August 22nd, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homo Sapiens is, definitely, not progressing at all.

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


August 12th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


July 9th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


July 1st, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


June 25th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


June 9th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 26th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 20th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 13th, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 6th, 2019

These days I’m teaching Frankenstein (1818, 1831) and writing about one of its thousands of descendants, Richard K. Morgan’s Thin Air (2018). As science and technology advance and speculative fiction gets closer to everyday life (or perhaps the other way around), writers imagine creatures that would have baffled Mary Shelley. The newer creations are some times categorised as monsters, some times as freaks, depending on whether they appear to be capable of overwhelming Homo Sapiens or just contribute an exciting sense of difference to the narration where they appear.

Having written my doctoral dissertation on monstrosity (http://www.tdx.cat/handle/10803/4915) I know that taxonomies have limitations, and that a full inventory of the monsters and freaks of one period may have to be reconsidered for the next one. I’m also aware that many of us, scholars, are still too wary of reading gothic, fantasy, and science fiction, preferring instead to read theory, which is always safer to quote and sounds more properly intellectual. I believe this is the root of two serious problems: the use, abuse, and misuse of concepts such as cyborg and post-human in an abstract way, without much consideration of the particularities of the fantastic characters in question, and the tenacious but incorrect overlap between human and Homo Sapiens.

When Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was still a curio often attributed to Percy Shelley and nobody dreamt of making this novel an integral part of university courses on Romanticism, British SF writer Brian Aldiss and his co-author David Wingrove declared in Billion Year Spree (1973) that Mary was the ‘origin of the species’. They praised her work as the very foundation of SF, at the same time arguing the thesis that since Frankenstein is gothic fiction, SF’s essence is shaped by horror – not necessarily that inspired by scary monsters but by the sublime fear that we may feel if we stop to consider the universe and our place in it. Aldiss was so in love with Mary that he published in the same year 1973 a novel, Frankenstein Unbound, in which he fantasises about meeting her (Joe Bodenland, his delegate in the text travels from the future to give Mary a copy of her novel…). I wrote already many years ago an article about Roger Corman’s rather crazy film adaptation (http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116804), one of the many films that have toyed with the motif of the monster made to be better than human but condemned to being hated.

Now that Frankenstein is part of our syllabus, my personal choice has been to ask my students to present in class a brief text about a film that connects with Mary’s creation. If all goes well, I might publish their work later this summer and offer a nice guide to this peculiar sub-genre. Now, as part of class activities I’m doing some necessary close reading, during which I had quite a big surprise. It’s funny how reading aloud reveals layers of meaning that go unnoticed in silent reading. I was reading this central passage from Chapter IV, in which Victor narrates how he made his man, when I stumbled upon a word I had not noticed before. See for yourself (this is the 1831 edition, at Project Gutenberg):

I collected bones from charnel-houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame. In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation; my eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion.

The word is ‘slaughter-house’. The man (not creature, not monster) that Victor manufactures is made of the pieces of human dead bodies but, here is the surprise, the passage hints that animal parts are also used for his body. Possibly, many scholars have already commented on this rather shocking issue, but I had simply not noticed. I don’t recall, in any case, a passage in the novel which discusses the non-human components that contribute to making the new man. Possibly, H.G. Wells did notice the presence of the slaughter-house next to the dissecting room, and the charnel house, and his is where his hybrids come from in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896).

Before the passage I have quoted, Victor declares that he is motivated by a straightforward patriarchal fantasy: ‘A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs’. There is a hilarious moment in the episode of The X-Files (5.5) The Post-modern Prometheus (1997) in which Mulder enthuses about the possibility of creating life which imitates humans, as a mad geneticist he has just met is doing. Always a cool-headed pragmatist, Scully replies that this already exists: it’s called reproduction. The passage I have quoted is, of course, usually read as a sign of Victor’s arrogant bid to try to replace God or, from a feminist angle, to usurp women’s power to create life. Once you become aware of transhumanism, however, Victor can be read as a transhumanist and the other way around: transhumanism appears characterised as the patriarchal aberration it is when you read Frankenstein.

Now it is time to discuss labels. To begin with Victor correctly refers to a ‘new species’ and not a ‘race’. We are Homo Sapiens, which is a species of the genus Homo. This genus and the genus Pan (chimpanzees, bonobos) are part of the tribe Hominini, which, together with the tribe Gorillini (gorillas, obviously) conforms the family Homininae. There is currently just one species in the genus Homo but there used to be more, beginning with Homo Neanderthalensis. Scientists do not agree on the definition of the word species for the very simple reason that since species are in a constant state of evolution, fixing them taxonomically makes little sense. They warn us, at any rate, that species differentiation (the process by which a new species branches out from a previous species) is extremely slow, and not visible in historical terms. To sum up, then: a) we should NOT use the word ‘human’ as if it only applied to Homo Sapiens, for it applies to all past and future species of the genus Homo; b) evolution cannot be appreciated in small periods. I’ll add c): evolution is a reaction to changes in the environment and it is therefore quite impossible to imagine, much less say with certainty, how Homo Sapiens will evolve and into what.

Transhumanists, as you possibly know, believe that the evolution of Homo Sapiens should be controlled and that technoscience should be applied to produce better humans. This is exactly what Victor believes and does, even though he had no idea in his pre-Charles Darwin times of evolution (or of genetics!). Victor’s new man has qualities that Mary Shelley calls ‘super-human’ such as an enormous resistance to heat and cold, little need of nutrients (he is a vegetarian!), and a powerful physique that allows him to run fast and leap high. Those who criticise the unlikely way in which he learns to command a language (French, incidentally), and even read, forget that he is no ordinary Homo Sapiens but an enhanced, or augmented man. Following transhumanist tenets, the creature is actually a transitional individual. His children, born of the union with the female that Victor aborts at the last minute, would be the real post-human species. My main objection to this is that the couple’s children would not be post-human but post-Homo Sapiens: still human (part of the genus Homo) but belonging to a different species, as Homo Neanderthalis was different from Homo Sapiens.

Speaking, then, of the post-human is, excuse me, quite lazy. Our future will be post-human only if the genus Homo dies out replaced by some mutated, new animal species (as the franchise of Planet of the Apes is narrating) or by artificial intelligences, in what Ray Kurzweil famously called the singularity. The first-case scenario is quite unlikely, in view of how we ill-treat animals, whereas the second is simply silly. If, as happens with Skynet in The Terminator (1984), a computer goes rogue on us and starts making the combat robots that will end Homo Sapiens, the solution is quite easy: shut down the power grid and the computer with it. This might result in an overnight return to the Middle Ages, or further back, but we tend to forget that, for instance, the Roman Civilization did very well with no electricity.

If, as the passage I have quoted earlier on suggests, Victor’s new man is a transspecies human-animal hybrid, then, technically speaking, he is no longer Homo Sapiens and he is certainly post-human. However, most discussions of Frankenstein avoid the animalist angle and focus on the issue of how Victor jump-starts evolution rather than patiently wait for Earth to bring forth the replacement for Homo Sapiens. His man has no organic pieces whatsoever, which means that he is not a cyborg. My personal view is that the creature is a replicant, as he is 100% organic but made in a lab rather than born out of a woman or an artificial incubator. Like the replicants of Karel Čapek’s pioneering play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots, 1920) and those in Blade Runner (1982), Victor’s man awakens to life as an adult – he’s never a baby. Unfortunately, the word robot, introduced by R.U.R., has also caused much confusion, for although in the play it simply means ‘worker’ (its meaning in Czech) in the popular imagination it was coupled with the older notion of the automaton, hence generating the modern idea of the robot, a fully mechanical, non-human, machine. In the famous 1931 film version of Frankenstein, the creature was presented as an inarticulate, lurching, stiff individual, which hinted that there might be a hidden mechanism in his body, as automata have. He looked, in short, cyborgian, rather than totally human.

The problem with the cyborg, or cybernetic organism, a concept invented in the 1960s but mostly popularized in the 1980s, is that it connects poorly with genetic engineering. Take the protagonist of the novel by Richard Morgan which I’m writing about. Hakan Veil is sold into indentured work by his impoverished mother when he is still in her womb. He is heavily modified by means of genetic engineering and digital implants to become a super-soldier of the kind needed in interplanetary travel to quench possible insurrections. The corporation that employs him also transforms him into a hibernoid, that is to say, a person who sleeps four months a year but that can be deployed day and night during the remaining eight on board spaceship. Whereas digital implants cannot be inherited by the offspring of cyborgs, genetic modifications are quite another matter. This is the reason why cyborg is an insufficient label to describe Veil. He has no children and we cannot know whether his mutations would be automatically inherited by his offspring. If this happened, and the children were extremely different from Homo Sapiens, then they would be a new Homo species – but still human, just as Veil is fully human despite being a weird type of Homo Sapiens.

I believe that Mary Shelley was absolutely right to warn readers against the transhumanist project of creating post-Homo Sapiens life, and also that Morgan is likewise absolutely right to warn that transhumanism will make slaves of us, and not free human beings. The difference is that, logically, whereas the vocabulary I am applying to Frankenstein was unknown to its author (the label science-fiction appeared in the 1920s), contemporary authors like Morgan are discussing transhumanism with a remarkable knowledge of what it implies. Like Victor, the transhumanists expect the new species they want to turn Homo Sapiens into to be grateful but, again like Victor, they are making decisions that involve all of us without asking for our opinion. Perhaps, strictly speaking, the first transhumanists were the Homo Sapiens individuals who decided that having, as humans, the whole Earth to us was a pretty good idea. I’ve never ever believed for a second that Homo Neanderthalensis simply died out… Just recall that for them we, Homo Sapiens, were the others… the post-humans that would replace them. And so we did.

I’ll leave philosophical post-humanism for another post… or rant.

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


April 8th, 2019

I have spent a good portion of my morning today working on a talk I’m giving next month at the Universidade de Santiago de Compostela. The topic is Cultural Studies, specifically my point of view on their evolution in Spain. As happens, I was invited ten years ago to lecture on this very same topic and this neat figure offers a good chance to consider what has happened in the last decade. Since I have decided to use only one third of my talk for an introduction to the matter and focus in the other two thirds on a practical example, today’s post has the double function of serving as a complement to the talk and allowing me some room for reflexion.

One obvious problem of Cultural Studies is that we are constantly in need of defining what it consists of, particularly in comparison to ‘Filología’ (I’m using the Spanish word to distinguish it from English ‘philology’, which is the discipline in charge of guaranteeing the preservation of ancient and old literary texts). ‘Filología’ refers to the study of a given culture on the basis of its language and its literary canon, to the exclusion of other texts either because they are regarded as inferior in quality or because they are not based on writing. Cultural Studies, in contrast, considers as texts worth studying using its multidisciplinary methodology any cultural manifestations susceptible of being read and interpreted. I’m aware that this is a tautological definition for Cultural Studies both defines and articulates as texts what it studies. Thus, you might not think of the popular drink Red Bull as a text but the moment you approach it as the object of your research, it becomes a text worth exploring in all aspects of its cultural impact. And no: this is neither Anthropology nor Sociology, it’s Cultural Studies.

Ten years ago the new degrees based on the European Credit Transfer System (ECTS) were implanted in Spain and that seemed a turning point in the evolution of the old-style ‘Filología’ into the new-style ‘Estudios’. Many degrees were renamed in this way, whereas in other cases ‘Filología’ was replaced by ‘Lengua y Literatura’. The label ‘Filología’ still survived in the nomenclature of some BA degrees and in the names of Departments, which did not change. Thus, I work for the Departament de Filologia Anglesa, even though our BA carries the label English Studies (the one, by the way, recommended by our national association AEDEAN). The truth is that ‘Filología’ was not generally dropped from the degree titles because there was a widespread need to extend the field of Cultural Studies but because it was a label unpopular with students. They simply stopped attaching any meaning to it and it was expected that the new labels might help prospective studies to understand better what we do and, hence, enrol in our courses. I have already commented on this question several times here in this blog but I’ll mention again that, as much as like the idea of being a teacher of ‘English Studies’ I find that graduates with that degree lack a professional title similar to the old ‘filólogo’.

Thanks to the efforts of my colleague Felicity Hand my Department has been offering Cultural Studies since 1992 (well, my Department actually means she, our friend Esther Pujolràs, and myself). Prof. Hand was the organizer of the first Cultural Studies conference in English Studies in Spain, back in 1995–probably an absolute first in Spain. She was also a member of the core group, together with Rosa González (UBarcelona), David Walton (UMurcia), and Chantal Cornut-Gentille (UZaragoza), which founded the Culture and Power conferences, of which the UAB meeting was the first. There were fifteen annual and biannual meetings until 2015 and the same number of proceedings volumes. Besides, Antonio Ballesteros became in 1998 the first coordinator of the Cultural Studies panel for the AEDEAN conference and in 2001 the Iberian Association of Cultural Studies (IBACS) was born. Other associations, such as SELICUP (Sociedad Española de Estudios Literarios y Cultura Popular) also welcomed Cultural Studies, though coming from a very different perspective.

My personal impression is that the implantation of Cultural Studies in Spain is a partial failure. On the one hand, if you check the titles of the post-2009 BA and MA degrees offered in Spain, you will notice an increase in the number of titles that do use the label ‘Estudios Culturales’. On the other, not a single Department has taken yet that name and I know of very few scholars who call themselves Cultural Studies specialists. If you care to check Dialnet you will find a list of publications on the topic (see for instance Chantal Cornut-Gentille’s Los Estudios Culturales en España: Exploraciones teórico-conceptuales (2013) and the proceedings of the I Congreso Internacional de Estudios Culturales Interdisciplinares Cultura e identidad en un mundo cambiante (2018)) but I don’t think that Spanish academia has truly accepted Cultural Studies. It is a still marginal discipline.

This marginality is usually attributed to the conservatism of the Spanish university and I would agree that this is indeed the case. I marvel that in 2019 students are still being told that no dissertations should be written on Harry Potter or Star Wars but this is still happening. It is my belief, however, that other factors need to be considered.

To begin with, although the Culture & Power circle, to which I myself belonged, did much to introduce Cultural Studies into ‘Filología Inglesa’ we had zero impact in Spain because our publications were in English, including David Walton’s excellent handbook Introducing Cultural Studies (2007) published in Britain by Sage. The language is a barrier but so is the territorial division of the Spanish university. Thus, the Universidad Carlos III offers a programme in Cultural Studies which combines aspects of the degrees in the Humanities, Sociology, and Media (both Journalism and Audiovisual Communication) but no ‘Filologías’. In Britain the degrees in Cultural Studies are closer to Media Studies than to English but the case is that those of us who had first access to the original bibliography in English failed to connect with other areas of study in Spain and make ourselves visible. This has generated strange distortions: for me, any text originally in English is part of the field of Cultural Studies, whereas for many Spanish specialists in Media Studies I might be guilty of intruding into their field by exploring texts which are not literary (like film, series, or videogames). As long as we publish in different languages this is not a problem but territorialism has certainly prevented us from establishing a common ground.

On the other hand, despite the efforts of AEDEAN to make networking more fluid within English Studies we still suffer from a chronic state of disconnection. By this I mean that since the Ministry does not publish the list of R+D+I subsidized projects in any accessible way (you need to check the Boletín Oficial del Estado year by year) it might well happen that your neighbour in a close-by university is doing very similar research without your knowing about it. There have been, then, several groups doing Cultural Studies without being aware of each other, and without being even aware of the existence of IBACS and of the Culture & Power seminars. This means that many young researchers in the field have no idea about how their path has been eased by us, the senior researchers, nor is there a sense of tradition but a constant reinvention of the wheel. This also means a certain stagnation instead of accumulative progress.

Within the Culture & Power circle what happened was that, progressively, each of us started focusing more narrowly on our field of interest. To name a few persons, Rosa González put all her energy into Irish Studies and Felicity Hand into Post-colonial Studies. I myself focused on Gothic and science fiction. Each Culture & Power seminar, then, had to have a wide-ranging topic that could encompass many different interests and eventually we started having the impression that the conferences were too open. The reason why they have been discontinued then has to do, if only partly, with their no longer being necessary because other conferences welcome now Cultural Studies specialists. The AEDEAN panel, I think, suffers in contrast from another kind of indefinition: it has a too large presence of papers about Literature and too little research based on other texts, though films and TV series are also present. Of course one can produce Literary Studies with a Cultural Studies approach but there is too much dependence on what I can only call standard Literature.

There is also another matter that I’m not really at liberty to discuss in all detail because I should have to name persons that might feel offended by my partial vision of events. I’ll go, however, as far as I can. Something which is never discussed in academia is how personal feelings affect the expansion and consolidation of research areas but this does affect Cultural Studies. I don’t mean jealousy or anything remotely in that line, I mean a perplexing inability to stay in touch and go on working together. Or to click, for lack of a better word. What appeared to be promising connections failed in a variety of cases. Persons who seemed friendly had an aggressive agenda in mind, others remained friendly but oddly inapproachable. Then, within the group we may have made mistakes, such as not taking the road to become a research group, for which I myself have been blamed. My point of view is that we were too diverse to cohere in the terms which the Ministry requires and I still think this is a correct perception, but maybe this is me being mulish. I also think, and I’m sorry to say this, that we lacked a strong leadership. As you can see, I’m talking about the past because in a way the generation that introduced Cultural Studies into English Studies in Spain is approaching the end of their careers and the ideas that have been abandoned will not be retaken.

I have then a bittersweet feeling: I think that English Studies is the study area most welcoming to Cultural Studies in Spain but I don’t think this means that it is fully consolidated. I’m happy to see that researchers apply its methods often without being 100% aware that this is what they’re doing but I worry about the backlash from right-wing academics constantly arguing that Cultural Studies is nothing but left-wing activism. Of course, that’s the whole point–questioning how ideas and values are formed, though the politics of Cultural Studies are a matter for another post.

To conclude, I should say that whereas Cultural Studies as we practice them in English Studies in Spain has radically changed the way we think of identity–exploring nationality, ethnicity, gender, age and other factors–there is still an obvious shyness about breaking textual barriers and fully accepting variety. Popular music and videogames are still mostly virgin territory, and as I know first hand as a reader of science fiction, not all genres are equally appreciated.

I don’t think that we are ready for Literature to take less space in our degrees (and research) but this is happening in the world around us and sooner or later we’ll have to consider this question. And truly welcome Cultural Studies.

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


April 1st, 2019

Obsessing about how each of the great six male Romantic poets made a living is not the most orthodox way to approach them. It is now John Keats’s turn and, once more, this is, I think, a very relevant issue.

I’ll begin, then, by mentioning Keats’s guardian Richard Abbey, the man who put in charge of young Keats’s education in the absence of his father (a successful ostler-keeper who died when the boy was eight) and the mother (dead when he was fourteen). Keats was born in what might be called a middle-class family and he received a rather good primary and secondary education at liberal John Clarke’s School, happily for him away from Eton (where, remember, Shelley was mercilessly bullied). The headmaster’s son, Charles Cowden Clarke, awakened the love of poetry in the child Keats but, very sensibly, Abbey chose for his not-too-rich ward an apprenticeship, at age fourteen, with a surgeon/apothecary. After this, Keats enrolled as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital in 1815 (aged twenty). Keats started publishing poetry in 1814 and by 1816–already in possession of an apothecary’s licence, which could have led to his being a physician and surgeon–he decided to abandon medicine (and not because he lacked a talent for it).

Abbey’s fury is easy to imagine, not only because a great deal of money had been invested in Keats’s training but also because the poetry market could by no means guarantee a living. For whatever reasons the legacies of his mother and grandmother, which could have freed Keats from the need to do paid work, were left unclaimed and he mainly depended on Abbey’s generosity and that of his friends to progress in his career as a poor, bohemian poet. Sales of his three poetry volumes were very low and Keats basically lived in poverty–his lack of prospects was the reason why he could not marry his beloved Fanny Brawne (she was in mourning for him for six years and only married twelve years after his death). The difference with Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, who were also poets of subsidized leisure, is that unlike Keats they had a title and an upper-class family background to rely on. It is actually quite extraordinary that Keats launched himself as a poet in his social situation–Wordsworth, remember, accepted a position as head post-master once he was a family man, Coleridge had a patron. Keats, of course, died too young, aged only twenty-five, to be in a similar position as a husband and a father and so he embodies–even more closely than the celebrated poet Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) who died by his own hand aged only seventeen–the myth of the young genius taken too early by death.

Read in hindsight, Keats’s biography makes perfect sense: he quit medicine to focus on poetry for a short career of just five years (1816-1821) as if he knew that he was going to die. The point, though, is that he did not know that he would die young. Keats chose poetry because he felt strongly entitled to earning an immortality for which the only foundation was his own strong belief in his talent. Is this wrong? Isn’t this the stuff of every Romantic dream of being an artist? Yes it is, but let me ask this question: if Blake could produce his amazing oeuvre while still working long days why did Keats see his poetical vocation as incompatible with the pressing need to make a living? What if he had turned out to be a bad poet? How many others have destroyed their lives following the myth of the artist devoted to his/her art? And no, I don’t have a child asking me to be an artist full time… I’m just making the point that these choices and his early death do not constitute a tragedy. They are part of the socio-economic subtext of Romantic poetry, a genre which depends very heavily on a youthful sense of leisure financed by others (mainly patient, devoted, besotted family and friends), though this is hardly ever commented on. Would I rather not have Keats’s poems? No, of course not–but I’d rather not pass on as Romantic myth what was a very snobbish view of paid work as a sort of humiliating activity.

Like Shelley, Keats was only known among a small coterie in his lifetime. He emerged as a poet at a time when Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Byron were already stars and was therefore seen as a member of a school about to peak. His poetry was not particularly well received, to the point that Byron established the myth that what actually killed poor Keats was the negative reviews of Endymion, the poem Keats saw as his masterpiece. So much for legend. Keats actually died for lack of antibiotics, only available from 1945 onwards, and because the poorly understood nature of tuberculosis led to appalling medical treatment (believe it or not, patients like him were bled… as if they needed to lose even more blood). Fanny could not do for Keats what Mary did for Percy Shelley with the post-humous edition of his poems and, apparently, none of Keats’s friends could agree on how to approach his biography. There were scattered comments and even Shelley’s monumental poem “Adonais” (in fifty five stanzas!) but it fell to Victorian admirers who had not met Keats in life to write his biography. Incidentally, Alfred Tennyson was one of Keats’s main champions.

Allow me to stop for a while at Andrew Motion’s 1997 biography, which came after a long silence of thirty years on Keats’s life (by the way: the most recent biography is Nicholas Roe’s 2012 volume). Motion is a first-rank poet who simply loves Keats and so, though no scholar, he published his book as a heart-felt homage. Interestingly, his efforts elicited a furious attack from American leading poetry scholar Helen Vendler, who absolutely hated Motion’s style: “There is an odd mixture, in his chapters, of the old vocabulary of appreciation with the newer vocabulary (never adequate to poetry) of materialist criticism” (https://www.lrb.co.uk/v19/n20/helen-vendler/inspiration-accident-genius). Vendler was incensed by Motion’s discussion of issues connected with class, gender, and race, believing that scholarly comment on the poems should have been the main focus. I’m myself a cultural materialist (hence my comments on the Romantics’ income) so I cannot sympathise with her point of view. I mention her vitriolic attack because it gives us a chronology for when scholarly analysis started being inextricably mixed with Cultural Studies concerns: the late 1990s.

The ‘materialism’ attached to any literary career is, sorry Vendler, very important. It connects not only with the material production of the editions that help to canonize authors and keep them alive but with many other aspects also worth considering like heritage and adaptation. Keats is right now a text beyond the texts he produced, as we see in the way his person is recalled beyond the scholarly analysis of the poems. The road to his canonisation was fully established by Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats (1848), edited by Richard Monckton Milnes, himself a poet in the Apostles Club which also included Tennyson. But the poems are just part of Keats’s construction as a Romantic icon. His memory is, intriguingly, also celebrated in two houses he never owned: Keats’s House in Hampstead (London) was the property of his friend Charles Wentworth, he just rented rooms there; the Shelley-Keats House in Rome is not even connected to his writing, as Wentworth’s house is, but to his death–this is where his journey south seeking a warmer climate ended. Shelley, by the way, never shared a home with Keats so it’s funny that their names have been linked.

You can enjoy on YouTube the introductory video that Keats’s House offers its visitors (https://youtu.be/tgjZdBEdVs8) and compare it to another production of similar length and content, ‘The strangely encouraging life of John Keats’ (https://youtu.be/Mxc63WPaksY) to consider: a) how a life can be summed up in just nine minutes (in both cases); b) which aspects are highlighted (consider the mother’s role). As for the house itself, I had great fun watching vlogger Jesse Waugh’s report, also nine minutes long (https://youtu.be/ED1VOSO8rug). The age of the amateur documentarian is just wonderful! Watch next the official video ‘A Walk Through the Keats-Shelley House with Giuseppe Albano’ (https://youtu.be/7ZxAGg9qhKg), a nice five-minute piece designed to… ask for funding from admirers. Then wonder a) why we visit these places at all, b) what type of fetishism they depend on, c) whether seeing the locket with Keats’s hair, and his life and death masks, illuminates our understanding of the poems. I have visited the house in Hampstead and, yes, you do get that funny feeling of ‘my, this is where Keats wrote his best poems’ but, then, each of these museums is an artificial construct that caters to aspects of fandom quite tangential to the persons there celebrated. Or are the museums central and the poems tangential?

The heritage industry extends to adaptation usually through the biopic but also through other audio-visual and print products. For all of these the basis is biography, based on its turn on scholarly research. I have already alluded to some films based on the lives of the Romantic poets: Pandemonium (Wordsworth and Coleridge), and a few dealing with Byron and Shelley–Gothic, Rowing in the Wind, Enchanted Summer, Mary Shelley… John Keats has received the attention of New Zealander film director Jane Campion, known mainly for the Victorian drama The Piano. Her film Bright Star (2009) is based on Motion’s biography but focuses specifically on the doomed romance between Fanny Brawne and John Keats. I cannot offer an opinion since I have not seen it: as much as I like Ben Wishaw (Keats) the reviews complaining about how boring the film is put me off. And my class prejudices–the impossible love which the film narrates has to do not only with Keats’s failure to make sufficient money to marry Fanny (excuse me!) but also with the gender prejudice that prevented the daughters of gentlemen from making a living. Today, talented Fanny would probably be a fashion designer and it would be her choice (or not) to maintain Keats while he wrote poetry. At the time when they were alive this was not an option and, so, what is presented as a tragic romance is just the product of ugly gender-related social limitations. Biopics tend to do that: focus narrowly on their subject paying little attention to the bigger picture–but, then, socio-economics make no good R/romantic plots.

There is another adaptation which I’d like to mention: the four novels by Dan Simmons, known as the Hyperion Cantos: Hyperion (1989), The Fall of Hyperion (1990), Endymion (1996), and The Rise of Endymion (1997). These are, as it is habitual in Simmons’s work, a heady mixture of science fiction and unbelievably rich literary allusion. Every time someone tells me that SF is a trivial genre, I ask them to read Simmons and then get back to me. In an often quoted interview (http://www.bookpage.com/9708bp/firstperson3.html), Simmons comments that ‘In fact, when I first started writing Hyperion, I knew I’d have to deal with Keats’ long poems, “Hyperion” and “The Fall of Hyperion”. I really appreciated his theme of life evolving from one race of gods to another, with one power having to give way to another, as Hyperion must”. You don’t need to have read all of Keats to follow Simmons, but the more you know the better you can catch the allusions–and enjoy Keats’s presentation as an immortal ‘cybrid’ (a mixture of clone and AI). In another novel, in this case by Tim Powers, The Stress of her Regard (1989), Byron, Shelley and Keats encounter their terrible muse and are vampirised by her and the even more terrible Nephillim…

How about Keats’s poems? Two very quick comments, as I have room for no more: it is really amazing that he is remembered by a very short list of pieces (mainly the odes), and, now that we have lost the art of letter-writing to whatsapp and even more criminally illiterate social media, it is important to recall that Keats was a magnificent writer of letters. His intellectual work is scattered among them (he did not write other essays) but so is his love life–the letters he addressed to Fanny Brawne are pure poetry though in prose. And everyone agrees that he was a poet of sensuality, which is why the Pre-Raphaelite painters took inspiration from so many of his poems–another form of adaptation.

Keats chose ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water’ as the epitaph for his tomb in the Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners in Testaccio, Rome (where Shelley’s ashes are also buried), believing he had failed in his bid to conquer immortality. His friends added more words, claiming that Keats died ‘in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies’, thus perpetuating the legend that he was killed by his mean reviewers. This is a point often noted by introductions to Keats (in which, Richard Abbey is unanimously characterised as a villain) but it may be about time to consider this epitaph from the opposite point of view: Keats’s view of himself as a man who could reach immortality through poetry is an extraordinary stance to assume, and we need to deconstruct it as part of the Romantic myth. I’m not trying to kill off personal aspiration or deny Keats’s right to make the most of his talent. I’m baffled by the economic dependence though what truly irks me is the implicit celebration of bohemian, self-chosen poverty as part of the Romantic act of creation. Surely, among the truly poor there may have been one or two Keats, maybe three… but they never ever dreamed of immortality, how could they? For them having a Richard Abbey to help them would have been enough dream–but I’d rather stop here before I make myself totally unable to read Keats… Damned cultural materialism!!

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


March 25th, 2019

The title of my post today is intended to be ambiguous: I mean to say that it is thanks to the love of his wife Mary that Percy Shelley is celebrated as a major poet, and that both he and all poetry readers must thank her for her efforts. As she wrote, ‘He died, and the world showed no outward sign. But his influence over mankind, though slow in growth, is fast augmenting; and, in the ameliorations that have taken place in the political state of his country, we may trace in part the operation of his arduous struggles’. Yet, while it is true that Percy Shelley’s post-humous fame was based on the gradual discovery that his texts were politically relevant and inspirational for later times, his writings would not have survived without Mary’s editorial intervention and her determination to make them be known.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) died shortly before his thirtieth birthday. He had published a long list of volumes (about twenty) including poetry, drama, fiction, and essays but Shelley was known only by a small circle of connoisseurs. He had no public fame in life comparable to that which his good friend Lord Byron enjoyed (if that is the correct word) though he had a high impact among those who knew him. Famously, Byron said of Percy Shelley that ‘I never met a man who wasn’t a beast in comparison to him’, which suggest he was also well liked as a person, not only as an artist of the word.

Percy drowned in the sea, near Livorno in Italy, where he lived since 1818, in a boating accident that was the product of imprudence and poor seamanship. A fierce summer storm caused his poorly build ship, the Don Juan, to sink. Percy, his friend Edward Williams, and boat boy Charles Vivien had no time to react. Shelley’s much disfigured remains washed up on the shore eventually and he was cremated on the beach following Italian quarantine laws. Legend, established by the mendacious Edward Trelawney, has it that his heart survived the burning, though Duncan Wu argues that the cherished relic is possibly a piece of the liver… No matter. His devastated widow–who was only 24 and had also lost three children–set out to make sure that the memory of her husband survived for posterity, with the help of devoted friends like Leigh Hunt.

In 1824, two years after Percy’s death, Mary published Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a lovingly assembled volume which shows her accomplished editorial skills (she worked in some cases with almost undecipherable manuscripts). Amazingly, Mary had to withdraw this book from circulation at the request of her father-in-law, Sir Timothy Shelley. He adamantly refused her the right to publicise the details of his son’s complicated private life, fearing that scandal would hurt the snobbish family. Percy’s father only relented when he was approaching ninety, apparently out of affection for his grandson Percy Florence, Percy and Mary’s only surviving child. Sir Timothy finally allowed Mary to publish in 1839 The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, on condition that she did not include a biography. Mary added abundant notes to the poems that can be read as a sort of covert life of the poet. She had no doubt that her notes would tell the truth about the man, for she had ‘the liveliest recollection of all that was done and said during the period of my knowing him’.

I’ll get back to Sir Timothy later but I’d like to stop first at Mary’s ‘Preface’ for the 1839 anthology. My opinion about Percy Shelley is no doubt coloured by the negative view transmitted by my dear teacher Guillermina Cenoz that he was, basically, a selfish man. She saw Frankenstein as a work which Mary wrote mainly aiming to secretly expose and punish her husband’s artistic career and personal self-centredness for the cost it meant to family life. I tend to agree with her view, for Percy’s biography is, besides, full of his palpable need to get attention from adoring women: not only his two wives (Harriet Westbrook and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) but also other women present in his life as intimate friends, such as Jane Williams.

It is often supposed that Percy was a practitioner of free love, and that he not only had liaisons with other women but also that he tried to have Mary involved with other men. I think this is part of our constant over-sexualization of every close relationship and that Percy was, rather, a man who craved for emotional attention. Of course, what do I know? It occurs to me, though, that if he had misbehaved in a very serious way, Mary would not have made the effort of producing the two volumes (the second edited while her health was seriously impaired). She would not have written, either, the preface for, though she speaks of fulfilling a duty, nobody really expected her to do anything for her late husband.

Mary’s preface has been accused of sanitizing Percy and offering an angelic view of the man. She called him ‘a pure-minded and exalted being’ and though she referred to his brain and not his body, her hagiography, which led to Shelley’s canonization in Victorian times, is only now being contested from a more politically-oriented stance. It is important to recall that Mary was writing under the strict surveillance of Sir Timothy and that a loving widow (she never remarried) is not probably the most impartial judge of her dead husband. I find, however, the preface as candid a view of Percy as was possible under the circumstances and I don’t think, anyway, that an artist’s widow in more recent times would produce something substantially different in tone and intention. It is also interesting to note that the efforts of Mary’s own father, William Godwin, to honour his dead wife’s legacy, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798) caused much outrage because of his outspokenness. This was no doubt a precedent Mary had in mind.

Mary begins mentioning the ‘obstacles’ now ‘happily removed’ which allow her to ‘fulfil an important duty,—that of giving the productions of a sublime genius to the world, with all the correctness possible, and of, at the same time, detailing the history of those productions, as they sprang, living and warm, from his heart and brain’. She will offer no comments on his private life, ‘except inasmuch as the passions which they engendered inspired his poetry’. A bit mysteriously, she writes that the time ‘to relate the truth’ has not come and she will not, anyway, offer a convenient version. ‘Whatever faults he had ought to find extenuation among his fellows, since they prove him to be human; without them, the exalted nature of his soul would have raised him into something divine’. To err is to be human, then, though we will never know to what faults Mary referred. And why should we?

Now, for the main qualities: ‘First, a gentle and cordial goodness that animated his intercourse with warm affection and helpful sympathy. The other, the eagerness and ardour with which he was attached to the cause of human happiness and improvement; and the fervent eloquence with which he discussed such subjects’. Mary launches then into presenting Percy as a man fully committed to the cause of political freedom, with utmost passion: ‘any new-sprung hope of liberty inspired a joy and an exultation more intense and wild than he could have felt for any personal advantage’. These words were written after the passing of the 1832 Reform Act, the first timid step into the widening of the franchise to all male voters in Britain, and Mary stresses that decades before, when her husband was politically active, defending any kind of freedom was a risky enterprise. Percy’s poetry reflects ‘the determination not to despair’, against the tenet that Romanticism is the expression of despair.

Mary argues that Percy’s poems are of two types: ‘the purely imaginative, and those which sprang from the emotions of his heart’. Of the second type, the ‘more popular’, she writes that they were the expression of personal feeling that, while running deep, he was ‘usually averse to expressing (…) except when highly idealized’. This is puzzling for it suggests that Percy’s ‘intensity of passion’ and ‘extreme sensibility’ were better manifested in the poems than in person. Mary refers to finding fragments of unfinished poems with manifestations of his deep self of which she was not aware but, then, every person leads a secret emotional life not even available to their spouses. Interestingly, she mentions that Percy himself valued the ‘metaphysical strain’ expressed in the less popular poems above the personal effusion: ‘He loved to idealize reality; and this is a taste shared by few’, though she trusts that there is plenty in his Platonic poems ‘that speaks to the many’.

Mary, born in 1797, was forty-two when she wrote the preface, thirteen years older than when Percy died. She grants that ‘there is the stamp of such inexperience’ in all his production, for ‘the calm of middle life did not add the seal of the virtues which adorn maturity to those generated by the vehement spirit of youth’. On the other hand, Mary notes that her husband was a ‘martyr to ill-health’, attributing his heightened sensitivity to ‘constant pain’, which made this ‘perfectly gentle’ man often irritable and overexcited. Mary reports that the day before his untimely death Percy declared ‘If I die to-morrow I have lived to be older than my father’, meaning that his body had accumulated in less than thirty years more sensibility and feeling than many others could expect to have in much longer lives. Live fast, die young… and leave a sadly destroyed body and an inconsolable widow. A tragedy, really.

Percy Shelley’s family background is that of the gentry portrayed in Jane Austen’s novels. Percy’s paternal grandfather, Bysshe Shelley, was 1st Baronet of Castle Goring (a baronetcy is the lowest title in the aristocratic hierarchy; baronets are commoners with a right to be called Sir). His upward social mobility and that of his son Timothy were secured by means of rewarding matches with rich heiresses (the same tactic followed by Byron and his father). It is often forgotten that upper-class patriarchal masculinity treated sons as chattel to be traded with other equally powerful families, and this is what Percy resisted.

Initially the relationship with his father was good, as proven by the fact that Sir Timothy financed the first four volumes his son published (two collections of poems with one of his sisters, two gothic novels). A disastrous turning point happened, however, when Percy, then nineteen, married sixteen-year-old Harriet, a schoolmate of his sister Helen and the daughter of a coffee-house owner. If the Westbrooks thought the match would guarantee their daughters’ financial and personal happiness they were quickly deceived. Sir Timothy reduced Percy’s allowance to a minimum and the couple survived, together with her sister Elizabeth, mainly by borrowing much above their possibilities. To make matters even worse, Percy had got himself expelled from Oxford shortly before eloping with Harriet for having written the pamphlet ‘The Necessity of Atheism’. He had no degree, no qualifications, and no way of entering any of the gentry-sanctioned careers for men.

Romantic legend has presented the relationship between Percy and Mary as the stuff of beautiful, romantic legend but nothing could be further from the truth–it was, at least at the beginning quite a sordid affair. Percy originally met Mary when she was fourteen and he, then nineteen and recently married, a visitor in William Godwin’s home. Mary’s father was happy enough to receive money from his admirer but he was outraged when, two years later, Percy abandoned Harriet to elope with Mary, then sixteen, to Europe. They may have married there but if this happened then Percy became a bigamist. Harriet had his second child (Charles, the elder was Ianthe) a few months before Mary had her first with Percy, Clara. Mary and Percy could finally marry legally in England in 1816 a few weeks after Harriet drowned herself in Hyde Park’s Serpetine. She was then heavily pregnant, probably from a lover, not Percy. Sued by Elizabeth, Harriet’s sister, Percy lost custody of his two children, who were put in foster care. One can imagine Sir Timothy’s disgust as his son’s behaviour, though he did not come to the rescue in any way, leaving Harriet’s children unattended.

In the preface Mary writes that Percy ‘spurned’ his privileges because he foregrounded his ideological duties. ‘He was generous to imprudence, devoted to heroism’, she writes. I will not deny his idealism but it is important to note that once Sir Bysshe died in 1815, Percy became the beneficiary of an annuity of about £1000. This was not much in relation to the lifestyle of his social circle, which is why Mary and he eventually moved to Italy, where they frequently coincided with Byron. When Percy died, Mary depended on her work as a writer (she published other novels, not only Frankenstein) and on the rather limited help which Sir Timothy gave her for the upkeep of Percy Florence. It seems that one of his conditions was that she never used her name in her publications, to prevent any connection with the surname Shelley (see http://knarf.english.upenn.edu/People/tshelley.html).

The anonymous author of the article I have referenced calls Sir Timothy a ‘mean-spirited, hard-hearted’ man and a ‘forsaker of genius’, an expression I have found nowhere else on Google. This seems a fair judgement particularly since Sir Timothy was indeed aware of his son’s literary talent. The life he intended for Percy was a repetition of his own: a political career as an MP in some rotten borough under the protection of an aristocratic patron and marriage to a landowning heiress. It is easy to see why an idealistic youth like Percy would reject this plan but, of course, the downside of his rebelliousness is that Shelley always depended economically on the men of his family, both his father and his grandfather. This great defender of the workers of England never worked to earn a living, though I grant that he did much work on the literary front. In contrast another idealist young man decided decades later to make the most of his father’s money by running his factory and embezzling funds to start a political revolution. I mean, of course, Friedrich Engels (1820-1895).

Shelley’s idealism and commitment to the cause of freedom are, then, respectable but also the product of his class and privileged circumstances. Mary celebrated her late husband in her preface and the two anthologies but I wonder how she felt about Harriet. It is hard not to sympathise with this poor woman and her children. As a worker’s daughter I myself have a great deal of mistrust against upper-class individuals presenting themselves as liberators, much more so against those who never did a day’s paid work in their life. I may value Percy Shelley’s poetry (I really do) and I might accept that he was not as selfish as my teacher painted him. Still, I have many doubts about Shelley, beginning with whether he really deserved all the love Mary put into the task of ensuring his immortality. And I wonder whether he would have done the same for her.

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


March 18th, 2019

In a hilarious moment of the two-part documentary The Scandalous Adventures of Lord Byron (2009) presenter Rupert Everett discusses with Donatella Versace–as they wait for her butler to announce dinner at her own luxury Milan home–whether Byron (1788-1824) was really as handsome as so many contemporaneous testimonials claim. At this point, Everett has already seen diverse portraits and has even donned the same Albanian dress that Byron wears in the famous painting by Thomas Phillips, now at the National Portrait Gallery. Seeing handsome Everett look rather ridiculous in it, the spectator might conclude that Byron was indeed a man of good looks and even better poise. Also, a man who controlled each portrait that was made of him as we control our image in our Instagram accounts. He wanted specifically to look manly, a man of action and not a poet, as Everett notes, and also disguise a limp caused in childhood by polio.

Everett and Versace note that notions of beauty were very different in the early 19th century, suggesting that Byron’s physical appearance would not seem so extraordinary today. I find this quite tantalizing! Everett quips that, on the other hand, Byron must have looked stunning at a time when having all your teeth while still young was not common. At a later point in this second episode the tone changes and becomes a bit less flippant. Rather subtly, Everett’s comments start defending the view that by the time when Byron died, aged only 36, he was past his prime. The infection that killed him was an accident of life, perhaps one preventable, but the documentary hints that Byron’s choice of malaria-infested Missolonghi as his home in Greece was somehow suicidal. It is implied in short that had Byron lived on his life would have been a sad, gradual fall into physical decadence. This is, at the same time, part of the Byron myth: live fast, die soon, and conquer eternal fame. I’m not sure about leaving a beautiful body to bury.

In life, Byron enjoyed fame but he was mostly beset by celebrity and by notoriety–and, of course, scandal. It is fit that Everett, an openly gay man with a pansexual past, presents Byron’s biography, for George Gordon (this is his actual name) was a product of the sexual prejudice of his time or, rather, of its hypocrisy. Just as it seems impossible to discuss Coleridge without mentioning his drug addiction it seems impossible to discuss Byron without alluding to his sexual adventurousness. Likewise, whereas no biographical sketch of Wordsworth is complete without his sister Dorothy, no portrait of Byron can be offered without associating him with his half-sister Augusta Leigh (his father’s daughter by a first wife).

Byron might scream to high heaven that they did not commit incest and that Augusta’s third child Medora was her husband’s and not his but we would still doubt his word, for that is what celebrity and scandal are about: constructing people as we want them to be, not as they are. With lights and shadows: incest may be too much even for us but the pansexual man Everett describes is more to our taste. Funnily, as we dismantle the sexual prejudices of Byron’s time (serious enough to land you in jail for sodomy), we have started criticizing the man for not being handsome enough, and even for being at times in his life rather overweight. Duncan Wu, in particular, offers an image of an effeminate, flabby, shortish, stout Byron totally at odds with the connotations that the word ‘handsome’ awakes in our minds.

Byron was an aristocrat and though not an extremely rich man (he lived on borrowed money, mostly, like most of his class), he led a life of ease and luxury that seems to belong in the 18th century rather than the early 19th. He may be celebrated as a great national hero in Albania and Greece but his mildly Whig politics in defence of nationalism (and even at one point of the anti-Industrial Revolution luddites) are not based on very strong beliefs. It seems, rather, than in a world in which nobody cared for anyone beyond the national borders, Byron’s curiosity and personal presence in remote lands was in itself welcome as a heroic act. His contribution to the independence of Greece was, at best, very marginal and he seems to have been seen during his time at Missolonghi in the early 1820s as just a rich English lord that could be easily milked for his money, if you excuse the expression. He did not die a hero’s death in battle as one might expect from all the exaltation but simply write verse that vaguely endorsed the right of Greece to be a free nation again, on the strength of what it used to be in the classical past. He died, as I have noted, of a fever variously attributed to an imprudent ride in the rain or a bug caught from his pet dog.

If abroad he was a hero, at home Byron was a celebrity of the kind that the Daily Mirror enjoys praising and demolishing in equal parts today. And this what happened to this man: he found himself suddenly famous, as he wrote, after the immense success that the first two cantos of Childe Harold (1812) were, only to be completely ostracized just four years later. In 1816 Byron had to leave England for ever following the scandal of his separation from his wife Annabella because of the rumours about incest with Augusta. Byron was probably one of the worst husbands on record and the separation makes complete sense: his wife, whom he had married for her money as his father had married his two wives, just could not endure the constant humiliation of Byron’s active extramarital life. What is hypocritical is the scandal. Byron often claimed that he had never seduced any woman because he didn’t have to: basically, the women of the Regency period that chased him were the first groupies in literary history, and no wonder, since Byron has often been compared to a rock star. One of the harassers, Lady Caroline Lamb, defined Byron as ‘bad, mad, and dangerous to know’ but probably this is who she, not him, was.

The good looks, the hectic search for sexual pleasure, the journeys to distant lands, the scandalous married life, the more than likely homosexuality and the incest with Augusta… all these are sufficient not for one but for several celebrities. What makes Byron a radically different celebrity from those plaguing our time is that his fame was based on his poetry, for which he did work much harder than he pretended. The sales of his work from Childe Harold onward were in the first years high enough to push best-selling poet Walter Scott out of the market, to the point that Scott became a novelist (though he published anonymously his early novels as if ashamed that they were a second-rank, mercenary product). Byron was particularly well-known because of his narrative verse and he continued enjoying that success even after he had been socially ostracized, from his exile in Switzerland, Italy and finally Greece. To understand how relatively lucky he was, we need to think of the far more tragic fate of Oscar Wilde, a man as flamboyant and sexually curious as Byron but who could not escape, as Byron did, the harsh action of British homophobic legislation. Wilde’s exile in the late 1890s was a much sadder story indeed but, then, he was no aristocrat.

Byron’s main cultural legacy, beyond his poetry and even beyond Literature, is the Byronic hero, a construction that was appended to his own person by his readers whether he wanted it or not. We cannot know what Byron was really like but just as his looks his personality also elicit doubts. He insisted for years that he was not Harold, the character that first expresses the Byronic temper which other male characters inherited–restless, moody, pessimistic, curious about people yet a loner, interested in pleasure but little capable of sustained love. Yet, Byron eventually gave in and granted that in many ways the Childe’s pilgrimage was his own, and Harold a thin mask for himself. Indeed, Byron is all over his poetry, also as Manfred and Don Juan and most of his main male characters, but this is not at all singular. Look at how Wordsworth mined his own youth for The Prelude. I see the appeal of the Romantic construct and why the Byronic hero soon surfaced in many other narratives (mainly novels and plays) giving us Heathcliff, but also Dracula, and even Christian Grey. What puzzles me is what kind of audience Byron had and how they could follow him at all.

I have just finished reading Childe Harold, the four cantos, and I’m not sure how to describe the experience. Last week I told my students that Romantic poetry was published in its time with no footnotes and that the original readers did not expect a critic to decode the meaning, or any obscure passages, for them. We had read the passages in Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth introducing some of his poems but they were aimed at describing the circumstances that inspired each poem, not the poem itself. Likewise regarding Coleridge and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. We listened in class to Ian McKellen’s beautiful reading of this long narrative poem (about 30 minutes) and though I stopped now and then to make sure students could follow the plot, in general the text was well understood. I’m not in favour of that kind of teaching that turns reading poetry into a forensic exercise, of which you can find plenty on YouTube (a lot from India, for whatever reason!) and I’d much rather my students enjoy the poems they should know about. With Byron, however, I simply don’t know what to do. The booklet we are using includes all of Manfred and Don Juan’s first canto and not Childe Harold but even so the point is the same one: Byron’s poetry is just too obscure for us today, here and in my second-language, second-year classroom.

I did try to read Childe Harold without checking Byron’s own lengthy notes (mostly on points of History, always showing an amazing erudition) or the notes of his editor, which also included notes to Byron’s notes!! It was just impossible: it was like reading through glasses that would suddenly cloud and blind me, but also suddenly disappear altogether, a veritable rollercoaster. Thankfully, Rupert Everett’s documentary follows the journeys by Byron reflected in this long poem and I could make sense more or less of where Harold was at given points but without that aid (and the notes) I would have been quite lost. To my surprise, even though I expected a very intimate portrait of the Byronic hero to connect the diverse observations of the pilgrim, I found the stanzas oddly detached except in the few passages (mainly in canto four) where Harold bemoans his fame and wonders what it will be like once he dies. I positively missed Wordsworth, whom Byron very much disliked, in the stanzas about the landscapes and even the cities. And I had a really tough time understanding allusions to personalities of the 1810s even with the editor’s excellent notes. There was also the problem of when to read the notes, for they constantly interrupted the flow of the lines. I eventually settled on reading them after each stanza. When I came across six stanzas without notes, it felt like being on a sailing ship with a full gale.

Reading the negative comments on Walter Scott’s first novel, Waverley (1814), I came across a disgruntled reader who, hating this pompous piece of fiction as much as I do, proposes that we ‘decanonize’ Scott. I think that we are already in the process of decanonizing Scott, who has not been included in our second-year 19th century courses here at UAB since at least 1994. Preparing the lectures on Byron I realised that I wasn’t even sure when to tell my students about Scott: now, commenting on his poetry together with Byron’s, or later when we teach Jane Austen. It is very clear to me that an English graduate must know who Scott was but I would not include one of his novels in the syllabus, for that would probably alienate rather than interest students. What I fear is that we have reached the same point with Byron: students must know who he was and what he did, but can they read his poems at all? Perhaps the lyrical pieces like ‘She Walks in Beauty’ but this hardly gives a glimpse of the giant he was.

Arguably Byron (and Scott) are a case not so much of decanonization but of increasingly difficult readability. It’s not the same. Robert Southey may be canonical but we just do not include him in our syllabi, either his poetry or his person, whereas, I insist, knowing about Byron and Scott is essential. This is a typical conundrum for all teachers: how should we teach? On the basis of literary archaeology or on the basis of accessibility? It used to be the former in the ancient times when philology reigned but the more pragmatic current approach tells me that Byron is approaching if not total at least partial decanonization.

I’m not sure that I’m sorry… but that must be my class (and gender) prejudice against privileged male aristocrats, no matter how handsome.

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


March 11th, 2019

It has become commonplace to see Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) through the lens of his drug addiction, which is why it is perhaps quite wrong to begin this post in this way. His case, however, must be contextualized and his addiction treated as an ailment similar to that currently killing 130 Americans every day and plaguing hundreds of thousands more (see https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids/opioid-overdose-crisis). With an important difference: whereas in Coleridge’s time the addiction to opium, and mainly to its derivate laudanum, was poorly understood in the 21st century our experience of drug abuse is already very extensive. This did not prevent greedy pharmas in the 1990s from flooding the market with potent analgesics said no have no side effects while they fooled the corresponding Government agencies.

Coleridge, like most current victims of the American opioid overdose crisis, suffered from chronic pain (connected with rheumatism) and simply needed relief. He most emphatically did not take drugs for recreation and if he had any visions attached to their use, this was not the outcome of any experiment–it was a side effect. Trying to make his body more comfortable Coleridge fell into a downward spiral of drug abuse that even his closest friends misread as vice. Wordsworth broke his long friendship with Coleridge for that reason (though they later reconciled) and if we have such vast textual production from him this is only because one Dr. Gillman took pity on his unfairly abhorred patient. This man and his family provided Coleridge with a home at their Highgate residence in London between 1816 and 1834, helping their illustrious guest to control his addiction as far as possible and allowing his mind to shine free from that burden (at least temporarily) to write, among others, his Biographia Literaria.

A constant in Coleridge’s life is an insatiable craving for knowledge. His father was an Anglican reverend but also the headmaster of the local King’s School at Ottery St Mary’s, Samuel’s birthplace in Devon. From Coleridge’s remembrance of his early childhood as a constant stream of reading, we may deduce that the father encouraged this activity. Reverend Coleridge died when Samuel was 8 and the boy, the youngest of ten siblings from two marriages, was sent to boarding school, at Christ’s Hospital (in London), an experience he did not relish in general. With one important exception, recalled in Biographia Literaria: in that school he “enjoyed the inestimable advantage of a very sensible, though at the same time, a very severe master, the Reverend James Bowyer”.

This man not only gave his young students a formidable education in the classics–combining them with Milton and Shakespeare–but was also an adamant editor of his pupils’ written work, teaching them to aim at precision. As Coleridge recalls, “he showed no mercy to phrase, metaphor, or image, unsupported by a sound sense, or where the same sense might have been conveyed with equal force and dignity in plainer words”. Bowyer did not take half measures: if two faults were found, “the exercise was torn up, and another on the same subject to be produced, in addition to the tasks of the day”. Coleridge still had in adult age nightmares about this man’s severity but he acknowledged his “moral and intellectual obligations” to him. He and his classmates, Coleridge adds, reached University as “excellent Latin and Greek scholars, and tolerable Hebraists”, though this was “the least of the good gifts, which we derived from his zealous and conscientious tutorage”. Reverend Bowyer, though not the kind of teacher we celebrate today, gave his brilliant student Samuel the foundations he needed for his extremely rich intellectual life.

Not all went well at Cambridge for Coleridge, for he never got a degree. Besides, he wasted one year of his youth in the King’s Light Dragoons, a regiment where he secretly enlisted as ‘Silas Tomkyn Comberbache’. He was discharged by reason of insanity (as the regiment papers attest), though other sources note that he was just the most inept soldier ever. Others claim that his brothers rescued Samuel from a personal crisis possibly provoked by an amorous disappointment when one Mary Evans rejected him.

Biographer Richard Holmes explains that Coleridge had many talents but he was above all a fascinating talker. Also, a rambling one, which means that his listeners were often amazed but also confused by the fast flow of his ideas. Coleridge was unable to write them down as they left his mouth and, besides, his manuscripts are known to contain many borrowed ideas he did not acknowledge or, in plain words, many plagiarisms. In any case, whereas Wordsworth’s main talent was as a poet, Coleridge was a much vaster intellect.

To my surprise, he was for a while an itinerant Unitarian preacher and seems to have regarded himself mainly as a theologian, though this is by no means how we think of him today. He was a philosopher deeply influenced by German idealism (which he imported into Britain), a psychologist avant la lettre specialised in the works of the Imagination (or creativity) and of literary creation, and a great literary critic (who, among other achievements, rescued Hamlet from the trash-can of literary history). Wordsworth gave us in The Prelude a whole treatise on the making of the poet, and Coleridge gave in his prose work Biographia Literaria an even more extensive exploration of the same topic. Some of his passing remarks have become key concepts in current culture: the notion that when we read Literature we ‘willingly suspend our disbelief’ comes from a remark in Biographia about Wordsworth’s ‘Preface’ to the Lyrical Ballads.

The question of Coleridge’s source of income must also be considered for, as I have been arguing here, although Romanticism creates a literary market that enables authors like Walter Scott or Lord Byron to invent the very idea of the best-seller, it also depends on leisure afforded thanks to rents or, in this case, patronage. Coleridge abandoned his duties as a Unitarian minister (in 1798, when he published Lyrical Ballads, aged 26) because his friend Thomas Wedgwood provided him with an annuity. Wedgwood, credited today with possibly being the first British photographer (see http://scihi.org/thomas-wedgwood-first-photographer/), was the son of Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the world-famous pottery firm that carries his name. Josiah was a most gifted businessman but also a patron of causes such as abolitionism and his son, also named Josiah (Tom’s brother), continued the family tradition of offering patronage to some artists. Apparently, the annuity was withdrawn in 1812, following the outing of Coleridge as a drug addict (this is attributed to Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater but this book came out in 1821). There is an article (available from JSTOR) about the Wedgwood annuity but this is more detail than I can supply here. I simply don’t know, then, how Coleridge survived after 1812 but my guess is that Tom still helped, and other friends. I don’t know either what the arrangement was with the ultra-friendly Dr. Gillman. Interestingly, patronage used to be regarded as a potentially humiliating relationship of dependence–hence the word ‘patronizing’–but is now back with crowdfunding and platforms like Patreon. Today, I’m speculating, Coleridge could have made a living in this way, though he could also have been offered an academic position as resident poet, or creative writing teacher. Remember he had no degree and could never have become an Oxbridge don.

Coleridge’s private life was not very happy–or, rather, it was rich in friendship but not so rich in women’s love. He married in 1795, aged 22, a girl called Sara Fricker simply because his good friend Robert Southey (the poet) had married her sister Edith. Both couples intended to found a utopian project in Pennsylvania called Pantisocracy, but the mad scheme simply collapsed. Sara and Samuel had four children and separated in 1808, when he was 36. She lived with her sister’s family and later with her son Derwent (check https://wordsworth.org.uk/blog/2017/07/29/romantic-but-hardly-romantic-sarah-frickers-life-as-coleridges-wife/). They never divorced.

It is odd to think of Sara struggling to make ends meet while her husband enjoyed the beautiful English landscape or stayed away for one year in Germany, all with the Wordsworths. Their baby Berkeley died while the father was away and he did not return home for the funeral. The elder, Hartley, was a constant problem for her parents. I should have thought that Dorothy Wordsworth was Samuel’s secret love, and the most evident way to bond with William beyond friendship but, apparently, Samuel fell in love instead with William’s sister-in-law, Sara Hutchinson (his wife Mary’s sister). Actually, this happened in 1799, before William married Mary, and the unrequited love story continued for many years. Sara also lived with the couple (and with Dorothy) until her death in 1835 and there was much occasion to meet. She was a good friend to Samuel but, for whatever reason, she never returned his love (see https://wordsworth.org.uk/blog/2017/11/01/sara-hutchinson-coleridges-asra/). She never married. Samuel died, in 1834, having engaged in no other significant relationship with a woman.

Samuel Coleridge did not have a very high opinion of himself. He refers in Biographia Literaria to his “constitutional indolence, aggravated into languor by ill-health; the accumulating embarrassments of procrastination; the mental cowardice, which is the inseparable companion of procrastination, and which makes us anxious to think and converse on any thing rather than on what concerns ourselves”. His bouts of depression and the constant effect of the drugs (and of the many attempts at withdrawal) certainly could not have helped to develop steady work habits but he was certainly a far more laborious individual than he credits himself for. Under the Wedgwoods’ patronage he spent that frantic year in Germany, furnishing his head “with the wisdom of others. I made the best use of my time and means; and there is therefore no period of my life on which I can look back with such unmingled satisfaction”. He took lectures in diverse universities on an astonishing variety of subjects as he improved his German. And he never stopped learning, which is why Coleridge had opinions on all subjects. He comes across, in short, as a man in intense conversation with himself, of which the rest of his contemporaries were witnesses rather than participants (except Wordsworth for a time). We possibly have in his writings only a mere fragment of what his mind could do.

I haven’t yet mentioned any of Coleridge’s poetry. I’m still processing Iron Maiden’s fifteen-minute-song based on ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, and the heavy-metal crowds singing the lines in a concert (check the video on YouTube). Amazing, really. Also, the wonder of listening to Benedict Cumberbatch read “Kubla Khan”. That’s the beauty of today’s digital world: it offers much more than kitten videos and ranting if you only care to seek it.

Coleridge would have loved the internet since he was, in a way, his whole life a student–an academic outside academia, so to speak, and not only a poet. He led a precarious life on the financial front and his body kept his mind chained to drug abuse for long years. Even so, he managed to produce extremely relevant literary and intellectual work out of insatiable curiosity. This is why it is so painful to read the many comments that accompany the videos on the Romantics on YouTube.

Not the Iron Maiden video, which everyone watches for pleasure, but videos such as Peter Ackroyd’s BBC mini-series ‘The Romantics’, which many students watch as compulsory homework. A man, as disappointed as I am by the rejection of education, bemoans the ‘lack of intelligence’ of the students who complain that Ackroyd’s series is boring. An irritated college student replies that not enjoying something does not mean that you’re not intelligent. I agree: it means you’re not curious–and this is the most common curse today. The albatross around the necks of most students. Coleridge, as his year in Germany shows, was immensely curious. Luckily for him, he had patrons that allowed him to take his curiosity as far as he could and, so, he connected ideas in new ways that have shaped our own world. I wonder what he would make of those who, given the chance to learn by their parents and all of society, reject it–though I think I know.

Romanticism was, let’s recall this, in rebellion against many traditional ideas but, as Coleridge’s case shows, it was a very well-read rebellion, passionate both in feelings and in thoughts. This is something to remember: education empowers individuals and, ultimately, changes the world. Boredom should play no part in this equation. I very much doubt that Coleridge was ever bored. Or boring.

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