October 8th, 2019

I recently read an article about some matter connected with a university library, I forget which, and I noticed, to my surprise, that readers’ comments mostly supported the idea that students need not buy books for study. Any decent college library, a reader stressed, should supply all students’ needs. I was flabbergasted, for, no matter how good the library may be, you can hardly expect it to have, say, seventy copies of Pride and Prejudice (the number of students enrolled in my second-year course). I would expect the library to have one copy of Austen’s novel, perhaps two or three, no more. And I would expect each student to buy their own copy, as I did and still do. This is the reason why my own use of our Humanities library is so erratic: whenever I borrow a book I need for study, I end up returning it in a short time to buy my own and feel free to underline text and add notes. I tend to borrow, therefore, only those books I can read more superficially: the essays usually in search of quotations for my own research, the literary works for pleasure.

I must clarify that in my university the usual practice is to buy the books which teachers ask for, though the library treats them as any other publicly available volume. Research groups are often allowed to keep the books they pay for in their own seminar office but anyone with a library card can borrow them as well. In practice this means that I order for the library the books that I believe the institution should have but not really the books I personally need for my job. These come out of my pocket, whether they are academic or literary. When once I expressed my frustration about this, a colleague in the Language area of my Department guffawed that I could hardly expect public money to go into buying me novels. I should say that it should certainly go into buying the books we teach in our Literature subjects but this is, as I know, a lost battle.

This state of matters means that, in practice, we teachers, pay for own job as we invest part of our salary into our professional library. This usually runs to thousands of books, requires plenty of space at home and, thus, further decreases our income since we need to buy expensive properties to place our books in (and when a square metre is on average 4400 euros, enlarging one’s personal library is just too costly). My own solution to this problem has been demanding more office space (as a reward for being Head of Department), giving away plenty of books, and downsizing my purchases. I have the advantage of loving books but not being a bibliophile, which means that I feel no compunction to regularly cull a number of volumes from my not too big collection and give them away. Mind you, this has become harder and harder for no public library, university or otherwise, accepts books as they used to do. So, now and then, I carry books to class for my students to take or place them in the bookcrossing space I myself opened in my Department (but that nobody else seems to use).

I must confess that whereas some people are in love with the smell of old books, I dislike it almost as much as I dislike the smell of popcorn in cinemas. I love bookshops, where every book is new, of course; and as you may imagine, my oldest paperbacks are the first to abandon my library every time I go through it with murder in mind. I would never go as far as Marie Kondo and keep just a dozen books (or is it six?) but I agree with her that you should only keep the books that are useful and/or that provide you with some emotional connection. Even in that case, though, I might consider buying new editions when the ones I have start yellowing and generally falling apart. Paperbacks have, as we know, a shortish shelf-life.

I don’t know if this also happens to you but I find myself going to the campus library only when I need a specific book, and never with enough time to browse. A few days ago, I found myself with one hour to spare between activities (that was a miscalculation!) and off I went to the library. This is why I’m writing this post. I first enrolled in my university back in 1986, and I have seen the library move to two newer buildings, progressively growing all the time. One of these buildings is now the journal library and I must say that this is the one slowly dying for, thank God or the stars, journals are now digitalized. I marvel at the beautiful change this has introduced: I collected for my MA and PhD dissertation masses of photocopied articles, which I hated having around, and now all I have are neat folders of digitalized texts in my computer. Not only the journals have gone that way, of course. Also the magazines: I am writing an article on Isaac Asimov and I almost cried with pleasure when I saw that you can check all the scanned copies of the magazine Amazing Stories. It took me just a few clicks to download the 1951 issue where a story by Asimov I very much wanted to read was printed. Pre-internet, this would have been slow and expensive.

I keep on writing and I still haven’t got inside the library… Since, as I have noted, the library buys the books which teachers order, the English Literature section is a palimpsest. As happens in that kind of manuscript, there are layers and layers, each corresponding to the different teachers’ interests (all those books by Anita Brookner…). The UAB was founded in 1968, which means that pre-1970s books are rare (for this you need to visit the library of the Universitat de Barcelona). The problem is that since we are chronically underfunded and tend to stretch our budget by buying paperbacks, now we have mostly that type of yellowing book that is asking for a replacement. What I like about the old books, though, is that they appear to have been read frequently, which is not at all the case for the 21st century purchases. This means, clearly, that up to the 1990s many students read many books in our collection but since then few students read any books, not even the newer books. As much as I like new books, it hurts my heart to see books bought five or six years ago (by me or others) glaringly untouched, never taken off the shelf.

Something that always makes me smile is how the library purchases clash with our own selections. What I mean is that the librarians also buy books for our English Literature collection but just a few and with a very different criterion. For instance, we never buy translations but the library does, on the grounds that not everyone interested in English Literature can read English. The funny thing is that these translations are often of best-selling fiction either from the past or the present. We have a copy, in Spanish, of Howard Fast’s Spartacus (1951), a handful of translated novels by Donna Leon, and so on. I notice this because I am the one buying fantasy and science fiction, and I always wonder who bought the other popular texts (or donated them). I was happy to see that someone is reading volume one of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, which I ordered, but quite dismayed to see the seven volumes of Harry Potter (adult edition) on the shelf –perhaps, I comforted myself, most students have already read Harry Potter, and those who haven’t would never think of our library having a copy, for this is not Literature… right?

I have no idea how students use the library but I would say that very little. I know our collection quite well because years ago I took a good look at it and made a list of what was missing (which we tried to correct, at least regarding the classics). My impression in this recent visit was that 90% of the collection is on the shelves. Looking at some of the classics, I wondered when they had been borrowed last. Supposing that, for instance, nobody borrows Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936) for fifteen years, which might happen (or has already happened), should the library retire it to the depot where the less wanted books are stored? Only the librarians truly know how many readers each book has and, though we were once tempted to ask, we decided not to do so in case we get too depressed. How different this is from local public libraries, with their constant stream of older readers and having to wait two-months to borrow a popular volume!!

I used to order books for the library on the basis of what our collection should have to awaken interest in some research areas. I bought, for instance, many contemporary plays and academic studies of drama in case somebody wanted to write a paper or a dissertation on this genre. Then I stopped. Our budget was drastically diminished and we were told to purchase mostly what was required for our subjects and our research (I go back in this way to my first paragraphs). I keep a wish list but I must say than in the last two rounds I have ordered no books. I felt that nothing I wanted for the library would attract more than five readers at the most, and it suddenly seemed to me that this was a waste of public money and of shelf space. I must also say that some of these books are overpriced volumes at almost one hundred euros a piece. That is another lost battle: academic publishers have raised the price of books to absurd heights, so that neither researchers nor libraries can afford them. If for the price of one academic hardback I can have ten paperback novels, I will buy the novels. And this is in the end what we have: ten yellowing paperbacks for each better-preserved hardback. Well, except in the Postcolonial section, started relatively recently. From my biased point of view, I wish the whole library looked that crisp and enticing.

I read recently that videotapes are dying, particularly those used for domestic movies. Many people who never bothered to have the videos of important family events transferred to a digital file may find themselves with nothing. The Spanish National Library has warned that the tapes are so frail that they often break when they’re played to be digitalized. The beauty of the ageing paperback is that, unlike the videotape, it can be replaced (I’m not talking about unique old volumes) but if this is not done in time many university libraries with limited income and few hardbacks might find soon find themselves with literally crumbling collections in their hands. Limited shelf-life is here the key problem. I don’t know whether the solution is, as for the videotapes, digitalization; it might be. What I feel is that a library full of fast ageing books is not a place our young students enjoy visiting; that could be a factor in the decreasing numbers of borrowings. I myself will borrow a dying book if I have to, but I find the sight of any strips of cellotape quite dispiriting. Ah, for the smell of new books… how pleasing.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


September 30th, 2019

I came across the name Lola Salvador Maldonado in a recent episode of Días de Cine, the weekly report on cinema that TVE maintains since 1991 on La2 (http://www.rtve.es/television/dias-cine/). The occasion was her 81st birthday and the celebration of her extensive career in Spanish cinema, for which she was awarded the Premio Nacional de Cinematografía in 2014, and which she still continues. Surprised by Lola Salvador’s many activities in this art and, above all, by her immense achievement as a screenwriter, I sought bibliography about her. I soon came across Susana Díaz’s Modos de Mostrar: Encuentros con Lola Salvador (2012, http://tecmerin.es/no-2-lola-salvador/), a delicious publication which sums up many hours of interviews with this exceptional woman. It is hard to say what is more singular about Lola Salvador: that she managed to build a solid career in cinema at a time when relatively few women worked in that area in Spain (excepting actresses), or that she did so leading besides a peculiar life as a separated mother in a long relationship with a married man (producer Alfredo Matas) while enjoying a friendship with his wife (actress Amparo Soler Leal) and collaborating with both professionally. Reading Díaz’s juicy text, it seems that Lola Salvador has lived not one but several lives simultaneously.

On the Días de Cine report, Lola Maldonado described the screenplay as a text quite similar to a play or, even better, to a musical score. She seems to prefer this second description, repeated in the interview with Díaz. Following that analogy, the film director works, Lola notes, like an orchestra director adding harmony to the performance of the diverse musicians. By the way: if my reader does not mind, I’d rather refer to Lola by her first name, since using the surname Salvador makes her appear to be a man. In fact, she has used the penname Salvador Maldonado to publish autobiographical novels (the trilogy El Olivar de Atocha adapted by TVE is based on her family) and others based on her scripts (see below).

That a screenwriter like Lola needs to highlight the similarities between screenplays and stage plays may be baffling, but it needs to be noted that the Spanish word ‘guión’ (or ‘guion’ as RAE prefers since 2010) has nothing to do with ‘obra’ (stage play). I have been unable to determine why ‘guión’ became the preferred word in Spanish, beyond the obvious fact that early producers must have regarded the ‘script’ as a ‘guide’, hence ‘guión’ (but why not ‘guía’?). At any rate the semantic confusion is also notable in English: the texts on which films are based are called ‘scripts’ and ‘screenplays’ and those who write them are ‘scriptwriters’, ‘screen playwrights’, ‘screenplay writers’, or ‘screenwriters’. At least in English, there is a clear suggestion that those who build the scripts are writers working on something rather similar to plays. Incidentally, American silent film produced Thomas Harper Ince (1880-1924), founder of the first studio that can be described as such, Inceville, is credited with being the inventor of the screenplay. If I interpret his many writing credits at IMDB correctly, the word scenario, imported from French, was used before script or screenplay appeared.

Back to Lola, you might be familiar with the enormous scandal caused by El Crimen de Cuenca (1979), the film directed by Pilar Miró, and based on a serious miscarriage of justice back in 1910. Two peasants in a village of the province of Cuenca were sentenced to 18 years in prison for the murder of a shepherd, who had gone missing. As the film explained in all its gory detail, the two accused had been tortured by the Guardia Civil and produced in this way false confessions. Even though the real-life events depicted in the film had happened 70 years before, the then Minister of Culture Ricardo de la Cierva left the film in the hands of military justice, which processed Miró for offenses to the Guardia Civil (a military body) and retained her film for 18 months until the Tribunal Supremo decreed it should be shown in cinemas. The case against Miró was dropped and her film, the only one censored in this away after the end of Franco’s regime in supposedly democratic times, was released to great critical acclaim and notable box-office success, just the opposite of what the authorities had tried to prevent.

Why am I mentioning all this? Because even though Miró bore the brunt of the scandal and endured much personal suffering, she also reaped merits that were not hers: producer Alfredo Matas had hired Miró to work on a script by Lola, also the author as Salvador Maldonado of the 1979 best-selling novel based on the Cuenca crime (Ramon J. Sender had published in 1939 on the same case El Lugar de un Hombre). Miró got a script credit as well for the film, to increase her earnings (a habitual practice, it seems), but the whole idea was from the beginning Lola’s (see Díaz 72-84). You might say that she and Matas, and not Miró, should have indicted by military justice, but this is not my point: everyone came to know Miró por her boldness in dealing with torture on the screen, but few connect Lola with El Crimen de Cuenca. This is like attributing the whole merit of, say, the film Hamlet (1996) to director Kenneth Branagh, without mentioning Shakespeare (he does appear in the credits as screenwriter…).

To put it plainly, neither films nor TV series can be made without a screenplay but both directors and producers tend to downplay as much as they can the role of the writer. I include myself among the film lovers who are totally unable to mention a favourite screen writer, even though I can certainly mention favourite authors in all other literary genres. Yes: literary genres. As theatre specialist Martin Esslin has explained, the script is a branch of the tree of drama, with the peculiarity that whereas plays are written to be staged as many times as possible the screenplay is used in just one production, for this is filmed. To those who object that screenplays can hardly be read as plays, I would reply that this is not true: the conventions may be different (there are all kinds of technical regulations about the look of screenplays on the page) but the essence is the same one –both are dramatic texts to be performed by actors. And if the screenplay is still struggling for literary recognition, this is because it is a type of writing open to constant interference by studio executives, producers, directors and actors for control of the final film. When a writer sells a screenplay, s/he does sell that right to interfere, which no other writer is forced to sell. Just imagine!

Logically, the best way to guarantee the control over your screenplays is to be also the film director but this is not a road all writers can take or care to take. In the theatre, few playwrights also work as directors, for there is a clear understanding of what each job consists of. Not so in movies, or in series (or in videogames and documentaries, which also use scripts). Check, as an example of the situation I am describing, Vulture’s list “The 100 Best Screenwriters of All Time, As Chosen by Working Screenwriters” (2017, https://www.vulture.com/2017/10/100-greatest-screenwriters-of-all-time-ranked.html), edited by Stacey Wilson Hunt, and you will see that most names correspond to film directors.

At this point whenever I write or lecture about this issue I like to run a little test: a) who wrote the script for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, adapted from Thomas Kenneally’s novel Schindler’s Ark?; b) who wrote the script for Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise? Answer a) Steve Zaillian (currently a film director) and answer b) Callie Khouri (with also some credits as director). In case a) Spielberg got all the merit, being who he is (well, Zaillian got an Oscar); and in case b) that was even worse, for Scott was credited with showing a fine understanding of the dynamics of female friendship and few recalled in the ensuing feminist debate about his film the name of Callie Khouri (at least she got and Oscar for her efforts, and is among the few women included in the Vulture list). Arguably, the cases of Callie Khouri and Lola Salvador Maldonado suggest that there is something even worse than being a screen playwright to be acknowledged as a talented writer: being a woman screen playwright (or a non-white male heterosexual screenwriter…).

Julia Sabina Gutiérrez argues in her article “El guión cinematográfico: su escritura y su estatuto artístico” (SIGNA, 27, 2018, 523-539) that “El estatuto artístico del guion todavía no ha sido bien definido ni por los teóricos ni por los propios profesionales del audiovisual” (524), hinting at a certain failure on the side of the writers themselves to defend their work. She also notes that the tasks contributing to the creation of the screenplay have been increasingly fragmented, a fact which is possibly most visible (I would add) in animated cinema. Thus, writing recently on Trolls (2016), I could not determine at all what aspects of the plot had been the invention of Erica Rivinoja, credited on IMDB for the story (the script is credited to Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger). Besides, as the beautiful volume about the artwork in this film notes, some interesting turns had been contributed by the animators. As Gutiérrez points out, even in the cases in which the screenplay has been published, there may be differences with what appears on the film which are impossible to account for.

It appears, then, that the question at stake is authorship, or, rather, the extremely questionable application of this literary concept to audiovisual work, which is by nature a collaborative effort. As the author of the novel called El Crimen de Cuenca Lola Salvador can be certainly called a writer, but as the author of the eponymous script, what is she? For all purposes, including censorship, the author of the film El Crimen de Cuenca is the late Pilar Miró, even though the idea for the film did not originate with her at all but with Lola, who developed it together with the producer. In fact, producers are acknowledged above anyone else when the awards to the main films are given, whether these are the Oscars or any other. That there is a separate category for the director should be sufficient evidence for audiences to understand that directing a film is, as Lola stresses, like directing an orchestra but by no means like composing the music. I very much doubt that Zubin Mehta or any other outstanding director feels that s/he is above the composers whose work the orchestra plays.

So, to sum up, and once again: do try to remember the writers behind the films that you love, and let’s change for good their status as unacknowledged authors.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


September 24th, 2019

It seems that I have started this academic year in a metaphysical vein, concerned about time. Now it’s the turn of John Boynton Priestley’s suggestive play I Have Been Here Before (1937), which I have just seen in La Perla29’s effective production. Directed by Sergi Belbel, using Martí Gallén’s very good Catalan version, Priestley’s play necessarily loses some nuances in translation, such as the distinctive Yorkshire accents of the rural inn where the action takes place. This is inevitable (happily, there was no question of adapting the setting to Catalonia) but I am a tad less happy with the title Això ja ho he viscut (‘I have lived this before’) because, if I am not mistaken, Priestley alludes to a poem by Dante Gabriel Rosetti in his own original title. I mean ‘Sudden Light’, written possibly in 1854 but first published in 1863. Here it is:

I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell:
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

You have been mine before,—
How long ago I may not know:
But just when at that swallow’s soar
Your neck turn’d so,
Some veil did fall,—I knew it all of yore.

Has this been thus before?
And shall not thus time’s eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death’s despite,
And day and night yield one delight once more?

This is the exact topic of the play: the possibility that our lives are somehow lived again and again and what we call déjà vu may be a glimpse into another version of the same events.

J.B. Priestly (1894-1984), a native of Yorkshire, first became quite famous thanks to a quintessentially English novel, The Good Companions (1929), of which there are several stage, film, TV, and radio adaptations. He wrote many other novels though never as successfully, including some in collaboration. Beginning with Dangerous Corner (1932), Priestly also wrote about twenty plays, among which Time and the Conways (1937) and An Inspector Calls (1945) are considered to be his best. These three plays, together with I Have Been Here Before and some others such as Johnson over Jordan, are known collectively as the ‘Time Plays’ because of the centrality of this question in them. Priestley, a marvellous graphomaniac, also wrote plenty of essays, among which I would highlight The English (1973). For a short spell during World War II (before the advent of television and when radio was paramount), Priestley was the most popular BBC broadcaster after Winston Churchill. Rumour claims that Churchill grew jealous and managed to have Priestley’s Sunday evening series Postscripts (which ran for a few months in 1940) cancelled, on the grounds that the content was too left-wing.

I saw Time and the Conways in 1992, in the Catalan-language production directed by Mario Gas, later filmed and broadcast by TV3 (in 1993). I subsequently taught the play within our first-year introduction to 20th century English Literature, though I would agree that its melancholy tone is not something that eighteen-year-olds can easily enjoy. I loved it, anyway. In 2011 I saw another Catalan-language version of Priestly, this time An Inspector Calls, as Truca un inspector, with the great Josep Maria Pou as Inspector Goole (‘ghoul’ indeed…). Pou also directed this production. I saw then as well a 1982 version of the original play made for TV, which is still available on YouTube, and which I recommend very much: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yuHvGPpq8TM. I was back then teaching Shaw’s Pygmalion and published here a post speculating about whether the missing Eva in Priestley’s play could have been known to Eliza Doolittle, or be Eliza herself without Prof. Higgins (see http://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2011/03/21/eva-and-eliza-mirror-images/).

Everyone who writes about the Time Plays necessarily mentions the two singular men who inspired Priestley with his own view of time. One was Russian-Ukranian esotericist Pyotr Demianovich Ouspenskii (better known as Peter D. Ouspensky). His volume A New Model of the Universe, originally written in Russian and translated in 1931 by R.R. Merton (for Routledge!), was an instant success. It caught Priestley’s attention and that of many other British readers. The text is here, if you care to take a peek: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.234054. Ouspensky (1878-1947) belongs in the same esoteric circles as Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) and his own master George Gurdjieff (1877?-1949), men inspired by the success of Madame Blavatsky’s (1831-91) Theosophical Society (founded 1875). The other main text that influenced Priestley was An Experiment with Time (1927) by J.B. Dunne (1875-1949), which seemingly describes Dunne’s own precognitive dreams and ‘serialism’, the theory of time that Priestley borrowed for I Have Been Here Before. Dunne, a pioneering aeronautical engineer and a philosopher, enjoyed a much higher credibility than occultist Ouspensky but his does not mean that his theories have been in any way validated by scientific research.

As I’m sure you’re beginning to notice, both Ouspensky and Dunne wrote their books following the development of Quantum Mechanics, from 1900 onward. Priestley may not have known about Niels Bohr, Max Planck, or Albert Einstein but he was shaping in his Time Plays a view of existence that is not so different from current views of the multiverse based on Quantum Theory. I must confess that I seem to be, like most of us, stuck in a backward Newtonian understanding of physics and have not managed to grasp Quantum Mechanics beyond what I read in science fiction. I think, however, that Priestley’s peculiar plays still work well in 2019 because, even though Ouspensky and Dunne mean nothing to contemporary audiences, we are increasingly familiar with the idea that ours is just one universe among many other versions of the multiverse.

In I Have Been Here Before Dr. Görtler, a German-Jewish refugee in Britain who has lost everything to persecution by his own university students (implicitly Nazi sympathisers), arrives in the inn I have mentioned expecting to meet three strangers whose lives are heading for disaster. Görtler has had a dream in which he has seen the dire consequences of the decisions these three persons are about to make, and he needs to divert them from that specific path so that they may take a better one. Görtler’s dream is not a prophecy but, following Dunne, a memory of the version of his life in which disaster strikes. Also following Dunne, Priestley considers the idea that if, like Görtler, you train yourself to pay heed to your dreams, perhaps life can be better understood, and its worst events avoided if not in this life at least next time around.

Both Dunne and Görtler suppose that life is serial, that is to say, that you (or your soul if you prefer) are playing out a script that is repeated again and again each time you are born, and, hopefully, improved on. Not so in the case of dark souls bent on destructive ways. This is not quite the same as the idea of the multiverse, which supposes that infinite versions of the existing universe, including our own personal life, are happening simultaneously though with variations. Both theories make me extremely nervous, even more than Christian Heaven and Hell, but what I like about the Time Plays is that they invite me to think about the possibility that there is indeed a (loose) script in our lives, which might explain recognition. Let me explain…

In the play itself, Dr Görtler refers to déjà vu as an effect caused by the temporary dissociation of the two hemispheres of the brain. Current science still goes in that direction, connecting besides this phenomenon with forgotten memories recalled from dreams. What I am arguing is that science has insufficient knowledge of both dreams and déjà vu. Typically, all kinds of esoteric nonsense step in whenever science makes insufficiently convincing claims, trying to mask its ignorance, but I am not backing here the paranormal. Priestley forces me to think about events that are strange but that do happen in our lives, mainly that clear impression that you already know some person you have just met. Or the chill you get when you know that the words which you’re about to say will introduce a turning point in your own life or that of your interlocutor. As for dreams, I do not believe that they have prophetic value in a magical sense, or even in the far more ordinary sense that Dunne defended (as if they were a preview of the next episode in your life). What I do know is that Freud was very wrong about how they work and that finding symbolic language in them is nonsense. Dreams process everyday life at another level. Or perhaps the other way around. Some mornings I wake up thinking that maybe dreams are the real deal and our waking lives just the secondary part of our existence.

At a scene at the end of act I in I Have Been Here Before Dr Görtler explains that he has been studying his own dreams in the hopes of answering two questions: ‘what we are supposed to be doing here?’ and ‘what the Devil this is all about?’ Religion offers, of course, a ready-made answer: God knows, even though we don’t. For us, atheists, the problem is that science is somehow an obstacle to investigate other answers beyond ‘we’re the result of a random series of events’. This lazy answer allows the cult of the paranormal to grow with no rational check so that some individuals end up acting more absurdly than if they were believers. I am not saying that we should grow as obsessed as Dr Görtler with our own dreams and with the alleged seriality of time, nor that we should be paralyzed by the fear that strikes if you stop to consider why we are alive at all. What I mean is that, now and then, we should acknowledge that life is a very strange affair and that we, Homo Sapiens, are very odd creatures, dominated by that bizarre need for sleep and dream.

That’s what I enjoy most about Priestley’s Time Plays: the bold proposition that if we really tried to explain what life is about, we might reach unexpected conclusions. It is a bit scary but, then, the idea of life is scary in its weirdness.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


September 17th, 2019

Sharing coffee with a friend who also loves science fiction, we end up wondering when the idea of the future died. The media have entered a phase which I can only call ‘punk’ (after the Sex Pistols’ 1977 hit song ‘No Future’), for its intense focus on the oncoming climate-change related apocalypse. Perhaps not oncoming but already happening, as the brutal hurricanes in the Caribbean and the devastating floods here in Spain suggest. For the younger generations, like our university students, the perception that the world is doomed and the future fast shrinking must be commonplace; it might explain their presentism and their reluctance to believe in making plans long-term. But for those of us old enough to have been children between the 1950s and the 1970s, the impression is that we have been robbed of a better version of the future which we had been promised, above all by science and its fantasy branch, science fiction.

Commenting on this conversation with my husband, he played for me the delicious official video for Pet Shop Boys’ “This Used to Be the Future” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=As5vxxiPRUM). This great song, in which Neil Tennant sings with Phil Oakey (lead singer of The Human League), was released back in 2009, as part of the highly acclaimed double CD Yes. And, yes, it encapsulates to perfection what I feel but cannot articulate so succinctly.

The complete lyrics can be found here (https://petshopboys.co.uk/lyrics/this-used-to-be-the-future), just let me quote some stanzas: “I can recall utopian thinking/ bold mission statements and tightening of belts/ demolition of familiar landmarks/ promises made and deals that were dealt (…) / But that future was exciting / science fiction made fact / now all we have to look forward to/ is a sort of suicide pact”. The agents of destruction in the song are not rapacious capitalism and environmental catastrophe but religion and nuclear power. The Pet Shop Boys sing that “Science had promised to make us a new world / religion and prejudice disappear” and I suppose that many religious people feel offended hearing this; the fact, though, is that one of the promises of mid-20th century futurism was the disappearance of superstition in all its forms, swept away by science. As for prejudice, as my friend ironized, back in the 1970s the future used to be about constant progress in quality of life but all it has brought in the 21st century is Facebook and rampant online trolling.

Back to the song, these two lines sent a chill down my spine: “I can remember planning for leisure / living in peace and freedom from fear”, for I also remember that. The feeling was short-lived, starting in November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and ending on 9/11 2001, with the terrorist attacks against the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia which killed more than 3,000 people. I must spell this out because these tragic events happened already eighteen years ago, which means that the generation now reaching its majority (our first-year students) have no personal memories of them. This factor was the focus of the news around the commemoration this year, which also reported the steady trickle of deaths among first responders and reconstruction personnel caused by poisoning due to the toxic debris.

My friend argued that the future did not die on that day but earlier, with the capitalist alliance between Margaret Thatcher (UK Prime Minister 1979-1990) and Ronald Reagan (US President 1981-1989). In his view, their coordinated onslaught against public spending and their enthusiastic privatization of almost everything put an end to the big dreams that can only be financed without benefit in mind. I grant this, but I want to make the point that even so, in the long decade between 1989 and 2001, and specially during the mandate of Bill Clinton (1993-2001), there was a glimmer of hope. I do not forget the first Gulf War (1990-1), which happened during George Bush’s Presidency (1989-1993), but at least that horror belonged to a new climate in which mutually assured destruction (yes, known by the acronym MAD) using nuclear devices seemed over. Of course, the 1986 Chernobyl explosion, now brought back to public awareness by HBO’s series, stressed that nuclear power for civilian uses can be as dangerous as nuclear weapons for military use. Yet, I should think that nobody is considering today starting a major nuclear war (I hope this is not the kind of statement that in hindsight will sound totally stupid).

For all these reasons, 9/11 was very difficult to understand at the time when it was happening. As I’m sure I have already narrated here, I spent the morning of 11 September 2001 at the cinema, making the most of the national Catalan holiday. My mind was still haunted by the ghosts of Alejandro Amenábar’s atmospheric Los Otros when I switched on the TV to watch the 15:00 news on the national Spanish channel, TVE. The attack was timed to make big news in the United States at 9:00 and I think now that possibly Spain must have been the first European country to broadcast it live, as it coincided with our Telediario.

I was standing up before the TV, trying to make sense of what presenter Ana Blanco was describing as an accident, after the first plane crashed. By the time we all saw the second plane crash live, it was evident that this was no accident. My legs gave way and I found myself fallen on my sofa, physically scared as I have never been in my life. It was all so eerie and disconcerting that I expected Blanco to announce at any point that an alien invasion had started–that Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) was happening in real life. Even when it was understood that two planes had been hijacked and used as weapons against the Towers (another one hit the Pentagon, and a fourth one crashed when the passage repelled the kidnapping), it was impossible to understand who and why had done it. Still to this day, every time I switch on the news, I brace myself for some world-shattering event like that one or worse.

In his 1998 version of Godzilla, Roland Emmerich–a German director obsessed with wrecking America on film–had already fantasized with the destruction of New York, offering images quite similar to those from 9/11. The first film he released after the attacks was, however, quite different and certainly worth watching again today. In The Day After Tomorrow (2004) the villains that end the future as we hoped it would exist are not aliens, monsters, or terrorists but unbridled capitalism, the origin of the unrestrained pollution that starts a new Ice Age. Funnily, this is not global but a phenomenon that only destroys the United States and most of the Northern hemisphere, leaving then some hope for the rest of the world. The first film in the family-oriented franchise Ice Age had been launched two years before, in 2002, and I am now wondering whether this was part of the zeitgeist or a frivolous reaction to the first warnings issued by concerned scientists. Emmerich’s film, already fifteen years old, was, arguably, another nail in the coffin of the future killed by 9/11 or the beginning of the dystopian cycle trapping us today.

Searching for information on the Pet Shop Boys’ official video for “This Used to Be the Future”, which is an amazing montage of futuristic images from the 1950s and 1960s, I have come across the concept of paleofuturism (see https://paleofuture.com/ and https://paleofuture.gizmodo.com/). This refers to the exploration of the ways in which the future was imagined in the past in order to check what has actually been developed and what has fallen into the limbo of the things never invented. A wonderful play by Joan Yago, currently on stage at Escenari Joan Brossa of Barcelona, and simply called The Future, uses paleofuturism in its opening section to stress how our need to imagine the future clashes with actual events. Yago’s play asks the same question as the Pet Shop Boys’ song but answers it with a slightly more optimistic attitude. If we cannot imagine utopia again, Yago warns, we’re lost. Homo Sapiens needs to look forward to a better life both individually and collectively for without some idea of progress we regress. This connects, oddly, with the new book by educator Andreu Navarra, Devaluación Continua, in which he warns that current trends in pedagogy and the pressure of the social networks are creating a new Middle Age in the classroom, meaning a generation of cyber-serfs that do not see beyond the day-to-day. This possibly has something to do with the serious lack of future engineers in our universities (as noted by Spanish newspapers last week) and, what is worse, with the lack of a greater vision for the world that can oppose the messianic plans of Elon Musk and company.

Perhaps, playwright Joan Yago hints, if we checked what the future looked like in the past in a paleofuturistic spirit, we might manage to build a new utopia. The problem, I think, is not only that, as my friend suggested, no public institution has the capacity to engage us in a positive collective future but that our energies are too occupied by the possibility of total disaster to think clearly. Greta Thunberg and her generation should not be using their youth to stop catastrophe but to continue working for a utopia that could have been established for good in 1989, if not before Thatcher and Reagan. I agree with Yago that if we told ourselves ‘this planet is going to be marvellous in two decades’ instead of ‘this planet is going to be dead in two decades’ the promise of a better future could perhaps be rebuilt. Or this is just me being nostalgic of what the future used to be.

Let’s give utopia a chance…

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


September 2nd, 2019

I’m beginning with this post the tenth year of this blog, started back in September 2010, with a certain feeling that blogging is already a thing of the past. As the yearly volumes accumulate (check https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328), I see how text-based online platforms give way to image-based platforms, with Instagram in the lead, already replacing Twitter in everyone’s preferences (the micro-blogging Tumblr is quite dead). I don’t know who reads me, or how many of you there are, for I refuse to check my statistics, and anyway, I keep this blog for my own personal satisfaction (and sanity). Whoever you are, you do get my most deeply felt thanks! One more thing: I’m teaching only one semester a year, thanks to my university’s fair and legal application of the 2012 Government decree to support research (popularly known as ‘Decreto Wert’). This is the reason why the blog offers currently fewer posts about teaching and more about reading (and writing). I have even considered altering the title, but I’ll let it be, though I think of it today as ‘The Joys of (Teaching) Literature’, still with the ironic sting in the tail.

Let’s begin. Reading this summer Susan Orlean’s non-fiction bestseller The Library Book (a beguiling account of the devastating fire at the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986), I was oddly impressed by a small scene. Incidentally, you may watch Orlean’s interview with Bel Olid on The Library Book at Barcelona’s recent Kosmopolis (last March) here: https://www.cccb.org/en/multimedia/videos/susan-orlean-and-bel-olid/231171. In the scene mentioned, Orlean meets a worker (a black middle-aged woman, though this is not much relevant), who spends eight hours a day packing and unpacking books. She tells a flabbergasted Orlean that she never reads any books for you ‘read, read, and read, and then what?’ This woman’s dismissal of reading caught me in the middle of an intense summer reading binge and truly shook me. What, indeed, am I doing reading so much? Even my fellow Literature teachers tell me that I read a lot… because, guess what?, even they prefer watching TV series, which I find unbearably boring. You ‘watch, watch, watch, and then what?’

Orlean’s candid interviewee apparently believes that reading has a purpose, a teleological function aimed at reaching a target. Naturally, this is only the case in higher education degrees, for, quite rightly, in English it is said that a person ‘reads’ to obtain a BA or MA (in Spanish we ‘study’). Apart from that, reading is a pleasurable habit which simply ends with death: possibly, the most adequate answer to this woman’s question is ‘and then you die’. She has, however, the intuition of something else. Why do people read at all during personal time which they could employ in many other activities? Several answers occur to me. To be able to claim that they have read this and that book, to enhance their experience of life by adding other persons’ experiences (whether real or fictional), to learn about whatever interests them. Fundamentally, out of curiosity and to feel brainy pleasure. It might well be that this woman’s life is so rich that she needn’t access other persons’ experiences (or that ink is a barrier to her in that sense); also, that she is satisfied enough with her knowledge and feels no urge to increase it. Fair enough, though, evidently, that she feels in this way surrounded by millions of books is chilling. Maybe she is overwhelmed by the riches in the Central Library, which are for others, like author Susan Orlean, paradise on Earth.

But, again, why do people read? The current understanding is that the reading habits acquired in early childhood thanks to devoted parents and educators are lost with the onset of adolescence (which seems to begin at ten these days…) when compulsory reading for school takes times off reading for pleasure. I would say that this only happens in the case of children whose reading for pleasure is never fully established as a habit, for lack of sufficiently strong skills. These deficient skills (we teach children to read too late) make compulsory reading a chore, even a torture, which is not balanced by pleasure reading. Those of us who simply cannot help reading usually develop a bag of tricks to put up with compulsory reading. Thus, throughout my graduate years I used to keep at hand a book I very much wanted to read and allow myself to grab it only as a reward for having read the stuff I hated. What? You really think that Literature teachers love reading ALL kinds of books? You must be joking…

The issue which appears to be much under-researched is what exactly triggers the pleasure of reading in the minority of avid readers. I’m sure that neuroscientists have already proven that reading results in the building up of synaptic connections that make our brain work faster, to speak informally. What we don’t know is what causes a child to become addicted to reading and thus begin the life-long process of adding books to the personal list of readerly conquests. Avid readers often speak of compulsion and of the unstoppable need to read anything to satisfy the craving. I do know that chain-reading has little to do with the experience of most average readers, who tend to read just a few books a year. Yet, my assumption is that if you decode what lies behind the most extreme cases of chain-reading then you might help others to feel happier reading. There must be a sort of nicotine in reading, as there is in smoking, if you get my drift. Or, if you want something less toxic, then endorphins like those generated by exercising.

If you read enthusiastic websites, such as Serious Reading and its post “30 Reasons to Read” (https://seriousreading.com/blog/283-30-reasons-to-read-books.html ) you will find there a nice collection of the positive consequences brought on by reading, though not a fully tested cause why reading gives pleasure. The authors claim, by the way, that reading acts like callisthenics for the brain and can help prevent mental disease and Alzheimer’s, which is not quite true but sounds nice. It is, at any rate, a constant cause of dismay for me to see that the barrage of advice intended to keep our bodies in full health never mentions the benefits of reading from a book thirty minutes every day. Or of listening to audiobooks as an alternative. The brain, I think, is the most neglected vital organ in our bodies, particularly as regards its specific pleasures. You hear plenty about how the brain is the most potent sexual organ, but you never hear about the pleasures that are most intimately connected with our neurons, possibly because they have the word ‘intellectual’ attached to it. And that is always a downer.

I think that I am calling for an erotics of reading which makes sense of the pleasure that the written word elicits from certain brains, and which must be connected with the language centres. The more conservative kind of reader might say at this point that, logically, the pleasure of reading is linked to the linguistic artistry of Literature but in my own view (and experience) beautiful verse or prose increases a pleasure that is already there, in the contact with the paper or the screen. Simple prose has its rewards, whereas complex texts offer other rewards. The extremely arid volumes that many students of, say, the Law or Physics, must not just read but also study bring the satisfaction of knowledge gained, which is essential for that ‘read, read, and read, and then what?’ to make sense. With a caveat: if your pleasure reading tends towards storytelling you will gain great insight into personal experience beyond your own but not necessarily be made unhappy; if you read for knowledge, your habit will take you to a clearer understanding of the world, which usually brings wonder and awe, but that may also bring disappointment and sadness, perhaps a silent fury against the sorry state of Homo Sapiens’ decadent civilization.

After about forty years as an avid reader, what I find most engaging in books is their interconnectedness. How one book leads to the next one, and that to a whole new field you had never heard about but want to explore. In fact, I recommend to everyone that you free yourself from narrative, which is what 90% of readers enjoy, and set out to navigate other waters. I had always disliked autobiography and memoirs, preferring the superior narrative skills of novelists, but I have suddenly seen their appeal; the same applies to History books, and to the volumes aimed at making science accessible to lay persons. I don’t know whether this is an experience shared by most avid readers, but as I age, I feel more inclined towards the books that bring new knowledge and not only new stories.

You read, read, and read, and then feel ecstatic to discover that there is much more to learn and enjoy reading until your time on Earth runs out. Don’t let anyone say that you wasted it.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


August 25th, 2019

This post is inspired by reading Alfredo Moro Martín’s excellent volume Transformaciones del Quijote en la novela inglesa y alemana (U. Alcalá de Henares, 2106), which is based on his doctoral dissertation. His research follows, as he acknowledges, from Pedro Javier Pardo García’s essential study La tradición cervantina en la novela inglesa del s. XVIII (U Salamanca, 1997). What is original in Alfredo’s case is that he adds to the ground covered by his predecessor (Henry Fielding and company), an examination of German author Christoph Martin Wieland’s Cervantine credentials, and a quite intriguing section on Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) as a Quixotic text.

When I met Alfredo last year (he works at the University of Cantabria and had invited me to lecture on Frankenstein and current science fiction), we exchanged some comments on how masculinity is an important, though under-researched, issue in El Quijote. Regretfully, we had no time to pursue the conversation. With apologies for having taken so long to read the book he gave me then, here are some thoughts on the matter.

As a specialist in the fantastic (Gothic, science fiction, fantasy), I return again and again to El Quijote as the text that problematized the consumption of this narrative mode. Its publication in 1605 (part II, 1615) acts as kind of primal scene in a chronology of events of which I have not made complete sense. Alfredo’s monograph does clarify the turning points at which a succession of translations made Cervantes’s proto-novel available to English and German speakers, but I’m still mystified by the time lag. Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) was a contemporary of William Shakespeare (1564-1616). The novel by Henry Fielding (1707-1754) which transformed the understanding of El Quijote in English Literature, The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and His Friend, Mr. Abraham Adams, was published in 1742. I should not be surprised by this type of long-ranging connections, since, after all, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996), re-formulated heterosexual femininity by adapting and re-writing Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1816). Yet, what baffles me is that while Austen and Fielding (Helen) work essentially within the same novelistic tradition, Cervantes and Fielding (Henry) belong to two extremely different narrative paradigms.

Or perhaps not, because if something characterizes the approach of these two authors is how they use masculinity as a foundation for their absurdist humour, which centres on a naïve, idealistic, chaste man. I’m getting in this way closer to what interests me here: chivalry, and its fictional expression, the romance.

This is where things get confusing because even though all readers understand that Cervantes is mocking the genre of the chivalric romance through Alonso Quijano’s addiction, hardly any of us is familiar with its texts. We may have heard of Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s quintessential Amadís de Gaula (written approx. 1304, earliest surviving print copy 1508); or, if you’re a young Catalan-speaking person, you may have been forced to ‘enjoy’ Tirant lo Blanch (Joanot Martorell and Martí Joan de Galba, 1490) in secondary school. In fact, the list of chivalric romances is quite extensive and the works hardly touched upon by Spanish Literature scholars (see http://www.cervantesvirtual.com/obra-visor/libros-de-caballerias-castellanos-textos-y-contextos/html/6220ef90-a0f6-11e1-b1fb-00163ebf5e63_3.html ). What we vaguely know is that Quijano, a fifty-year-old impoverished ‘hidalgo’, loses the ability to distinguish between the fiction of the chivalric romance and reality. I have no room here to unpack the amazingly charged word ‘hidalgo’ (= ‘somebody’s son’) for it means at the same time a nobleman man of the lowest rank and a man of chivalrous behaviour. Technically, Quijano is a knight –no wonder, then, he is confused.

A major source of his and our confusion has to do with the fact that knights did and did not exist –if this sounds like quantum physics, then maybe this is how we need to approach the matter. Working last year on an essay about Obi-Wan Kenobi and the Jedi Knights (see Foundation, 48.1, #132, 2019, 37-53), which connect in many ways with the Knights Templar, I came across a very singular text: Walter Scott’s “Essay on Chivalry” (1816). This is the man who wrote Ivanhoe (1819), the novel (or is it romance?) which re-invented both chivalric romance and the knight for the 19th century. I expected Scott to enthuse about the original Medieval knights but what I found instead was this (in reference, as you will get, to Courtly Love): “Extremes of every kind border on each other; and as the [religious] devotion of the knights of Chivalry degenerated into superstition, the Platonic refinements and subtleties of amorous passion which they professed, were sometimes compatible with very coarse and gross debauchery” (40). Scott goes on in this vein to express a fundamental idea: chivalry is, as Judith Butler would put it, a gendered performance, which aristocratic men engaged in to disguise the less savoury aspects of patriarchal masculinity. Since it was a fiction even in real life, chivalry had no problem to move into the heart of the romance and thus offer men (and women) and idealized version of patriarchal masculinity.

El Quijote does not deal, then, just with the conflicted experience of a man who cannot separate romance from reality but with the mental short-circuit he suffers as the last social descendant of the men who invented the ideal. Let me stress this: Cervantes is targeting not only a literary issue but also a gendered issue, deeply embedded in the construction of patriarchal masculinity.

Let’s see if I can clarify what I mean. Take Superman (created in 1938) and all the superhero comic book tradition, and try to imagine a man who very much enjoys it, while being perfectly aware that characters like these are ideals that have nothing to do with reality (but wouldn’t it be nice to have some superheroes around…?). Now take this man, today in 2019, mightily annoyed by the way the endless stream of superhero movies is perverting (in his opinion) the comic-book legacy. Next, suppose he writes a comic book series in which a guy believes himself to be a superhero and all kinds of ridiculous things happen to him… This comic-book writer would be apparently criticizing all superheroes, but he would be actually expressing a distaste with how the figure is handled in the worst-written stories.

This might well be how Cervantes was situated. Alfredo quotes American scholar Ruth El Saffar, according to whom “Romances obviously gave [Cervantes] pleasure”, though “His problem was to find a literary form that would preserve that pleasure in the fact of an active critical intelligence”. Yes and no. Whereas most obviously superheroes have no social equivalent and do not seem to generate any wish among men of actually acting like them (beyond wearing silly superhero outfits in fan conventions), Cervantes’s knight Alonso Quijano is indeed socially connected with the noblemen that inspired the invention of chivalry. He produces the same shock and hilarity that a man trying to behave like Superman would inspire, for everyone knows that knights and superheroes are invented –presumably, so does Quijano until he forgets. Yet, the difference is that while no Superman imitator comes from the stars, El Quijote does connect the with aristocratic classes.

What I’m arguing, then, is similar to what many others have argued –Quijano wants to regulate his behaviour by a chivalric code no longer extant in the Spain of his time– yet it is very different. Quijano breaks mentally down because the chivalric romances he consumes have provided him with an idealised model of patriarchal masculinity that he values highly but that he cannot realistically perform. This is not just his fault: his society apparently venerates the same chivalric ideal, though embodied by the ‘caballero’ (the gentleman) rather than the ‘caballero’ (the knight). Since, however, the transition to the ‘caballero’ was still incomplete in the Spain of his time, Quijano is befuddled, hence his madness. In a similar vein, a man behaving today as a ‘caballero’ to a woman (as Darcy behaves towards Elizabeth in the last part of the novel) would appear to be a Quixotic throwback. For which I’m personally very sorry.

I’m then displacing the narrative tension from the generic fictional models (romance vs. the novel) to the patriarchal idealization of masculinity (the Medieval knight vs. the modern gentle/man). Let me add two more ingredients to this heady mixture: class and age. Most obviously, if the foolish Quijano elicits our sympathy this is because of his class background. Even though, later on, the dangers of reading romances were connected with the uneducated, this still meant in the upper classes (women, and young men). In a sense, his passion for reading chivalric romances unmans Quijano, which is why he must re-masculinize himself by playing knight errant. But I digress: being too poor, Sancho is not a reader and, so, he has no chivalric masculine ideal to fulfil. Regarding age, although Fielding and all subsequent authors would turn their Quixotic characters into youths, Quijano is, as I have noted, a mature fifty-year-old. This is perhaps closer to seventy in contemporary terms but let me note that R.L. Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll is also split in two at the same age, thus showing that the tensions between inner and outer ways of understanding and performing masculinity take longer than we assume to manifest themselves.

The best proof I can offer that Cervantes deals in El Quijote essentially with the problematic performance of idealized patriarchal masculinity is that Charlotte Lennox called her very funny own version The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella (1752). Not the English Quixote, or the young Quixote but the female Quixote, thus implicitly showing that the Spanish one is, above all, the male one. This may seem far-fetched because we are used to reading everything concerning men as lacking any gender marks, but this is a perspective that needs to be altered. Now that we are seeing women’s football attracting big crowds, it’s about time to call the other kind men’s football. Same with Literature: El Quijote is a central work in men’s Literature and in the construction in fiction and in society of patriarchal masculinity.

On second thoughts, although the knight is a quintessential patriarchal figure (he always puts himself above those he aids), perhaps Quijano is at heart a dissident. By this I mean that by attempting to implement the outmoded, fictional chivalric code Quijano highlights the shortcomings of men’s actual behaviour. Just think of the contrast between the ideal, gentlemanly characters that James Stewart used to play, and the reality of President Donald Trump and you will get my drift. A man who insisted on behaving in real life like Stewart in the films would be both Quixotic and, indeed, radically anti-patriarchal in his own singular way. Wouldn’t Cervantes be surprised to read this?

Do enjoy Alfredo Moro Martín’s Transformaciones del Quijote en la novela inglesa y alemana and, of course, Cervantes’ most clever take on the masculinity of his time. Please read too Lennox’s delicious Female Quixote.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


August 22nd, 2019

Now that the refugee crisis is raging in the Mediterranean (I refer here to the Spanish rescue ship Open Arms and the brutal reluctance of the Italian authorities to help her passengers), it’s time to remember that we, Spaniards, were also once refugees. In January 1939, when it was already obvious that Franco’s fascist troops would win the assault against the democratic Spanish Republican Government, about 500,000 persons crossed the border to seek refuge in France. They were, of course, mostly Republicans who feared for their lives, ranging from first-rank political figures to common citizens, all with a clear understanding that all of Spain would become a prison in the post-war period. As it did.

There is a hidden family story here, which I need to tell. It has taken me many years to understand that my paternal grandmother was among those anonymous citizens together with my father and possibly his aunt, though I have no proof that this was the case. Allow me to explain.

My paternal grandfather was only 19 when the war started in July 1936 and from what I gather he and my grandmother –a Galician migrant seven years his senior– contracted a war marriage only a few days later. I mean by this that they would not have married in such haste, or at all, if it weren’t for the war. My grandfather eventually became a Republican commissar (the head of a small militia platoon) and fought mainly in the Teruel area; in one of his very few comments on the war, he claimed to have taken part in the Ebro Battle with the International Brigades. My father was born in 1937 and he has often told us that when he finally met his father he was already four, and had no idea of who he was. This was, then, in 1941, most likely during the first leave which my grandfather had from his three-year post-war military service, a punishment meted out to low-profile Republican soldiers (or those who had managed to silence what they really did, as I suspect in my grandfather’s case).

Anyway, my father was baptized in March 1939 in the church of Saint André de Meouilles (today Saint-André-les-Alpes), in the French district of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. He does have a certificate for this but no further information whatsoever about why he was there at the time. He never asked, fancy that! I understood (not too long ago) that my grandmother must have run away with her baby to France, returning possibly once the war was over for good (after April 1939). She never said a word about this, and to this day I have been unable to locate a refugee camp in the area where my father was christened, though probably they were at Sisteron (for a complete list, see https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campos_de_internamiento_en_Francia ).

The family of photographer Agustí Centelles is luckier. He did not discuss his terrible experience in detail with them, but he left a considerable number of letters to his wife and two handwritten notebooks. These were rescued from oblivion by his son Sergi as late as 1986, right after his father’s death. Later, Teresa Ferré edited the text, published in 2008 as Diari d’un fotògraf: Bram, 1939. In case you have never heard of Centelles, he is the author of one of the most iconic images of the Spanish Civil War, the one showing three Republican guards and a male civilian shooting as they lean on the bodies of some dead horses (this was taken on 19 July 1936 in the middle of Barcelona’s Eixample).

Centelles (1909-1985), often dubbed the local Robert Capa, was a pioneering press photographer. Born in València, he pursued his whole career in Barcelona, though in two very different phases. His press-related task ended in 1939, with his exile to France and his internment in the refugee camp of Bram, following an intense collaboration with the Republican Government (though he was never a soldier). When he returned (in 1944) Centelles spent a couple of years as a baker, living a clandestine life in Reus with his wife and child, until the Francoist authorities allowed him to work as a photographer again, but only in advertising and industrial photography. When he left for France, Centelles was carrying with him a suitcase with thousands of negatives, which he hid in the Carcassone home of some loyal friends until 1976, once Franco died. The exhibition of his pre-1939 photos, specially the one staged in 2002, has secured his lasting fame as a press photographer, which is what Centelles always was.

Teresa Ferré warns in her introduction that Centelles was not a literary writer. Besides, she adds, his notebooks are not a memoir written in hindsight, but a very basic journal kept against all odds at Bram. Centelles begins his first notebook with a dedication to his son Sergi (then an infant) and to ‘all those who might come later’, meaning, I think, other children he and his wife might have, though the dedication encompasses any potential reader. Writing in Catalan with many doubts about his proficiency, Centelles already expresses in the first paragraph the complaint that articulates the whole text: although he is a political refugee, the French authorities are treating him (and all his fellow Republican refugees) as a prisoner. The bare prose, once the initial summary of his life is covered, works as a diary, by which I do not mean a journal in the style of Anne Frank’s but as a record of the daily struggle to live in the camp of Bram, organized in very simple, starkly descriptive entries.

I must say that the catalogue of small daily events which Centelles offers is more than sufficient to get a thorough picture of the Republican refugees’ miserable life. Although I cannot name a specific text, before reading Centelles the descriptions I had come across of the horrors in appalling camps such as the one at Argèles-sur-Mer (https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campo_de_concentraci%C3%B3n_de_Argel%C3%A8s-sur-Mer) had already put me on the alert about the terrible odyssey of the Republican refugees. Basically, theirs was a case of escaping the frying pan to fall into the fire, and much more so for the men. They found themselves forced to work for the French Army once WWII started, which explains why so many ended in Mauthausen (some women, too). Centelles escaped that fate because, as he narrates, he was eventually hired by an elderly photographer in Carcassonne whose son had been recruited to be a soldier. The camp authorities charged a fee for the services of the refugee prisoners farmed out to work elsewhere… but this is a minor abuse compared to the rest.

The camps are difficult to discuss without criticizing the inhumane, horrific treatment which the French authorities offered to the refugees. Just like the Syrian refugees today, the Republican refugees were clearly unwelcome. When they poured in masses into French territory, they were secluded, as Centelles narrates, into concentration camps not very different from the ones Franco was using in Spain (see Carlos Hernández de Miguel’s new book Los campos de concentración de Franco: Sometimiento, torturas y muerte tras las alambradas). The refugees, as Centelles rightly complains, were treated in practice as prisoners: piled in barracks that were actually shacks, undernourished (because of rampant corruption), practically isolated from home, prevented from circulating freely in France, and left to die from disease caused by the unspeakable filth. Spanish refugees, Centelles notes, were treated with extreme distaste by the local population, who saw them as dirty criminals deserving their imprisonment. Knowing the war was lost and they could hardly return to Franco’s Spain, the refugees were abandoned to their fate, and only aided by the few surviving Republican institutions. These helped some to embark on a long-lasting exile in nations such as Mexico, Argentina, or Chile, though most Republicans eventually returned to Spain. Why Mexico, above all, reacted with such generosity and France with so little is something that needs to be considered.

Europe has not built (so far) concentration camps for refugees, but the United States has, as we have been seeing, and shamelessly so. I am very much aware that migrants and refugees are categories that tend to be mixed today, since both are exploited by mafias and, anyway, many who run away from their home countries are both poor and politically persecuted. I do not know how this situation can be solved for good –there are 65 million political refugees all over the world (see www.acnur.org) and possibly as many people trying to escape plain poverty. When the war in Syria started (back in 2011), if that can be called a war at all, it seemed that, given the availability of personal testimonials on the social networks, the more civilized nations would quickly offer help. People would be granted visas, flights would be organized, jobs would be found for those in fear of losing their lives. Instead, refugees had to brave the hostility of the people in the territories which they crossed on foot (remember that Hungarian female journalist kicking a Syrian man carrying his boy in his arms?) and of the Mediterranean. Texts like Centelles’ journal show us that the plight of the refugee may affect people like us at any moment –people like my grandmother and my father– yet we still see the refugee as an unwelcome guest.

Since Centelles knew the value of graphic representation, he would probably be quite surprised at how little impact the work of the press photographers is having today. Or any other audio-visual report. Netflix’s short documentary The White Helmets (2017), which follows the Syrian first responders rescuing civilians from the rubble caused by the bombings, got an Oscar. The group had been nominated to the Nobel Peace Prize, which they lost to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Many other videos and photos are available but, still, the slaughter continues. What, then, does it take for basic human empathy to take roots? If textual, rather than audio-visual representation is what we need, then a long list of books is already available (see https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/the-read-down/books-understand-refugee-experience). And possibly, plenty of academic analysis.

I come to the sad conclusion that nothing works. We have refugee fatigue, it seems. We always wonder how the Holocaust could happen, with so very few people helping those imprisoned in the extermination camps but I also wonder what went through the mind of the ordinary French people who thought it was fine to keep 500,000 Spaniards in concentration camps. The French authorities, Centelles explains, wanted to be thanked for the effort made. He himself took the pictures published in the local Bram press showing the camp officers and the refugees celebrating the generosity of our neighbours. It was all false, of course, and soon collapsed once WWII started and the refugees became a veritable nuisance. I wonder what would have happened if the Republican Government had won the Civil War and Spain had been flooded with 500,000 French refugees escaping their Nazi invaders –and I’m not saying the camps would not have been the chosen solution on this side of the Pyrenees.

Homo Sapiens is, definitely, not progressing at all.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


August 12th, 2019

This past academic course I have gone through a quite peculiar experience in tutoring. One of our MA students, a young man from Hong Kong, asked me to supervise a dissertation on the topic of why James Bond is a low-quality seducer. He intended to take at least one film which each of the main actors playing this major British icon (Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig), examine each seduction process, and dismantle Bond’s reputation as a proficient seducer. The originality of the proposal is that this student wanted to measure Bond against the tenets of the seduction industry but not really attack the very concept of seduction using pro-feminist arguments.

If you have never heard of the seduction industry, then what I am narrating here might not be shocking to you. But it was to me. Basically, there is a whole world-wide network of heterosexual men training other heterosexual men on how to seduce women (I mean online but also in face-to-face seminars). This does not sound so negative until you realize that mainly the coaches bolster their tutorees’ sense of sexual entitlement by teaching them to gain access to women’s bodies quite aggressively. The idea is to cancel out the women’s capacity to choose, and to consent, using what often borders on coercion. The student asking for my help, however, did not seem to be that kind of man and so I asked him to explain himself. To my astonishment he said that I was the first woman to show a willingness to listen to him. Well, I told myself, I’m a Gender Studies specialist and I must study anything connected with gender, even if it raises difficult issues for me.

My new tutoree, for I soon accepted being his tutor, clarified that he had been attracted to the seduction industry for romantic reasons, as he was in love with a young woman who did not reciprocate. The advice received, he claims, allowed him to interest this girl and the happy result is that they are about to marry. I have seen them together and they make a lovely couple, believe me. As I learned about the seduction industry from my student, then, I taught him how to curb down any sexism that might surface in his investigation of James Bond. This was not at all difficult, since I found no sexism in his approach. We agreed that the aim of seduction should be mutual satisfaction (whether sexual or romantic) based on good intercommunication, always founded on consent. He wrote thus a doubly inspiring dissertation, for it has the rare merit of being pro-feminist while being extremely candid about the seduction techniques marketed by professional pick-up artists (or PUAs) to other men.

Perhaps the most perplexing part of the whole process of tutoring this dissertation was my having to reassure my student’s examiners (two British male scholars) that he was acting in good faith, being properly critical, and not defending at all a misogynistic argumentation. I warned my student that his examiners might read his dissertation as a covert political attack against Britain, since he is, as I have noted, from Hong Kong and the current political protests there started shortly before he submitted his text. It might seem, I pointed out, that by destroying Bond he was tearing down British power and implicitly denouncing Britain’s decision to leave Hong Kong in China’s hands, with the negative results now becoming visible. He strongly denied this was his intention, and his examiners did not raise the issue at all. As the gentlemen they are, both examiners were aghast at the seduction industry’s cold, exploitative approach to women but also amazed that my student defended the need for heterosexual men to be somehow trained to approach women successfully, in romantic terms. It had worked for him, he insisted.

I eventually suggested to my student that he read Jean Baudrillard’s classic Seduction (1979, translated into English in 1990). He did so but told me that its arguments did not apply to his own research. I realize that he is right. Baudrillard’s appallingly sexist monograph is a call for French women not to cease seducing men as feminism demanded at the time (or so he claims). He writes that feminist women are “ashamed of seduction, as implying an artificial presentation of the body, or a life of vassalage and prostitution. They do not understand that seduction represents mastery over the symbolic universe, while power represents only mastery of the real universe. The sovereignty of seduction is incommensurable with the possession of political or sexual power” (8). This is more or less in line with the letter signed by Catherine Deneuve and a long list of French women, at the start of the #MeToo movement, to demand that seduction and flirtation be maintained intact, as they are part of how heterosexual men and women connect, and not abusive displays of power as American women claimed.

Before I turn to the current use of the word seduction in English, allow me to stress that a major problem is how seduction connects with coercion–not now, but along its troubled history. Baudrillard and Deneuve apparently defend a very Gallic view of seduction with no victims, in which even when you know that you’re being manipulated the ensuing sexual encounter can be great fun. And I mean in both cases, either when the woman or when the man is the seducer. I don’t know anything about Giacomo Casanova, but I know a little about English Literature, in which the seducer is always in essence a rapist. Samuel Johnson’s pioneering 18th century novels, Pamela and Clarissa, are horrid tales of abuse in which, respectively, the virtuous heroine marries her potential rapist and she is raped and then dies of shame. Clarissa’s abuser, Lovelace, is the epitome of the seducer in English culture. Next comes Byron (author of the epic Don Juan) who, most biographers agree today, was a misogynist who preferred men’s company. This is not surprising, as the whole point of donjuanesque seduction is being able to tell the tale to other men, and thus validate one’s patriarchal, predatory masculinity.

The whole point of coercive seduction (not of the playful kind no one discusses anymore) is that it victimizes women. In Pride and Prejudice Wickham’s fundamental wickedness is exposed when Elizabeth is told how he tried to seduce Darcy’s teen sister, Georgiana. Austen’s readers understood very well how this worked: unlike the straightforward rapist, the seducer convinces his victim with his sleek performance of romance to collaborate in her own abuse. As happens in rape, too, the victim of seduction feels ashamed that she could not defend herself (thus are women doubly victimized), though in seduction she feels, besides, mortified for having been gullible enough to believe that the parody of romance was true. Wickham, it must be noted, does not intend to seduce and abandon Georgiana but to seduce and marry her, the solution often preferred in these cases, once the woman was ruined. In contrast, his own seduction by Elizabeth’s flighty fifteen-year-old sister Lydia does not ruin him. Austen, of course, punishes Wickham by having Darcy orchestrate his marriage to Lydia, which can only be a very unhappy one, but his reputation is not damaged. Mr. Bennet even considers Wickham his favourite son-in-law.

Seduction, in the sense that my student used it, is a new post-1990s concept studied in depth by Rachel O’Neill in her recent volume Seduction: Men, Masculinity and Mediated Intimacy (Cambridge: Polity, 2018). I have only come across it a few weeks ago, which is how things work: you only find what you need for research after the fact. O’Neill uses an ethnographic approach to describe the seduction industry from the inside, though this is often hindered by the sexist way in which she is treated by coaches and students. Her postscript describing her troubles is both illuminating and depressing. “The programmatic logics of seduction” O’Neill writes, “preclude genuine dialogue and enable men to bypass all but the most nominal considerations of consent”. In fact, she argues, the seduction industry is not focused on the women but on how to sell its mainly middle-class, professional clients (the fees are quite high) the skills required to “achieve greater control in his relationships with women” mainly to enter a supportive fraternity based on the lie that it is not based on money. The male clients, O’Neill writes, believe that they are being validated by their friendly coaches without realizing that they are being exploited following the tenets of neoliberal culture, for which intimacy is just the object of business. The clients, however, become complicit because their coaches promise “access to so-called high-value women –whose worth is calculated using aesthetic criteria that are deeply classed and racialised”. Whereas truly wealthy men have no problem accessing these trophy women as mistresses or wives, less fortunate men (in riches or looks) need the support of the seduction industry to be able to claim that they had sex with many highly desirable women. This, O’Neill writes, has nothing to do with desire and intimacy but with patriarchal validation.

‘To be against seduction’, O’Neill writes in her conclusions ‘is to be against the kinds of sexual encounters in which the perspectives and experiences of our partners are valued only insofar as they enable us to more readily manipulate others to comply with our own wishes’. The women are oddly absent from her book, as O’Neill claims that they have been researched by others, but the main problem is that the coaches and clients she interviews end up standing for all the men in the contemporary world (or at least in the UK). O’Neill cannot, besides, be an impartial researcher for, like me, she is a feminist and, thus, bound to find in the seduction industry the misogynistic horrors which any woman (and most men) can anticipate when first coming across its description. She tries hard to keep her balance, but her book is ultimately highly offensive against those in the seduction industry and cannot build any bridges with it.

What I am saying is that if one stops to listen, as I did (sorry to brag), the success of the seduction industry turns out to be based on a much wider need to re-connect with women. Reading O’Neill, I realize that the coaches are doing the work that feminist women should be doing. O’Neill very rightly suggests that the clients are being seduced by exploitative men who do not see their male students as fellow human beings but as business opportunities. I know that what I’ll say sounds ridiculous, but the problem is that the men eager to be in relationships with women have no feminist coaches to teach them new ways of approaching mutually satisfactory seduction. And so, they all fall prey to the seduction industry. Reading Sally Rooney’s phenomenally successful millennial novel Normal People, it is obvious to me that neither men nor women know how to approach each other, even when they are in (heterosexual) relationships. At one point, befuddled by how his girlfriend Marianne is behaving, Connell tells himself that he had no idea where men learn intimacy. As for Marianne, it seems she has learned it from Fifty Shades of Grey

Would anyone like to become my business partner and found a new-style school for seduction…? Just kidding–or maybe not.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


July 9th, 2019

I have been asked to be on the board that will assess an MA dissertation dealing with V.V. Ganeshananthan’s first (and, so far, only) novel, Love Marriage (2008). This work created some stir in the year when it was published, earning the honour of making it to the long list of the Orange Prize, among other distinctions. The focus on the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora in the United States and in Canada was the main factor why this novel attracted attention, for Ganeshananthan (an American born to Sri Lankan migrant parents) addressed in her work the reality of an ethnic community until then underrepresented in the mimetic fiction in English. It is not, however, my intention to discuss either the arguments articulating the dissertation or the novel’s plot in detail but a concept which is central to both and that needs to be revised: the use of the label ‘second generation migrant’.

Here is how the European Commission defines the concept: ‘A person who was born in and is residing in a country that at least one of their parents previously entered as a migrant’ (https://ec.europa.eu/home-affairs/content/second-generation-migrant_en). The EC webpage includes two notes: in one, it plainly contradicts this definition with the observation that, according to the Recommendations for the 2010 Censuses of Population and Housing, second generation is ‘generally restricted to those persons whose parents were born abroad’; those with just one foreign parent are a ‘special case’ with ‘a mixed background’. The other note warns that second generation migrant is ‘not defined in legislation but has a more sociological context’ and that the label, anyway, ‘does not relate to a migrant, since the person concerned has not undertaken a migration’. The webpage refers to another section on the wider label ‘person with a migratory background’ and mentions the related term ‘third generation migrant’ (though without offering either a definition or a link).

I find all this deeply offensive and extremely discriminatory. The bottom line here is that, against a most basic tenet of legislation world-wide, being born in a specific state does not guarantee that you will be awarded full citizenship, in the social sense, unless you renounce the foreign background of the migrant members of your family. Besides, it particularly punishes citizens born of two foreign parents of the same nationality by making them appear to be substantially more alien than citizens born of just one foreign parent.

Let me give an example for you to see what I mean. V.V. Ganeshananthan and her protagonist, Yanili, are regarded as second generation migrants with an autobiographical experience that requires a double identity (Sri Lankan American) and that is worth narrating because it explains to the normative host society (that is, white America) what it is like to be the Other. In contrast, nobody thinks of Barron Trump, son of the current President of the United States (himself the grandson of a Bavarian migrant), as a second generation migrant, even though his mother is a Slovenian immigrant. The same applies to Barron’s elder siblings, born of Trump’s marriage to Czech immigrant Ivana Zelníčková. Yes, Ivanka Trump is also a second generation migrant, but who would ever think of her as such?

Obviously, the racial factor is crucial, even though white Melania Trump (née Knavs) looks distinctly non-Anglo, leaving plastic surgery aside. The presumption here is that Melania’s cultural background plays no part in Barron’s upbringing, because she has renounced it to be fully assimilated into American society. If this is the case, it would be anyway quite exceptional, for many foreign parents in mixed couples teach their own language and culture to their children, a situation particularly appreciated by the upper-middle and upper classes. Whereas V.V. Ganeshananthan’s Yanili rejects her parents’ native Tamil language (which she understands but does not speak), for its unwanted connections with a culture she does not know and that gives her no advantage in America (quite the opposite), an American child that rejected, say, her father’s native French would be mocked for taking an absurd decision. I have no idea, though, whether Barron Trumps speaks Slovene or eats Slovenian food, most likely not.

Let me go back to the European Commission’s observation that the term second generation migrant ‘does not relate to a migrant, since the person concerned has not undertaken a migration’. It’s so ridiculous that it’s even funny. It also proves that the label is an oxymoron, for if you’re born in one place you cannot simultaneously be a migrant. Whoever came up with this absurdity seemingly presumed that if your genes come from a migrant, you are a sort of ‘blood migrant’ and your children remain migrants unless you start mixing with the host population. Supposing the ethnic community you belong to tends to intermarry, then the migratory gene is never erased (which is what was basically certified by the Nazi Nuremberg Laws and the equally racist American One-Drop legislation). Migration, a matter connected with spatial displacement, becomes thus a matter connected with racist labelling of the worst kind, which you inherit and possibly also your (third generation migrant) children.

So why should anyone accept being called second generation migrant? The answer is that nobody should. If the law says that any person born on American land is an American, regardless of their parentage, then there is absolutely no reason to separate Americans into diverse social categories depending on their migrant background. And, as I have insisted again and again, if you wish to use a double identity label, like Sri Lankan, that’s fine but, then, that practice should be extended to everyone, so that President Trump should be properly labelled German American. In fact, as it is easy to see, double labels connected with European backgrounds were certainly used in the past but started falling into disuse the moment ethnic and racial labels emerged. Then, Americans of mixed white European descent became normative, provided we forget that only American Indians are native to the land. All the rest are migrants and, at worse, invaders or, even worse, the children of slaves.

There are many more issues to consider in the use of the obnoxious label second generation migrant. Evidently, as I have suggested, it connects with the racial and social status of the migrant parents, with race being an even more important factor than class. In V.V. Ganeshananthan’s Love Marriage the migrant parents are middle-class (the father is a doctor) and have chosen to live isolated from the American Sri Lankan community. Still, their physical appearance marks their alienness (and that of their daughter) in a way which would not apply to a white, middle-class, French couple who decided to migrate to the United States. I even doubt they would be called migrants.

On the other hand, I find that the academic theorization of migration in all its aspects tends to neglect how international migration worked in the past among European states, as well as internal migration. By this I mean that both transnational and internal migration have always occurred, though reading current scholarship (the product of 1990s post-colonial theorization) it might seem that this is a relatively new phenomenon. Many of the issues raised in Anglophone fiction about migrant persons and communities, and the recurring pattern of feeling doubly out of place in the host country and in the family’s place of origin, are common to all types of migration–not just transnational experiences marked by racial difference. An Andalusian may feel as out of place in Catalonia as a Sri Lankan in the United States, as I have seen in my own family.

Being a second generation (transnational) migrant, then, is connected to how poor and how non-white your foreign parents are. It is an appalling term, used to further discrimination from one generation to the next and to stigmatise as a disadvantage the participation in a culture different from that of the host country (particularly if it is not European). There is, besides, something that always surprises me: the supposed homogeneity of the receiving community, despite the constant migratory movements along all human History. Who are the Americans, or for that matter the British claiming for Brexit, or the Catalans, to determine which persons counts as ‘us’? What community can call itself homogeneous?

Something else puzzles me (or, rather, irritates me). The label second generation migrant supposes implicitly that families are either purely foreign, or purely local, or mixed half and half, but cannot really explain truly mixed families. I mean families in which different generations marry migrants of different types as well as locals. This situation, I think, is far more common, above all in internal migration. It used to be, besides, a matter of pride to declare yourself of very mixed origins. I’m thinking here of Cher, whose genes come from Armenian, Irish, German, English, and Cherokee ancestors. Her mixed ancestry was always mentioned and enthused about in relation to her personal uniqueness and how impossible it is to define her, except by simply calling her American (or Cher). Or think of everyone’s favourite film star this summer: Keanu Reeves, or, as some call him, ‘the Keanu’. How has identity become so narrow these days in comparison to the refreshing idea of the singular human mixture? Even the adjective cosmopolitan is now tied down to a limited experience of the transnational, when it should be everyone’s definition of planetary citizenship.

Could it simply be that Homo Sapiens does not particularly like other Homo Sapiens because our survival depended on tribal grouping for aggression? Is a mistrust of other fellow humans our most fundamental cultural trait? Is this why we need at least three generations to declare that the process of migration is over, even though the individuals of the second and third generations are not migrants at all? Please, consider what you’re doing the next time you define someone as ‘second generation migrant’ and, if you’re called that yourself, how it makes you feel. And think: Barron, Melania, Trump.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


July 1st, 2019

My post today seeks to publicise unashamedly the work I have done with my students in the Masters’ Degree in Advanced English Studies at my university, the Autònoma of Barcelona. Last week I had the great pleasure of seeing finally online the e-book Gender in 21st Century SF Cinema: 50 Titles, which can be downloaded for free from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/206282. We even had a presentation at Llibreria Gigamesh (together with that of my recent book Ocho cuentos góticos: Entre el papel y la pantalla), which can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F_XdiT4k1sg . I’ll divide my post, then, in two parts: one dealing with the logistics of setting the e-book in motion, editing and publishing it, and the other one dealing with the main findings in our research. By the way, this is my sixth e-book with students. Here is the complete list:

2019: Gender in 21st Century Cinema: 50 Titles, https://ddd.uab.cat/record/206282
2018: Gender and Feminism: The Students’ View, Vol 2. https://ddd.uab.cat/record/129180
2016: Reading SF Short Fiction: 50 Titles, https://ddd.uab.cat/record/163528
2015: Gender and Feminism: The Students’ View, https://ddd.uab.cat/record/129180
2014: Charming and Bewitching: Considering the Harry Potter Series https://ddd.uab.cat/record/122987
2014: Addictive and Wonderful: The Experience of Reading the Harry Potter Series, https://ddd.uab.cat/record/118225

The most successful one in terms of downloads so far is Reading SF Short Fiction: 50 Titles, now past the 6300 mark. This is nothing in comparison to the millions of clicks a video posted by the most popular YouTubers gets but it’s infinitely much more than any academic publication gets in the Humanities. For this is what the e-books are: academic publications (in English Studies).

I came across the idea of the e-book quite by chance, when I taught the monographic course on Harry Potter in 2013-14. I put then together two volumes, one with the students’ short essays on their experience of reading Rowling’s series, the other with their papers. Progressively, I have transformed my BA and MA electives into project-oriented teaching (or learning) experiences, to the point that I’m beginning to think of students’ exercises written only for my eyes as a waste of time (excuse me!).

What I mean is that since, anyway, I need to correct and mark plenty of these exercises, I’d rather invest my time into texts (or even videos) that can be published online. This gives my teaching and their learning more sense, since we are both producing practical work in cultural communication which has, besides, the advantage of training students professionally. We must, of course, teach students to produce different academic exercises at each level of their studies, but why not aim at producing texts that do have potential impact beyond the classroom? Online publication, as I have learned, is at first a scary proposition but it eventually boosts students’ self-confidence, which should be, I think, one of our main aims as teachers, and as researchers training future researchers.

So, what have I done in the case of Gender in 21st Century Cinema: 50 Titles? Well, to begin with, imagine the final result: an e-book composed of 50 factsheets, each one dealing with how gender is represented in an English-language science-fiction film. As a researcher I specialise in Gender and in SF, which explains the combination of both fields. It’s the first time I have taught a monographic course on cinema, but I have written extensively about this narrative medium which, besides, I do want to defend from the onslaught of the series everyone is watching these days.

Each factsheet contains some information about the film’s cast and crew, other similar films, and the main awards reaped. Next comes a plot summary (150-200 words), and then the main bulk of analysis: a consideration of the most salient gender issues (300/400 words), followed by the description of a relevant scene (150 words). The factsheet is completed by quotations from three other sources (reviews, academic articles, etc) and links to IMDB, Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes, and Wikipedia.

The e-book is a Word document turned into a .pdf, nothing fancy about it. Yet, I have made an effort to teach myself how to produce a nice cover, and to give the factsheets a look as attractive as possible. My students use a template that I have myself produced but, inevitably, when I sit down to edit the final text, I always realize that I should have chosen another type, or size, or style… You name it!! Next time, I’ll run some more print tests before I pass the template onto my students. If you’re thinking of editing an e-book with your students, then, here is a warning: work on the template for as long as it takes (it will save time later), give your students very clear instructions (ditto) and be ready to invest many hours in editing.

I have used for the 50 factsheets (a total of 72000 words, including my own preface) about 65 hours, with 45 to 75 minutes per factsheet. Why so long? Because I checked every source the students quoted from and because I edited their texts in depth. You must also warn them about this: students’ English might not be solid enough to be published online without raising criticism and diverting attention from the content of their work. So, I have indeed smoothed out any problems, corrected errors, etc. I would have done that anyway to mark their papers, though I have certainly used more time in editing than I use in marking. On the other hand, I have used most of our classroom time for students to present a preliminary version of their factsheets (each of the eight students was responsible for six films, and thus six factsheets). The time I have not needed to prepare lectures is the extra time I have invested in the e-book. Yes, very clever of me!

Of course, I would never ever set out to produce an e-book about 50 films I didn’t know, and here’s the other piece of advice: don’t embark students in projects about areas you’re not 100% familiar with. In the case of Gender in 21st Century Cinema: 50 Titles the difficulty for me was selecting only 50 films, for I had a list of more than 100 possible candidates. The other difficulty was hitting on a good method to give each student a set of films they could be interested in. I made the list in summer, prior to meeting the students and it was only once I met them (quite briefly, over coffee in the MA’s presentation in September) that I decided to give each one specific titles. I operated quite blindly, I must say, but I seem to have made only one error, quickly corrected by two students’ swapping films. In another project I have allowed students to choose freely what they want to work on, but this means that the ones that take long to make up their mind might end up discussing movies they are not interested in at all. In any case, what I’m saying is that I simply got lucky this time! We’ll see next time around.

The purpose of Gender in 21st Century Cinema: 50 Titles and of the MA course on Gender Studies of which it is a product was finding out whether there is an evolution in the representation of gender issues in current Anglophone cinema. The focus on SF was justified on the grounds that since it is mostly set in the future (not always) this genre is an excellent lab to test out new ideas about genre – do recall that SF also stands for speculative fiction. Rather than name the 50 films chosen I’ll invite you, of course, to download the e-book (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/206282) and you will see what we found, namely, that there has been no significant evolution.

The path trodden by SF cinema between A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) and Annihilation (2018) might appear to be progressive; after all, Alex Garland’s Annihilation has an (almost) all-female cast. Yet, this is not a choice that is attractive to all audiences; in fact, its most recalcitrant misogynistic segment is now ‘defeminising’ films, that is to say, producing cuts in which all female characters are erased. The smaller films can risk being more daring than the summer blockbusters but, in the end, whether major or minor SF films are in the hands of male directors and screen writers (there are, however, many women producers). Please, note that I’m here speaking about the difficulties to see more female characters on the cinema screen. The representation of LGTBI+ characters is entirely missing with few exceptions (very, very few and still in secondary roles).

The picture of the present and of the future we have collectively discussed in class is bleak. We are still being told again and again the same story about a heroic man who needs to prove himself. If a strong female character appears (and she’s fast becoming a stereotype), she is isolated from other women and never, in any case, a more prominent hero than the man. We have also noticed that many male characters only stand out as caring parents in the absence of a mother (a pattern you may observe in Signs) or do their job briefly before going away for good (Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds). It takes a major world-wide crisis, like an alien invasion for these men to react. And speaking of Cruise, it’s funny to see that he and Scarlett Johansson contribute star value to the many films they lead in radically different ways: he embodies the confusion of contemporary men (see The Edge of Tomorrow), she women’s alienness whether as human (Lucy) or literally alien (Under the Skin). We have noticed, in short, that with no more diversity among those producing, writing and directing films we will endlessly repeat the same stories, even in films that look beautiful and spectacular and that do have women in key roles (Gravity, Interstellar). We didn’t make any great discovery, though we more or less agreed that Jyn Erson in Rogue One is possibly our favourite hero. But do consider the kind of story she is involved in.

One thing is certain: the impatience of audiences and reviewers with how gender is misrepresented on the cinema screen is growing, and much more so since 2017, when the #MeToo movement began. Reviews written in the 2000s carry fewer comments on gender than those of the 2010s; the more recent the film, the less willing audiences are to condone missteps in gender representation (except the ‘defeminisers’!). My students, indeed, grew more and more annoyed with the clichés and the stereotypes as the course advanced and they identified in each newer film the same old problems. It is our hope, then, that Gender in 21st Century Cinema: 50 Titles –a certainly anti-patriarchal, feminist volume– increases that annoyance by raising awareness about the errors that can be easily corrected and about the pressing need to find new stories and new storytellers. And this is practically universal, for the e-book’s authors come from Spain (Ainhoa Goicoechea Ortiz, Alexandra Camp Martínez, Alba Sepúlveda Rodríguez-Marín) but also Turkey (Merve Barbal), the United States (Meghan Henderson) and China (Jiadong Zhang, Shuyuen He and Alvin Ng, from Hong Kong).

My thanks to them for having followed me into this adventure. I hope it has been as gratifying for them as it has been for me. And I do hope that if you read Gender in 21st Century Cinema: 50 Titles you find much to enjoy–though not necessarily in how the SF films which many of us love so deeply (mis)represent gender.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


June 25th, 2019

I’m not sure that I can do justice to Maria DiBattista’s Novel Characters: A Genealogy (2010) in this hot Mediterranean afternoon and after a mind-numbing two-week spell of marking. The case, however, is that I can’t stop thinking of her distinction between self and identity (or, rather, Self and Identity) and I’d like to add my own thoughts to that. I’m sure that much better brains than mine have discussed this issue but here’s the first lesson about self and identity: each person feels them in a different way and, so, a personal point of view must be necessarily valid. Or I’m just having my cake and eating it.

You may have come across DiBattista, a Princeton professor, because she is co-editor together with Emily Wittman of The Cambridge Companion to Autobiography and a specialist in Virginia Woolf (which explains plenty about her view of character). Her Novel Characters does not seem to have stimulated readers to leave comments in the habitual places, from Amazon.com to Goodreads, but it has gone through seven editions. This means either that it is more popular than it might seem at first sight, or that it has found its place in a rather scant line of publications about character. E.M. Forster’s venerable Aspects of the Novel (1927) still reigns supreme (DiBattista opens her own volume with the inevitable reference to flat and round characters), despite the efforts of neuroscientists to unlock literary creativity. I have managed to forget the big name behind the crass analysis of Hamlet in one of those scientific volumes, which only convinced me that scientists do not read enough literary criticism. I truly think that I have read DiBattista’s rather old-fashioned volume in rebellion against that silly, arrogant man.

Allow me to clarify that I use ‘old-fashioned’ here as a term of praise. DiBattista begins by promising to offer a new taxonomy of character but soon enough she plunges into the comfort of treating fictional constructs as if they were real people, which is what we all do (and enjoy). Her people are divided into Whole (Originals and Individuals), Fractions (Selves/Identities) and Compounds (or Native Cosmopolitans), though I’m not sure why she uses subdivisions which only include one category. She does not offer what I expected from her: a reflection on how authors view their own characters and the mechanism it takes to create them; instead, she discusses the personality of fictional characters with much gusto. That was, if not totally unexpected, quite rewarding. At points I thought I was reading a 1980s, pre-theory volume, of the kind I was asked to admire as an undergrad (by authors such as Tony Tanner and company) and I found myself enjoying DiBattista’s unembarrassed discussion of Alonso Quijano or Isabel Archer, as if these were people in our acquaintance about to have dinner with us. She still trusts that we all have read the same novels, which is a daring position to take in a book published in 2010.

DiBattista writes that one thing is personal identity (or Self, with a capital S) and quite another group identity, the basis of identity politics. “Identity’, she argues, “has come to displace Self in an age and in a culture that has become increasingly multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan, and multinational”, hence her inspection of what she calls the native cosmopolitan. I think it is only common sense to claim that a “self that is more aware of its outward rather than inward determinations may envision its contact with others somewhat more anxiously–or aggressively as the case may be”. Yet, this is a truth that needs to be repeated for it is at the core of most human tragedy: each Holocaust victim reminds us of what it is like to have a Self but be treated as an individual marked by Identity; the process of dehumanisation of the other, whether in Auschwitz or on the flimsy rubber boats loaded with migrants sinking in the Mediterranean on a daily basis, begins by denying the Self, and continues by abusing Identity. This is the great theme, DiBattista says, of for instance, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children and similar masterpieces. This is the great theme of life on Earth, I should think.

How, then, does one “preserve the rudiments of the Self in the fortress of (group) Identity”, as DiBattista puts it? This tension, DiBattista notes, is present in all hyphenated identities, such as Chinese-American and so on. The problem, I think, is that whereas racial and ethnic compound labels are acknowledged and, thus, have become useful (or relevant) to discuss the clash between Self and Identity, others are invisible, denied, or inexistent. Brigitte Vasallo’s idea of staging the first festival of ‘cultura txarnega’ a while ago in Barcelona met a barrage of negativity from those in Catalonia who believe that we, the culturally hyphenated persons, do not exist (her initiative was, though, welcome by those who needed the label ‘charnego’ to be reconfigured for our times, to express their Self). As I age, I am, like everyone else, chagrined by the growing distance between the Self I perceive in me and the Identity pushed on my body. Yesterday, a young man offered his seat to me on the metro (by no means the first time this happens to me). That was a lovely gesture, for which I thanked him, because I have learned that this is how people see me, but, still, it rankles. Imagine what it must be like to be a Self but be denigrated all the time by misogynists, racists, homophobes because of the Identity you supposedly embody.

So, here’s the great literary conundrum: fiction is supposed to express Self through its best rounded characters but, what do you do with Identity? Authors are making the point that individuals other than white, male, heterosexual, patriarchal men have a Self but in order to do that, they highlight Identity. This is what misogynists complain about when they say that in the novels by women too much attention is paid to femininity (as if men’s fiction were not essentially about masculinity). As those of us supposed to lack a Self shout to high heaven that we also have complex feelings, which is how I felt as a working-class undergrad reading privileged Virginia Woolf, we are increasingly isolated by Identity labels; meanwhile, those who should be labelled escape scot-free. Nobody ever refers to ‘White Literature’ but we have ‘African American Literature’, and we have ‘Women’s Literature’ but not ‘Men’s Literature’. Expressing the Self, in short, is not open to everyone, which is why Identity is receiving so much attention. We collectively believe that this is the best way to have everyone express their Self, but I very much suspect it is just another form of control. Those with the privilege to express their Selves without Identity labels have not really relinquished the privilege, nor do they want to do it. And why should they?

Is claiming the right to a Self a bit too much in the times of the selfie and the narcissistic display on the social media? Possibly. Yet, again, it needs to be done because even in the novel, which offers the deepest possible way to share human experience beyond our immediate circle, the Self is disappearing. I don’t read autofiction, precisely because it manages to offer the hell of narcissism without offering the heaven of understanding another Self, but I was tempted to read Manuel Vilas’s highly acclaimed Ordesa. What I found in its pages was a testimonial of the current inability to express (deep) Self, coming from someone my own age and with a similar experience of being declassed through education. As I put up with the farrago of repetitive, wearisome prose (and he is a major poet!), I told myself that it is not Identity but the Modernist invention of the inner Self that is destroying the novel. Few people are truly interesting and while Vila has been praised for making that very same point, I balk at the emptiness of his main character and possibly self-portrait. At one point, I can’t recall the exact sentence, this pathetic excuse for a man says that feelings are bourgeois, though he doesn’t really mean feelings. He really means the possession of enough sensitivity to notice that feelings must be of a specific kind–that is the Modernist Self, inherited from the 19th century novel. I think that I resent Vilas’s male protagonist because although he is in terms of Identity unlabelled, he still cannot sustain his own Self. And he doesn’t even write well. What a loser…

I’ll finish with a personal anecdote. I was last week in Valladolid and whenever people asked me where I’m from and I replied Barcelona, they had the same reaction: ‘but you don’t have an accent!’ I explained that I’m bilingual, that my accent in Catalan is the standard Barcelona accent, and that my Spanish sounds like the neutral variety spoken on the Telediarios because a) I was educated in Spanish-language Francoist schools until the age of 14 and b) my grandparents on the maternal side were Castilian from Burgos, and I did like very much my grandfather’s crystal-clear, solemn speech patterns. The puzzlement of my Valladolid colleagues, then, has to do with the lack of representation in the media and in fiction of people like me. We don’t exist as an Identity, though we are very common, which means that our Self is hard to express in any language (here I am writing in English!). Novels, by the way, have no place for bilingual people, as they (the novels) are written in one single language. A limitation hardly discussed, by the way, in Literary Theory, if ever.

So, to really finish: ask yourself what kind of fictional character you would be. Would your representation be dominated by an idea of the Self or by Identity? How does your sense of Self cope with the Identit(ies) you have chosen, or have been attached to you by others? Is the Self, as Vilas argues, the privilege of the higher classes and of the declassed educated? What’s the future of the fictional character if Identity labels continue their proliferation? And so on…

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


June 9th, 2019

In my post of 6 May on the question of the post-human in relation to Frankenstein, I announced that my ranting would eventually continue, so here we go.

Mónica Calvo and Sonia Baelo, members of the research project “Trauma, Culture and Posthumanity: the Definition of Being in Contemporary North-American Fiction”, of the Universidad de Zaragoza, were the organizers of the recent conference “Representations in the Time of the Post-human: Transhuman Enhancement in 21st Century Storytelling”, which I attended (and enjoyed enormously!). You might want to download the programme, and the truly cute poster, from http://typh.unizar.es/conference/.

The three days spent there thinking about post-humanism have convinced me that we have the very bad habit in scholarship of accepting labels first and discussing what they mean later. This leads to considerable confusion. Post-human is used in such wide-ranging sense that in a recent article I reviewed, the author called the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park post-human monsters (actually, following a secondary source). The funny thing is that though I rejected this denomination as plainly wrong, depending on how you use post-human it is correct – and, also, a clear proof of how we need more specific labels.

Every discussion, then, of post-humanism begins with a lengthy list of secondary sources that give different meanings to the label, until the author offers his/her own. If the author tries to offer alternatives or be more specific in any way, this is done in vain for the curious thing is that the label is there for good, no matter how blurry it is. We have clearly not learned the lesson from the endless waste of time and energy that discussions around the word post-modernism (postmodernism?) have generated, and here we are again stuck with a problematic but absolutely central notion, once more. Even the Wikipedia page is no use! (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posthuman).

I don’t intend, then, to trace a genealogy of post-humanism but to explain where I think the problems lie in its definition, for those who care. I am possibly totally wrong, but this goes in favour of my argument that the label is confusing. And I might also repeat some of the ideas in the post of May 6, but, then, I have my own (human) limitations…

To begin with, then, post-human is used in two very different ways that, while interconnected, refer to two different aspects of humankind.

1) What I’ll call biological post-humanism explores the possible replacement of Homo Sapiens by another Homo species emerging from
a) natural evolution
b) applying cutting-edge technoscience to evolution (a crazy, dangerous position defended by transhumanism)
c) the merger of the flesh with A.I. (as technogeek defenders of the so-called singularity dream of).

In scenario d) Homo Sapiens disappears, and instead a new species takes our dominant position, whether this is an animal (Planet of the Apes), an A.I. (the Terminator series), or an alien (name your favourite invasion story). A possibility less often considered is the scenario in which Homo Sapiens evolves into another Homo species with genetic elements from animals or aliens (but do consider Octavia Butler’s trilogy Lilith’s Brood). And, of course, in 2001 Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke imagined that a mysterious alien presence (remember the monolith?) had jump-started our transition from Australopithecus into the genus Homo and would again repeat the feat in the future, to turn us into something yet unknown. I offered, by the way, the label post-natural for all of this in Zaragoza but I was told that ‘nobody uses it’ and that was it!

2) Philosophical, or critical, post-humanism can be subdivided, I think, into two branches (though, again, I must warn that they tend to be mixed anyway):
a) the branch that wishes to rethink classical humanism in relation to what it means to be human in ethical or moral terms
b) the branch that shares a similar concern but also worries about how (biological) post-humanism will alter our bodies and minds, and therefore what it means to be human.

Critical post-humanism began as an intellectual project to question the way in which privileged Renaissance men had used prejudiced, limiting values for the construction of humanism. The patriarchal white man should be rejected as the source for the definition of what it is to be human, since his experience excluded basically the majority of humankind. Those so far excluded, therefore, felt called to offer a new, far more comprehensive way of understanding the human and humanism.

The problem, in my humble view, is that this meant throwing the baby away with the bathwater. Since the white patriarchs had appropriated the word human for their own interests, the alternative label chosen was post-human – an unfortunate choice, since it places the critical majority on the wrong side of human. Post-humanism was intended to define the opposition against biased classical humanism, but it has ended up making that type of humanism central, and the alternative peripheral (because of the injudicious use of the prefix post-). Besides, I personally feel aggrieved as a woman to be called a post-humanist because of my critical anti-patriarchal thinking when, last time I looked, it seemed to me I’m Homo Sapiens (well, I haven’t checked how much Home Neanderthalensis DNA is in my genes!). I reclaim, then, the right to call myself a humanist, not post-anything but the real thing, though with different values. Neo-humanist would have been cooler (particularly because everything I read Neo, I think of Keanu Reeves in The Matrix…).

On the other hand, my impression is that there are many difficulties to connect philosophical post-humanism (on the essence of the human) with thinking on biological post-humanism. Problem number one is the fact that those of us in the Humanities know too little science to make informed contributions to the debate – I’m really serious about this, though I do not mean that only scientists are entitled to offering reflections on what makes us human. No, what I mean is what I wrote in my post of May 6: Homo Sapiens is just ONE type of human, not all that is human, which means that we should brush up our paleontology, biology, genomics, etc. Typically, I got entangled in the Zaragoza conference in a loud debate with another colleague, who claimed that ‘the system’ and those who oppress us are not ‘human’. Having spent the last fifteen months of my life considering villainy, I can tell you that of course they are! Patriarchal villainy is as human as the compulsion to do good, and we will never progress unless we overcome that hurdle. In fact, I think we should do much better if we focused on ‘humane’ instead of ‘human’ to explain how some persons feel inclined to abuse their power and others to oppose this inclination.

Since 1985, when Donna Haraway published her ‘Manifesto for Cyborgs’, critical post-humanism has evolved into more science-conscious intellectualism but it is still limited by a) the little awareness of technoscientific issues which I have already mentioned, b) the reluctance to acknowledge science fiction as a major aspect of speculative reflection on Homo Sapiens as a species. I know next to nothing about science but what little I know comes from first reading SF novels, and then reading essays to check whether what they speculate with makes sense. Whenever I explain to an audience of even less informed readers where the world is heading, there is usually much surprise and much incredulity. What I feel is quite different: there are days when I wonder how we can live with the knowledge that our place in the universe is absolutely insignificant, as science is showing. The dire warnings about climate change may be altering this general neglect of science but even so, look at how the deniers insist that Homo Sapiens is in control and the Earth safe (we are not, and it is not).

If you have been following my rant, then, you will see that I’m trying to make sense of post-human and post-humanism by telling myself that:
a) (biological) post-humanism considers what might happen when/if the species Homo Sapiens ends, in natural or unnatural ways
b) (philosophical) critical post-humanism is focused on what makes us humane (even though the label preferred is human)
In my view, then, any consideration of our subjectivity passes through remembering that 1) as Homo Sapiens, we are just an animal species, and we possibly did all we could to wipe out the other human species as we’re doing to animals; 2) Homo Sapiens individuals are all human though many of us are not humane; 3) we matter very little in the amazingly gigantic universe and nobody out there cares for us; 4) since we’re doing an awful job of destroying Earth it would be totally fine if we were wiped out (I’m in favour of plants conquering the planet!); 5) transhumanism (=the use of technoscience to transcend the limitations of Homo Sapiens, including death) is classic patriarchal selfish wickedness; and 6) please, can we stop using the prefix post- for everything? I fear the day when I will be called post-person!

Incidentally, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are said to be post-human because their rebirth from fossil DNA disrupts the species’ balance on Earth and announces (at least in Michael Crichton’s original novel) the end of Homo Sapiens’ dominion. In that scenario, we become either extinct –as dinosaurs are– or creatures cowering before the power of mighty predators –as we were once. The new dinosaurs are what comes after humanity is pushed off the top-rung of the animal ladder, hence it makes sense, more or less, to call them post-human. I rejected the terminology because, though they are a product of Homo Sapiens’ science, the dinosaurs are not genetically connected with us at all, and I limit my use of post-human to that sense.

The thought that sends chills down my spine is that from the point of view of all the other human species that have died out we, Homo Sapiens, are the real, most feared post-humans. Yet, here we are, hypocritically expressing our fears that our species might die and be eventually replaced. Poor things! If you ask me, we’re just a bunch of selfish, arrogant bastards and bitches that deserve never seeing how happy and relieved Earth will be in its post-Homo Sapiens future… Towards the end of Jurassic Park, mathematician Ian Malcolm notes that whereas for a human being one hundred years is the limit of life, the Earth counts its life in millions of years: ‘We can’t imagine its slow and powerful rhythms, and we haven’t got the humility to try. We have been residents here for the blink of an eye. If we are gone tomorrow, the Earth will not miss us’ (my italics). Wise words, though I hope Dr. Malcolm is also right in his perhaps naïve belief that we don’t have ‘the power to destroy the planet’, for surely the Earth deserves the chance of a post-Homo Sapiens life. Call it post-human, if you prefer, though there might be nowhere around to remember us, nor care that we once existed.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


May 26th, 2019

The teachers and researchers of all Catalan universities have been called to strike on Tuesday 28 in protest against the appalling conditions under which the non-permanent staff work. The article by the branch of the workers’ union CGT which operates in my own university, UAB, explains that Royal Decree 103/2019, on the rights of trainee researchers (Estatuto del Personal Investigador en Formación, EPIF), is insufficient and, anyway, it is not being applied, which puts UAB on the side of illegality (https://cgtuab.wordpress.com/2019/05/17/28-de-maig-vaga-del-pdi-de-les-universitats-publiques-catalanes/ ). The call to strike refers both to part-time associates and to full-time doctoral and post-doctoral researchers who enjoy fellowships and grants, and, most importantly, to the lack of tenured positions they might occupy one day.

A friend told me recently that one of the main weaknesses of the academic sector is that we are not solidary with each other, which is why our protests always fail. This makes me feel quite bad about my decision not to join the strike, but, then, it is my habit to systematically reject all calls of that nature. I am a civil servant offering a public service and I don’t see why my students should be negatively affected by my refusal to work, no matter how justified the cause. Actually, I believe that strikes have lost their edge in the education sector, as there are so many every year that Governments (local, national) just do not pay any attention to the protesters. Other forms of activism are needed, and, so, this is what I am doing today: inform my students, and anyone interested, about what is going on.

I have described the situation many times in this blog, and what follows may sound repetitive, but this is one of the problems: nothing has changed since September 2010, when I started writing here, and certainly for some years before. To recap a very old story, until 2002, when I got tenure, you just needed to be a doctor in order to apply for a permanent position. Obtaining it depended, logically, on the quality of your CV and competition was anyway harsh, but on average you could get a permanent job around the age of 36 (it used to be 30, or slightly below, in the early 1990s). Next came the ‘habilitaciones’, an evil system which meant that candidates to positions had to demonstrate first their qualifications to a tribunal which could be sitting hundreds of miles away from home. This was expensive, tedious, anxiety-inducing for the members of the tribunals (who had to interrupt their lives often for months, regardless of their family situation) and evidently for the harassed candidates (who often had to try several times in different cities). Once you obtained your ‘habilitación’, you had to apply for tenure in a specific university and compete with other qualified candidates. ANECA, technically a private foundation attached to the Government, created in 2001, was given in 2007 the crucial function of organizing a new accreditation system to replace the nomadic ‘habilitaciones’, centralized in Madrid but mostly run online. Under this new system, imitated as we know by local agencies such as Catalan AQU, candidates must fill in a complex, time-consuming online application before being certified apt by the corresponding commission. Then you can apply to a university position. If you find any.

The perfect storm that risks demolishing the public Spanish university has been caused by the confluence of two incompatible circumstances: ANECA’s demands from candidates have been increasing–in principle to secure that better research is done and better teaching offered–whereas the 2008 economic crisis (about to be repeated) has destroyed all the junior full-time positions that trainee researchers used to occupy. Very optimistically, ANECA (and the other agencies) suppose that applicants have produced their PhD dissertations while being the recipients of a grant, and that they have next found post-doctoral grants, etc. In fact, most junior researchers are part-time associate teachers, which is incongruous because associates are, by definition, professionals who contribute their expertise to the universities for a few hours a week, and not academics aspiring to tenure. The Spanish public university suffers because of all this from a most dangerous split between the older, tenured teachers (average age 53, a third or more inactive in research) and the younger, non-permanent staff who should one day replace us, if they survive their frantic daily schedules. In fact, the 2008 crisis and the associate contracts have destroyed the chances of a whole generation (now in their forties and even fifties) to access tenured positions. And I am by no means as optimistic as ANECA, which appears to believe that all those currently beginning their PhDs will be eventually tenured.

We were told, around 2008, as a collective that Spain was not doing well in research and that we needed to raise the bar, hence the increasing demands of the accreditation system and of the assessment system (I refer here to the ‘sexenios’ that examine our academic production). The rationale behind this is that if we applied measuring systems borrowed from first-rank foreign academic environments this would increase our productivity and the quality of our research and teaching. Three problems, however, have emerged.

Here comes number one. Whereas in the past having a PhD was enough (being a ‘doctor’ means that you are ready to offer innovative teaching and research), now this is just the beginning of a long post-doctoral period that has delayed tenure to the age of 40, if you’re lucky, and with the addition of total geographical mobility within Spain. This means that private life is totally subordinated to the needs of academia, a situation which punishes women severely since the decade between 30 and 40 is when we have babies. Since, besides, men tend to leave women the moment they choose to move elsewhere for their careers, this means that few women scholars can succeed in the terms that are most highly praised, namely, by becoming an internationally known scholar. My personal impression is that the persons earning tenure at 40, or later, in the current system could have also earned it at 30 under the older system. And, obviously, we run a major risk: faced with this perspective of a long professional post-MA training, of 17 years…, most budding scholars will simply give up. Specially the young women, right now the majority in the Humanities.

Problem number two: without young full-time staff we, seniors, are collapsing, too. Here’s how I feel this week: seriously depressed. Why? Well, because after almost 28 years as a teacher/researcher I have a very clear perception that I will leave nothing behind. Since we have no full-time colleagues to train, and replace us, but a succession of part-time associates, when we retire our research area will retire with us. Overall, I feel, besides, very much isolated. I work mostly alone, either at home or in my university office, and I never meet my colleagues for a distended chat. Formal meetings are increasingly hard to organize because they conflict with the overworked associates’ hectic schedules. Informal meetings do not happen because we are too busy working for the glory of our CVs and we have no time to spare. And, anyway, when we speak our topic is invariably the pathetic state of the university. I just wonder where intellectual life is happening, if it is happening anywhere. I feel, besides, frustrated that all new projects to do something exciting never get started or are always provisional. Our book club is run by an associate who might be gone any day. When an enthusiastic associate and I visited the head of audio-visual services at UAB last week, to ask for advice about the project of opening a YouTube channel for the Department, the first question he asked was whether it would have permanent staff in charge. Too often, he said, new projects are started by keen associates only to be abandoned as soon as their contracts expire. My colleague replied that hers would last at least for… four years.

The third problem is that we are following foreign models of research and teaching assessment already imploding elsewhere. You may read, for instance, Anna Fazackerley’s article of 21 May, “‘It’s cut-throat’: half of UK academics stressed and 40% thinking of leaving” (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/may/21/cut-throat-half-academics-stressed-thinking-leaving?CMP=share_btn_tw). In the British system there is technically no tenure: teachers do not become civil servants but are hired for life (like in the Generalitat-run Catalan system). This is why so many are thinking of quitting. In our case, we, tenured teachers, develop a sort of bad marriage relationship with our jobs: I realized recently that I am constantly protecting myself from my academic career, as if it were an abusive partner. In Britain there is an additional misery to deal with: academics are made responsible for the recruiting of the many students to guarantee the financial stability of their institutions. Aware that they are coveted clients, students have learned to disrespect their teachers even more than we are disrespected here (as supposedly lazy, privileged ‘funcionarios’… which some are indeed).

Fazackerley’s piece is actually based on a report about the wellbeing of British academics (https://www.educationsupportpartnership.org.uk/resources/research-reports/staff-wellbeing-higher-education ), which, as you may imagine, leads to worrying conclusions. Reading it, I even wondered whether we have a right to our wellbeing as tenured teachers, in view of the ill-treatment that associate teachers and post-docs are victims of. Of course, this is one of the most devious tools of the system: making you feel bad about tenure you have earned with great effort. Anyway, the report notes that “Wellbeing is maximised when people feel valued, well-managed, have good workplace collegiality and can act with agency and autonomy”. However, our wellbeing is being eroded by, they say, “management approaches that prioritised accountability measures and executive tasks over teaching, learning and research tasks”, though in the case of Spain I should say this is different. Here there is, simply, an obsession for publishing based on scientific principles that just fails to understand what we do in the Humanities (and I mean ‘should do’, namely, think slowly). The British report concludes that “In general, respondents did not feel empowered to make a difference to the way that Higher Education institutions deal with wellbeing issues and this generated some cynicism”. That’s right: one day you feel depressed, the next one cynical, and so on. Even angry which, unfortunately, may affect classroom mood and lead to burnout.

I have already mentioned the sense of isolation (what the report calls ‘lack of collegiality’). The Guardian article highlights, as well, the stress caused by the frequent rejection of work for publication (which begins now at PhD level), the pressure caused by deadlines, the impossibility of excelling at the three branches of our jobs (teaching, research, admin tasks), and two more factors I’d like to consider a bit more deeply. One is that the rules change all the time and the top bar keeps moving. The other is how you are judged by what you have not done, despite having done a lot.

We are being told by the agencies which judge us that our planning should be improved, that it to say, that we should focus on publishing in A-list journals and not waste time in other academic activities. I acknowledge that I don’t know how to do that: I get many rejections from the top journals, I am invited to contribute to books that I love but that are worth nothing for the agencies, and so on. And the other way around: projects I have committed to, thinking they would bring nothing worth adding to my CV, have led to the best work I have done so far. Anyway, since the rules about what is a merit and what a demerit are changing all the time, you cannot really plan your career. You may choose, for instance, to be Head of Department for four years, and diminish the pace of your research at risk of failing your ‘sexenio’ assessment, only to find later on that admin work does not really count towards qualifying as full professor. I constantly suffer, in addition, from impostor’s syndrome because I have chosen to be very productive in some lines of my work but not invest time in others that the official agencies prefer. I certainly feel that my rather long, full CV is simply not good enough even though I have done my best. And intend to go on doing so until I retire.

Will this situation implode? I think it might, and soon enough. So far, we have been relying on a constant supply of young, eager volunteers to accept whatever poor conditions the university offers, for the sake of the glamour attached to presenting yourself as a higher education employee. If, however, that glamour, which was never real, goes on being eroded, young people will find something else to do. At this point, I do not recommend to anyone that they begin an academic career. If you’re talented enough, train yourself up to PhD level, and then find alternatives to disseminate knowledge through self-employment (I would say online audio-visual work).

In view of the situation in Britain, we might conclude that the situation is about to reach a tipping point all over the Western world, for something needs to give in. Naturally, the solution for Spain is more money, a return to full-time contracts at non-tenured level, simplifying the process of accreditation, and offering more tenured positions around age 35 at the latest. Unless there is, as many suspect, a plan afoot to destroy the public university and, with it, the social mobility it has afforded to some working-class individuals (not that many). What is going on cannot be, however, that clever and it is possibly just the product of political short-sightedness, compounded with–yes, my friend–our inability to present a common front before society as a collective, and defend our lives from this constant stress.

And on this bitter note, here finishes my contribution to the strike.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


May 20th, 2019

It is just impossible not to refer today to the controversial finale of HBO’s series Game of Thrones, which surely has put 19 May 2019 in the history books about fiction for ever. While the internet rages, divided into lovers and haters of the ill-conceived eighth season (more than 1,100,000 people have already signed the Change.org petition to have it thoroughly re-written and re-shot), it is no doubt a good moment to consider whether chivalric romance has won the fight with mimetic fiction that Cervantes immortalised in Don Quijote (1605, 1615).

I must clarify that I am by no means a fan of Game of Thrones. I watched the first two seasons, and read the first two novels, and that was more than enough for me. I have been following, however, the plot summaries (I must recommend those by El Mundo Today), for I felt an inescapable obligation to know what was going on. Pared down to its bare bones, then, the series has narrated the extremely violent struggle for the possession of power in the context of pseudo-medieval, feudal fantasy–hardly a theme that appeals to me, for its overt patriarchal ideology. Women have participated in that struggle, as they did in the real Middle Ages (and later), only from positions left empty by dead men, and not as persons with the same rights. Since in the eight years which the series has lasted the debate about women’s feminist empowerment has grown spectacularly, this has created enormous confusion about the female characters in Game of Thrones. I’ll say it once more: the degree of respect and equality for women should NOT be measured by their representation in fiction written by MEN but by women’s participation in audio-visual media as creators. In Game of Thrones this has been awfully low.

[SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH] I’ll add that I am very sorry for those who named their daughters Khaleesi or Daenerys–you should always wait for the end of a series before making that type of serious decision! Perhaps it is now time to think why so many women have endorsed a story that has ultimately justified the murder of its most powerful female character by a man who supposedly loves her, and who is then allowed (by other men) to walk free, despite this feminicide. And the other way around: we need to ponder why this brutal woman, a downright villain no matter how victimised she was once, has been celebrated as a positive hero. Just because she us young and pretty? All Daenerys ever wanted was power for herself, to sit on the throne and play crowned dictator, not to change the lives of others for good. This is the reason why she needs to be called a villain. In short: patriarchy has scored a victory with GoT: we are hungry for female heroes, and they have given us a villainess (or two, if we count Cersei, of course). Sansa and Arya (and Brienne) are just what they always have been: consolatory nonsense, as the late Angela Carter would say. Next time around, please all of you, women and men who hate patriarchy, reject its products.

Now, back to my topic: leaving gender issues aside (supposing we can), has chivalric romance won over mimetic fiction with GoT? Was the battle skewed since its inception? Did Cervantes really intend us to follow Alonso Quijano in his madness, induced by reading so much high fantasy? Or is the collective passion for GoT the kind of insanity Cervantes warned us against? I don’t have room here to explore this in much detail but since I have a class to teach tomorrow about Pride and Prejudice, I do want to trace here briefly the frontlines in the battlefield to see how they stand. Austen once wrote her own Cervantine anti-fantasy novel, Northanger Abbey, a frontal attack against gothic, published posthumously in 1818. If she were alive today, she would be possibly groaning and sharpening her computer keyword to pen an onslaught onto fantasy with dragons…

The thesis I am going to defend is that we are at a crossroads: mimetic fiction as practiced by Jane Austen and company cannot fight the primary impulse that favours fantasy; yet, fantasy seems unable to renew itself and satisfy the demands of its consumers (above all, of women seeking post-sexist stories). Both mimetic fiction and fantasy fiction, I maintain, are reaching an impasse. The popularity of television series is contributing to that impasse by eroding the novel in favour of the audio-visual and by maintaining an anachronistic writing system that, as we have seen, can no longer ignore the voice of the (angry) spectator.

Histories of literature usually present realistic/mimetic fiction as the centre of the Literature worth reading, leaving fantasy at the margins. Academia, however, has been partly colonized since the 1980s by scholars with very different values, quite capable, besides, of reading both mimetic and fantastic fiction (here I mean the three modes: fantasy, gothic, and sf). This has been changing the perception of how fiction works, with non-mimetic fiction gaining more ground but with the main line still attributed to realist fiction. My point is that, in fact, GoT certifies that we have been narrating a very biased version of literary history: mimetic fiction has not only been unable to stem the tide of fantasy but has also given fantasy some key elements–the melodrama of the 18th century novel of sensibility, the historical fiction of the Romantic period, and the verisimilitude that the old romances lacked with the mighty Victorian novel. When J.R.R. Tolkien changed fantasy for ever with The Lord of the Rings (1954-55), all those elements solidified.

So let me trace the genealogy, briefly. Chivalric romances, written in a variety of European languages, started as epic tales in verse to become prose narrative by the early 13th century. I don’t know enough Spanish Literature to understand why Cervantes focused in the early 17th century on the dangers of reading a genre that had been around for centuries. Amadís de Gaula by Garci Rodríguez de Montalbo is supposed to have been written in 1304, though it become really popular after the introduction of printing (c. 1440s). Le Morte d’Arthur (1485, Thomas Mallory) and Tirant lo Blanc (1490, Joanot Martorell, Martí Joan de Galba) are closer to Quijote but even so, he is driven mad by very old-fashioned texts, if I understand this correctly.

El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (1605, 1615) came too early to have an immediate impact, for the novel, so to speak, was not yet ready to be born. Thomas Shelton was the first to translate the two volumes into English (this was the first translation ever) in 1612 and 1620 but it was not until the 18th century that Cervantes could truly impact the realist novel. Tobias Smollett, who translated El Quijote in 1755 is usually included in the list of British authors of the sentimental novel (or novel of sensibility) but he seems to have picked up from Cervantes a major distrust of any fiction aimed at eliciting excitement rather than intellectual pleasure. Henry Fielding, who mercilessly mocked Samuel Richardson’s quintessential sentimental novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) with Shamela (1741), took Cervantes’s mantle to propose a style of narrating full of authorial irony, which Jane Austen eventually inherited. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) remains Fielding’s masterpiece.

Jane Austen’s own mimetic fiction can be said to be a belated type of sentimental fiction and at the same time as example of double resistance to this sub-genre and to gothic. Austen cannot have enjoyed the excesses of Richardson’s tale of rape Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady (1748) nor the silliness of Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) but I do see her having a good laugh at Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella (1752), Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) and, of course, admiring Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778) or Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800). Austen, plainly, did not enjoy what most of her contemporary readers preferred: not only sentimental fiction but, mostly, gothic, from Horace Walpole’s pioneering The Castle of Otranto (1764) to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), passing through Ann Radcliffe’s best-selling The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Matthew Lewis’s frankly scandalous The Monk (1796). I’m 100% sure that George R.R. Martin has read, and heavily underlined, Lewis’s novel.

Gothic brought fiction back the Middle Ages as the backdrop for countless horrific thrillers about innocent heroines chased by appalling villains. At the time when the genre had been around already for about fifty years, Walter Scott (1771-1832) expunged the fantasy elements to turn the past into the stuff of the new historical novels. The Waverley Novels (1814-1832), with hits such as Ivanhoe (1820), prepared the ground for the grafting of the old chivalric romance, purged of the less palatable that so worried Cervantes onto the fictional model of the historical novel. William Morris laid the foundation for what was later known as high fantasy, heroic fantasy or sword and sorcery with his prose narratives A Tale of the House of the Wolfings and All the Kindreds of the Mark (1889), The Wood Beyond the World (1894) and The Well at the World’s End (1896). Morris’s translations, in partnership with Eiríkr Magnússon, of the Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs (1870) and these novels were a direct inspiration for Tolkien.

The Lord of the Rings is called a novel, not a romance, and this is what it is. H.G. Wells must have been among the last novelists to call his fantasy fiction ‘romance’ (a word we now use, confusingly, for romantic fiction similar to Austen’s). I might be completely wrong but, as I understand the matter, whereas in the old type of romance which Alonso Quijano enjoyed reading most elements were highly improbable, the new kind of romance (from Morris and Wells onwards) has learned the lesson of verisimilitude from the novel. Its plot is still impossible but, once we suspend our disbelief, each scene seems plausible, that is to say, the characters interact realistically, as they would do in a mimetic novel. This is how the battle against mimetic fiction is being won: if you can have similar complex characterisation, a naturalistic type of dialogue, and a thrilling setting, why not choose fantasy over fiction set in the too well-known realm of realistic representation?

The post-Tolkien realism of fantasy (call it the neo-romance), however, is also its bane. You may include as many dragons as you please, and give some of your characters magical powers, but it is simply impossible to write first-class fantasy (or gothic, or science fiction) which is not rooted in the real world. I do not mean by this that the best fantasy is necessarily allegorical: what I mean is that since characters in current fantasy must act realistically, they are shaped by expectations very similar to those shaping characters in mimetic fiction. If you had Harry Potter fight corporate villainy instead of a dark wizard, with no magical elements, the tale would be more boring but, basically, the same story (if would be closer to John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener). And the other way around: just because Daenerys has a special bond with her dragons, this does not mean that you may disregard the feminist expectations piled on her by so many female and male readers, based on their experience of real life (and not of handling dragons). Hence the impasse…

Ironically, then, we need to go back to Jane Austen for the fantasy of female empowerment, which allows the relatively poor Elizabeth Bennet to marry upper-class Darcy and climb in this way many rungs up the social ladder. Cinderella wins the game and gets to be, presumably, happy. In contrast, Game of Thrones has taken its ultra-realism so far that we are literally left with a colossal pile of ashes and the mounting anger of the many fans who thought that by endorsing fantasy they were supporting the alternative to the conservatism behind most mimetic fiction. It’s game over, not for fantasy but for fiction which does not listen to its readers and that can only tell tales of violence, with no sense of wonder or of hope – which is what we really need.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/


May 13th, 2019

I was interviewed last week on a Catalan-language radio show on monsters (“AutoCine: Els Monstres”, Cerdanyola Ràdio, https://www.ivoox.com/autocine-els-monstres-audios-mp3_rf_35501071_1.html ). The presenter’s last question was ‘which famous monster is most imperfectly known?’ and I had to reply that this is Frankenstein’s creature.

Unfortunately, the movies have transmitted a very limited image of this monster, based on the theatrical line descended from Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein (1823), the melodrama (with songs!) by Richard Brinsley Peake. This was the first adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel and, as happens with modern film adaptations, many audience members took for granted its fidelity. The famous 1931 film directed by James Whale is, in fact, based on the 1927 play by English author Peggy Webbling, who must have been familiar with Peake’s play. She, like him, characterises the monster as an inarticulate being, incapable of uttering any coherent speech. Webbling, incidentally, is also responsible for the absurdity of calling the creature by his maker’s name. The monster speaks in later films (for instance in Roger Corman’s 1990 Frankenstein Unbound, based on Brian Aldiss’s novel) but only Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 adaptation reflects Mary’s original conception of the creature as an intelligent, perceptive individual. Even so, Branagh’s cannot be said to give an accurate picture of the monster’s acumen and singular process of self-education.

Many critics have disputed Mary’s authorial decisions about this self-education. The monster, if you recall, takes shelter secretly in a hovel attached to the humble home of the De Laceys, a French family down on their luck for political and personal reasons. The arrival of the son’s Turkish fiancée, Saffie, is used by Mary as the excuse to have the monster witness her education, which he mimics. Since the monster, as I explained in the previous post, is an enhanced (or augmented) Homo Sapiens, I’m ready to accept that he can profit by this second-hand method of learning, though I grant that the whole process does test the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. This is further tested with the monster’s casual discovery of three fundamental books (John Milton’s epic biblical poem Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch’s Lives, and Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther). He also happens to be in possession, very conveniently, of Frankenstein’s journal. This volume covers the several months of the research leading to the creature’s creation and the monster has it because Victor kept him in the cloak which the creature takes to cover his naked body.

By the time creature and creator meet in the Alps, the monster can already use sophisticated speech, though he has never had the chance to interact with a fellow human being: all run away scared, or turn against him violently, as soon as they see him. If he tries to speak, this is to no avail–his monstrous physiognomy causes such overreaction that communication is simply impossible. If Victor can overcome his revulsion and sit down to patiently listen to his ‘son’, this is only because he has no option. His parental duty, as we know, is of no consequence, for the moment his baby was born, Frankenstein turned his back on him, expecting the ugly thing to vanish, somehow. The monster, however, insists that Victor must play the role of parent like any other father.

I’d like to comment on two passages, often quoted but, anyway, worth considering in order to learn who this monster is. I find it quite peculiar that in his process of self-learning the creature chooses no name for himself, for this complicates our reading very much. Very obviously, he is a man, for Victor has made him as such, and calling this new man ‘the monster’ and ‘the creature’ is something I very much dislike, since it is demeaning. The obvious name for him is Adam (a name he knows from reading Milton’s version of the Biblical fall in Genesis) but, for whatever reason, Mary kept him nameless, a questionable decision that somehow shows her bias against her own creation. (And that, indeed, confused Peggy Webbling…).

In Chapter 15, the monster tells Victor about his having read the diary narrating his ‘accursed origin’ and the ‘disgusting circumstances’ of his unnatural birth. The diary also contains ‘the minutest description of my odious and loathsome person (…) in language which painted your own horrors and rendered mine indelible’. No wonder he is ‘sickened’. Logically, he questions Victor’s methods: ‘God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred’. From this passage one must deduce that the monster does not look radically non-human but horridly human, and that his physical appearance is scary for that very reason. His ugliness, in short, is our own ugliness, as if you could take an average human being and deprive him of any feature that makes him moderately attractive. I remain, in any case, perplexed by the reaction of those who come across Victor’s new Adam, for they seem to lack the curiosity that led so many spectators to enjoy the strange frisson provided by freak shows in the 19th and the 20th centuries. The monster, let’s stop to consider for a second, does look human: he has no claws, or big fangs, or any other feature we connect with aggression–so why do people scream and run away at his sight? I do not quite understand why nobody stops, once the shivers are controlled, to ask him ‘what are you?’

Faced with his general rejection, the monster assumes his abjection and starts behaving in a vicious manner which corresponds morally to the ugliness of his physical appearance. As we know, he kills Victor’s youngest brother William and blames poor Justine, a mixture of servant and family member, for that crime. When he demands, in Chapter 17, from his creator that he manufactures a female companion to share his misfortune with, Frankenstein expresses serious doubts that this can be a solution to the problem of how to contain his evident ‘malice’. The monster is offended: ‘My vices are the children of a forced solitude that I abhor, and my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal. I shall feel the affections of a sensitive being and become linked to the chain of existence and events from which I am now excluded’. Famously, in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), also directed by James Whale, the female monster starts screaming the moment she sees her intended male companion; she shows, instead, a manifest interest in the rather handsome Frankenstein… The novel has no similar scene because Victor decides to abort the bride, but it is very easy to see that the monster’s logic is very faulty, and sexist. He (that is, Mary) never thinks of the needs that the new Eve might have; in fact, she is to provide the same comforts as the later Victorian angel in the house: companionship but, above all, but, above all, unconditional love and even admiration which will supposedly curb down the monster’s alleged inclination to do evil. ‘Give me a nice woman and I’ll be a nice man’ is a recipe that, we know, does not work at all well.

Victor’s new Adam is, in the early stages of his life, a meek, well-behaved individual that gradually learns to respond with aggression to the abhorrence he is treated with. This is an obvious reading. I believe, however, that he is also naturally spiteful and resentful. I don’t mean naturally malevolent but the type of individual that will bear a grudge down to the last consequences. Granted, the grudge he bears against Frankenstein is more than justified but the decision he makes to murder William and, later, Victor’s bride Elizabeth is unfair to the victims and, ultimately, counterproductive. Naturally, we should not forget that Mary intended Frankenstein to be a gothic story and she had to stress the moral monstrosity of the creature. In her argumentation, the monster is corrupted, so to speak, by the animosity people display against him and, so, the community if partly responsible for his crimes. However, you cannot be both innocent and guilty of the murders you choose to commit, and this is the unstable position in which Mary places her new Adam. Super-human as he is in many aspects of his anatomy, he is, nevertheless, very human in the worst aspects of his personality: his capacity for hatred and violence. Nothing will convince me that the creature would have been a good companion for the bride. Or a good father to their children.

The very fact that I am discussing these moral issues shows how complex the characterisation of Mary’s monster is. In the end, the main challenge she poses to her readers is forcing us to wonder how we would react if we ever came across Victor’s man. Would we give him a chance to explain himself? Would we be part of the mob chasing the poor thing in so many films? Would we be disgusted, fascinated, or both? How much difference from our human standard, in short, are we willing to tolerate in our fellow human beings? These are all valid questions, and I marvel that an eighteen-year-old girl could manage to put them together in that strange child of her imagination that Frankenstein is.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/