CLIMATE CHANGE DENIAL: PATRIARCHAL SYNERGY AND THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF PRIVILEGED SURVIVAL

December 3rd, 2019

In my previous post I argued that the solution to the widespread problem of misogynistic patriarchal violence is working to increase the empathy for women by seeking allies among the good men and by re-educating the less recalcitrant segment of the perpetrators. The case that occupies me today, climate change denial, is far harder to solve even though it is also due to patriarchy’s lack of empathy. I wrote that it is very difficult to understand a species in which a remarkable percentage of the male half hates the whole female half. Yet, this might be a minor problem in comparison to how that hate-filled male minority is about to destroy the planet and all its species following their deeply rooted sense of entitlement and the wish to protect their privileged position. The current Madrid UN Climate Summit (2-13 December) has highlighted who the ‘fanatics’ (as President Pedro Sánchez has called them) are: there is a complete overlapping between the worst patriarchal men in power and the major absences from the conference. You know the names.

I attended last Friday a workshop organized by my good philosopher friend Marta Tafalla on climate change and, to begin with, allow me to tell you that things are much worse than what the media is saying. A scientist in the room declared that he has no courage to tell his three young children what is coming soon, most likely in the next 10 to 15 years. I have a certain sense of déjà vu remembering the many warnings against the use of nuclear weapons back in the 1980s but also a certain hope that if WWIII was then avoided perhaps we can avoid environmental apocalypse. The Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 might have soon an equivalent toppling down of the current patriarchal-liberal regime if the younger generation, now led by Greta Thunberg, manages to find the weak spots. The problem, in any case, with the scientists’ dire warnings is that they do not know with certainty how civilization will collapse, and thus suffer collectively from Cassandra’s curse. Recall how Apollo gave this Trojan princess the power to issue exact prophecy but sentenced her to never being believed (she had rejected his sexual advances).

One of the talks that interested me most was given by Núria Almirón, from the Department of Communication of Universitat Pompeu Fabra. She heads a research project that studies denialism and advocacy communication by looking into the texts issued by the main European think tanks sponsored by right-wing individuals and organizations (see https://www.upf.edu/web/thinkclima). Prof. Almirón demonstrated that there is a clear overlapping of economic liberalism and right-wing policies in those think tanks and showed a very complete map of the international alliances operating below the radar of the media. Typically, she mentioned the gender factor as a prominent feature, meaning that all these thinks tanks are headed by patriarchal men, but quickly put it aside, stressing instead the question of privilege. I will insist again that patriarchal power also appeals to women but that right now all our serious problems are caused by power-hungry men and, so, gender is indeed a factor in the trouble they cause. Anyway, Almirón explained that there is no conspiracy linking the European think tanks with each other and with their counterparts elsewhere but an enormous synergy which makes their efforts collectively even more dangerous than if each acted alone.

According to Almirón, climate change deniers take their inspiration from the policies of the tobacco industry. Tobacco manufacturers had known for decades that their product is potentially lethal but that didn’t stop them from denying scientific evidence and glamourizing the ugly habit of smoking. Cynically, they put the survival of the tobacco corporations before the survival of their clients, sowing the seeds of doubt and even convincing smokers that they had a right to invoke free choice to defend themselves from negative pressure to stop smoking. The question is that, despite the devastating impact that smoking has on the human population, its damage is limited. Homo Sapiens is not at risk of being wiped out by tobacco, animal and vegetal species are not significantly damaged by smoking, and the planet can survive the hurt inflicted on its addicted human inhabitants. Claiming, in contrast, that pollution is not causing temperatures to rise is a totally different kettle of fish for, as the slogan goes, ‘there is no planet B’. This is the reason why the mentality behind the patriarchal denial of climate change baffles me. One thing is putting profit before the lives of a few million people (excuse me) and quite another putting profit before the whole planet. This is like nuclear war: it cannot be won because even if you win, most of life will be gone forever. How will you claim victory?

I asked Almirón about this strange state of affairs: do climate change deniers, either individuals or organizations, truly mean what they say? Don’t they know that an altered Earth will be home to no one? She replied that it might well be the case that most individuals in those circles truly believe that their privileged position will protect them from general disaster (remember the billionaires buying properties in New Zealand for safety against apocalypse?). Others, she added, possibly know the truth but must obey higher interests and few, she mused, perhaps already feel remorse. I heard in another talk that one of the most important ideas that needs to be abandoned is the expectation of constant economic growth. That might explain the resistance of patriarchal capitalism to accept the evidence gathered by the scientists: if it is just the Earth doing its natural thing, then there is no reason to stop economic growth, they argue. At this point nobody can deny that something is going on and so deniers stress that the changes we’re witnessing are not human-made. However, even this position is hard to maintain: can they be possibly defending the right to pollute the planet before we are anyway killed by its atmosphere? Does this make any sense?

I confused Prof. Almirón very much over lunch following her talk when I told her that there is another strand of denialism at work: the refusal to see that Homo Sapiens is not worth saving. She and many others, including myself, are asking for an ethical approach to this pressing problem which places the needs of the species above individual needs. There is much trust that, with the right tools of persuasion –with the right rhetoric– the majority will be convinced of the urgent need to abandon many comforts of our privileged life and welcome a necessary rationalization of consumption. There is, then, a fundamentally optimistic belief that people in general can be persuaded to do their best for communal survival which is totally at odds with our polluting habits so far.

Take as an example the campaign Stay Grounded, which was also presented in the workshop, and that calls for a gradual elimination of short-distance flights and a progressive elimination of long-distance unnecessary travel by air. I told the speaker a bit peevishly that she should eliminate Instagram to begin with and convince the low-cost generation that taking holidays locally as their grandparents did is cool. In fact, it’s quite funny, because I interpreted the label ‘stay grounded’ as ‘stay punished’ instead of ‘stay rooted to the ground and try to be a sensible person’. I hate flying and have no problem with taking local holidays but I’m part of a tiny minority, currently not that popular. Tell frequent fliers that they need to stop for the sake of the planet and see how they react. Is let Homo Sapiens rot, then, my solution to climate change? To be honest, it is, except that there are younger generations to think of and they deserve a chance to survive. I just don’t think that we’re fair-minded enough to think of the children first. When have we, as a species?

I started by claiming that empathy is the main tool to end misogynistic violence and I’ll claim now that empathy is also instrumental to end the violence done to the planet. The cause of all trouble, I stress, is the worship of power, which leads to the defense of privilege based on a sense of entitlement that knows no bounds. The threat of total wipe-out after a nuclear war already showed between the 1950s and 1980s how far patriarchy was willing to go in the pissing contest between the capitalist and the communist blocs. Now the blocs at war are different: we have shameless patriarchy on one side, ready to destroy the planet with an impressive array of polluting weapons, and the rest of us, trying to defend it with blades of grass. This is not even a civil war but a most uncivil onslaught by the privileged few against the rest of Earth. I have no idea how one convinces the elite destroying the planet that they should stop, if only for the sake of their children but it seems to me that there must be some empathy at work there which can become a bigger flame. Or I’m ranting and we are all doomed.

I saw yesterday The War Game, a documentary film commissioned by the BBC to show the British public the effects of nuclear war. Peter Watkins, the director, made such a good job of it that his extremely scary film was never shown (funnily, it won an Oscar after a few clandestine screenings). Take a look, it’s only 50’ long: https://archive.org/details/TheWarGame_201405. As I watched, terrified, it occurred to me that this is what we need to shake us out of our complacency. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2004) is crystal-clear but too elegant and no cli-fi (whether novel or film) has offered a convincing picture of what the future might be like. This is a job for someone like Quentin Tarantino, and I am by no means trying to be flippant (maybe I am). I would call the movie Before it Gets Worse though, at the pace we’re going, it will probably be called The Unavoidable End.

Sorry, bad black humour might be the last thing we need but I fail to find a more positive note to end.

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/

WORKING ON EMPATHY ON THE INTERNATIONAL DAY FOR THE ELIMINATION OF VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN: “IT COULD HAVE BEEN YOUR DAUGHTER”

November 25th, 2019

In my previous post I argued that as feminism progresses the women already interested in power will claim it for (patriarchal) domination, and not at all to help other women. I also spoke about the women who are complicit with patriarchy from subordinate positions because they seek male approval, on which they are dependent. Today, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, it’s the turn of the women victimized by the patriarchal abusers. I aim to explain here how patriarchal masculinity, power, and entitlement work in order to try to raise empathy among the good men (and the complicit women), which is the best tool in preventing misogynistic violence.

Like many people today, I’m thinking of Diana Quer, who had the terrible misfortune of attracting the attention of a sexual predator when she was walking back home alone on a summer night, a few years ago, in a small town of Galicia. Her patriarchal abuser is being tried these days, and faces a life sentence. Yet, he is still lying about how he kidnapped, raped and killed Diana, and about how he later dumped her abused body inside the well of an abandoned factory. He kept silent about his appalling crime for 500 days, leading a normal life with his family, and was only caught after trying to kidnap another girl. During this self-confessed murderer’s declaration a few days ago, Diana’s father was expelled from the courtroom for telling him (not yelling, not screaming) “It could have been your daughter”. He has been himself accused of being an abuser by his ex-wife, a matter I will not consider if you allow me. I want to focus on the words he used to have his daughter’s brutal killer see what he did. As it turns out, this awful individual had re-tweeted an image of a t-shirt with the message (in Spanish) “Warning! Regardless of age, place, or job my daughter will always be my little angel. If you hurt her, I will take your life”. He has a young daughter aged 11. Diana was 18.

Men find themselves very often on opposite sides of the patriarchal divide, as perpetrators of violence and as secondary victims of the damage done to the women they love. The cry ‘It could have been your daughter’ can be certainly read from a patriarchal perspective, coming from one man telling his Other ‘come, we’re both men! How come you did this to me?” Bertrand Russell reminds us in Power (1938) that most so-called civilizations have treated women as property so that if a man’s wife, daughter, sister, or mother was killed by another man he could demand that the corresponding female relative be killed in revenge. This monstrosity is no longer endorsed by extant legislation, though, of course, it is still practised in obeisance to codes of honour routinely applied by recalcitrant patriarchs. Yet, going back to Diana’s father, I want to read his cry as a desperate attempt to appeal to the only feeling that his daughter’s killer might have: the capacity for empathy for any young girl, based on imagining another man harming his daughter in the same way he hurt Diana. This is not patriarchal, and the cry can be rephrased as ‘if you love your daughter, how can you hurt any woman?’ This is about feeling empathy.

I can hear some radical feminists raising sharpening their tongues against my argument and claiming that all men are patriarchal and none is capable of full empathy for women. If that is the case, then we women are doomed and campaigns like the one being run today all over the world are useless. Women alone cannot rescue women from patriarchal violence without increasing men’s empathy for our plight, there is no other way. Repressive legislation does not work, preventive education is not producing the expected results, and it’s now men’s turn to develop a mechanism to shame the patriarchal abusers. Telling the perpetrators of violence that they are abject monsters is not solving the problem, for many are proud of their patriarchal monstrosity. Sentencing them to prison is useless: placing them among men for long years can hardly teach them to value women. And that is the whole point: patriarchal abusers commit violence against those they despise, who are also those they consider weaker and inferior–mainly women and children, but also, of course, other men.

Patriarchal violence is, then, the expression of a feeling of superiority which emanates from a sense of entitlement to the power promised to all men by patriarchy. Many men reject that promise and never use violence, often suffering it themselves from the patriarchal men. Other men have so much actual power that they need not use violence directly, though they might exert colossal violence through the institutions of power, which include war. We tend, however, not to think of this kind of patriarchal man when speaking about the violence against women but of the men in the circles of family and friends surrounding the victims of patriarchal violence. Or the strangers who, like Diana’s abuser, strike at random, though they are rarer than the news and the abundant fiction about serial killers might make you believe.

Misogynistic violence stands out because it is, no doubt, gendered, regardless of what the deniers claim: women are killed by patriarchal men because they hate women, particularly those whom they see as a reminder of their inability to control their life. Why are so many of the victims women going through a process of separation? Because the patriarchal perpetrator hates them for making a decision affecting their lives, over which they have no longer control. Why do other strike at random? Because that is their chance to show who is master and act out their sense of entitlement to women’s bodies and lives. The patriarchal man is always afraid of being exposed as a powerless non-entity with no control over his life and so he uses violence to impress himself with his mastery over others, to the point of depriving them of their life. It has nothing to do with evil (which is anyway a patriarchal construction sustained by religion), uncontrollable urges conditioned by testosterone (please…), evolutionary hang-ups, psychopathologies, human nature and so on. It’s the patriarchal obsession with power.

Those who maintain that women are also capable of great violence against their partners and who complain that this is made invisible because a) men do not report their abuse, b) the feminazi media overreport violence against women, have a tiny point in their favour: violence is caused by an imbalance in power, with the victim being powerless and the victimizer feeling powerful. The question is that currently 95% of the victims are powerless women and 95% of the victimizers are men trying to feel powerful (mostly, these are men with no actual power in patriarchy). There is couple-related violence in lesbian couples, indeed, which proves my point: this is a question of power. Yet, as long as the figures are what they are we need (we MUST) speak of misogynistic violence. Just try to imagine a woman perpetrating the kind of crime Diana was a victim of but with a young man in her place and you will see immediately that patriarchal violence is gendered on both sides: the perpetrators are (mostly) male, the victims (mostly) female.

Empathy for women will grow only if women stop being presented and represented as objects. The perpetrator of patriarchal violence always dehumanizes his victims, so that he can feel no remorse: the Nazis believed all Jews were sub-human, which enabled them to carry out the Holocaust. It is far harder to kill human beings that you respect as such, though it is always possible. In any case, the rapist, the abuser, the killer already sees women as sub-human objects and it takes just one more step for him to see women as mere objects to be used and discarded. This is where entitlement comes into play: I don’t believe for a second that patriarchal abusers ever consider matters of right and wrong, personal freedom, etc. Most likely, they only think of their own sense of entitlement: Hitler thought the German nation was entitled to conquer most of Europe and eliminate the Jews, and he acted accordingly; all other patriarchal abusers act within their own sphere following a similar sense of entitlement. Whether they know the women they attack or not is immaterial: the main point is that the victims are seen as objects to which the attacker thinks he is entitled. To abuse, use, even kill, regardless of the possible personal cost in years of imprisonment. That’s how strong the pull of patriarchy is.

The men who reject patriarchy are usually capable of a high degree of empathy, which makes them see that women are human beings like them. Yes, I know: it’s really sad that half of mankind does not automatically feel that the other half belongs to the same species, and has the same rights. But please bear with me. Suppose for the sake of my argumentation that one third of all men feel genuine empathy for women, another feels less empathy but is little inclined to using any kind of violence, and the rest are the patriarchal abusers. Can these men with no capacity whatsoever for empathy be re-educated? And who should re-educate them? I really think that the hypothetical third who are empathetic and at heart anti-patriarchal should bear the main burden of re-educating the others by developing mechanisms based on persuasion, which also include shaming. I know that I am terribly old-fashioned but we need a new vocabulary that shows patriarchal perpetrators that they are not acceptable as men and as human beings. Monster, psychopath, madman and so on are not useful.

In the middle of his duel with Voldemort, Harry Potter tells this patriarchal villain ‘Be a man… Try for some remorse’ and these words, Rowling writes, make the Dark Lord angrier than ever. Remorse can only be felt out of empathy for the victims and is the foundation of repentance, which is a step necessary for re-education. Obviously, Voldemort cannot be re-educated and, so, Rowling plays a nice trick by which the villain technically eliminates himself, not understanding how he has been disempowered by Harry. Please, notice that since Harry cannot appeal to Voldemort’s better nature, for he has no good left in his split soul, he appeals to their shared masculinity. ‘Be a man’ does not mean here ‘be a patriarch’ but ‘be a human being capable of empathy and with no interest in power’ as Harry himself is. I do not care if I sound naïve but this is what we urgently need: more good guys willing to challenge the patriarchal abusers to be ‘men’ in the sense Rowling uses the word. Unfortunately, all too often ‘be a man’ means be brutal, callous, violent, homophobic, racist, misogynistic… patriarchal in one word.

Empathy, to sum up, is our most precious value: if you put yourself in the other’s shoes, if you shift perspective, then you can see the other as a full human being. The women trapped in violent situations are in no position to teach empathy to their victimizers but the rest of us, both women and men, need to work in that direction. Punishment is necessary and so are the measures for immediate protection, but education in basic humane values is far more important in the long range (not too long!). Today’s campaign seems a step forward but I hope that we soon see it abolished, in a very near future with no misogynistic violence thanks to much increased empathy.

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/

WOMEN’S PATRIARCHAL COMPLICITY: ABANDONING THE AREA BEHIND THE SCENES

November 19th, 2019

[This one is for Adriana and Violeta, with thanks for reading me]

I have always been of the opinion that one of patriarchy’s psychological masterpieces is the division of women into complicit collaborators and struggling feminists. It might not be a very good idea to publicize in any way the words of the servile collaborators but I’m still in shock, caused by Alicia Rubio’s declaration that “feminism is a cancer”. She is a regional MP in the Madrid Asamblea and a member of fascist party Vox. The photo illustrating her speech at newspaper La Vanguardia is worth checking for what it says about the patriarchal control of women in public positions: https://www.lavanguardia.com/local/madrid/20191115/471620395270/diputada-vox-feminismo-cancer-alicia-rubio.html. Funnily, this woman, and that is a respectful name she does not even deserve, has not applied her own lesson to herself, and there she is, spouting nonsensical bile instead of staying home to serve husband and kids. Amazing what one can hear and see in 2019.

I’m often asked these days why women have joined the ranks of ultra-right-wing, patriarchal Vox and I have two answers to that. Some women find it easier to play subordinate roles in patriarchy rather than be as active and in command of their life as feminism requires. Other women are power-hungry patriarchs who, ironically, are respected by their misogynistic male peers because, essentially, they share the same outlook on domination. Some of these patriarchal women, I must say, are also found on the left-wing parties and the feminist organizations, but they tend to be mostly right-wing and see life from a privileged upper-class position. I know that what I’m saying calls for some explanation, so here we go.

I may have already mentioned that I’m looking for texts by anti-patriarchal men who have aided in the struggles for liberation for a variety of reasons. They are hard to find. Instead, I have come across a book by Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace which considers an issue not really dealt with in depth by current Gender Studies: the volume is called Their Fathers’ Daughters: Hannah More, Maria Edgeworth, and Patriarchal Complicity (1991). The author follows Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1975) and quotes a key passage we all should consider carefully: “The longevity of the oppression of women must be based on something more than conspiracy, something more complicated than biological handicap and more durable than economic exploitation (although in different degrees all of these may feature)”; the italics are original. Oppression “maintain[s] itself so effectively” because “it courses through the mental and emotional bloodstream”. Mitchell does not quite say that women are willingly complicit with patriarchy but there is that “something more” hinting that this might be the case.

As for Kowaleski-Wallace, her research is split between two fronts. On the one hand, she highlights class issues as the reason why, unlike Wollstonecraft, More and Edgeworth did not want to see education extended to all women (that was their own class privilege). On the other hand, she offers a psychoanalytical reading of why these women’s strong bonds with their patriarchal fathers made them patriarchal women (with great distress, as shown by their constant ill-health). As for the fathers, Kowaleski-Wallace does not present them as the enlightened anti-patriarchal men I thought they might be but as patriarchs very much scared when they discover that their little girls are absorbing their education like a ton of sponges; they react, therefore, by making their wise daughters emotionally dependent on their appreciation to the highest possible degree (which is another cause for their ill health). Despising their uneducated mothers, Kowaleski-Wallace argues, educated, privileged women despise all other women. I think that this analysis possibly explains the collaborator: she is a woman who is dependent on male/patriarchal approval, even when she is a successful professional, and is, therefore, incapable of showing any solidarity towards other women. See the MP above.

The other type, the aspiring patriarchal leader, is even more problematic. I’m in the middle of reading Bertrand Russell’s volume Power (1938) and it is really amazing to see that when he writes ‘men’ he really means ‘men’ even though he never mentions patriarchy. Women are seldom discussed, on the assumption I guess that they are collectively disempowered, but Russell does name us among the groups of subordinated individuals manipulating the powerful men behind the scenes. We are all familiar with the figure of the wife or mother who lives a vicarious patriarchal life by encouraging husband and sons to excel in the military, politics, the Church, business, etc while hampering the progress of their daughters. I have been arguing for a while that feminism has allowed these women to abandon the uncomfortable area behind the scenes to claim a share of power for themselves instead of pouring their patriarchal energies into the careers of the men in their families. I have also been arguing that patriarchy will gradually evolve towards a gender-neutral construction regulated by sheer power.

This does not mean that power-hungry women are necessarily masculinized but that they will converge with their like-minded male peers into a hierarchical structure that will discriminate other persons on the grounds of the degree of individual power they possess, not for gender reasons. The fictional example I have chosen to explain my theory is that of Alma Coin in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, whose transition from rebel leader to anti-democratic villain is facilitated by the gender equality of the faction she leads. Reading the trilogy one may think that Katniss is fighting patriarchy as embodied by the sinister President Snow but she soon realizes that her worst enemy is Coin, a woman like herself but an even worse patriarch than Snow.

An important problem is that patriarchy is still too widespread and too dominant for us to use new vocabulary. Since the suffix -archy is used in combined words that name who is in power (patriarchy, oligarchy) or the desire that all forms of power cease (anarchy), I don’t know what to call the social construction based on power itself unless I call it ‘archism’. If you follow my drift, an ‘archist’ would be the individual who supports the idea that human beings should be organized socially on the basis of their empowerment or disempowerment, regardless of any other identity factor. The ‘ideal archist’ (take a deep breath…) would be a person who would not care for gender, race, ethnicity, age, nationality, ability, etc but who would favour any individual interested in power. This is why I find the idea of empowerment so suspicious, particularly when it is endorsed by feminists, for it smacks to me of archism.

I have already mentioned here, I think, how J.R.R. Tolkien distinguishes between power for domination (accrued by the villains Morgoth, Sauron, and Saruman) and power for creation (enjoyed by the Elves until they discover possessiveness). I quite like the idea of power for creation because it is fundamentally a celebration of positive individual and collective expression of an artistic kind. Even so, I want to celebrate instead another concept, which is not at all popular these days: service. In Spanish my title is ‘funcionaria’, which means that I’m a public officer carrying out specific duties (or ‘funciones’). I much prefer the English label ‘civil servant’, a concept introduced in 1767 (according to Merriam Webster) at the same time as ‘civil service’ (I assume that by opposition to ‘military service’ but who knows…?). As a ‘servant’ privileged with a tenured position it is my duty to give back to society what I am paid to produce: knowledge. Sadly, I see around me much ambition for personal empowerment (much archism) rather than a genuine wish to serve.

I’m probably writing nonsense at this point in the post but, for me, service is the antithesis of power and, as such, a potent anti-patriarchal tool. I mean service not in the sense of being subservient to a higher power (though I do work for the Spanish Government) but in the sense of putting yourself at the service of the community for its improvement and its good. Possibly many patriarchal tyrants have told themselves that they were serving the community, and many patriarchal women have convinced themselves and their daughters that (domestic) service should be their goal in life. I don’t mean that. What I mean is that the only way to break away from hierarchy and the dominant notions of power is by aiming at collaboration based on unselfish service. “How can I be of service?” seems to be a far more positive question for the common good than “How can I empower myself?” And, yes, I know I’m ranting and sounding very much like a lay preacher, convinced atheist as I am.

The women who are complicit with patriarchy tell the other women that they should be happy to serve but they want to be themselves on the side of the masters. Some are happy to act as the villain’s minions, and others want to be villains themselves, but with their attitude they uphold not only patriarchy but what I am calling archism. The doubt I have is how they explain to themselves their position within the current patriarchy. Kowaleski-Wallace reports that Hannah More lost her own home because of the riotous behaviour of her servants. She concludes that “The fact that More did not command the respect and obedience that would have allowed her to remain mistress of her own home highlights the vulnerability of all women who shelter themselves within a patriarchal discourse” as “privileged guests”; their position will always be “provisional, subject to arbitrary interruptions or cancellation”. I believe that she is right: not even Maggie Thatcher was safe from sudden dismissal from power. Seeing, however, how abruptly some men have been expelled from top positions in Spanish politics (from Mariano Rajoy to Albert Rivera) perhaps that is the very nature of archism: a constant struggle for empowerment under constant threat of sudden disempowerment. But, then, I’m sure that patriarchal collaborators like that woman I started the post with will be happy to return home and do what women are supposed to do in a well-ordered patriarchal regime if they are suddenly disempowered.

The better I understand the world, the less I like it. That a woman should question the very feminism that has allowed her to have a career is really beyond me but, then, these are dark times, my sisters (and brothers).

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/

THE COMPLEX MATTER OF CULTURAL APPROPRIATION (WITH THOUGHTS ON THE NATIVE AMERICAN CASE)

November 11th, 2019

Working these days on an article about speculative fiction author Vandana Singh, I tried to find an American-born, white woman author to whom I could compare her case. Singh was born in Delhi but lives in the USA since the late 1980s, where she works teaching and researching Physics. The collection by Singh I am examining –Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories (2018)– has been published by Small Beer Press, an independent publisher, and I found among their books one that appears to be the perfect comparator I need: Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees (2012). Johnson, a white Iowa native born one year before Singh, has a higher reputation, based on her having received more nominations and awards and having published novels. Yet, this is also useful as I am looking into the causes why Singh is not better known. I was not looking specifically into the thorny question of cultural appropriation but it has surfaced, hence my post today.

In three stories of her collection –“Fox Magic”, “The Empress Jingu Fishes”, “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles”– and in her novels The Fox Woman (2001) and Fudoki (2004) Johnson uses ancient Japan as her background though she has no direct personal link to this country. Scholar Joan Gordon (white, American-born) defends her choice on the grounds that “Rigorously researched historical narratives enable [Johnson] to avoid trivializing or exoticizing the complexity of another view of the world, and it may be that casting one’s narrative into the remote past, as Johnson’s stories do, avoids some of the difficulties of power inequity”. However, I came across a review in GoodReads by Minyoung Lee, an American female reader of Korean descent, who has a very different opinion. She is deeply offended by “The Empress Jingu Fishes” because, Lee claims, Johnson’s research is inadequate, and this leads to serious mistakes in the representation of still unsolved, complex conflicts among the Korean, the Japanese, and the Chinese.

Apparently, Lee even exchanged letters with Johnson about this but far from feeling appeased her impression that outsiders “not immersed in the subtle nuances” of the foreign culture they describe will inevitable offend insiders was confirmed. Lee wonders why anyone would “write about another person’s culture and history that you only superficially know about when you have a rich and fulfilling story of your own that cannot be told in the fullest by someone else?”. This suggests that rather than speak of cultural appropriation perhaps we should speak of cultural depletion in the case of white authors who feel no strong attachment to their own cultural background and use parasitically other cultures. Just an idea. I didn’t expect, however, to come across a case of (possible) cultural appropriation within the context of the Native American cultures of the United States…

On Friday I finished reading Jack Fennell’s edited volume Sci-Fi: A Companion (Peter Lang, 2019, https://www.amazon.com/Sci-Fi-Companion-Genre-Fiction-Companions/dp/1788743490) to which I have contributed an essay on the aliens in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels. The book has an article called “Indigenous Futurisms” (by Amy H. Sturgis), which was a total eye-opener, for I know nothing about Native American literature beyond having read a couple of novels by Louise Erdrich. Sturgis deals among other authors with Rebecca Roanhorse and what I less expected is that I would meet her the following day, Saturday. She was a guest of honour at the ‘Seminari de Gèneres Fantàstics I’, beautifully organized by Ricard Ruiz Garzón of the Associació d’Escriptors en Llengua Catalana. Roanhorse’s Hugo and Nebula award-winning short story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” was offered as a souvenir in the excellent Catalan translation by Miquel Codony. Independent publishers Mai Mes presented the Catalan version of Trail of Lightning (as El raster del llamp), the first translation into another language of Roanhorse’s first novel. Later, I had lunch with the author, an activity which as you know from a previous post is a ‘necessary encounter’, and I learned a few things, for which I am very grateful.

Rebecca Roanhorse (https://rebeccaroanhorse.com/), born in Arkansas and raised in Texas, is the daughter of an Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo mother and an African-American father. She lives now in New Mexico, together with her Navajo/Diné artist husband, Michael Roanhorse (https://www.truewestgallery.com/michael-roanhorse), and their pre-teen daughter. Both were present in the seminar and the ensuing lunch. I was very much surprised to read that Trail of Lightning has been criticized as a very negative example of cultural appropriation by Saad Bee Hozho, the Diné Writers’ Association, mainly on two grounds: Roanhorse is not Navajo herself and the values presented as Navajo in her novel are not acceptable as such because her work is violent whereas Diné culture is peaceful. The extensive open letter published online created quite a controversy, extended to other websites, mostly siding with the critique.

I was, therefore, very curious to see how Roanhorse would approach the matter in her talk with interviewer Alexandre Páez. When he asked about cultural appropriation, without alluding to this episode, Roanhorse simply replied that this kind of accusation is inevitable and one must face it as best one can. However, since she had not explained to the audience that she is part of the Navajo nation by marriage but not by birth her reply somehow suggested that the problem was white authors’ appropriation of Native American heritage. To be honest, I was not very happy with her reply and, although I feared very much stirring a nest of hornets, I was getting ready to ask the really uncomfortable question I had in mind when Catalan author Víctor García Tur asked Roanhorse again about cultural appropriation. Only then did she explain how she connects with Navajo culture, noting that about 30% of the readers were fine with her choices, 30% had criticised her and the rest had problems to make up their minds. She did not allude to the Navajo authors’ letter.

My personal opinion is that writers should be free to explore any topic and culture they feel germane to their interests. However, I think that they should make their own position as clear as possible (why not write a preface or a note?), and I certainly believe that respect for the culture visited is fundamental. Also, impeccable research. What was worrying me in Roanhorse’s case is that she was not clarifying her position before the audience and, so, most were assuming that she is Navajo. For me this is the equivalent of, say, someone from Catalonia writing about Extremadura and concealing this vital information from a foreign audience meeting someone from Spain for the first time. This type of nuanced information is very important. Authors, whether they write fiction or academic work, should avoid any misconceptions about who they are and must totally avoid, in my humble view, speaking for a whole collective to which they do not belong or only are members of in part. This can be a bit ridiculous, if you see it that way, but in my own article about Vandana Singh I have included a paragraph detailing my own position (colour, gender, nationality, age, occupation) so that readers know from which position I speak. Even so, I think, there is a world of difference between Johnson’s choice of ancient Japan, which is exoticizing no matter how lovingly done, and Roanhorse’s choice of Diné culture, which she knows through her personal experience. Or maybe I’m wrong.

I asked Roanhorse about something completely different also on my mind these days. If you read academic work on non-white authors (how I hate this adjective!…) it might seem that they are progressing following traditions isolated from white authors’ work. In Vandana Singh’s case she has often referred to Ursula le Guin as a mentor, writing in her tribute following le Guin’s death that “it is safe to say that I would not be the writer or the person I am without the deep and abiding influence of who she was and what she wrote”. Le Guin not only personally encouraged Singh to publish her first story, she also provided her with crucial instances of non-white characters she could identify with. Indeed, in le Guin’s masterpiece, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), there is not any white character, a point often missed. During the seminar there was some comment about whether le Guin could get away with this choice today, or would she be accused of cultural appropriation… Anyway, Roanhorse noted that Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) was a major influence for her as a writer. I asked her how she connected with other white male writers, whether they read each other and so on, and she explained that fellow New Mexico resident George R.R. Martin had helped her very much, and so had John Scalzi, possibly the most popular SF author right now. Scalzi, she told me, is particularly generous in promoting the work of non-white authors. Other white male authors, Roanhorse added, are going in the right direction in their fiction by being more inclusive (paying no attention to cultural appropriation issues…) or placing women in the role of the protagonist. I must say that this is what I missed in the Sci-Fi Companion: an overview of what the ‘white boys’ are up to these days. For they are still there, dominating sales and pleasing readers –including non-white women.

Allow me to recommend Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” (https://www.apex-magazine.com/welcome-to-your-authentic-indian-experience/), an uncomfortable story that has plenty to say about cultural appropriation and what it is like to be a dispossessed Native American (man) today. Don’t miss the readers’ comments! I have not read The Trail of Lightning (yet) but I’m told it is an exciting novel. You may not like its hero, Navajo monster-slayer Maggie Hoskie, whom Roanhorse herself describes as an “unlikeable woman”, but what is there not to like in the opening up of fantasy and science fiction to as many cultures as possible?

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/

IN SEARCH OF CHIVALRY: WALTER SCOTT’S IVANHOE

November 4th, 2019

The admirers of Sir Walter Scott will find nothing but commonplaces in what follows regarding his novel Ivanhoe (1820). Yet those who wonder why anyone would want to read this once very popular romance might find, hopefully, something of interest in my choice. This is motivated by my interest in understanding how the old values attached to chivalry conditioned the rise of the 19th century gentleman. Others, like Mark Girouard in The Return to Camelot (1981), have told this story but not from a feminist perspective like mine.

Scott is credited with having re-introduced the values of medieval chivalry into Romantic Britain as a model of civil masculine conduct, and not just as a code for the upper-class men engaged in military action as officers. In his “Essay on Chivalry” (1818), published two years before Ivanhoe, he gives a most thorough account of the origins and development of this code, to claim that it survives “in the general feeling of respect to the female sex; in the rules of forbearance and decorum in society; in the duties of speaking truth and observing courtesy; and in the general conviction and assurance, that, as no man can encroach upon the property of another without accounting to the laws, so none can infringe on his personal honours, be the difference of rank what it may, without subjecting himself to personal responsibility”. This is chivalry in a nutshell but also gentlemanliness.

Unfortunately, Scott adds, the barbaric custom of duelling, a relic of Gothic times, he notes, still persists. This kind of interpersonal violence is a sign of the palpable tension between the ideal and the practice of chivalry which colours both Scott’s analysis in the “Essay” and his novel Ivanhoe. You might assume that both are an enthusiastic celebration of this code of manliness but it is quite surprising to find that this not at all Scott’s attitude.

In case you are not familiar with Ivanhoe, allow me to explain that the central subplot narrates the constant threat of rape that Rebecca, the beautiful daughter of the Jewish moneylender Isaac of York, must endure from the lascivious knight Templar Brian de Bois-Guilbert. In his article “Irresolute Ravishers and the Sexual Economy of Chivalry in the Romantic Novel”, Gary Dyer stresses that in Ivanhoe “Scott’s attraction to chivalric ideology must confront its inadequacies; for a sceptical reader, analysing the ‘resolutions’ in the novel serves to delegitimate the narrative resolution that results, one that the novel needs in order for its ideology to cohere” (343). Seeing how Bois-Guilbert is lapsing, the master of his Order has Rebecca judged as a witch (also because she is a very competent healer). She is given the chance to ask for a champion to defend her innocence in combat against Bois-Guilbert but when Ivanhoe appears this is, Dyer adds, “an attempt to rescue the novel from its drift into this cynicism” (347). In fact [SPOILERS AHEAD], Scott cannot solve the dilemma of how chivalry and the misogynistic violence of rape connect and he has the villain die of a mysterious mortal seizure (perhaps apoplexy) and not because of Ivanhoe’s blows.

Actually, there is very little in Ivanhoe of the civil code of chivalry that fed gentlemanliness but plenty about the military version. In the “Essay” Scott informs us that chivalry originates in the ancient German forests, where the Gothic tribes that fought the Romans started giving privileges to the combatants rich enough to fight on horseback. Once the Roman Empire fell, the French (actually the Franks later conquered by the Normans of Viking descent, who eventually conquered England) codified the tribal system established to honour violent men into what became chivalry (which meant “merely cavalry”, Scott points out). The ‘chevalier’ mixed on English soil with the Saxon ‘cnicht’, a similar type of feudal soldier, to produce the knight. The institutions of chivalry and knighthood merged thus in a single code, which was increasingly idealized through the French romances, epic poetry in different languages and (later) drama. Don’t forget El Quijote!

As Scott further points out, the knight was no patriot but a lover of personal freedom. “Generosity, gallantry, and an unblemished reputation were no less necessary ingredients in the character of a perfect knight”. The problem (as Scott shows with a mixture of melancholy, impatience, and disappointment) is that the Order of Chivalry was founded on principles too pure and unrealistic. Unable to comply with it, “the devotions of the knights soon degenerated into superstition, –their love into licentiousness, –their spirit of loyalty or of freedom into tyranny and turmoil, –their generosity and gallantry into hare-brained madness and absurdity”. Bois-Guilbert is supposed to embody this degeneration, with his lusting after Rebecca being attributable, besides, to the vow of celibacy he must obey as a monk. On the other hand, Scott is very clear in Ivanhoe that King Richard I the Lionheart was a disastrous monarch because in him “the brilliant, but useless character, of a knight of romance, was in a great measure realized and revived”; his “feats of chivalry” inspired bards and minstrels, but brought “none of those solid benefits to his country on which history loves to pause, and hold up as an example to posterity”.

This is possibly the clearest instance of the cynicism which Dyer sees in Ivanhoe but there is far more. Scott’s comments on the famous tournament of Ashby-de-la-Zouche which occupy so many pages in his novel are not at all positive. Honourable chivalry is expressed in a horrifying bloodbath which “even the ladies of distinction” see “without a wish to withdraw their eyes from a sight so terrible”. The values are reversed: instead of the women refining the men’s sensibility through the conventions of courtly love, the men’s ruthlessness debauches the women. In this competition, “one of the most gallantly contested tournaments of that age”, Scott writes, “only four knights” died, “yet upwards of thirty were desperately wounded, four or five of whom never recovered. Several more were disabled for life; and those who escaped best carried the marks of the conflict to the grave with them. Hence it is always mentioned in the old records, as the Gentle and Joyous Passage of Arms of Ashby”. If this is not cynicism and contempt against the brutal old ways of chivalry, then I don’t know what it is.

It seems that many women readers of Ivanhoe were disappointed [SPOILERS AHEAD] because the hero Wilfred of Ivanhoe marries his childhood sweetheart, the Saxon Lady Rowena, rather than the real protagonist of this novel: Rebecca. Scott defended his choice in the prologue of the second edition, claiming that the marriage of a Christian knight and a Jewess would be just unthinkable. As Rachel Shulkins points out, however, “Though Scott portrays Rebecca as charitable and self-sacrificial, the acute rendering of her sensuality sets her apart from the aspired ideal of English femininity, advocated during Scott’s time” (5). This is a judgement with which I agree and disagree, for Shulkins sexualizes Rebecca even more than Scott. Unlike the bland Rowena, Rebecca is a spirited lady but, despite her crush on Ivanhoe, she never really tries to seduce him, aware as she is of the religious barrier. She heals him from his wounds very proficiently, which requires close intimacy with his body, though not of a sexual kind. By describing her as a sexy woman, Shulkins sees her through Bois-Guilbert’s eyes, as a woman who elicits desire despite herself and who acts out on it, which she never does. Even Bois-Guilbert sees eventually that her courage and intelligence are more outstanding than her beauty, which is why he proposes to Rebecca that she becomes his mistress with her consent, rather than his victim without it. Logically, Rebecca cannot give that consent for the obvious reason that she cannot love her would-be rapist.

Ivanhoe is not up to her standard, either; theirs is a love story that could never happen but for other reasons. I find that the most interesting scene in Ivanhoe is the conversation they have in the middle of the siege in which Wilfred cannot participate because he is wounded. Rebecca cannot understand why he wants to inflict on other men the violence that has hurt his own body and he replies that it is “impossible” for a man “trained to actions of chivalry to remain passive as a priest, or a woman, when they are acting deeds of honour around him”. Wilfred continues enthusiastically: “The love of battle is the food upon which we live—the dust of the ‘melee’ is the breath of our nostrils! We live not—we wish not to live—longer than while we are victorious and renowned—Such, maiden, are the laws of chivalry to which we are sworn, and to which we offer all that we hold dear”. He names glory as the knight’s greatest reward, she speaks highly of “domestic love, kindly affection, peace and happiness”. Increasingly irritated, Wilfred complains that, not being a Christian, she cannot understand “those high feelings which swell the bosom of a noble maiden when her lover hath done some deed of emprize which sanctions his flame. Chivalry!—why, maiden, she is the nurse of pure and high affection—the stay of the oppressed, the redresser of grievances, the curb of the power of the tyrant—Nobility were but an empty name without her, and liberty finds the best protection in her lance and her sword”.

Scott closes the scene with some rather vague comments about how Rebecca’s feelings are conditioned by the sad situation of the Jews, and the lack of military heroes to admire in the midst of their diaspora. But, and in this Dyer is absolutely right, if a reader is minimally sceptical of chivalry s/he will easily side with Rebecca’s view–supposing this is not what the author himself unwittingly defends, or even Wilfred of Ivanhoe. Desperate to have his master King Richard expel his brother Prince John from the throne he has usurped but unable to persuade the wayward monarch, “Wilfred bowed in submission, well knowing how vain it was to contend with the wild spirit of chivalry which so often impelled his master upon dangers which he might easily have avoided, or rather, which it was unpardonable in him to have sought out”.

To sum up: Walter Scott, the author who re-introduced chivalry into society and thus caused Romantic and Victorian gentlemanliness to borrow traits from the knight, was himself unconvinced by his preaching. Either that, or the fault lies with his readers, who could not see that Richard I was a deplorable king, Wilfred of Ivanhoe a rather silly young man (besides being a traitor to his Saxon family), and Brian de Bois-Guilbert the very embodiment of knightly corruption. There is not in this novel any solid model of manly behaviour (even the Saxon claimant to the throne Athelstane is a dim-witted glutton), whereas Rebecca offers in contrast a womanly model of resistance. Lady Rowena may please Scott’s fantasies of wifely submission (though she also resists as much as she can her guardian Cedric’s plans to marry her off to Athelstane), but Rebecca is the one who dismantles the fabric of chivalry. Her defence of civil rather than military virtues, her talent as a healer, and her ability to defend herself against the attacks of Bois-Guilbert and of his Templar master are far more likely to attract contemporary readers than any knight.

The women readers of Scott’s time wanted to see Rebecca rewarded with a happy ending linking her to Wilfred for life, but Rebecca would soon have found her husband too basic an individual for the depth of her mind. Scott dispatches her to the Kingdom of Granada, “secure of peace and protection, for the payment of such ransom as the Moslem exact from our people”, she tells Rowena –make what you wish of this comment. Since there are no Jewish convents, Rebecca intends to withdraw from ordinary life (that is to say, from the search for a husband) by becoming one of those Jewish women “who have devoted their thoughts to Heaven, and their actions to works of kindness to men, tending the sick, feeding the hungry, and relieving the distressed”. Scott intended Rebecca’s future to be a sort of penance for her sexual feelings towards Ivanhoe, but her fate reads today as freedom to a much higher degree than married Lady Rowena might ever enjoy. If it were up to me, I would rename Scott’s novel Rebecca of York, and if I had the talent, I would write the tale of her adventures in Granada. William Makepeace Thackeray’s spoof Rebecca and Rowena (1850) goes apparently in a very different direction; regrettably, it’s not the story of how the two ladies abandon Ivanhoe to set up home together…

One must always marvel at how texts suggest what authors never intended, as Jacques Derrida defended. I have never been a fan of deconstruction but it does have its uses indeed. The pity is that by subjecting Scott’s Ivanhoe to this method I’m tripping myself up: if Wilfred is not a true manly ideal, where is he to be found…? I mean in men’s fiction, don’t you dare mention Darcy now.

Works Cited
Dyer, Gary. “Irresolute Ravishers and the Sexual Economy of Chivalry in the Romantic Novel”. Nineteenth-Century Literature 55.3 (December 2000): 340-68.
Girouard, Mark. The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1981.
Scott, Walter. “Essay on Chivalry” (1818). Miscellaneous Prose Works, vol. VI. Edinburgh: Robert Cadell, 1834. 1-126. https://archive.org/details/miscellaneouspr36scotgoog
Schulkins, Rachel. “Immodest Otherness: Nationalism and the Exotic Jewess in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe”. Nineteenth-century Gender Studies 12.1 (Spring 2006): 1-22. Online.

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/

WHAT AN UGLY IMAGINATION IS ABOUT (TRYING TO MAKE SENSE OF MY OWN IDEAS)

October 29th, 2019

I am currently a member of the Ministry-funded research project led by Dr. Helena González of the University of Barcelona, Parias y tránsfugas modernas: género y exclusión en la cultura popular del s.XXI (http://www.ub.edu/adhuc/es/proyectos-investigacion/transfugas-y-parias-modernas-genero-y-exclusion-cultura-popular-del-s-xxi). We had a seminar last week, which opened with my presentation of six characters that, in my view, are either outcasts (‘parias’) or dissidents (‘tránsfugas’), or both. They are Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy The Hunger Games, Djan Seriy Anaplian in Iain M. Banks’s Culture novel Matter, Emiko in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, Birha in the short story “Ruminations in an Alien Tongue” by Vandana Singh, Breq in Ann Leckie’s trilogy Ancillary Justice and Essun (a.k.a. Syenite and Damaya) in N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy The Broken Earth.

The research group should eventually produce a database with entries for about 100 female characters, and others for theoretical aspects, and I have volunteered to be the Guinea pig (oops!) in charge of writing the first six entries. So, I was trying to explain to the audience in the room that although I am very much interested in expanding my work on Banks and Singh (I have already written about Collins), I will not touch the novels by Leckie and Jemisin because I find their imagination ‘ugly’ (‘fea’). I have nothing against Bacigalupi but others have already written about Emiko, to my entire satisfaction.

I used ‘ugly’ in that informal way one uses intending to amuse the audience but I was the one amused when the presenter, my good friend Isabel Clúa, suggested that I should turn the label ‘ugly imagination’ into a fully theorized concept. This is the task I have given myself this week, not an easy one. Another very good friend in the audience, Felicity Hand, asked me why I was mixing my negative personal impression of the authors with my dislike of their works, and whether I would do the same with Shakespeare: I don’t like what goes on in Macbeth, therefore, I would never have dinner with its author. I replied, quite confusedly, that I knew I was being obnoxious but that what I have against Leckie and Jemisin is how they had forced me to endure not for one but for three novels their extremely unpleasant stories, with no relief whatsoever. In contrast, I said, Banks would treat his readers to some clever Scottish humour whenever he noticed he was going too far with any violence or cruelty. My admired Vandana Singh aims in all her stories not only for literary excellence but for engaging the mind and all senses in plots that are, simply, beautiful though by no means silly or sentimental.

Obviously, all that was improvised and I have been asking myself for the last few days what I mean exactly by accusing some writers of having an ugly imagination. I don’t think I know yet but I’m making an effort here to think hard.

Let me begin with one example. In Jemisin’s trilogy there is a human species whose flesh is of stone. They are called, not too imaginatively, the Stone Eaters (guess what they feed on?). The author herself explains that these living sculptures are “me playing around with the idea of mythological creatures” (http://nkjemisin.com/2015/08/creating-races/), which should be fine except that whereas the people of the Stillness, where her tale is located, “have heard many tales about stone eaters (…) the reader doesn’t have that bank of cultural capital to borrow against”. The Stone Eaters are, however, quite real also in the context of the novels, which means that they are doubly scary: for the characters in the tale, who see the monsters of legend become living persons among them whom they must accept, and for the readers, who do not catch until very late in the trilogy what is going on. “Without the cushioning effect of folklore, the creatures” Jemisin grants, “become too alien and frightening, or pitiful, to embrace as fellow people. I’ve seen other writers manage it, though, so here’s my chance to see if I can do as well”.

My reply is that ‘no, you don’t quite manage it’, for (spoilers ahead) the feeding habits of the Stone Eaters may be fine for monsters but not for characters that carry the weight of the whole story as narrators. Faced with the scene of Essun’s former lover Alabaster becoming stone and a major character/narrator eating his arm, I jumped off the sofa and almost threw the book out of the window. What kind of ugly imagination (well, sick person) would come up with this concept? Same about Leckie and what her girl Breq really is (you find out!). I realise that I still haven’t explained myself, though: Banks is also much capable of offering some truly distressing stuff (think of Zakalwe, if you can without hyperventilating, or of the digital hell which an alien civilization builds) but one knows all the time that we are not supposed to sympathize. Jemisin asks me to accept as a cool character someone who simply horrifies me and the same applies to Leckie. I do not mean that Hoa and Breq are evil or villainous in any way, poor things; what I mean is that the villainy that made them what they are is not sufficiently characterized as ‘Other’ in relation to them, or alternatively that they are too ‘Other’ for me to welcome them as my nexus with the text. There is something awfully cold in the way their tale is told so that the massive destruction from which they both emerge overwhelms any ability I may have to connect with these two and care for them, knowing besides they’re not even human.

Still not there, I know, but I may be getting closer.

By qualifying some writers’ imagination as ugly I don’t mean that I only like pretty tales. Perhaps I can explain myself better if I refer to what horror cinema used to mean to me. Like everyone who enjoys a well-told horror tale, I accepted the pact by which I would agree to put up with some measure of terror caused by the monster until some kind of order was restored by the hero. Progressively, though, horror filmmakers came up with the idea that the pact should be broken, terror maximized, and no final return to order allowed, on the grounds that this is more realistic. There have always been gothic stories with a sting at the end, hinting that the vampire will return once more, or that the creature is not quite dead. However, when I stumbled upon the slasher film Hostel (2005) I just opted out of the pact. That is a most salient example, I think, of the purely ugly imagination that has swallowed whole what many of us used to like in horror cinema –reality is ugly enough for me to enjoy the full panoply of what then emerged as body horror, nor do I need any tales in which there is no relief and no way out. It is fine to avoid ex-machina solutions and be done with villains that spin long justifications rather that kill their foe, but I still loathe the type of storytelling that is relentless in its assumption that the whole world is a monster, and only the silly victims killed one by one have failed to notice this. I no longer watch horror movies for, following my theorizing of the concept, I can no longer put up with their extremely ugly imagination.

I am beginning to sound like one of those snowflake students who demand from lecturers trigger warnings for even the minutest conflict in the stories they must read for class (Glasgow University, it seems, is now giving modern language students trigger warnings… for fairy tales!). This is not where I am going. What worries me is the admiration that the ugly imagination is garnering in our times: the trilogies by Jemisin and Leckie have earned many major awards in the SF field, and so has Chinese SF star writer Liu Cixin, possessor of an even colder ugly imagination (at least in The Three Body Problem). I won’t even mention Game of Thrones –oh, I did! Concepts such as ‘awe’, ‘sense of wonder’, ‘enchantment’ have abandoned fantasy and SF, which means that they are now nowhere to be found. I stand corrected: they are still perceptible in some children’s film and fiction, though not everywhere. I had the same impression of ugliness in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials regarding what villainess Mrs. Coulter does to children, not so much because she is a very cruel person but because she is hero Lyra’s mother. Again: too close for comfort, not Other enough.

So, to sum up, and leaving plenty of room for further speculation: in the tales arising from an ugly imagination there is too little distance between the persons we are supposed to sympathize with, and the Other. Terrible things happen in many of our favourite stories but no matter how close hero and villain get (Harry and Voldemort, Katniss and Alma Coin) there is some margin for hope. Imagine Harry living for decades in the Dark Lord’s regime, or Katniss having to face Coin’s renewal of the Hunger Games, and I think we get closer in this way to what I mean by ugly imagination. If, as happens in Jemisin’s and Leckie’s tales, this hope appears after an overwhelming deluge of terrible events, then it is of no effect. Many readers enjoy this deferral of expectations, just like many readers enjoy watching The Handmaid’s Tale on TV, but not me, I’d rather be told a hopeful, though not a silly, tale.

Now back to reading Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, of which more next week. To be continued…

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/

LUNCH WITH A WRITER: NECESSARY ENCOUNTERS

October 22nd, 2019

I have had the good fortune of sharing a few lunches followed by a long afternoon conversation with author Care Santos, whom I met thanks to my good friend Isabel Santaulària. Care has a long, accomplished career both in Spanish and Catalan, which includes major awards Planeta, Ramon Llull, and Nadal. Since 1995, she has published, I’m quoting from her official web (http://www.caresantos.com/index.htm), twelve novels, six short story collections, two poetry collections, and countless books for young adults and children. Her books have been translated into twenty-three languages. I personally love her novel Desig de xocolata, which I have read in Catalan but is also available in Spanish. That’s another singularity of her career: Care self-translates most of what she writes and has what might be called a true bilingual career.

I read recently one of those articles that questions the role of criticism (in relation to cinema, not that it matters) and a critic defended herself in it arguing that ‘you don’t have to be a hen to discuss eggs’. I’m not sure that this is the best possible analogy but it’s a useful starting point to consider the odd relationship between writers and academic literary critics. I find it odd on many fronts: authors (hens) write the books (lay the eggs) which we the literary critics praise or condemn but a) analysing a literary text (examining the egg) is not the same as reading it (eating the egg) and b) we also produce texts (we are also hens). If, as a literary critic, I write a book, am I an author as well, like the ones I analyse? We also get reviews and care about sales (well, impact). But what kind of writer am I? Try to imagine what it would be like to produce art criticism by creating a painting, or to discuss ballet by dancing, and you might get the idea of what worries me.

For these reasons, I am a bit embarrassed whenever I meet any writer who makes a living by selling their storytelling. I admire Care very much because she has the capacity to construct character and plot, and can do that book after book. That is the kind of admiration that leads most of us to read fiction and that may inspire whole academic careers. At the same time, I feel embarrassed that there are tenured positions like the one I enjoy (despite my occasional ranting) to teach Literature, whereas writers must struggle at all times to make a living. A few years ago British author China Miéville suggested there should also be state-sponsored positions for writers, and he created quite a stir. A negative one, for questions such ‘who would decide the appointments?’ soon came up. Funnily, nobody objects to the fact that writers with long, brilliant careers, like Miéville or Care, must constantly seek other activities to complement their income. You might think that Care’s frequent visits to secondary schools to discuss her own YA fiction with readers is part of her job, but while she is doing that she is not writing, which is her real job.

I am very grateful when a writer patiently replies to my questions about their methods. I find that even those with a fearsome reputation for being very rude enjoy discussing their craft. I had the chance to ask James Ellroy publicly in a recent post-interview Q&A session whether he agreed that sometimes characters dominate the narration and he didn’t bite me. ‘Bullshit’, he said, but he meant that in relation to writers who claim they have no control over their fictional people: ‘Whenever a writer says that the characters have taken over’, Ellroy explained, ‘he lies. He would have reached that same point anyway’ (yes, Ellroy used ‘he’). Care allows me to ask many questions, which is wonderful, and she is also eager to comment on what helps her in her task; for instance, she finds attending courses on writing plays extremely helpful to improve dialogue in novels. That’s for me a very valuable insight into the links between drama and, well, novels.

If I don’t have the chance to ask authors in the flesh, I try to read what they have themselves written about their careers. Stephen King’s On Writing is indispensable. Isaac Asimov’s memoirs (I, Asimov) provide inquisitive readers with plenty of information about the writer’s relationship with editors and publishers, and about the market. For instance, Asimov was amazed to discover that whereas the short fiction he sold to magazines did not produce royalties, books did. Since he had so many in the market simultaneously (he published 440!!!) Asimov became a wealthy writer before really being a best-selling author. He only realized that he could be one when his publishers Doubleday offered in 1981 a 50000$ advance for a new science fiction novel that would end his long absence from that genre. Foundation’s Edge became indeed Asimov’s first top of The New York Times book list publication after more than forty years as a writer.

I have read someone criticise Asimov’s memoirs (which, by the way, Care knew very well) for offering too much information on his business deals. I must clarify that Asimov also offers very candid insights into his straightforward style and into the difficulties of adapting to new times in such a long career: by the time the 1960s revolution in science fiction happened, he felt his work to be outmoded. Hence, the importance of the 50000$ advance for him to feel self-confident again. I personally feel that learning about the material conditions of production should be an integral part of literary criticism, but not to further uphold the idiotic principle that texts written for money can be no good. What I mean is that how writers progress financially (or not) is also part of their career; actually, for them the most important part, now and in the past. I have already praised here Edward Copeland’s Women Writing about Money: Women’s Fiction in England 1790-1820 (1995) as a crucial volume to understand Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and the other female writers of their time. Read it and marvel that even Austen worried about contracts rather more than about her reputation in posterity.

Logically, I would not ask any writer point blank about their income but I’m not above asking whether they consider their financial rewards sufficient. What I cannot bring myself to ask is what they think of the existence of teaching positions in the field of Literature. Things were perhaps easier when the author we taught were mostly dead people, but I have many doubts about how we relate to living authors. Care was mystified regarding the obstacle course that any academic career is today but this is the same for all fields, whether you teach Literature or Nuclear Physics. What I often have difficulties justifying is that, again, the concept of tenure exists for teaching but not for writing. I want to believe that we teachers are a sort of adoring mega-fans at the service of the writer and, so far, every writer I have contacted has thanked me for my interest. Still, I’m not sure this is a relation among equals, not out of anyone’s fault but for structural reasons.

One aspect that could be easily remedied is making the link between authors and academic literary critics more public. Let me give you an instance. The public session with James Ellroy which I have mentioned here took place last month, when he visited Barcelona to present his new novel, This Storm. He’s not an author I know well as a reader (I just know his L.A. Confidential) but, given his world-wide popularity and his personality, I expected the presentation to be stimulating. And it was, very much so, except for the presenter…

Typically, nobody thinks of academics for this type of act and Ellroy’s publishers Random House (I assume) chose fellow noir writer Carlos Zanón (not to be confused with Carlos Ruiz Zafón) as his presenter. Zanón coordinates now the literary festival BCNegra devoted to detective fiction and is himself a well-known author in the field. I have not read any of his books, though. I just will tell you what I saw: a man uncomfortable with his role as presenter not because Ellroy was not receptive (he was extremely friendly!) but because (this is my hunch) perhaps Zanón felt he should at the receiving end of the homage his American colleague was getting. Zanón warned that Ellroy had refused to answer politically-oriented questions and seemed frustrated that the interview would be thus limited. The fact is that I subsequently read an interview bounded by the same parameters and it was brilliant. Actually, the audience’s questions were far more exciting than the presenter’s. And, by the way: I was the only English Studies specialist in the room, unless I missed some younger colleague I have not met yet. (I am myself constantly missing visits by authors because I’m too busy writings about authors…).

Thanks, Care, for your time and attention (and thanks Isabel for the introduction). Ours are very necessary encounters for us, academics in literary criticism, a salutary reminder that in the end we know little about the writer’s day-to-day worries. Hopefully, this also helps you as a writer!!

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/

A VISIT TO THE LIBRARY: THE SAD LOOK OF YELLOWING BOOKS

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/

LIKE WRITING A MUSICAL SCORE: THE UNACKNOWLEDGED TASK OF THE SCREENWRITER

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/

TIME AND J.B. PRIESTLEY: I HAVE BEEN HERE BEFORE

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/

WHEN DID THE FUTURE DIE? SCATTERED THOUGHTS ON PALEOFUTURISM AND UTOPIA

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/

‘READ, READ, READ AND THEN WHAT?’: GOOD QUESTION…

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/

THE FALL FROM CHIVARLY: CONSIDERING MASCULINITY IN EL QUIJOTE

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/

WHEN WE WERE REFUGEES: READING AGUSTÍ CENTELLLES’ DIARI D’UN FOTÒGRAF: BRAM 1939

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/

THE TRANSFORMATION OF SEDUCTION: SEXUAL ENTITLEMENT, THE MATTER OF CONSENT (AND A NEW SCHOOL PROJECT)

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/