and top model Kate Moss, the hottest couple on Earth between 1994 and 1997. Glamorama plays, then, with the fine line dividing allusion to topical issues from plain gossip, and while fun to read at the time of publication (in this gossipy sense, not in others), this is a novel that must sound positively ancient today. Better stick to the Bible and the classics…

Returning to L’any de la plaga, I must thank Pastor for revealing how absurdly empty most characters are in fiction for, unlike his Víctor Negro, they never refer to the music, books, films, series that are an essential part of our lives. And when they do so, this is mainly restricted to, well, the Bible and the classics, not to the popular. Arantxa teaches us in her post that allusions can also be a powerful generational barrier but, believe me, the bafflement and the sense of exclusion are mutual. Inevitably, each generation has its main referents.

Fortunately, Wikipedia, that immense wealth of allusions, can help. Look at how beautiful the English idiom is: what are many allusions if not wealth?

I publish a new post every Tuesday (follow updates from @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Please be warned that I check them for spam and this might take some time. Download the yearly volumes: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

JEDIS AND TEMPLARS: TRYING TO UNDERSTAND OBI-WAN KENOBI

September 4th, 2017

I am using this first post of the new academic year to process ideas I’m considering for my plenary talk on Obi-Wan Kenobi, to be given at the conference on ‘Star Wars and Ideology’ (April 2018, Universidad Complutense in Madrid, http://eventos.ucm.es/10096/detail/congreso-internacional_-star-wars-e-ideologia.html). I asked specifically to focus on Kenobi because there is one image in Lucas’s saga that still bothers me after many years: that of the burnt, mutilated body of Anakin Skywalker, fallen at the feet of Obi-Wan on planet Mustafar’s volcanic landscape.

This is how the relationship between master and padawan ends: with Kenobi using sickening violence to smash the body of his former pupil. Inexplicably, despite the appalling way in which Obi-Wan punishes Anakin for his first crimes as Darth Vader, the Jedi Master still remains a favourite with many Star Wars fans. True, Skywalker/Vader’s crimes include the near murder of his pregnant wife Amidala and the extermination of all the children apprenticed to the Jedi Temple. Kenobi is himself the only survivor of Order 66, evil Palpatine’s decree to annihilate all the Jedis and, besides, Anakin is trying to kill him. Even so, when Obi-Wan coolly uses his lightsaber to cut off both of Anakin’s legs and his remaining arm (the other was lost to Count Dooku), and when he abandons his former apprentice to be burnt to death by lava, he is not acting as a Jedi, whether knight or master. He is acting in anger, fury and resentment, exactly the emotions that the Jedi code tries to suppress because they lead to the dark side.

Palpatine, or Darth Sidious if you wish, rescues the disfigured, half-dead Vader to imprison him in the iconic cyborg black suit. Meanwhile, Kenobi sees Amidala die in childbirth and organizes the adoption of her newly born twins, Luke and Leia. He hides for nineteen years on planet Tatooine, keeping an eye on the boy, fostered by farmers Owen and Beru Lars (Leia is left in the aristocratic hands of Bail Organa, a member of Alderaan’s royal family). Apparently a new film, scheduled for 2019 and still to be written, will narrate Obi-Wan’s Tatooine exile, which he starts looking like Ewan McGregor and from which he emerges looking like Alec Guinness.

I’m convinced that Guinness’ English avuncular looks in the 1977 film, Episode IV: A New Hope, and McGregor’s Scottish good looks in Episodes I-III have played a major role in convincing audiences that Kenobi is a good man always acting right, no matter the circumstances. We first met him as teen Luke’s new mentor: a clever, serene old man, at all times one step ahead of the malevolent Empire thanks to his proficient use of the Force. Who could have thought back in 1977 that when he meets Darth Vader to let himself be killed by him in strange circumstances both were sharing the memory of the Mustafar horror? Well, nobody, not even George Lucas, who must have came up with that grisly moment only about 2000. By the time Kenobi wins the awful combat with Anakin in Revenge of the Sith (2005), at the end of the trilogy, McGregor has convinced us that Obi-Wan has been an extremely patient father-figure for the unruly, testy, irritating Anakin. And let’s be clear about this: because we find McGregor not only handsome but also a very good actor, we even cheer when dreadfully bad actor Hayden Christensen (playing Anakin) starts losing his limbs, lopped off by Obi-Wan’s blue laser saber. It’s just a case of the villain getting his comeuppance from the hero.

Yet, it is not at all. Anakin’s fall is the result of a serious flaw in the Jedi code: the rule preventing knights from having personal attachments. This is the point at which I need to explain the role of the Knights Templar in Star Wars.

As you know, the Knights Templar where a medieval religious military order. They were founded by Hugues de Payens (1070-1136), a French minor aristocrat who convinced the Christian king of Jerusalem, Baldwin II, to let him form with eight more men a guard devoted to protecting pilgrims. This happened in the aftermath of the First Crusade (1095-99); the Order of Solomon’s Temple was established in 1119. From its humble beginnings, the brotherhood of the Knights Templar blossomed into a rich emporium with houses all over Europe and the Middle East, specializing in international banking (they invented the equivalent of modern travellers’ cheques). The order grew so powerful that by 1312 Pope Clement V and King Philippe IV decided to disband it, killing most of its members. Their arrest was decreed for a fated Friday 13, apparently the origin of our superstitions about that date. Remember Palpatine’s Order 66?

Proof that George Lucas knows about the Knights Templar is very easy to find: he proposed the story on which the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) is based. All kinds of legends are attached to the Knights Templar, who spent their initial years in Jerusalem apparently digging the remains of Solomon’s Temple for treasure and who found, among other objects, the Ark of Alliance and the Holy Grail, both chased by Indiana Jones.

Anyone minimally interested in the charismatic Templars knows that Hugo de Payens introduced a singular innovation in medieval warfare by merging the monk and the warrior in a single figure. Lucas, who initially though of calling his own monkish soldiers Jedi Templars must have been also aware of their code, developed by Payens together with his relative and founder of the Benedictine Order, Bernard de Clairvaux (1090-1153). The text of this code, called the Latin Rule (1128) defines in 72 articles how Knights Templar should behave down to the last detail.

Here are the articles that apply to Star Wars and that make it impossible for Obi-Wan Kenobi to successfully guide Anakin Skywalker. Article 14 states that, although children were often accepted as novices in monasteries, they should not enter the order. The code advises parents to raise their sons until they can “bear arms with vigour” and warns that “it is much better” for a candidate “if he does not take the vow when he is a child, but when he is older, and it is better if he does not regret it than if he regrets it”. In contrast, the Jedi train children from a very early age: Qui-Gon Jinn takes Anakin when he is only nine. Let’s add to this glaring mistake the fact that Qui-Gon frees the child from slavery, but not his mother Shmi, forcing the poor boy to abandon her to her sad fate for ever.

Why for ever? Because, allow me to speculate about this, Lucas also borrowed from the Latin Rule article 71, which forbids brother knights from kissing, embracing and even looking at women “be it widow, young girl, mother, sister, aunt or any other”. Contact with women must be avoided so that order members “may remain eternally before the face of God with a pure conscience and sure life”, which also means that “the flower of chastity” (article 70) must be always maintained. This article serves both to prevent women from joining the Knights Templar but also to keep “the brothers” celibate, and always married first and foremost to the order. By the way: married men could join in provided they should stay chaste after admission. The imposition of chastity on religious orders, interestingly, was only made final, after warnings scattered through the centuries, by the Lateran Council in 1123, celebrated only five years before the writing of the Latin Rule. Pope Calixtus II denied the sacrament of marriage to anyone in orders and even annulled perfectly valid unions signed before the Council.

The Jedis are very similar to the Knights Templar in the management of their personal relationships, though not as strict as to forbid looking. Also, there are females among them, though the use of the word Knight for them suggests that non-male Jedis were a politically correct addition rather than part of Lucas’s plans from the beginning. Pope Calixtus II made celibacy compulsory for very pragmatic reasons: whereas many, including the Templars, invoked the purity of the body (which is funny because they only bathed once a year…), the actual purpose of celibacy was preventing the riches of the Church from being scattered among the priests’ and nuns’ families. For the Jedis the key matter was preventing the forming of uncontrollable dynasties (see the Wookipedia for a discussion of this point).

Even though the TV series Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008-15) invented for Obi-Wan an impossible romance with Duchess Satine Kryze, Kenobi is a stickler for the Jedi rule and, seeing that Anakin is falling for Amidala, can think of nothing except tell the young man that they should remain friends. As he did with Satyne, to their mutual insatisfaction. Please, remember that Anakin has not chosen to be a Jedi, has lost his mother and has not been allowed in any way to buy her freedom, much less to stay in touch with her. Perhaps now we understand why he falls in love with a kind woman five years his senior, precisely during the time when Obi-Wan allows him to go on his first solo mission, as Senator Amidala’s protector. Since the Jedi code determines that Anakin, then 20, will be expelled if the romance is discovered, the couple embark on a secret marriage, never trusting Kenobi and for good reason. Anakin’s anguish and his fear of losing Amidala make him extremely vulnerable to Palpatine’s manipulations and so he falls on the dark side. Only to be burned to a crisp by the man who was supposed to be for him brother, father, friend and master in one–Kenobi.

I have no idea why Lucas decided to keep this rule from the remote medieval past alive in the 21st century of Episodes I-III, although we must recall that a) all love stories need an obstacle, b) celibacy is still today a major problem for Catholics priests and possibly the root of rampant child abuse. The question is that although Anakin Skywalker is not exactly a sweet guy, he is a man deeply troubled by the loss of his mother, who regains some sort of balance thanks to Amidala. The secrecy of their love and the actual death of Shmi in terrible circumstances call for a thoughtful, compassionate reaction from Obi-Wan Kenobi. Yet the fact that he sides with the absurd Jedi code rather than with Anakin’s very human passions is what brings disaster onto the heads of all Jedis, almost ending the order for good. A wise mentor would have convinced the Jedi Council to allow Anakin and Amidala to live openly as husband and wife, thus putting an end to Palpatine’s hold on the young man. If, in addition, Anakin certainly is the most powerful Jedi ever, then it seems in the Jedis’ best interests to keep him happy and on their side, firmly bound to Kenobi and Yoda’s wise counsel. Instead, we get the ghastly scene on Mustafar when Darth Vader has already taken Anakin over.

Even if you hate Star Wars with all your might, you might perhaps draw a lesson from Anakin’s fall, and that of any young man, to the dark side: any code of masculinity that calls for the suppression of feeling and of personal attachment is monstrous. Far from being a wise man, Obi-Wan Kenobi unwisely enforces that revolting rule because he is himself a limited man, incapable of truly empathizing with his troubled padawan. Unwittingly, then, Lucas sends with his underrated second trilogy a most important message: if men fail to understand what other men feel, and how to guide and help them, then we are all in trouble.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (follow updates from @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Please be warned that I check them for spam and this might take some time. Download the yearly volumes: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. See also: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

A FAST AGEING CULTURE: (NEW) PROBLEMS IN THE STUDY OF POPULAR FICTIONS

August 28th, 2017

This summer I am giving myself a crash course in ballet because I don’t think there is a bigger pleasure than discovering a whole exciting field one knows nothing about. Two posts ago, I already commented on the lack of sufficient introductory texts and the role of men as ‘male ballerinas’ (this is a tag used on the internet). Yesterday, I watched on YouTube the Paris Opera Ballet, dancing Pierre Lacotte’s reconstruction of Filippo Taglioni’s La Sylphide (1832), which is the first Romantic ballet (or classic, as we call it today). It is also the ballet that placed the ballerina centre-stage for good, thanks to the marvellous talent of Marie Taglioni, Filippo’s daughter. I was enjoying enormously Aurore Dupont and Mathieu Gaino’s performance and I thought to myself, ‘this is really weird–why has this specific branch of theatrical performance survived for 180 years already?’ And ‘will it survive 180 years more’? What am I doing watching this and not, like everyone else, Game of Thrones? How can contemporary culture accommodate both Sylphide and Daenerys Targaryen?

This is a very clumsy way to reach the issue I want to raise today: the increasing difficulties to understand what truly matters, culturally speaking. If anything matters at all. I’ve been writing yet another text defending the importance of studying popular fictions using the same level of commitment we apply to the artistically ambitious, and I realize that a new problem is emerging.

In a context in which the Humanities are always struggling to survive it seems safer to rely on the classics and on the study of any cultural manifestation that seems most likely to endure the test of time. I realize that those of us in Cultural Studies have complicated matters very much by demanding that the present is studied with the same interest as the past, for I firmly believe that there is no sense in not teaching students and not researching our own living experience. Having said that, and seeing this summer each new chapter of Game of Thrones, season seven, summarised and discussed on the front pages of many international newspapers, I have started wondering what exactly is going on. Mainly in terms of the hunger for texts universally shared, beyond the classics. Also in terms of what we do, both in traditional Literary Studies and in Cultural Studies to help texts survive beyond the time when they were created.

For convenience’s sake, I’ll argue that Cultural Studies started having a considerable impact on how we study contemporary culture, without a capital C, around 1990. I know we can go back earlier, even to 1950s pioneers like Raymond Williams but the point I am making is that for, roughly, the last 25 years Cultural Studies has grown to be a fully established discipline (at least in Anglo-American universities). Let’s suppose that in a perfect world nobody insists any more that studying Virginia Woolf is relevant but studying J.K. Rowling is not (remember, please, that according to Ian McEwan Woolf was a novelty in the 1970s English university context from which he graduated). Now, consider whether academic analysis of a popular text actually contributes to its survival for the subsequent generations. My answer is no: right now, nothing guarantees the survival of any text, whether classical or popular, much less academia. This is because of our extremely short-range cultural memory.

The case study I have in mind is the TV series Buffy, Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). You may not know about this but Joss Whedon’s series is, arguably, the most popular text among academics devoted to the study of popular fictions. There is a thriving field of Buffy Studies (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffy_studies), a label that, while informal, is well-known. The journal Slayage of The Whedon Studies Association was launched in 2001 (http://www.whedonstudies.tv/slayage-the-journal-of-whedon-studies.html) by academics David Lavery and Rhonda V. Wilcox. They were also editors of the first collective volume on Whedon’s series, Fighting the Forces: What’s at Stake in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2002), though the first academic articles appeared back in 1998. An MLA search throws 301 entries for Buffy, including MA and PhD dissertations, peaking in 2013 with 38 entries (34 for 2004, right after the series finished). A recent book by Patricia Pender is titled I’m Buffy and You’re History: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Contemporary Feminism (2016). It’s final chapter is “‘Where Do We Go From Here?’: Trajectories in Buffy Studies”.

Whedon, of course, reacted positively to this attention, back in 2003: “I think it’s always important for academics to study popular culture, even if the thing they are studying is idiotic. If it’s successful or made a dent in culture, then it is worthy of study to find out why. Buffy, on the other hand is, I hope, not idiotic. We think very carefully about what we’re trying to say emotionally, politically, and even philosophically while we’re writing it” (https://web.archive.org/web/20160305034153/http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/16/readersopinions/16WHED.html?ex=1198213200&en=292c3c27d77f61ac&ei=5070). The problem, however, is that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is already, excuse me, a fossilized text. By this I mean that it is already a text older than our undergrad students.

What those of us in Cultural Studies are discovering is that there is a huge difference between studying a ‘living’ text–being issued/broadcast as we study it or very recently–and a text you need to introduce, whether this is Great Expectations or The X-Files. You may be raising an eyebrow now, as there has been a recent mini-series of The X-Files but I believe this has only proved the inability of Chris Carter’s text to remain ‘alive’. In short, after more than 25 years of Cultural Studies what we are learning is that very often popular texts have a shorter life span than the academic interest they may raise. La Sylphide is alive–and please, remember this was conceived as commercial entertainment–but who knows whether Game of Thrones will be remembered in 2027?

Does this mean that a) Cultural Studies has failed in its mission? and b) that the only way to save its project is by teaching/researching ‘living’ texts? No, this is not part of my argument. Even using the traditional methodology of conservative Literary Studies, which prefers its authors and not only its texts dead (or ‘fossilized’), we face the same problem: twenty years is part of living memory for most academics currently employed all over the world, but it is a whole new generation as regards the students sitting in our classroom. We sound old-fashioned, quaint and uncool whether we teach Rushdie’s Midnight Children (1981) or The Matrix Trilogy (1999-2003), and whether we use Literary or Cultural Studies. For it is all about fossil texts.

All of us interested in contemporary culture are, like surfers, trying to catch waves to sit “on top of the world” as The Beach Boys used to sing, hoping that the texts we favour have survival value. Often, when I write about a specific topic I wonder whether my choice is already condemning my work to not even make the tiniest splash. This has always been a major critique of Cultural Studies: that we are not academics but a sort of cultural journalist working on ephemeral texts and producing short-lived analysis of the latest hip text. The joke, of course, is that academic work on any canonical author is beset by the same problem: nobody cites work published before 1990, whether this is on George Eliot or on Tarzan of the Apes (if, that is, anyone published on Burroughs before 1990).

So, in the end, the difference between high and popular culture within academia is no longer down to the binary trivial/serious, as we used to be told (or believe), but short-lived/long-lived, and at all levels. The trend is actually being reversed, if you know what I mean: living authors and ‘living’ texts are cooler to write about than dead or ‘fossilized’ ones. I very much wanted to write my doctoral dissertation about J.G. Ballard back in the mid-1990s, when he was a hot academic property still to be explored and very much alive. Would I recommended today a student to choose Ballard, who died in 2009, for his/her PhD? You tell me… Likewise, the monographic course on Harry Potter that I taught three years ago made perfect sense in 2013-14 when the original readers were sitting in my classroom. Now it is beginning to sound stale, which is why I’m already planning an elective on Game of Thrones, if Martin ever finishes his saga, A Song of Ice and Fire.

So, to sum up my argument, the revolution that Cultural Studies started back in 1990 by inviting academics to study living authors and all kinds of texts beyond the strictly artistic, did not take into account ageing. Both the ageing of academics with cultural memories stretching beyond several generations of students, and the ageing of the contemporary texts of any kind, which is much faster than it used to be 100 years ago. This means that all of us working on the contemporary face an impossible situation: we need to keep up with the latest developments in the field that we have chosen to study as the bottom of shared memory drops. Students, besides, have on the whole little interest in texts produced before their year of birth. I can hear the conservative academics who never tried to catch the 1990s ‘new wave’ smugly reply to my post: ‘I told you so, stick to the fossils’. But, then, if Buffy, the Vampire Slayer is now becoming fossilized or already a fossil, just imagine what Walter Scott, who died in 1832, the year The Sylphide was first performed, sounds like.

I’m not watching Game of Thrones because, although interested, I’m not passionate about it. Also, because, after the fiasco of Lost, I’d rather wait for stories to be over before I see or read them. I really would like to teach an elective and I hope that Martin is done soon, but if he finishes, say, in 2025, which might well be, the TV series might be ancient history by then… A strange situation.

As for how contemporary culture can also accommodate La Sylphide, perhaps the best I can do is argue that in this ugly 21st century only classical ballet (and perhaps photography) insists on providing some beauty. Enjoy!!

I publish a new post every Tuesday. 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/

INDOCTRINATING YOUNG MEN: IN SEARCH OF IDEALS

August 21st, 2017

I’m writing this post in the aftermath of the terrible Barcelona attack on 17 August, in which 13 persons were killed by a young man driving a van into the crowded Rambles, leaving 180 others injured. The van driver, 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub, is still at large. Later, in the early hours of 18 August, the Catalan police shot dead a group of five young men who were carrying out yet another terrorist attack in Cambrils, about 90 kms south of Barcelona. There seems to be a connection between these crimes and the blast which destroyed a house in Alcanar, where three men died, apparently members of the same terrorist cell. All reports agree today that the terrorists intended to blow up a lorry loaded with dozens of butane canisters, either in Rambles or near Sagrada Familia, killing hundreds.

The Mossos d’Esquadra (the Catalan police) suspect that one of shattered bodies in Alcanar belongs to Abdelkabi Es Satty, the imam of Ripoll’s mosque and allegedly the mastermind behind the attacks. As it has happened in England, France, Belgium, Germany and other countries under attack by radicalized Islamic terrorists born and bred in their midst, everyone is wondering today in Spain how a group of apparently well-integrated, well-behaved young men have been so quickly transformed into inhuman fiends. Es Satty, apparently also connected with the 11 March 2004 bombings in Atocha and other Madrid train stations which left 192 dead, is blamed for the brainwashing of the boys by families desperate to shift their horror of what their children have done onto somebody else’s shoulders. An article by Lluís Urría in La Vanguardia today, titled “One of Us” concludes that, like their peers in other European nations, the Ripoll boys were vulnerable to predators like Es Satty because migrant integration is failing. Whether following the British multicultural approach or the French denial of difference, we don’t know how to make second generation migrants feel integrated. Instead, we place them in ghettos were jihad seems an appealing way out. Into death and destruction.

These seem to be incomplete arguments. To begin with, let’s consider the terrorism that we used to suffer in Spain, caused by the Basque separatist band E.T.A. This was not at all the product of disaffected young men in migrant neighbourhoods of, say, Madrid and Barcelona. It was, rather, the product of nationalist indoctrination of the worst kind, apparently connected at some points with the Catholic church in the Basque Country. Yet, I don’t recall this kind of sociological analysis applied to the case, at least not on the media. The point I am making is that the pattern is much wider than the current case: whether this is the KKK, the IRA, ETA or Daesh, each successive terrorism thrives by offering new members a potent ideal through indoctrination. Much more potent than the ideal taught in schools and families, as the case of the Ripoll terrorist cell shows. If these young men could be brought to the side of horror in just two months, then we need to consider not really the efficiency of their brainwasher but the fragility of the boys’ education and values.

Although there are also young women who have made the decision to join ISIS, like German teen Linda Wenzel who was on the news after her capture about a month ago, patriarchal terrorism finds its breeding ground among young men. Indeed, one of the main, nastiest surprises in the Barcelona and Cambrils attacks is that they were caused by very young men, aged 17-24. This is possibly good news, though tragic, as it shows that ISIS needs to appeal to increasingly younger boys, even mere children, to capture adepts. Boys as young as 8 are being recruited in the war zones of Syria and Iraq to be suicide bombers (girls, too, but they are selected to be mainly sex slaves, as corresponds to the patriarchal mindset of Daesh). It is very, very easy to launch here a feminist attack against the readiness of boys and young men to engage in violence–another man in his twenties, a Chechnian migrant in France, was on the news a few days ago for brutally kicking an Italian young man to death in a crowded Lloret disco. This is not my point. My point is, rather, that if young men are so vulnerable to patriarchal brainwashing this is because the alternative is not working. That is to say, they lack an alternative masculinity strong enough to say ‘no’ to patriarchal violence. And to report monsters like Es Satty to the police. In a parallel, ideal world, Abouyaaqoub and his friends would be hailed as heroes today for helping to avoid a catastrophe, not abhorred as brutes for causing one.

There are two strategies before this situation. One is offering texts that represent in all its crudity the horrendous nature of the evil that seems so attractive from the outside. One example of this trend is the mini-series currently being broadcast by Channel 4, The State (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6068620/). Written and directed by Peter Kosminsky, the four-part story traces the misadventures of young British Muslims travelling to Syria to join the Islamic State. The review by Mark Lawson in The Guardian wonders, however, in its very title whether “this show about British jihadis” can “avoid justifying extremism”. The series, released on the Sunday after the Barcelona attacks, “brings an extra shiver”, Lawson writes, as it was shot in Spain. Lawson concludes that watching The State would make it less likely for British teenagers to be recruited, yet he does not mention that teenagers are not today an easy target for TV programmers. Lawson’s review downplays the PR that Daesh is carrying out precisely on the sites which teens do access on the net and that the adults around them mostly ignore. For there are all kinds of manipulative youtubers, all indoctrinating young persons in one way or another.

The other alternative, in which fiction may also participate but which is everybody’s responsibility, consists of building positive, rewarding images for young Muslim men to embrace. I know: a tall order. If you google the word ‘indoctrination’ you will see that most results refer not to Islam but to feminism, as there is widespread fear that men are being moulded in the West through education in the ideology of liberal feminism and thus deprived of their masculinity. I have been explaining for years that to begin with this is not true and, anyway, it is the wrong approach: both men and women should be taught to resist patriarchy and work to reinforce equal-rights citizenship. What strikes me this summer –as I read anti-feminist books written by men, such as the late Horacio Vázquez-Rial’s Hombres solos: Ser varón en el s. XXI (2004), and also anti-patriarchal books like Miguel Llorente’s Los nuevos hombres nuevos: Los miedos de siempre en tiempos de igualdad (2009)– is how badly we need positive role models for men. Rial’s lashing out against radical feminism and Llorente’s disgust at publicly sanctioned sexism (what he calls ‘postmachismo’) reveal a similar inability to tell us what a man should be like in our times. Men are defined by both authors for what they are not: Rial complains that not all men are rapists as Susan Brownmiller and company sentenced; Llorente criticizes men for abusing women and not being good fathers. Yet, neither can truly explain what a man should be like. A good man.

I have been arguing for more than two decades that we need a new code of chivalry, new forms of gentlemanliness and heroism. I’m not naively returning to the 19th century from which horrors like the knights of the KKK emerged but proposing, very seriously, that men codify formally new codes of conduct that can be appealed to. “You’re no gentleman” used to be a very potent insult, but this has been replaced with “You’re a bastard”, which is no use. The insult should hurt the man’s pride, not confirm a deviousness he may have embraced willingly. The same applies to women. I don’t know if telling young wannabe terrorists “you’re not a good Muslim” is any use but as long as Daesh determines who is a good Muslim we are not making headway. Likewise, President Trump missed recently the chance to tell white supremacists “You’re not good Americans” by blaming “all sides” for the hatred unleashed by these racists. Indeed, he is basing his chaotic Presidency on praising the wrong people and for the wrong reasons.

I ramble but in the end the argument is easy to understand: Daesh/ISIS has managed to build an image of what a Muslim man should be like which is spreading like burning oil all over Europe among the young men of immigrant origins because it is finding no positive alternative. So, let’s offer one through education at home and at school, without forgetting mosques if it has to be that way and, above all, the internet. An image and a model that can convince other young men like Younes Abouyaaqoub that the heroic thing to do is to resist all forms of barbaric indoctrination, rather than kill innocents. This must be a joint effort, no doubt, by the Islamic communities in the world but also by anyone who opposes terror.

And, please men, give us positive images for the new times, we need them. And so do you.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. 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/

KINGS OF DANCE, MEN IN BALLET: FROM LOUIS XIV TO SERGEI POLUNIN

August 8th, 2017

Many complain that the most neglected area in our cultural education is music. I disagree: I believe it is dance, and ballet in particular. The current syllabus for secondary education in Catalonia includes a course called ‘History of music and dance’ (see http://xtec.gencat.cat/web/.content/alfresco/d/d/workspace/SpacesStore/0084/cc151bd5-caee-4c3d-8e35-a7053619c91e/historia_musica_dansa.pdf), which seems an improvement in relation to the total absence of these two arts from the secondary school curriculum back in the 1980s. Of course, one may learn about any field of interest outside formal school education: after all, cinema does not even have its own BA degree in Film Studies in Spain but this has been no obstacle for many Spaniards to become committed, self-taught cinephiles.

With dance, however, matters are far more difficult as, apart from the general public indifference to this art, there is actually very little accessible introductory material, both print and audio-visual. This surprises me very much in view of the proliferation of ballet schools for middle-class children. At any rate, I have been unable to find a good audio-visual introduction on YouTube, a basic history of ballet, beyond brief amateur presentations or boring professional TED lecturing. Likewise, there seem to be very few books addressed to beginners in the field, beyond Susan Au’s Ballet and Modern Dance, as ballet books are primarily about the practice, and not the history of dancing. Actually, most children introduced to this art (and their parents) have no idea about who the current main stars are–much less about why they must practice particular dance steps, or that truly strange staple of ballet, pointe work.

The volume I am currently reading, the Cambridge Companion to Ballet, demands a certain stamina from readers and, like any other book on this topic, it is limited by the lack of moving images, without which ballet terminology may be quite daunting. Searching, then, for an illustration of the issues covered in the first part of the Companion, specially baroque dance, I came across the BBC documentary The King Who Invented Ballet: Louis XIV and the Noble Art of Dance (2015). This turned out to be a beautiful film presented by Birmingham Royal Ballet’s artistic director David Bentley, with a wonderful surprise: whereas the first hour is devoted to exploring what ballet meant for the Sun King, the last 35 minutes offer Bentley’s own ballet The King Dances. Without forgetting that English culture has also produced rowdy Magaluf tourists, I marvel at its public television. I just don’t see Spanish or Catalan TV walking down the ballet road and, thus, remain wonderfully ignorant of the local situation.

Let me pass on what I have been learning these days. Ballet is a ritualized dance form originating in 15th century Italian courts which reached France thanks to Catherine de’ Medici. All European courtiers were expected to master ballet as a social skill applied to controlling body language but also to offering spectacular displays of power. Louis XIV, a keen dancer since childhood, made the best of this aspect of ballet, as the BBC documentary explains, to solve a major political crisis which threatened to dethrone him when he was still a teen king under the regency of his mother and of Cardinal Mazzarino (or Mazarin). The twelve-hour Le Ballet de la Nuit in which young Louis dazzled his subjects by playing the dancing Sun King, gave the monarch not only a lasting nickname but also the authority he craved for. Hard as it is to imagine any contemporary crowned individual dancing in public–beyond perhaps waltzing in gala dinners–the fact is that Louis did so for decades, and to great acclaim. He eventually founded the first ballet academy in the world in 1661, the Académie Royale de Danse.

Formally a celebration of Louis XIV’s major contribution to ballet, the BBC documentary–or, rather, choreographer David Bentley–also has a gendered agenda: vindicating the role of men in ballet. My own interest in this field is being fuelled by the paradoxical position as public women of 19th century ballerinas, owners of the only female bodies on display which deserved artistic respect and even stardom (hence, power). All scholars agree that ballet has been dominated by women since the Romantic period but Bentley’s approach is part of a currently ongoing reflection on the role that male dancers may play in art form today much conditioned by rampant homophobia.

You may see the problem summarized in the 35 minutes of The King Dances: although he had devised the piece for an all-male cast, Bentley reluctantly decided to cast a ballerina as the ethereal Moon spirit; her appearance on stage reduces the principal male dancer playing the King to becoming a supporting prop, what men mostly are in classical ballet. This is frustrating, as throughout the rest of the piece he interacts wonderfully with the rest of the male cast in original, creative dance moves. The controversial suggestion then is that, if male dancers could free themselves from the burden of the ballerina (a figure unknown in Louis XIV’s reign) then they could take centre stage again. And dance as men–as the Sun King did.

Bentley’s film connects with another excellent documentary which I have mentioned just in passing here: Steve Cantor’s Dancer (2016). The film focuses on Sergei Polunin, a young, brilliant ballet dancer whom you may have seen in a viral YouTube video, directed by David LaChapelle. There, Polunin offers an amazing display of formidable dancing accompanied by Hozier’s catchy song “Take me to Church” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c-tW0CkvdDI). As it turns out, Polunin intended this video to be his goodbye to ballet but, paradoxically, its success made him reconsider his decision. This is what Cantor’s film documents: the cost of being a ballet star in a world in which ballet’s demands may no longer make sense, much less to a young man.

As dancing male bodies on display, Louis XIV and Sergei Polunin occupy diametrically opposed positions: one is the King of the most powerful nation of his time using ballet to flaunt his political power; the other is a poor boy from Ukraine whose working-class family collapses under the burden of lifting him onto stardom. And here lies the problem in Polunin’s case: for Louis XIV, ballet is an extension of his absolutism, inherited by divine right; for Polunin, ballet is not a personal choice, but a road onto which he is placed by teachers and family because of his body’s uncanny capacities and abilities. In my Marxist reading, Louis XIV puts the foundations of an elite taste for ballet which allows Polunin to leave poverty behind in 21st century post-Communist Ukraine at a very high personal cost. This includes his radical de-classing, his permanent exile from his home town, the divorce of his parents and even his own estrangement from the whole family. Polunin wonders, as the film does, whether the sacrifice is worth it. The dancer’s many tattoos and his athletic style (see the video) also hint what he later vocalizes: ballet is a world in need of updating, particularly for male dancers. Bentley’s own message…

And, then, there’s homophobia. In an encounter with the audience at the Toronto Film Festival, after a screening of Dancer, a shy man asks Polunin (himself quite shy despite his undeserved ‘bad boy’ reputation) how homophobia can be combated and, thus, more young boys introduced to ballet. In Polunin’s Ukraine boys were given, as he was, a choice between gymnastics and ballet and perhaps because of this he seems puzzled, also a bit uncomfortable. “I do a man’s job”, he quips and this is it. Both Louis XIV and Sergei Polunin, beginning and present, embody what ballet is at risk of losing: heterosexual masculinity. It seemed that after the phenomenally successful Billy Elliot (2000), the problem would have been solved. Yet, it has not. This does not mean that gay male dancers are acknowledged and respected, either. The Bolshoi’s recent decision (June 2017) to cancel the world premiere of a ballet based on top Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev (1938-93) has dismayed many. Although the Bolshoi authorities have invoked technical problems to justify their decision, Russian legislation against promoting homosexuality in any way is most likely their main consideration. For, of course, Nureyev was gay and died of AIDS-related complications.

Ironically, then, although ballet was formally codified to display men’s power it eventually became an art focused on the iconic femininity of the ballerina. I don’t intend to discuss here this femininity, nor how it fits the current cult of the unnaturally thin woman. What anyone knows is that ballet schools are full of girls because most parents believe that ballet gives even the less gifted girl tools to carry her body gracefully, still, believe it or not, a much appreciated social skill. But what about little boys? Whenever I attend a ballet school’s performance, as I do yearly, and see just one or two boys surrounded by twenty or more girls, I wonder who they are, what is motivating them and what obstacles they’re facing, whether they’re gay or straight. Louis XIV would not understand this situation at all.

By the way, Polunin was discovered thanks to the Ukrainian public school system, of which ballet was part. This is hard to imagine in my local context. I’ll leave for some other day why the supposedly cultured, cosmopolitan city of Barcelona offers so little ballet and at such prohibitive prizes. This, I believe, King Louis XIV would understand.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. 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/

RETHINKING THE POSTCOLONIAL: VANDANA SINGH, INDIAN SF WRITER

July 11th, 2017

My colleague Felicity Hand is organizing yet another exciting conference, this time on India. Having learned much about Postcolonialism from previous similar events, I have submitted a proposal (see http://jornades.uab.cat/aeeii2017/en, also Felicity’s research group Ratnakara http://grupsderecerca.uab.cat/ratnakara/). I decided to focus my paper on science fiction, a genre with a very rich history in India in several languages. Narrowing down the field to just one name was, though, quite difficult. Fortunately, the recent monographic issue published by Science Fiction Studies (#130, or 43.3, November 2016) led me to a simply wonderful writer, and an indispensable name in the genre: Vandana Singh (http://vandana-writes.com/).

Singh, born and brought up in Delhi, describes herself as a writer of “speculative fiction, which includes science fiction and fantasy”. She has a PhD in Theoretical Physics and works currently as an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Physics and Earth Science at Framingham State University, Massachusetts. Although she started writing both in Hindi and English, her main focus is now the latter language. Singh is known not only for her sf but also for a couple of children’s books: Younguncle Comes to Town and Younguncle in the Himalayas. Her sf consists of short stories and novellas, some of which can be found online (see http://www.freesfonline.de/authors/Vandana_Singh.html). She has published her work in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and has collected some of her earlier stories a volume, now out of print, The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet (2008). Her second, forthcoming, volume is Ambiguity Machines and Other Tales (http://smallbeerpress.com/not-a-journal/2017/05/17/a-new-collection-from-vandana-singh/).

Singh is also co-editor with Anil Menon of the anthology Breaking the Bow: Speculative Fiction Inspired by the Ramayana (http://zubaanbooks.com/shop/breaking-the-bow-speculative-fiction-inspired-by-the-ramayana/). Most Indian sf writers agree that a singularity of the genre they cultivate is how deep it sinks its roots in Indian myth. What readers enjoy in Singh’s fiction, as I do, is the excellent combination of her original cultural background with insights provided by her work as a scientist, now focused on climate change.

I chose initially to work on “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra”, one of Singh’s most obvious incursions into the mythical. This is what my conference proposal announced to the organizers. I read, however, many other stories by Singh, passing from the most often anthologized “Delhi” (classic Singh…) to the eccentrically romantic “Ruminations in an Alien Tongue”, a story about a dying old woman, a black hole and an eternally lost lover. Next I read “Entanglement”, the first truly global story I have ever come across. Eventually, a doctoral student explained to me that the title refers to a scientific concept, a point corroborated by the author. The more I read, the more I realized, then, that Vandana Singh cannot be pinned down under a single label, whether this is woman, Indian, speculative writer, or scientist. How, then, should we make sense of her work?

Trying to explain Singh’s work to my friend Mariano Martín I told him that she reminds me, above all, of fellow sf short fiction writer Ted Chiang (the recent film The Arrival adapts–poorly–one of his brilliant stories). I explained how academic analysis of Singh centres on her status as a postcolonial writer and Mariano complained that this is reductive… as absurd as studying Chiang as an Asian American writer, when everyone knows that he is, above all, the new Borges. Disappointingly, as I told Mariano, MLA offers only 6 entries on Chiang, half of which refer to his ethnic background. None mentions Borges.

As happens, Chang and Singh met at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop (perhaps more than once?) and she interviewed him in 2012 (http://aaww.org/the-occasional-writer-an-interview-with-science-fiction-author-ted-chiang/). It comes as no surprise, in view of her own work, that she praises Chiang’s tales: “I love how so many of them posit and approach fantastical made-worlds in a wholly scientific way”. Pleased that she asks proper questions on science, he stresses how “the sense of wonder that science fiction offers is closely related to the feeling of awe that science itself offers”. Inevitably, racial issues come up… “Does your being Asian American inform your stories in any way?”, Singh asks. Chiang answers: “Race inevitably plays a role in my life, but to date it’s not a topic I’ve wanted to explore in fiction” because “the events of my own life are too dull to be the basis for fiction”. A bit annoyed, Chiang complains that “People have looked for a racial subtext in my work in a way I don’t think they would have if my family name were Davis or Miller”.

Academics, nonetheless, insist on using what Chiang defines as “extratextual information” to read fiction produced by non-white writers, while ignoring the whiteness of white writers (excuse the tongue-twister). At least, I have never come across an analysis of, say, Jonathan Franzen, emphasizing his race or his ethnic Swedish background. Either we stop asking Singh and Chiang about their background or, perhaps more to the point, we start asking the white writers about theirs. Jackie Kay once warned that she would accept seeing herself described as black, lesbian, Scottish, only when Martin Amis started being presented as white, heterosexual, English…. At the same time, the labels used to name non-white writers are absurdly loose: why should ‘Asian’ be a common label for writers from backgrounds as diverse as China and India? Nobody would label, for instance, a Portuguese and a Rumanian writer as ‘European’, so why use ‘Asian’, or ‘African’, in this comprehensive way?

Vandana Singh’s work has already attracted some quality academic work. I’ll refer here to two examples, before I turn to another interview, this time with Singh herself. The two examples highlight the problem I am dealing with: how are we supposed to read non-white authors in a context in which the category ‘white’ is both normative and non-existent?

On the one hand, Suparno Banerjee (Texas State University) claims in “An Alien Nation: Postcoloniality and the Alienated Subject in Vandana Singh’s Science Fiction” (Extrapolation, 53.3 (2012): 283-306) that one of the major topics of recent Indian sf is “the specter of an alienated postcolonial subject caught in the flux of historical eddies” (283). This is precisely, he argues, the kind of estranged character that Vandana Singh explores, calling attention “to the different types and levels of alienation that haunt the people who negotiate their surroundings and identities in this new world order” (283). Reading “Delhi”, “Infinities”, “The Tetrahedron” and the novellas Distances and Of Love and Other Monsters Banerjee argues that Singh “is a writer of the new postcolonial alienation: a form of alienation emerging out of the colonial discourse, yet different from it” (285). He grants that Singh’s style allows her “to speculate about different scientific and philosophical notions” but firmly insists that “alienation in the postcolonial subject becomes her most important concern” (286).

Banerjee’s Indian surname lends to his article an authority as a cultural insider that I cannot have as, well, an alien–a foreign Spanish/Catalan reader. Yet, I feel oppressed and constrained by his interpretation, mostly because he subordinates the essential scientific reading of Singh’s fiction to the ethnic, nationalist reading. Having recently edited a monographic issue for Science Fiction Studies on Spanish sf I believe that no Spanish writer would appreciate being defined by his or her belonging to a (white) postimperial nation: they would rather have academics discuss the specific themes of their writing. Singh does write about India but as we can see in her eagerness to ask Chiang, she is primarily concerned about how to turn science into narrative poetics, a point to which I will return.

The SFS issue on Indian sf offers an alternative to the exclusive postcolonial reading, offered by Eric D. Smith (University of Alabama in Huntsville), a white specialist in Postcolonial Studies. Yes, ‘white’ needs to be mentioned. In his article “Universal Love and Planetary Ontology in Vandana Singh’s Of Love and Other Monsters” (514-533), Smith proposes that we rise above “the limits of certain postcolonial theorizations in the postmillennial present”. More explicitly, by reading Singh’s novella through the critique of love proposed by French philosopher Alain Badiou, Smith argues “the insufficiency of postcolonial theory for capturing the event of postcolonial sf and the latter’s potential for the production of planetary being” (514). He cites Banerjee (the very words I have quoted) to oppose him and show that beyond the postcolonial, Singh’s fiction “insists on themes of infinity, interdimensionality, and, indeed, universality, frequently underpinned by a referential framework of theoretical mathematics (…)” (514). Half-way through his article, however, I found myself resisting Smith’s reading fiercely: who is this white guy to force Singh’s stories into the philosophical mould set by two other white guys, Alain Badiou, and, guess who?, Slavoj Žižek? How does this approach serve Singh better than Banerjee’s?

In the same issue, Malisa Kurtz (PhD from Brock University)–who looks Asian American as the category goes…–interviews Singh. She prioritizes in her questions the author’s “fascination with scientific speculation” (534) and with “the provisionality of scientific knowledge” (536); also the issue of whether her sf is ‘hard’ (it is, though not gadget-oriented). Kurtz gets Singh to explain how her sf connects with the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics, and also to disclose her relief at discovering Bengali writer Premendra Mitra (read in English) for “I didn’t want sf written by people from the West to be the only standard with which to compare and contrast my stories” (537).

Yet, Kurtz also gets from Singh the story of how US white female sf writers (above all Ursula Le Guin) saved her from alienation as a newly migrated PhD student. “What she showed me”, Singh enthuses, “was an array of alternate worlds, futures, histories, in which people like me existed” (537). Instead of the “white-maletechnofetishist(s)” Anglo-American sf authors she read as a teen, “Le Guin’s works restored sf to me, made it welcoming in a way I hadn’t experienced before” (537). Another source of enthusiasm, of course, is how Singh “cannot separate the aesthetic impulse that drives me to create worlds from the pleasure I get doing physics” (538). Her current work, “on the pedagogy of climate science”(538) is, thus, a direct inspiration for “Entanglement”.

The racial question pops up, again: how does Singh feel about the label ‘postcolonial science fiction’? Singh lets “the scholars worry about definitions”, noting that ‘postcolonial’ “has its uses” if it helps to dismantle what she calls “paradigm blindness”, that is to say, the “blinkers” imposed by the colonizers. But, and this is a very important ‘but’, “an implication of the term ‘postcolonial’ is that the unit of measure, the standard, is still the colonizer. That can be limiting. So while I acknowledge the importance of the term, I also want to transcend it, to go off and play in the much larger universe we inhabit” (543). In this sense, sf offers the “experience of playfully trying to decolonize my mind—shaking free of hitherto unexamined paradigms, trying to look at new vistas through new eyes” (544).

The question, ultimately, and the challenge, is whether Literary and Cultural Studies are ready to ‘transcend’ Postcolonialism and take as ‘the unit of measure’ something else. Not the white, male, European philosophical discourse that Smith summons from the past under the guise of modernity but, hopefully, a wholly new discourse that looks “at new vistas through new eyes” in a “much larger universe”. Transnationalism and cosmopolitanism have been often invoked as alternatives. Singh’s sf suggests, however, that just as her characters move across the many dimensions of the multiverse while being both deeply rooted in their places and alienated from them, we need to see how humanity functions in all backgrounds, including whiteness. Otherwise, we just contribute to prolonging normative racist ethnocentricity, forcing non-white writers to be spokespersons for just one segment of the human species, instead, as they are, of the whole species.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. 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/

TRYING TO CATCH UP…: A BOOK ON RECENT (SCOTTISH) LITERATURE

July 3rd, 2017

I have given myself the task of checking my university library’s catalogue and select a variety of volumes for summer reading, in an attempt to catch up with the novelties in the areas I’m interested in. The function of journals used to be exactly that: keeping researchers informed about the latest advances in a given field. This seems to work better for the sciences but my impression is that in the Humanities we no longer read journal issues from beginning to end (if we ever did that). Rather, we read single articles and most likely only those that we cite in our own work, as there is no time to spare for reading around. In my personal case this lack of time also means that my visits to the library have diminished along the years. I feel that am slowly but steadily falling behind in my fields of research, and teaching, despite trying to frantically keep up.

This impression is, perhaps, not well grounded, however as I find that the enormous proliferation of academic writing in recent years has not resulted in deep changes in our methodological paradigm. I worked on my doctoral dissertation between 1993 and 1996, more than twenty years ago, and so I should expect new research to be radically different. I see, nonetheless, essentially the same names and the same bibliography established in the 1990s quoted again and again. I urge my students to not use anything published before 1995, except when it is fully justified, but I see that I’ll have to revise that rule for everything that matters today to us regarding theory in Literature and Culture seems to come from the early 1990s. The two most prominent big names of recent times, Zygmunt Bauman (who died in January) and Slavoj Žižek (born 1949), published their breakthrough work also in the 1990s. And I don’t see anyone under 40 making a big splash (yet?).

The dominion of 1990s academia over us connects with the prevalence of post-modernism as a label that has overstayed its welcome, an issue I discussed in my previous post. Perhaps the lack of progress in academic research has to do with this collective inability to move beyond labels but what worries me very much, besides this stagnation, is that the very few calls to action lean towards universalism and formalism, the two evils that the 1990s emphasis on identity tried to correct. I have come across much universalism in the dubious application to Literature and Culture of fashionable Affect Theory (see my conference presentation on the body here http://ddd.uab.cat/record/174232). And I have just come across a vindication of formalism in Marie-Odile Pittin-Hedon’s The Space of Fiction: Voices from Scotland in a Post-devolution Age (2015).

Let me stop here, for the issue is complex. Basically, there is widespread agreement that Scottish Literature bore the brunt of keeping the voice of the nation alive while politics progressed towards Devolution. Scotland used to be a separate kingdom but its devious aristocratic rulers signed a Treaty of Union (1707) with England, which resulted in the dissolution of its Parliament and the loss of its independence. The re-emergence of nationalism in the 20th century led to the ill-fated 1979 referendum for Devolution under Margaret Thatcher, which was lost, and, hence to an intense period of national self-doubt which only ended (relatively speaking) in 1997. A second referendum, this time under the aegis of Tony Blair’s Labour Government, resulted in a positive vote and, so, the Scottish Parliament was restored in 1999 (though not independence). In a recent referendum, in 2014, authorized by David Cameron’s Tory Government, independence was rejected by 55% of the voters. Another referendum, voted by all Britons in 2016, started Brexit by a narrow margin, 51.89%, and led Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) to declare that she would call yet another independence referendum; most Scots voted against Brexit (62%) and in favour of remaining in the European Union. This second referendum is still in the air, as I write.

In her conclusion, Pittin-Hedon quotes Gerry Hassan’s words warning that “Analysing trends is not enough, however good the data. Imagining the future is an empowering process that opens up the possibility of action” (186). To do so, Pittin-Hedon argues, we must follow Alex Thomson’s “lead” and “look for specific features” that are “stylistic, formal rather than systematically trying to connect” Scottish writing “to the political context” (186). She refers to Thomson’s 2007 article “‘You can’t get there from here’: Devolution and Scottish literary history”, which I have not read (yet). This is what worries me: the word ‘rather’, as it implies an either/or situation by which looking into stylistics is incompatible with looking into context.

This is even more puzzling because Pittin-Hedon never leaves context aside in her book; unless, that is, her extensive literary analysis of the works she presents is an attempt to downplay context. How, however, can any literary critic take politics for granted when Scottish academia has widely accepted ‘Post-Devolution’ as an apt label to discuss contemporary literature? In Catalonia, a nation mirroring Scotland in many ways beginning with the chronology of recent History (the Generalitat was ‘devolved’ back in 1980) nobody uses the label ‘post-autonomic’ (the equivalent of ‘post-Devolution’)–just ‘contemporary’. Even though nationalism is of immense importance, Catalan writers and critics are not restricted in this sense as the case seems to be in Scotland. Judging, that is, from Thomson’s call to formalist arms… echoed by Pittin-Hedon.

Actually, though, like Pittin-Hedon, I agree with Janice Galloway’s complaint that it is about time Scottish authors write ‘through’ the nation and not ‘about’ the nation, there is another kind of context that Pittin-Hedon ignores in her book. First, I need to explain that even though this volume has an obvious introductory inclination it is by no means didactic. She discusses the selected writing as if it were already very well known by her reader in the dense academic style typical of most contemporary Literary Studies. Struggling to make sense of her arguments, as I made notes about what I should read to catch up, I suddenly wondered who she was writing for–and why she wasn’t mentioning the elephant in the room: our collective fears that the very habit of reading fiction might soon die, for the younger generations are mostly non-readers. It turns out, and here’s a paradox, that this anxiety is central to Scottish fiction. At least, one of the writers that Pittin-Hedon praises, Ewan Morrison, asked the question none of his peers dared ask: “Are books dead, and can authors survive?”

This is the title of a talk Morrison gave back in 2011 at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and that he published in The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/aug/22/are-books-dead-ewan-morrison). His argument is transparent: books will disappear because, “within 25 years the digital revolution will bring about the end of paper books”. Also, said revolution “will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free. Writing, as a profession, will cease to exist”. The readers’ comments, divided between half-empty glass defenders and half-full glass opponents are marvellous to read… And while it is true that Pittin-Hedon brings her readers’ attention to this crucial article, she writes about the selected books with no reference to the issues that Morrison raises. As if Literature were still a central aspect of Scottish society and not an endangered cultual species in the whole Western world.

Introductions and updates are very difficult books to write, since trying to make sense of the present is extremely complicated. At the same time the academic writer undergoing that kind of task has the wonderful chance to shape literary History and even the canon simply by choosing what to include. Interestingly, Pittin-Hedon devotes a chapter to Scottish women writers specializing in crime, and although I miss their sisters in science fiction and I’m not at all fond of gender separatism in literary analysis, this chapter is symptomatic of how genres are merging to challenge canonical visions. I wish, nonetheless, to sound less like a reviewer and more like a reader and so, I’ll note, that, somehow, I find the genre of the academic introduction or update stubbornly resistant to… digitalization.

The whole point of volumes of this kind is to put the reader in touch with books s/he might want to read and the middleman or middlewoman’s role should be to facilitate the encounter. I really think that this is best done through a hypertext: a website combining actual reviews and interviews with authorial comment that would allow readers to navigate among a constellation of unknown books. I just don’t know anymore how to read a few hundred pages of literary analysis about books I have not read. The analysis sounds very clever but it might be all wrong, and even if it is brilliant and spot-on, I will have forgotten it by the time I manage to read the book.

I understand that the most positive feature of introductions, updates (and companions) is that they are, ironically, limited. The Victorian Web, for instance, (http://www.victorianweb.org/) does a very good job of presenting this age to interested readers but it is a sprawling text that cannot be read with the same ease as a volume that can be underlined (whether paper or e-book). Perhaps we don’t understand well how to use the digital media. This morning I have also been browsing through the impressive collections of Cambridge and Routledge companions that my university subscribes and, well, the volumes are now digital but what this means is that each one is fragmented into the .pdf for each chapter, not that they are hypertexts with links to other resources. This is a necessary academic revolution, I think, if the didactic value of this type of introductory book is to be enhanced. And made attractive for post-baby boomer generations…

The lessons I’m learning, then, as I try to catch up with recent developments is that academic literary criticism seems anchored in the 1990s, with few recent developments. The proliferation of new writing is asking for a new way of presenting readers with introductions to particular periods that might work much better as online hypertexts than as (paper) books. This revolution is not happening because we, academics, don’t know very well how to maximize the use of digital media in our favour. The very media that, if Morrison is right, will kill Literature. Or, at least, deprive writers of a living.

How in the middle of this cultural (and political) turmoil we can make sense of stylistics is, for the time being, beyond me–though, ideally, text and context should be always studied together. If anyone cares for reading at all…

I publish a new post every Tuesday. 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/

POSTMODERNISM IS DEAD, LONG LIVE POSTMODERNISM: SEEKING A NEW LABEL FOR THE NEW TIMES

June 20th, 2017

Today, I’m commenting on Alison Gibbons’ article in the Times Literary Supplement, “Postmodernism is dead. What comes next?” (12 June 2017, http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/postmodernism-dead-comes-next/?CMP=Sprkr-_-Editorial-_-TimesLiterarySupplement-_-ArtsandCulture-_-JustTextandlink-_-Statement-_-Unspecified-_-FBPAGE). There are many important questions about Postmodernism which nobody seems to agree on: 1) when did it begin: was it 1960s, 1980s, later even?; 2) is it already dead?; 3) when did Postmodernism die, if it is dead at all?: 1989, 2001, 2008?; 4) if it is dead, what label should we use for the culture of our own time? Post-postmodernism? Other labels being circulated, Gibbons informs us, are, brace yourselves: altermodernism, cosmodernism, digimodernism, metamodernism, performatism, post-digital, post-humanism…

First, allow me to clarify that Gibbons, a lecturer in Stylistics at Hallam University, is concerned specifically with creative or literary fiction, whereas I have always understood Postmodernism as a whole cultural movement better exemplified by certain landmark buildings (Frank Gheary’s Bilbao Guggenheim Museum) or styles of gourmet cooking (Ferran Adrià) than by Literature. This difference, however, might be moot because the point she is raising is also valid for the wider cultural view of Postmodernism.

What is at stake here connects with my previous post about the current obsession with labels. If you allow me, Gibbons’ piece and the many comments it has generated seem to be hinting at a critical failure we don’t know how to solve; she seems to be begging for somebody, please, to offer us a workable label, even if it is parodic (Romanticism was originally intended to mock the poets of this school). I don’t have a solution for this problem (see below…) but if anything astounds me at all about this period of so-called human civilization is its intense narcissism, banality and… disinterest in Literature. Current literary authors are also guilty of the same narcissism and, sorry, banality. Perhaps not even they are interested in Literature.

Let’s assume for the sake of argumentation that Postmodernism began in the 1960s with works such as John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969). In this clever novel the author eventually intrudes to a) teach us History lessons about the Victorians, b) claim he has no idea how his characters will behave, which is why readers are offered three possible endings. There is a more or less widespread consensus that Postmodernism in Literature is, above all, playful in diverse degrees of seriousness: its authors question the convention that reality can be represented at all; they introduce many linguistic and textual games which repeatedly break sacred boundaries between high and low culture; they also reject all the grand narratives shaping Humanism, and, perhaps above all, hold the view that History is a slippery matter, or, as historian Hayden White sentenced in 1973, just “an agreed upon fiction”. Gibbons claims that Postmodernist writers show “cool detachment”, thus suggesting that what used to be, precisely, a cool value is now a suspect declaration of emotional frigidity.

So, what is new in Literature? Gibbons argues that “in today’s cultural climate there appears to be a renewed engagement with history and a revival of mythic meaning-making that the arch-postmodernists would have abhorred”. To begin with, mixing history with myth is what Postmodernism often did: just think of Salman Rushdie, author of the seminal Postmodern novel Midnight Children (1985) and the ill-fated, or ill-fatwaed…, Satanic Verses (1987). If Gibbons means that more and more novels are set in the recent or remote past, she is right although I often get the impression that instead of real commitment they exemplify a (narcissitic) desire to show off on the writers’ side. They claim to have done tons of research and want to be admired for it, as if they were academics (see the current debate between the Oxbridge historians and Hillary Mantel). Then, frequently, the novels deal with times or areas remote from the author’s own, which actually shows a lack of engagement with the history happening on their doorsteps. Let me rephrase this: writing about historical episodes, past or present, can be done with or without an earnest political attitude and this is what I mean by lack of commitment: novels are apolitical today, or blandly liberal, not militant. Why write, in Spain, about 2010s corruption if you can write about the Civil War?

Next, Gibbons notes that when today’s writers obey the impulse to “blur the lines between fiction and reality” and appear in their own texts, as Fowles once did, “their presence is intended to signal realism, rather than to foreground the artifice of the text (…)”. Realism, Gibbons concludes, “is once again a popular mode”. Well, Postmodernism has made readers more sophisticated and they have got tired of literary games that, in time, have gone stale: fiction is fiction and, as such, artificial, and this is a lesson that we all know well by now.

On the other hand, realism has never gone out of fashion despite the early efforts of Modernism and, later, of Postmodernism to undermine it; these, as I see it, almost resulted in the total abandonment by readers of highbrow fiction for its middlebrow little sister (something realistic and about History? Ken Follett will do). “Emotions”, Gibbons writes, “are again playing a central role in literary fiction, as authors insist on our essential relationality”–but, then, what is Literature without emotion, as Wordsworth asked 220 years ago? Nothing but an empty shell. I believe that Gibbons means ‘empathy’, for emotions have always been around in Literature, though they may have been negative, as it is often the case in Postmodernist fiction. She mentions, by the way, “autofiction, a genre that integrates the autobiographical into fiction, and that has blossomed alongside the so-called memoir boom”. Autofiction is, as I’m arguing here, an example of the narcissism that dominates literary creation today; readers are dominated, rather, by gossip, which explains the memoir boom. And the interest in (exasperatingly boring) autofiction.

The end of Gibbons’ article expresses what’s behind her exercise in pattern recognition: her wish, shared with many others, that new literature can “examine complex and ever-shifting crises – of racial inequality, capitalism and climate change – to which it is easy to close one’s eyes”, as implicitly, Postmodernism did (or still does?). In our times, when we see globalization as the capitalist lie it always was and when ‘post-truth’ defines public discourse, there is, however, “little sign of a radical literary avantgarde sweeping away the old to make way for the new”. And that is the crucial problem: quickly burnt out by the demands of the market and by academia’s self-interested search for novelty, the rising generation lacks the mental energy to truly think and offer a “literature that engages earnestly with real-world problems”, beyond the petty problems of privileged individuals in the West which fill autofiction.

The prediction by Postmodernist guru Francis Fukuyama that History was reaching an end, made in 1989, and that capitalist utopia was here to stay, whether we wanted it or not, was proven wrong by 9/11. The terrorist outrage jump-started History and now we see that it could never be over because until the Sun goes supernova, or patriarchy manages to wipe all human beings out, events will succeed each other. History can hardly reach an end, then, and we’ll see a succession of more or less apt labels for each forthcoming period. I wonder whether we can say the same for Literature and in particular its most creative or artistic branch.

Like the universe in the Big Bang Theory, which first expanded and is now seemingly contracting towards the ultimate black hole it came from, Literature seems to have started with the bang of the classic period and is now contracting with a whimper. I can see why Gibbons and others are concerned to spot the trends that define the Literature of our times, for we are curious to know which label will win the contest and make us memorable for the future. My impression, nevertheless, is that this is the equivalent of marvelling at the discovery of a new tree species when the whole wood is on fire.

If someone can define a catchy equivalent of the phrase ‘wilfully illiterate’ then this exactly what describes current culture, at least in the decadent West. As a Catalan I’ve had to accept the label ‘Decadence’ for the early modern period of our Literature (more or less overlapping the ‘Siglo de Oro’ in Spain), no matter how disputed this label is today. And perhaps it is now time to acknowledge that this is what we’re facing today in Western Literature. Not perhaps a lack of talent, but an inability to make this talent truly matter socially beyond sales figures. This is what decadence means in culture.

Perhaps the problem with Gibbons’ approach and that of many others struggling to find a label for our current Literature is that they’re putting the cart before the horse, that is, trying to write the History of today’s Literature before it is even happening. One thing is chronicling the present and quite another is understanding the main trends of the past. The Victorian Age did not emerge until it was over and it is possibly not for us but for the future to choose a label for what writers are collectively producing today. If we need the label for academic reasons–a course, a book… –then Contemporary will do. Use that, or call up a competition to ask writers how they want to be known.

And if someone in the future uses the labels ‘Narcissist Period’ or ‘Western Decadence’ I’ll be happy enough to have contributed a little grain of sand to Literary History.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. 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/

ASEXUALITY REVISITED (WITH SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT LABELS)

June 14th, 2017

Two years ago I published a post with the title “And now for the asexuals… : Ceaseless labelling in Gender Studies” (15 March 2015). This was inspired by the draft of a chapter in a PhD dissertation, which I was asked to assess. Yesterday I had the pleasure of sitting on the board for the finished dissertation, presented by its author (and new doctor), Petra Filopová (http://kaa.ff.upjs.sk/en/people/159/petra-filipova). During the viva and afterwards over lunch I had a lively exchange with Dr. Filipová on the difficulties of connecting asexuality with other labels used in the past; indeed, she defines this identity as a “new sexuality”, which very much puzzles me. Hence my post today.

As I explained in my 2015 post on this issue, asexuals have made a point of clarifying that they are neither celibate nor frigid. Celibacy is seen as a repression of sexuality willingly chosen by the individual concerned, whereas frigidity is understood to be a sexual disorder that causes distress to sufferers. Asexuality, let me stress this, is the identity embraced by persons who feel no sexual desire but are not distressed by the situation–they feel simply normal and reject both their medicalization and their pathologization. As Petra Filipová argued, many problems beset asexuals: their lack of public visibility, the disrespect poured on them when they announce their identity, the absurd idea that heterosexual romance can ‘cure’ asexuality and, above all, the rampant presence of sex in all aspects of our private and public lives. The point she is raising is that, precisely, this obsession with sex (booming since the 1960s) is what conditions the appearance of asexuality as a new identity and label in the late 20th century and early 21st century.

This posits a problem similar to the one elicited by the introduction of the new label ‘homosexual’ in 1869: how do we define the identity of persons who engaged in the sexual practices that currently define homosexuality before the word even existed? Some believe that homosexuality has always existed as an identity, regardless of its previous invisibility and diverse labelling, whereas others believe that the emergence of the label created the identity: what used to be defined clinically as a perversion and/or abnormality, was eventually transformed into a positive, normalized identity. Following the same line of thinking, I asked Petra whether she believed that there have always been asexual people adapting themselves to whatever social constructions of sex and gender where available to them. She replied that she was not quite sure we could call them asexual since, as happened with homosexuals in the past, they would not self-identify themselves as such, lacking the label. This is a singular conundrum…

I’d like now to consider celibacy, though I’ll leave frigidity aside (what an ugly word…). I often have to explain to students in my Victorians Literature class that one of the most serious obstacles we face to understand the Victorians is that we characterize them as sexually repressed because we apply to them our own (inconsistent) rules about sexuality. As Michel Foucault admiringly explained, the Victorians, far from being repressed, gave sex a great deal of thought and basically invented the labelling system we are still so keen on. The catalogue of perversions that Victorian doctors and psychologists came up with was actually a major step forward since it was their intention to liberate sex from the taint of sinning and the authority of religion. Leaving the so-called perversions aside, it seems plain that the Victorians had other rules than ours for sex, so different that we simply cannot make sense of their lives. Celibacy is, in this sense, a major bone of contention.

We tend to connect celibacy with priests and nuns and see it as an unnatural choice that leads to the criminal abuse perpetrated by many Catholic priests against children. Protestants, allegedly more attuned to the needs of the body, allow their male and female priests to marry; they have no nuns. However, it seems to me that religious celibacy actually confirms the impression that (as a quotation in Petra’s dissertation claimed), the more sex you have, the more you need it; the less sex you have, the less you need it. Celibacy, by the way–as I learned from the excellent, very scary documentary Deliver us from Evil (2006) –was implemented by the official Church as a way to make sure that Church property would not be lost to the children of priests. What occurs to me is that the Catholic Church may also have been a welcome refuge for male and female asexuals uninterested in forming a family. Yet we always think, for this is how our times work, that giving up sex is a major sacrifice for a person. Indeed, many priests and nuns have abandoned their habits and we suspect all the others of secretly engaging in homosexual acts. Yet there might be another truth hidden behind religious celibacy, Catholic or otherwise, if so many people consider it worthwhile to follow the call of divinity…

This connects with my recent realization that in the 19th century (both in Britain and in Spain as far as I can see) celibacy was often a synonym for singlehood. In our modern view being single is no obstacle at all to practice sex, quite the opposite: we think that marriage kills sex. But in the past, when sex was connected mainly with reproduction, many men and women lived openly as bachelors and spinsters, making thus a public declaration of their celibacy. I know what you’re thinking: many Victorian spinsters were actually unhappy old maids who had failed to catch a husband; many Victorian bachelors were far from celibate, using the services of the prostitutes, often minors. Literary examples of the bachelor, such as Stevenson’s notoriously duplicitous Dr. Jekyll fuel rather than quench our suspicions. Yet, I keep thinking of Dickens’ respectable John Brownlow in Oliver Twist, who embraces celibacy when his fiancée dies. And I usually share with my class the passage in Harriet Martineau’s autobiography in which she declares that the early death of the man she was to marry happily freed her from the obligation of being a wife and mother–also, implicitly of having sex. My students always stare at me in disbelief…

I am suggesting, as you can see, that asexual persons may have led lives of their choice within the church or in society in ways no longer available to them. I grant that celibacy is not at all the same as asexuality but I am hinting that in the times when celibacy was not seen with as much incomprehension and dislike as we do today, it may have been a convenient ‘cover’ for many asexuals still lacking that label. In our times, celibacy is seen as an aberration because we believe that all bodies feel sexual needs; hence, sexual repression is, essentially, akin to ill-treating yourself. No wonder then that asexuals, who feel as normal as you and me can be (whatever identity you have), face so many problems when explaining themselves.

The other theory I will volunteer today is that the current proliferation of labels is tied to plain gossip. I was very surprised by many new labels I found in Petra Filipová’s dissertation, such as ‘demisexual’ (only partly sexed, or partly asexual) and ‘sapiosexual’ (“A person who is sexually attracted to intelligence or the human mind before appearance” or “a person who finds intelligence to be a sexually attractive quality in others”, depending on the definition). But why the interest in knowing what people do or don’t do sexually? Isn’t this simply gossip?

Dr. Filipová believes that each new identity label helps individuals to present themselves publicly and to shape their own psychology around the idea of normality. If this helps, then it is fine, though I am truly tired of how little we actually know about the supposedly best-known identity, heterosexuality –often confused with patriarchal normativity. To begin with, heterosexuality used to be up to the 1920s yet another label to define a perversion: that of differently gendered people who engaged in sex for pleasure, not to reproduce… And, let’s be honest: the moment you know that someone is gay, lesbian, queer, trans, bisexual, asexual, you name it… what comes to your mind is not the word ‘normal’ but a strong curiosity to know what exactly they do in bed. The same applies to heterosexuality and its many varied manifestations. And celibacy: you see a young, handsome priest, as I did recently, and the first thing you think is… It’s all down to gossip, believe me and in this sense asexuality is, from the outside, the most perplexing puzzle.

Insisting again that we attach far too much importance to sexuality, I wonder whether discrimination and intolerance will end when we feel real, healthy curiosity (gossipy or less so…) rather than contempt or disgust at what other people do (or don’t do) with their bodies. The more I learn about (a)sexuality, the more convinced I am that the categories and labels we live by are plainly ridiculous. Of course, it is my heterosexual privilege to say so and we still have a long way to go before everyone feels comfortable in public no matter their gendersexual identity. I can hardly ask for an abolition of labels when LGTBQphobia is growing so fast around me… Yet I hope I see in my lifetime the moment when gender and sex will stop defining persons in private and in public (though I know that gossip will never end).

And congratulations Dr. Filipová!! It’s been a pleasure…

I publish a new post every Tuesday. 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/.

REVIEWING THE VAMPIRE: WHAT SEEMS TO BE AT STAKE

June 6th, 2017

This is an anecdote I have often told in class and to my tutorees. I was in a tutorial with my PhD supervisor in Scotland, Prof. David Punter. My topic was monstrosity in 1980s and 1990s fiction. I had reached that low point which all doctoral students hit when you realize that nobody cares about your mighty efforts… I was working on my chapter on the vampire, and, sick and tired, I blurted out, “but who cares?, vampires don’t even exist!” Prof. Punter went gnomic–as if he was onto something I could never guess–and replied in a style that Oscar Wilde would have loved, “Oh, but they do exist! At least, they take a great deal of our imagination”. Or similar words. That taught me a most valuable lesson (also about vampires): just as we spend much of our life dreaming, we spend many hours daydreaming, and both our dreams and our imagination are as important as our waking hours. A truth that readers who limits themselves to realist fiction can never suffer. Poor things.

We have included again Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) in our syllabus for Victorian Literature–or rather, like the repressed, the uncanny Count has returned to haunt us. I have not re-read Stoker’s novel yet, a text which I admire very much because of its singular mixture of fake documents and its sense of modernity scandalized by the intrusion of the atavistic. I have, however, spent a great deal of the past week thinking hard about vampires for a seminar I am to teach soon. You might think that a specialist in Gothic Studies like myself already knows everything about vampires but a) even specialists forget details as juicy as the fact that Stoker wrote theatrical reviews for a Dublin newspaper that Le Fanu, author of Carmilla, owned, and b) there is nothing like having to teach a subject to learn a few new lessons.

For instance, I believed that the famous image of Count Dracula in modern evening dress complete with a red-lined black satin cape comes from the 1931 film with Bela Lugosi. It actually comes, though, from the 1924 play by Irish actor and playwright Hamilton Deane (he played Van Helsing; Dracula was first played by Edmund Blake). I can’t tell, however, whose idea the cape was. This may seem trivial but then other people employ their energies in recording how many goals Leo Messi has scored this past season (54…). Forgetting myself for a second on the track of the vampire, yesterday I even considered whether I should finally read Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight saga; yet, seeing how fast and how far Kirsten Stewart has distanced herself from her on-screen Bella, I thought perhaps not. I’ll read instead a similarly long book which promises to be far more thrilling, and sexy, and which will fill in a more glaring gap in my (Victorian) reading list: the serial Varney, the Vampire (1845-7). Good company for Dracula.

Generally speaking, I find vampires very boring creatures, though I must grant that the 19th century variety is far more exciting than the 20th and 21st century breed. The Romantic and Victorian vampires are in-your-face predators pretty much comfortable with their animal nature. In the late hippie times of 1976, Anne Rice had the very questionable idea of letting the vampiric creatures in her novel Interview with the Vampire, particularly silly Louis de Pointe du Lac, brood and mope about their sad fate. Fancy lions bemoaning being carnivores… Even worse, Rice revealed through reporter Daniel Molloy that secretly we all want to be vampires because they are immortal, a hidden truth that should have stayed hidden because it has led to endless horrors–implants of artificial long fangs and also the idiotic consumption of actual human blood by those who ignore the meaning of the word ‘metaphor’. Insert a shudder here.

I should leave all discussion of the vampire to more learned scholars, like my dear friend Antonio Ballesteros (read his volume Vampire Chronicle: Una historia natural del vampiro en la literatura anglosajona, 2000). But, still, I have re-discovered a few issues about the 19th century vampire that I’d like to share here. Actually, this re-discovery begins with the 18th century for this is the real turning point in the history of the vampire.

We fail to understand how it felt to live before the first serious, rational attempts to dispel the fog of superstition. The vampire emerges, precisely, from this fog with the strange cases of two Serbian peasants, Petar Blagojevich (1725) and Arnold Paole (1726), ‘executed’ for crimes committed once dead. The real novelty here is that the cases were documented by officers of the Austrian Empire using a pioneering rational perspective, later also employed by Dom Augustine Calmet. This abbot penned an indispensable essay with a wonderfully mixed title, Traité sur les apparitions des anges, des démons & des esprits et sur les revenans et vampires de Hongrie, de Boheme, de Moravie & de Silesie (1746, vol. II 1751), from which my own dissertation on the monster descends. The difference is that Calmet was not sure whether angels and ‘revenants’ (i.e. vampires) could exist whereas I, a belated child of the Enlightenment, know that they don’t (pace Prof. Punter). A pity, in the case of the angels. Extraterrestrials I still swear by, though.

The second point of re-discovery has to do with the fact that before the vampire reached prose fiction with John Polidori’s Gothic tale “The Vampyre” (1819), it had already colonized 18th century German poetry and, a bit later, the English Romantic variety. Of course, I knew about Coleridge’s transgender “Christabel” (1816), a tantalizingly unfinished text which leads to Carmilla (1871-2) but I had forgotten that sex and vampirism had come together much earlier in “Der vampir” (1748) by Heinrich August Ossenfelder–a poet who had possibly read Calmet and who actually anticipates Gothic fiction tropes, rather than copy from them.

Another crucial element that we fail to grasp is seduction, which is integral to the vampire. In the 18th and 19th centuries, as countless stories narrate, seduction was not at all sexy foreplay but a form of psychological violence which today we consider plain rape. From Richardson’s Lovelace to Lord Byron’s Don Juan, the seducer is a man who subdues the will of his female victims, and, so, it took only a tiny step for Polidori to turn him into a vampire, as Ossenfelder had already suggested. That “The Vampyre” is also a personal comment on how doctor Polidori saw his patient Lord Byron (possibly more sinned against than a sinner…) is incidental. And though “Christabel” is an early announcement of the misogynistic transformation later in the 19th century of the seducer’s victim into a victimizer (in Carmilla), it is worth remembering that during the last quarter of the 19th century and in the early 20th until Bela Lugosi, women were the vampire. Tellingly, the first film ‘vamp’, Theda Bara, was also the first great female film star.

Another surprising re-discovery is that once it colonizes poetry and prose fiction, the vampire tends to spread to other media and keep a good hold onto them: the stage (plays, melodrama, opera) and, we tend to forget this, painting and illustration. In our time when novels lack any ornaments, we have serious problems to understand how interconnected literature and painting were in the 19th century (the whole Pre-Raphaelite movement seems to be about that); particularly, how the iconography of even the cheapest penny dreadful conditioned the later iconography of stage and film adaptations. I’m thinking of the crude woodcuts that accompany Varney, the Vampire and of the higher quality images for Carmilla. Also of Füssli’s pseudo-vampiric painting ‘The Nightmare’ (1781) and misogynist Edvard Munch’s endless variations on the theme of the female vampire (1895-1902). As for Polidori’s “The Vampyre”, this tale inspired an astonishingly long chain of texts for the stage in French and German, and then back to English, which is certainly mindboggling.

And, then, there’s a mystery which I cannot solve satisfactorily, mainly because I’d rather it remains a mystery. It is clear as daylight that Bram Stoker took his inspiration for Dracula from Carmilla; plainly, he read Le Fanu’s novella and he thought that he would like to write an equally brilliant vampire tale. But when? The question is that there is a long lapse of 28 years between Carmilla (1871-2) and Dracula (1897) in which Stoker passed from Irish civil servant who wrote theatrical reviews in his free time to experienced manager of Henry Irving’s Lyceum theatre. A long, long lapse. Perhaps suffering what Harold Bloom famously called the ‘anxiety of influence’, Stoker felt that he could never do better, which is why he poured so much energy and spent so many hours at the British Museum library doing research.

Beautifully, the Lyceum, formerly the English Opera House, had welcomed the vampire onto the English stage with James Robinson Planché’s The Vampire; or, the Bride of the Isles (1820), a translation of the eponymous pioneering melodrama by Charles Nodier, who had taken his inspiration from Polidori. Was, then, Planché’s vampire waiting in the wings of Irving’s Lyceum to bite Stoker? Just a thought… As happens with the other two masterpieces of 19th Gothic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and R.L. Stevenson The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Bram Stoker’s Dracula seems to arise from something beyond the author which transmits itself to the public through his imagination, as if he were only a medium. Also, as happens with Shelley and Stevenson, the creature that sprang from Stoker’s pen is not at all the caricature we got from the 20th century stage and film adaptations but the real thing–a scary monster. Not the ridiculously handsome Edward Cullen of Twilight, but an inhuman, undead, abject thing that you don’t want to touch (much less be touched by). Today we have zombies playing that role but unlike Dracula they are mindless creatures–perhaps what we deserve (and how we all feel) in our mindless times.

Thank you, Prof. Punter, for that nugget of deep, wide wisdom. I have never forgotten that vampires do exist and do matter, though I may have forgotten some details. Never again, and I promise to read Varney

I publish a new post every Tuesday. 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/.

ON THE DECLINE OF CINEMA (WITH SOME MUSINGS ABOUT THE 1980s)

May 29th, 2017

This post is a mixed bag of ideas about cinema. Some are suggested by reading this weekend the Spanish version of Hadley Freeman’s pop essay Time of my Life (2015), a book about the pleasures of 1980s movies. Other ideas spring from the controversy at the Cannes Film Festival (which closed yesterday) on whether Netflix and Amazon films, which do not get theatrical releases, are cinema at all properly speaking.

Cinema is, roughly speaking, a century-old business which is possibly seeing its end as an art enjoyed in public. This is a situation that true cinema lovers bemoan, even though they (we) have been the first to desert our local cinemas. I am trying to return again but what puts me off is the discourteous behaviour of my fellow spectators.

As we all know, in cinemas people speak with each other in loud tones (or use their cell phones) as if they were in their own living room. Any complaint risks a really nasty incident, whereas in the pre-multiplex past ushers would invite obnoxious spectators out…. Then, I happen to abhor the smell of popcorn, which is a great inconvenient if you enjoy visiting cinemas; it can be worse in evening sessions mid-week, when bocatas de chorizo are a common snack. Also, my small size means that I am only truly comfortable in a handful of cinemas (a special recommendation for Balmes O.V. if you live in Barcelona). Many committed cinemagoers have chosen to attend the least popular sessions (here, Monday 16:00) but this is a sad solution to the basic problem of people’s inability to behave in cinemas. And, so, dear Pedro Almodóvar, president of the Cannes Festival Jury, and Netflix hater, here’s the explanation for why cinema is dying: spectators.

I don’t have a Netflix subscription but I have checked the monthly fees and, basically, they are the equivalent of a single cinema ticket. I paid 8.50 for my last film–Dancer, the wonderful documentary on ballet star Sergei Polunin–whereas a basic Netflix fee is 7.99 (standard 9.99; premium 11.99). Streaming requires, please remember, a good internet service (at least 40 euros a month) and, although you can watch films on tiny smartphone screens, ideally you should also possess a 50-inch television (which may cost thousands of euros). But, then, people pay anyway for these.

If you happen to be a teenager seeking to have a good time with your friends but only carry 15 euros in your pocket, you’re not going to spend them at the cinema–you’ll go to McDonalds (!?) and then use your parents’ subscription at home to see as many films as you want. Although, funnily, subscription channels like HBO and now internet services like Netflix are, essentially, platforms based on the appeal of television series, not films, which they have started to produce only a few years ago. Here is, Pedro Almodóvar, another question for you: is a film released on Netflix a TV movie? How come TV series are no longer really TV series, but internet series? But I digress…

To sum up: people are dragging their feet and thinking twice before going to the cinema because a) the other spectators are (mostly) obnoxious, b) the tickets are (relatively) expensive. A Netflix (or similar) subscription solves both problems at once: if you are still interested in films, you may enjoy them in the comfort of your home and for little money. You also get the series, of course. Cinemas lose business and we, who love cinema, lose the pleasure of the big screen. But, then, this pleasure seems to have been lost long ago, possibly with the introduction of the multiplex and the dismissal of the ushers to cut corners…

I had been avoiding the book by Hadley Freeman, Time of my Life, because the title is an allusion to Dirty Dancing and this is not the kind of 1980s cinema I enjoy. I’m an Aliens (1986) and Predator (1987) fan, rather, which I combined with art-house fare like Paris, Texas (1984) or Do the Right Thing (1989). Freeman doesn’t like Star Wars, and that’s all I need to say about our diverging tastes. In the 1980s I managed to avoid all the films by John Hughes, and although I find Ghostbusters (1984) fun, I really see no reason to see it many times as she has done. If I had written a book about 1980s cinema, Blade Runner (1982) would be all over the place. Ok, I grant that I also enjoy When Harry Met Sally… (1989)–and I would like to kill the incompetent person who translated ‘met’ as ‘encontró’ instead of ‘conoció’, as if Sally was a pebble on the beach.

What I appreciate about Freeman’s essay is the effort she makes to explain that, although not everything worked well in 1980s Hollywood movies (they could be blatantly misogynistic, homophobic and racist), many things are wrong today. Perhaps because she was a child in the 1980s, rather than a teenager, Freeman feels unencumbered by the generational loyalty and nostalgia that has led others to defend fanatically the cinema made in that decade. She’s, in short, more clear-headed and can number very accurately the problems of current cinema. These can be summed up in just one short sentence: Hollywood studios are working for the lowest common denominator and addressing a spectatorship they wrongly believe to be homogeneous.

More specifically this means that, after the old studios became at the beginning of the 1990s tiny cogs in the wheels of massive corporations: a) the people deciding which movies are greenlighted are executives, not cinema lovers (or even producers…), b) there is a total fixation with the blockbuster, with the subsequent loss of the mid-budget film, c) the only demographic truly taken into account are 12-year-old males (but why?? they don’t even read comics), d) the weight of the foreign market has increased (hence the downplaying of nuanced local issues), f) women’s role as spectators and creators has sharply diminished (men don’t see women’s films, women see all kinds of films)…, g) racial and ethnic variety is decreasing (if you have noticed more Chinese actors in recent blockbusters, this is because China is now the main Hollywood market). In short, and I think she is right, When Harry Met Sally… would not be made today. Or it would be a Netflix series. With Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan recovering their lost popularity.

Please, notice that the current decline of Hollywood cinema also affects the blockbuster. The 1980s Aliens and Predator are excellent films which have no match today. Prequels, sequels and spin-offs simply show how scared everyone is of producing something fresh and new. Hundreds of millions of dollars are poured onto films impossible to watch and forgotten the next day: the plots are either confusing or inexistent, the action scenes are just sound and fury signifying nothing, poorly designed cgi only contributes to this sense of chaos and randomness. Now and then a popcorn film fulfils the task of keeping you entertained (The Fate of the Furious, part 8 of the Fast and Furious series). Yet most films are unendurable because despite being edited for spectators with a three-second attention span, they go on for more than two hours on average (films used to be a satisfying 90 minutes long). One might choose to be bored, if thus inclined, watching the grass grow in a French avant-garde film, as Woody Allen explained, but not, I’ll add, watching a blockbuster, which is supposed to thrill you.

One need not be very clever to notice that the current passion for watching series is very closely connected with the decadence of cinema. I need another post to explain how series are now about to enter their process of stagnation (perhaps not decline) but just let me say that the recent release of the new Twin Peaks, closes a cycle started by the old Twin Peaks in 1990. When HBO feels the need to go back to ABC to stay competitive it’s time to say that something smells rotten… Or, rather, very briefly: David Lynch’s quirky series was a product made for national American television, specifically ABC. The gauntlet of how to make eccentric quality series was then picked up by Chris Carter’s The X-Files (1993-2001), which was made for Fox–one of the first major TV channels to appear in the decade which saw film studios swallowed into the maws of greedy, blind corporations. While films studios were slowly eaten up from the inside, like teenagers in a bad horror movie, cable TV grew: hence HBO with The Sopranos (1999-2007) and Game of Thrones (2011-). Now it’s Netflix’s turn… which started film production in 2013.

What I am arguing is obvious. Film and series, whether TV or internet, are communicating vessels: there is only a certain amount of audiovisual narrative talent around and if this has migrated to the series, it is only because cinema started being destroyed in the early 1990s by the corporations that dominate the film studios. Indie cinema appeared as a counterweight but, precisely, the problems is that it is too light in business terms to truly offer an alternative. I must thank Freeman for making me realize what was missing in this evident argumentation: despite the gigantic budgets of series like Game of Thrones, cinema has lost to the series the mid-budget list. In 1990, The Handmaid’s Tale was a (quite good) mid-budget film, today it is a 10-part- series (second season announced). And the series is publicized as if the film never existed, though its makers are MGM.

The problem is that the series may kill but not replace films. Freeman notes, and I very much agree, that whereas one may see a favourite film dozens of times, this is less likely to happen with a 50-hour drama (e.g. The Wire). Also, I add, whereas a film is a self-enclosed product (even when it is part of a trilogy, etc), series are sprawling products that tend to last for as long as possible, even past the right time for closure (this is known as ‘jumping the shark’). It is now known, besides, that with the exception of a few A-list series, spectators tend to abandon series around the third season. It might well be that, eventually, series start dying of their own success and the mini-series become everyone’s favourite format.

What do we do with cinema, in the meantime? Pedro Almodóvar was adamant that only films released in cinemas count as proper cinema, whereas his fellow jury member at Cannes, actor Will Smith, argued that all forms of seeing films should co-exist to ensure maximum exposure. Theatre, after all, still exists and in ways more diversified than ever (is it because theatre-goers are better behaved than film-goers?). Possibly Smith is right but I will insist again that platforms like Netflix or Amazon are not the problem. I am really serious when I say that cinemas started dying the moment ushers were deprived of any authority in the new multiplexes and spectators started behaving as if they were at home. Hopefully, this rude breed will soon desert the cinemas for their own home cinemas and let us, film lovers, enjoy films again on the big screen.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. 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/.

BLURRED LINES: TRYING TO UNDERSTAND THE WRITERS OF THE PAST

May 22nd, 2017

No, sorry, this is not a post about Robin Thicke’s catchy, appallingly sexist 2013 hit, which, by the way, turned out to be plagiarised (from a Marvin Gaye song). No: today I’m dealing with our difficulties to produce a clearly defined portrait of the writers of the pre-media past. By pre-media I mean the historical period before the invention of the recording (and broadcasting) of sound and of the moving image, even tough the press and photography may have been already available. And I’m using the Brontës as an example.

It has taken me a long twelve-step Google search to finally find out thanks to The Penguin Book of Interviews (edited by Christopher Silvester in 1993), that the first text of this kind to be published (in an American newspaper) dates back to 1859. The person interviewed was Brigham Young, leader of the Mormon Church, and the conversation appeared in the New York Herald. Silvester’s volume includes interviews with writers Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Rudyard Kipling, Emile Zola, Oscar Wilde and Henrik Ibsen, just to name a few authors who started writing in the 19th century. As an undergrad, I remember reading with immense pleasure a couple of anthologies gathering together the excellent interviews with writers published by The Paris Review, funded in 1953 by Peter Matthiessen, Harold L. Humes and George Plimpton.

So here is the first point: before 1859, the tools available to build the portrait of the writer, beyond the texts they chose to publish, are tangential. We have pictorial portraits, photos (from the 1830s onwards), impressions written by others, biographies and, here’s a vexing question, private letters. And the memorabilia. But not their voices in answer to our questions.

In the case of the Brontës, poor things, we have the dismal portrait of the three sisters painted by their adored but untalented brother Branwell. The photo believed to depict Charlotte has been revealed to be of someone else. Charlotte was the subject of a pioneering writer’s biography, written by fellow-author Elizabeth Gaskell. This volume, however, is now regarded as a manipulative instrument to present a more palatable image of the author to Victorian readers (even against Charlotte’s own wishes). And then there is the Brontë Parsonage Museum, where you can touch Emily’s bed, among other personal objects.

Obviously, even when portraits of the writer from the past exist, these are confusing objects. The slow speed of pre-20th century cameras required subjects to sit still for a long time, which is why all Victorians look so stern and unsmiling. Victorian photography was a new art and, above all, a new social habit; 150 years before the invention of the selfie, people simply lacked the know-how of self-presentation. See the ridiculous photos of Charles Dickens–a writer very careful of his public image and the first one to market himself as a brand–to understand how far he was from mastering this specific aspect.

In the absence of reliable elements for a clearly focused portrait, then, we use whatever we have at hand, and this is mainly letters, or diaries. Leaving aside the problems attached to the use of private documents which may have nothing to do with the literary craft to study how writers do write, it might well be the case that none have survived. Here’s an example of our difficulties, found in Josephine McDonagh’s 2008 introduction to Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848): “The absence of an autobiographical record makes it difficult to be sure of Anne’s motivations in writing The Tenant, but episodes of her life have led commentators to suppose that not only were some of the characters and events based on her own acquaintance and experiences, but that the novel itself was conceived as a response to troubling family circumstances” (xvii). This exemplifies the biographical phallacy that still dominates research (surprisingly): if you could map the writer’s life down to the most private detail, you would be able to explain his/her writing.

Interviews with living authors, however, reveal that this is not the case, as they have a mysterious something called ‘imagination’ that seems to lead a life of its own. A typical academic reply to writers’ strenuously denying that the biographical approach is correct is that writers themselves do not understand the process of writing. Or, as my PhD supervisor would remind me: “Writers lie all the time”. If, in short, we could interview Anne or her sisters, I’m sure they would be flabbergasted by the amount of speculation poured onto their lives… but they would not necessarily tell us the truth. What a vicious circle.

Here’s an alternative, coming from the same introduction by McDonagh: “Anne Brontë’s immersion in the print culture of her time, and specially her acquaintance with these more ephemeral forms of magazines and albums, may account for some of the stylistic features of the text” (xxxii). Observe the hesitation implicit in ‘may’ and ‘some’… This is the classic philological approach: if we could have access to the complete list of all a writer has read from infancy, then we would eventually be able to explain how his/her style works.

This stance led, as we know, to two apparently incompatible approaches: the intense Russian formalism later borrowed by American New Criticism (from which our close reading practices derive) and Harold Bloom’s idea of the ‘anxiety of influence’, which still respects the presence of the writer but tries to exclude the gossipy biographical approach and focus on authorship. Julia Kristeva cut an important Gordian knot by proposing that since influence cannot be really proven we should speak of intertextuality. This is both an extremely productive idea and a surrender, for it tells us that writers remain impenetrable fortresses better left alone. Just connect the texts with each other.

Let me recap: despite the immense energy poured by countless researchers, the portrait of the Brontë sisters we have today is a poorly assembled collection of blurred lines. Perhaps this is part of their myth and if we had them on television and on YouTube as much as we wished, they would not be the object of so much veneration. Or would they? I’m thinking of how contemporary writers market themselves and beginning to realize that fans would never tire if J.K. Rowling gave daily speeches and interviews.

In neo-Victorian conference I recently attended, there was someone very earnestly speculating whether Charlotte Brontë was actually pretty or not. A letter by her publisher George Smith was quoted, in which he offered a very unflattering description (later partially corrected by his daughter). We may disagree whether we find Rowling pretty or not, but in the age of the selfie it is absolutely frustrating that we cannot even be sure what Charlotte looked like, much less Emily or Anne. You may be thinking that, despite the countless interviews, press articles, documentaries, photos, etc., we’re not really closer to knowing who Rowling is. Our exploration of her work is not closer, either, to revealing how she managed to imagine the world of Harry Potter. Of course, but at least we can ask her whereas in the case of the writers from the past, unless new evidence appears, we are constantly stuck with the same limited, tangential material.

So what should be, as researchers specializing in Literature, do? I don’t know myself and I am beginning to be increasingly perplexed. It is clear to me that our central mission–the faith we profess as professors–is the survival of the texts from one generation to the next. Also, the correction of false impressions: Wuthering Heights used to be considered trash, and now it’s part of the canon. I am personally doing all I can in my classes to vindicate Anne Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Every teacher of the Brontës fiction knows that biographical gossip helps to fix an idea of who these women were in the students’ minds. Yet, I certainly don’t want to discuss with them in class whether Charlotte was pretty; and the realization that Jane Eyre is the expression of sexual frustration regarding her unrequited passion for a married man has very much damaged my pleasure in this novel. Meaning that the more I know about Charlotte, the less I like Jane Eyre

Perhaps, and here’s the rub, the problem is that as teachers and researchers we are bound to fail: even if the best Brontë researcher devoted all his/her energies for the next fifteen years to Tenant and to Anne, this person would still be far from disclosing the mystery of her literary creativity. It’s back to the blurred lines. I don’t like speaking of ‘mystery’, as this makes literary research sound subjective and romantic in the worst possible way. But scientifically speaking, a mystery is that which cannot be explained with the current tools for research. And the ones we have are extremely limited. Even in the case of contemporary writers for, unless we sit by them as they write, we cannot really get a true insight into how writing works. And I see no author tolerating that kind of academic intrusion, not even for the sake of literary glory. For many, interviews even appear to be something they put up with and not something they truly relish…

Having just re-read Anne’s Tenant, with great pleasure, just after reading H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, I am wondering whether we should produce more criticism. We often teach texts or write about them taking for granted that they are good and this is why they are canonical. My fellow teachers and I decided, precisely, to include Tenant in our course on Victorian fiction because it has excellent features but also some problems, deeper than the faults to be found in Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre. Rather than teach, then, that Anne’s Arthur Huntingdon is based on her brother Branwell’s, we focus on why the friendship between Gilbert and Lawrence is not convincingly narrated. And the challenge of explaining why King Solomon’s Mines is so inferior to Heart of Darkness and, at the same time, so indispensable to understand Conrad appears to be now very exciting. I’m glad we have chosen to teach Haggard.

So, yes: let’s apply a better focus on the texts, let the authors remain blurred, ghostly presences. And enjoy the mystery.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. 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/.

CULTURAL APPROPRIATION (AND THE MATTER OF SPANISH NEO-VICTORIAN FICTION)

May 16th, 2017

I’m just back from the “I International Seminar on (Neo-)Victorian Studies in Spain”, held in Málaga and organized by Prof. Rosario Arias, leader of the ‘(Neo-)Victorian Studies in Spain Network (VINS)’, of which I am currently a member. I have learned these days that many more Spanish scholars than I assumed are bridging the gaps between Spanish and Anglophone cultures. This is very refreshing and I stand corrected in my pessimistic assessment of the exchange with great pleasure. I have also learned, however, that bridging gaps often reveals other problems that widen the cultural split which I discussed in my previous post. Problems that seem very hard to solve despite the apparent increase in intercultural communication, as they have to do with cultural appropriation.

Although others dealt with this issue, I’ll refer here to two papers and a writer’s presentation. The first paper even carries the word ‘appropriation’ in its title: Begoña Lasa Álvarez, of the Universidade A Coruña, offered a presentation called “From Agustina de Aragón to The Maid of Saragossa: Cultural Appropriation of a Heroine”. Sonia Villegas (Universidad de Huelva) did not directly discuss ‘appropriation’ in her paper “Espido Freire Visits the House of Writing: The Role of Material Traces in Querida Jane, Querida Charlotte (2004)”. Yet, I find this was implicit in Freire’s positioning. Finally, the writer invited to the seminar is young Victoria Álvarez (Salamanca, 1985). She is currently specializing in Neo-Edwardian mystery fiction, which we might call a sub-set of the Neo-Victorian, of which she has published five novels already (see www.victoriaalvarez.es).

Begoña Lasa’s argument was straightforward: a series of British writers borrowed the heroic figure of Agustina de Aragón; using stereotypes connected with the representation of Spanish women (think Mérimée’s Carmen, 1845) and of a variety of female heroes, they progressively transformed her into a heroic fantasy. Furthermore, these British authors made the point of stressing that they had honoured Agustina in a way that was much above what Spaniards could do. In the process, the real Agustina became yet another loss to the truth of History.

As Begoña explained, unfortunately Agustina was connected by Franco’s regime with Spanish fascist patriotism in a way that had little to do with the original Agustina’s efforts to stop the French troops from storming Zaragoza. This is why so many of us have paid so little attention to her figure; I was very much surprised to learn that she was actually Catalan. No matter. While in her thirties (not her twenties) this woman, who may or may not have been pretty (probably not), and who was married to an artillery officer (and had seen what needed to be done), decided to fire a canon against the enemy. This common enough action for a man was magnified into a colossal feat for a woman, which had the downside of obscuring the participation of many other women in battle and in the diverse sieges. Typical patriarchal thinking: choose a woman, claim she is exceptional and pretend no other women are capable of doing like her. Then turn her into myth.

Agustina is only mentioned in passing in Benito Pérez Galdós’s novel Zaragoza, part of the first series of the Episodios Nacionales. Tired of the ‘Artillera’ legend, a character quickly dismisses it as he seeks information about someone else: “Ya, ya tenemos noticia del heroísmo de esa insigne mujer–manifestó D. Roque”. ‘Agustina’ is finally mentioned by name when a shy woman, Manuelilla, is offered a gun, which she does fire, “radiante de satisfacción”. The man who tempts her simply declares, echoing the author: “Si a estas cosas no hay más que tomarlas el gusto. Lo mismo debieran hacer todas las zaragozanas, y de ese modo la Agustina y Casta Álvarez no serían una gloriosa excepción entre las de su sexo”. In short: by the time major Spanish novelist Pérez Galdós undermined (in the 1870s) the heroic exception that Agustina embodied in order to show that many other women had fought the Napoleonic troops, a series of British writers had already taken her from Spanish hands to turn her into a folk hero which only represented their own fantasies of Spanish womanhood. When asked whether these fantasies of exalted passion, dark beauty and rash actions had been finally lost in our global age, Begoña politely answered that she was not sure. I thought of Penelope Cruz–playing Agustina in some silly English-language epic…

Sonia Villegas analyzed in her paper the singular volume by Spanish writer (Laura) Espido Freire, Querida Jane, querida Charlotte: Por la ruta de Jane Austen y las hermanas Brontë (2004). This is partly travel book and partly writers’ biography, and has been advertised as the volume that solves the mystery of why these women authors wrote as they did. The solution comes from a fellow female author and not from academics who, it seems, can never share the same writerly sensibility and sensitivity.

Freire, as Sonia explained, presents herself as an illustrated super-fan with a more refined approach to the material traces left by these celebrity writers, in particular the Brontës. She touches the dresses, the furniture, the books exhibited at the Brontë Museum at Haworth and these objects lead her to understand who her 19th century peers really were. The mention of Emily’s bed was, however, a little too much for me… even though I am guilty of having made a (small) donation to the museum. I asked Sonia privately whether she had found any sentence in the book suggesting that a) Freire aspired to the same kind of fetishistic immortality, or b) Freire lamented that her survival into that kind of literary eternity was not likely. Apparently not, though Sonia granted that, yes, perhaps there is something parasitical in Freire’s volume or similar books. Now imagine the Brontës brought back to life and wondering why so many authors are piggybacking on their success with the excuse of paying them homage.

Espido Freire is, of course, Spanish and this leads me to the third part of today’s post: Victoria Álvarez. I’ll just note before this that the two cases I have mentioned, the appropriation of Agustina de Aragón by the British and of the Austen/Brontë set by Freire, seem to be mirror phenomena: I take your heroine and claim I know her best than you do, and viceversa. There seems to be a draw, then, in this game, but you will see that, oddly, this is not quite the case.

I want to open up here a debate about the appropriation of the British Victorian and Edwardian ages to produce fiction in Spanish. Please, note that Espido Freire’s book is non-fiction. In contrast, the very popular El mapa del tiempo (2008) by Félix J. Palma, followed by El mapa del cielo (2012) and El mapa del caos (2014)–the three of them translated into English–has started a trend that needs to be considered in depth, and that Victoria Álvarez is cultivating.

I started reading Palma’s first volume and gave up after just a few pages because I had the uncomfortable feeling that his novel, set in 1896 London and closely following the work of H.G. Wells, was fiction translated from English. Perhaps I am being unfair to Palma, and also running the risk of sounding censorious, but I wonder what the point of choosing this background is. I assume that he and his literary descendants, like Álvarez, will claim that writers should be free to use their imagination as they please–and who am I to say otherwise? I worry, however, very much at the decision to ignore the Spanish 19th century to focus instead on the British 19th century, simply because while there are plenty of British writers to lend new life to the Victorian past, the relatively few Spanish writers are seemingly choosing to turn their backs on Spain. And I don’t think that British writers will suddenly return the favour and start fantasizing about our 19th century.

The British, as we all know, excel at selling their past and their heritage worldwide–in the Málaga conference Mark Llewellyn noted that the biggest British export to China in recent years has been Downtown Abbey… We, here in Spain, are not immune to the charms of British fiction from the Victorian and Edwardian periods, as I know first-hand very well. But, from what I have seen these days, I think that the Spanish specialists in English Studies are among the only Spaniards aware of a very simple truth: this is not our culture.

It feels like our culture, in the same way that 20th century and current American culture does, because its products have colonized our cultural market. Also, because many of us can access them in English or enjoy the experience of travelling regularly to anglophone areas. Nonetheless, when I heard Victoria Álvarez tell us about her problems with the many anglicisms (or English borrowings) in her prose, because she reads all the time in English, I worried. Unless she ends up writing in English, she happens to be a Spanish writer and she should be concerned with mastering the language which is her artistic tool. As for the use of Victorian and Edwardian times in her fiction, although she was clear about her trying to stick to a plausible, well-researched view of them, the risk of her using second-hand clichés is still enormous. Read a summary of Palma’s books and you will also see that name-dropping is essential in his novels. So, should Victoria Álvarez cease publishing her peculiar neo-Edwardian fiction in Spanish? No, of course not. It’s her choice and she has many readers, it seems. My aim is not, as I have said, censorship but raising our collective awareness as Spanish readers about why we need to fantasize about other people’s cultures. And appropriate them.

I am finally reconciled with the TV series El Ministerio del Tiempo, as it is, precisely, fulfilling the much needed task of turning local Spanish history into material for (fantasy) fiction. In one of the conference talks there was a scene from an episode on real-life Joaquín Argamasilla, who claimed to have x-ray vision but was exposed as a fraud by Harry Houdini. This is, I believe, a most fruitful strategy: make Spanish personages known, and bring international personalities into the tale if this requires it.

The British have found a very rich treasure in their past for their fiction and this is what we need to do: explore our own and claim it. It seems a better kind of appropriation.

I publish a new post every Tuesday. 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/.

BRIDGING GAPS (AND FEELING SPLIT) BETWEEN DIFFERENT CULTURES

May 8th, 2017

I am currently in the middle of my reading project for this year (see my post of 4 January): going through the 46 novels which comprise Benito Pérez Galdós’ series, Episodios Nacionales (1872-1912). To be specific the Episodios consist of four complete series of 10 novels, and one incomplete series of 6. I’m finishing today the second series (each novel is about 250 pages, hard to say how many exactly as I use a Kindle; all can be downloaded for free from www.dominiopublico.com). Reading Galdós’ simply marvellous historical fiction is something that I have wanted to do for a very long time and I am certainly enjoying myself very, very much. I will eventually explain why, once I’m finished. Or read to the end…

I have been procrastinating, however, because I had this feeling that I should be reading 46 novels by different authors in English, instead of, somehow, waste my time. This is an impression that I haven’t yet managed to shake off. After all, I’m an English Studies specialist. Shouldn’t I use all my reading time for English works? I feel, and I know this is absurd, a bit guilty, as if I were a little girl skipping school… Maybe because of this sense of guilt I am hurrying, absolutely devouring Galdós’ books, in the hopes that in this way I’ll have time to return to English Literature before the year runs out. But, then, here’s another major gap in my education: I have not read Tirant lo Blanch yet…

Reading Galdós is bringing back to me the History lessons about 19th century Spain which I received in secondary school. Since then, and with the exception of a 19th century Literature course which I took as a second-year undergraduate, I have learned nothing about this very complicated period in Spain. My focus has been, rather, the Second Republic, the Civil War and Franco’s regime, and only in recent years. Since I teach Victorian Literature, then, it turns out that I know much more about Britain than about Spain in the same 19th century period.

This, you might think, is as it should be for obvious professional reasons. And, anyway, it is my fault if I haven’t managed to find time for Spanish History in such a long time. I believe, nonetheless, that the lack of a comparative approach in English Studies, as we practice them in Spain, translates into a too exclusive focus on British History and that of other anglophone countries, mainly the USA. Again, maybe this is my fault but I have never taught my students 19th century History in a comparative way and I wonder if anyone does. I also wonder what use this comparative method would be as I very much doubt that my students have been taught any 19th century Spanish History at all…

This lack of a comparative approach and the intensive focus on English Studies means that I always feel split from my own two cultures, the Spanish one and the Catalan. I recently met an American scholar, Dale Pratt, who teaches all kinds of Spanish fiction (in Utah), from El Quijote to science-fiction, and who is currently doing research on Spanish novels dealing with prehistory. I was awed by his extensive knowledge of Spanish Literature, of which I know really very little. Of course, I’m sure that many native anglophone speakers would also be awed by the detailed knowledge that many Spanish specialists in English Studies have of their Literature, also including peculiar little corners. Yet, I do feel illiterate in my own two languages, and this is not a comfortable feeling for a Literature teacher. At one point I even thought of taking a second doctoral degree–but, then, in which area? Spanish or Catalan Literature? And, really, a second PhD seemed overdoing it…

So, you might be thinking: just give yourself the education you’re missing. I do not know what my peers all over Spain do, but every year, as I have explained here, I promise myself to do 50% of my reading in Spanish and Catalan, the rest in English. Usually by February I have already given up, under this self-imposed pressure that I should be reading in English all the time. The flow of novelties is so immense, the list of classics so vast… The result of my yearly abandonment of my two cultures is that my ignorance of their Literature grows in the same measure as my knowledge of English Literature increases. Perhaps I should have specialized in Comparative Literature… but there was no degree of this kind back in the 1980s.

Ironically, while we here in Spain insist on working in English Studies as if our local cultures were of no consequence for what we teach, and for how we teach it, in anglophone areas we are seen from a very different perspective. Let me give you as an example my most recent work. In March I published in the journal Science Fiction Studies an article on British author Richard Morgan. Last Friday I finished editing for the same journal a monographic issue on Spanish science-fiction. In the first case, I was acting as a specialist in English Studies. In the second case, my role has been very, very different, for I have acted as a bridge between two cultures.

The chance to edit this monographic issue fell into my hands quite by accident but once it materialized, I knew I had to do it. With the help of my co-editor Fernando Ángel Moreno (trained in ‘Filología Española’ and in Literary Theory) we assembled a solid team of authors, including Prof. Pratt, who have certainly done their best. I am extremely proud of our collective effort and of the end result, and I do hope that the volume (to be published in June) gives Spanish science-fiction a much more definite place on the world map of SF.

Now, happy and pleased as I am, still I feel concerned about how to announce the publication of this special issue to my English Studies peers. Perhaps I feel too paranoiac but I’m sure that many will wonder why I have put so much energy into doing something for Spanish, rather than English, Studies. My answer, ‘why shouldn’t I?’, might not be satisfactory. Perhaps I should think of a second argument: ‘none else could have done it’, at least none in my position. In this case, as in the case of my translation of Mecanoscrit del segon origen and of the edition of the forthcoming monographic issue on this novel for the US journal Alambique (also to be published in June), what has happened is very simple: I happen to write academic English, and this has been my main qualification to bridge gaps between different cultures.

Although some of the authors who have collaborated in the SFS monographic on Spanish SF have written their texts directly in English, language is a powerful barrier which I can easily cross, like any other English Studies specialist. The authors have contributed their expertise and, as I learned about Spanish SF (of which I knew very little when I started), I have shaped their articles into academic work that can function in English. This is not always easy, as we work in very different academic traditions. For my own article in the Mecanoscrit volume I have chosen to apply Masculinity Studies to a close reading of the male protagonist, Dídac, a methodology that while well-established in English Studies, is absolutely new to Catalan Studies. In both cases, by the way, we have decided to translate the work done in English to, respectively, Spanish and Catalan, thus closing the scholarly circuit. Bridging the reverse gap, so to speak.

As you can see, I am not speaking about translating texts, which, by the way, should be a much bigger part of our task as Spanish specialists in English Studies (if only the Ministry valued translation as academic work). I am speaking here about being a sort of cultural interpreter, giving access into our local cultures to anglophone audiences by means of English Studies traditions and, in the process, opening up the local field. I’m not seeking an acknowledgement of merits, if I have any, but a debate about why this type of work is so limited. Or a correction of my views, if these are wrong.

In recent years, I have been also frantically translating into Spanish everything I have published in English and making it available through my university’s digital repository for, otherwise, who would read me here, in Spain? As for what I publish in English elsewhere, I wonder whether it is read at all and by whom. And I have the impression that the SFS issue on Spanish SF might matter much more than any other work I may have done in English precisely because it bridges an important gap. We have insisted, by the way, that Spain is not the same as Latin America but a separate cultural domain that happens to be in Europe.

Funnily, going back to Episodios, as I wrote here about two years ago, Benito Pérez Galdós was also a cultural bridge-builder between Britain and Spain. In the post ‘Charles and Benito: A Celebration of Influence’ (11 August 2015) I explained that Galdós was absolutely fascinated by Dickens, who died in 1870, the same year when the Spanish author started publishing. A very young Galdós managed to publish a Spanish translation of Pickwick Papers, even though he knew no English and most likely translated the book from the French version. Reading these days the Episodios there are moments when I feel that I’m reading Dickens in Spanish, so strong is his influence. The detailed descriptions, the structure of feeling, the plot twists are so Dickensian and at the same time so profoundly ‘castizos’ and Galdosian, that I marvel at how they overlap. At the same time, the Dickensian influence often reveals what is obvious: that Dickens knew El Quijote by heart, as did Galdós. You see how I’m justifying to myself my reading of the 46 Episodes: this is actually about how Dickens influenced the rest of Europe and Spain in particular. And I’m wasting no time…

I do envy Galdós, for he created something new and unique in Spain by merging two very different traditions. Perhaps it’s about time we debate why as Spanish specialists in English Studies we are finding so many difficulties to do something similar and why our main aspiration is to be treated as honorary anglophone academics. It is: let’s begin the debate by acknowledging this. Our real mission, however, seems to lie elsewhere: in explaining our culture(s) to anglophone audiences, bridging gaps between us and them; most importantly, healing the split from our own background.

Back to Galdós… How Dickens would have loved the Episodios!!!

I publish a new post every Tuesday. 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/.