CONSIDERING RESEARCH AND NATIONALITY (AND THE PROMPTINGS OF AN ILLUSTRIOUS VISITOR)

The research group I belong to, led by Àngels Carabí of UB and devoted to the study of masculinities in American fiction, received last Friday an illustrious visitor: Prof. Victor Seidler, an emeritus teacher of social theory at Goldsmiths in London (although he trained originally as a philosopher). I owe Prof. Seidler an important insight into my own position as a researcher and I was very happy to have the unexpected chance to thank him, as I did.

As it turns out, we had met back in 2000 in Seville at a conference on masculinity. He listened to my paper on John Grisham’s The Chamber, a quite interesting novel about a young lawyer who decides to represent his own grandfather, a Klansman sentenced to death for a terrorist attack. Prof. Seidler approached me later and turned small talk into quite an interrogation about my motivations to analyse this novel. He soon got out of me that my two grandfathers fought on opposite sides of the Spanish Civil War but kept totally silent on what they actually did. He made me see this way that I was using Grisham’s novel vicariously to understand the gaps in the history of my family’s men. Touché. Very much so.

I know now that Prof. Seidler is a staunch defender of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. Yet, the point I’m making here is not just that he succeeded in his inspired (psycho)analysis of the family silences nagging me onto doing research on masculinities. I’m more interested on how in his long Friday seminar he insisted that all researchers working on English Studies in Spain should consider how our histories, personal and collective, intersect with what we do as scholars.

Noticing that throughout the session he frequently mentioned our Catholic roots, I eventually explained to him that we’re not used to being treated as ‘Spanish researchers’. We somehow work under the pretence that our roots play no role in what we do and although we work on foreign cultures we hardly ever bring to our research a consideration of the point of view from which we write. Logically, from his own point of view our ‘difference’ is what makes our research particularly relevant, for we can contribute fresh insights into dominant Anglo-American cultural criticism.

The point I needed to make, though, is that A-list journals and academic presses do not favour this type of ‘difference,’ preferring instead a kind of universalism that leaves it (and us) out. Since Cultural Studies exists, you’re very welcome to making your own identity an integral part of research. Nevertheless, though in principle there’s no obstacle to presenting yourself as you wish, my impression is that there are limits. At least, I have never heard of, say, a Basque or a Bulgarian analysis of James Joyce, though that might be extremely relevant.

Possibly, thus, many of us have chosen to work on English Studies because, unconsciously or not, we have made the choice of avoiding the tangles of our own culture(s). The downside is that those tangles stay on untangled and, besides, we’re asked to pass off as what we’re not: natives to Anglo-American culture (or honorary members). Yes, you’re right, Prof. Seidler, we should write about that. Yet, I doubt there’s a ‘market’ and so, we struggle on, with our backs to our own culture(s), stranded, very appropriately given the topic of our research, in no man’s land.

Thank you, once more, for the insights and the encouragement to move ahead.

RECONSIDERING JEKYLL AND HYDE ONCE MORE: ON PERSONALITY DISSOCIATION

This is the third post I write here on Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, which shows that a masterpiece is that kind of text that delivers something new every time the reader approaches it. In preparation for my classes, I read Nancy Gish’s essay “Jekyll and Hyde: The Pathology of Dissociation” (International Journal of Scottish Literature, 2, 2007) and I’m sorry to say I totally disagree with her claim that “[Pierre] Janet’s theory of dissociated consciousness … provides the most compelling conceptual framework for understanding Stevenson’s representation of duality.” Multiple personality disorders started being described in clinical literature, according to Gish, in 1886 the very same year when Stevenson published his text. Interesting as this coincidence clearly is, this is not what Stevenson is addressing in his text (nor is sexual repression, as Gish convincingly argues).

Stevenson, I believe, disliked Dr. Jekyll for his hypocrisy, which mirrors that of the Victorian upper-middle class all-male professional circles to which our doctor belongs. Ironically, he has Jekyll write in his final statement that “Though so profound a double-dealer, I was in no sense a hypocrite; both sides of me were in dead earnest; I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I laboured, in the eye of day, at the furtherance of knowledge or the relief of sorrow and suffering.” A common misreading, despite these words, is the belief that whenever the good doctor becomes Mr. Hyde he loses the awareness of what his worse half is doing, which is what happens in cases of multiple personalities or dissociation. Other versions, literary and filmic descendants, might be to blame for that: Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club is actually the perfect example of psychological dissociation that Gish describes. Jekyll, on the contrary, looks at himself in the mirror as Hyde and remarks: “This, too, was myself.”

To recap my argument, his case is peculiar in that whereas for common mortals the result of intoxication by drugs (alcohol included) is a change in behaviour accompanied by different degrees of disinhibition, Jekyll suffers besides a spectacular bodily transformation. Since he looks different and nobody can identify him as Jekyll his behaviour is wild, but he is all the time Jekyll, no matter whether he calls himself Hyde when in his other body. No dissociation at all, then. The problem is, of course, that once he’s murdered Sir Danvers Carew (as Hyde) he also starts losing control over his metamorphic body. Thus, when Jekyll fails definetively to shed his Hyde body, he locks himself up. When his best friend Utterson brings his door down, Jekyll has no option but to kill himself still looking like Hyde, terrified as he is of being hanged. Wrongly, Utterson concludes that Jekyll is missing, until he learns the truth (and we with him) through the final two letters by Dr. Lanyon (who’s witnessed a transformation) and by Jekyll himself.

In his statement, Jekyll writes that the progress of his line of research in the future will lead to the point when “man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous, and independent denizens.” Somehow, this is pure common sense: we are no doubt a collection of different identities, depending on the situation (professional, familiar, sexual, leisure… you name it!). We don’t change bodies, but we do change the way our bodies look –surely, we don’t wear the same outfit to class and to a rock concert– and also the way we behave. And, sorry but, unlike what Stevenson imagined, the worst aspect of our Jekyll and Hydes (I’m thinking of child abusers) is how inconspicuous they are. Jack the Ripper got that right only two years after Stevenson published his masterpiece.

Jekyll suggests that the drug is neutral and that instead of Hyde he could have metamorphosed into someone saintly, supposing his better nature to have been stronger. I asked my students why we don’t have a story like that (or do we??). Most answered it would be boring but one answered that it’s because in that case the text would hint that drugs are good… Clever!! To see how profoundly we distrust Jekylls who fight evil rather than commit it, consider Bruce Wayne, the man who, at night, becomes Batman (no drugs, just a mask and cool gadgets). We are currently asking ourselves (see Christopher Nolan’s trilogy) whether Bruce Wayne is as psychotic as Jekyll. So much for good intentions.

And a last point to this long post, suggested by my students’ exercises: the problem with arguing that Stevenson is criticising hypocritical Victorian society for forcing men to repress their instincts is that this depends on what kind of instinct we’re talking about. Supposing Jekyll is secretly a rapist of either women or children I certainly would like his instincts repressed to the hilt. Call me a hypocrite if you wish.

WHAT WE TEACH, WHAT WE DON’T TEACH: SOME THOUGHTS (AND A NEW COLLABORATION)

I start here a little experiment: a series of, in principle, 5 collaborations with Cristina García Leitón, a student taking a combined BA in Spanish and English. Cristina runs her own blog, http://palabrascomosouvenir.blogspot.com.es/, and when I saw that she has a little subsection called ‘Aventuras y desventuras de una filóloga en proceso’ (within her Literature section) I got curious… After a long conversation over coffee, I proposed to her that we share one topic a month this semester, see how they sound from the point of view of a teacher and a student. Here’s the first one. See her blog for her answer.

Cristina tells me that she’d like to work for a publishing house, as she loves books both for their content and as objects to market. She knows a very young person, aged just 16, already offered an internship with a publishing house, whereas one of her flatmates, with an MA degree in publishing under her belt, is still unemployed. This leads the conversation to the many things we don’t teach in Spanish universities: creative writing, training to be a literary agent, art and culture reviewing, film studies… This sets me thinking about what we do teach.

I told Cristina that I was interested by her use of the phrase ‘filóloga en proceso’ in her blog, as I doubt most students understand what they’re training for in our language and literature degrees. We are called the Department of ‘English Philology’ but when we started the new undergrad degree the label ‘Philology’ was dropped in favour of ‘Studies’. ‘English Studies’ seems a more up-to-date label and also more Anglo-American. I still prefer it, for I hardly ever call myself a ‘filóloga’, thinking that I’m, rather, a ‘cultural and literary critic’ (in English). Actually, we Literature teachers don’t train any students, not even within the MA, in proper philological tasks, such as text editing (maybe I’ll propose that we do it), concerned as we are by teaching the basics: how to read in depth, how to write sound academic texts.

In a way, we, university teachers, look forward ideally to self-replicating. Let me explain: I don’t know how to train Cristina to access the job market for publishing, and I don’t know how to train the other Cristina I have met this week, who wants to be a writer. I believe that the competences I teach, how to read English Literature and how to write about it at an advanced academic level and in near-native English, can be applied to their dream jobs. But I realise I’m most helpful training students who want to follow, like me, an academic path. These are very few and might be none soon if we’re left with no MA and doctoral programme.

Am I questioning my own usefulness as a public servant and my very job? Not at all. I do know that I’m the icing on the cake and a strange luxury in this pragmatic world, not much interested in reading Literature, much less in a foreign language. As regards the two Cristinas, I believe that my main contribution to their professional training is guiding them in acquiring the cultural capital they need to become a good editor/publisher or a good writer. If it were up to me, I’d offer indeed a degree focused on Literature: how to read it, write it, edit it, review it, sell it and study it. But it’s not up to me as I’m working within a philological tradition that, like all traditions, has much dinosaur DNA in it.

Just think about this: I first visited the UAB Campus almost 30 years ago to ask whether they offered a ‘Licenciatura’ degree in Film Studies, which is what I wanted to take (with the vague idea of becoming a specialised scholar and also, maybe, a documentary filmmaker). They still don’t offer one… nobody in Spain does. And, let’s not kid ourselves, in the end ‘English Studies’ is the old ‘English Philology’ just with a more appealing label. I failed spectacularly even to introduce a Film Studies elective in it…

So, Cristina, let’s see what you are getting from us, Literature teachers.

SHORT BURSTS OF THINKING (OR WHY WRITING A BLOG MAKES SENSE)

I had an interesting conversation with a philosopher friend who, in the last few years, has been concentrating his teaching in one semester and spending the other in the USA. He has married an American woman and since re-location is not an option for either, given the stage their careers are at, he has made a pact with his Department, we’ll see for how long. He’s not the only one in this delicate personal situation that I know of, though this is not really my point. The point is, rather, that, as he tells me, his scientific production has increased enormously in quality and quantity because of this sentimental accident. Why? Obvious: he can concentrate and think for long periods of time away from his teaching duties and the usual admin hassle. As he told me, one cannot think properly when only using two days a week or even two days a month to do so.

Recently, a colleague in the Department has managed to produce a 250-page monograph with a British publishing house. I say ‘has managed to produce’ not because I doubted he could do it (not at all!!) but because, past the doctoral dissertation, it’s almost impossible to find the time and concentration to write books, which should be our prioritary task. When I asked him how he’d done it, the answer was by staying away from UAB (in this case, he chose to teach at a foreign university; also he enjoys a teaching reduction regularly for the bulk of his research so far). I myself wrote a couple of books before starting the round of admin appointments once tenured and spent a sabbatical researching for another book that has been waiting to be written for years now. In the meantime, I’ve managed to write just articles, book chapters and mini-books below 100 pages.

You might say that the articles, etc. do amount to a good-seized book and that, anyway, this blog, now above 110,000 words is quite a thick volume. So, why not write the abandoned book? Well, the answer is that I’m old-fashioned, as a former student now teaching in Britain told me. There, our peers, who don’t squander precious time on admin tasks and teach less (and make twice as much money), often plan books as a series of articles over, say, three of four years. When they’re done, they gather them together and, voilà!, here’s a monograph. I, being old-fashioned, dislike very much that kind of book which, unless it is very well planned, tends to be too miscellaneous. To be honest, I often feel cheated by titles that promise solid discussion and that boil down to a collection of minor ‘this and that’ on the topic. So far, nonetheless, I haven’t learned to publish this way. You could also say I have grown lazy or increasingly incapable of writing fast. Maybe it’s writer’s block.

So, I’m stuck not for lack of time but for lack of time to focus for a long time. Sorry, this is awkward. A colleague who kindly reads this blog (and is hyperactive, and has also written a substantial 200 plus page monograph!!) asks me how I find time to write here, when the answer is very simple: each post requires just a burst of thinking, between 30 and 60 minutes. This is not so difficult to find once or twice a week for our weeks, precisely, are fragmented into a myriad small tasks. This is the factor that makes using a whole day for a single matter almost impossible. I do manage to find now and them a Thursday-Friday window of opportunity from which most of my essays in the last 5 years have emerged (I wrote all of my little book Desafíos a la Heterosexualidad Obligatoria in 5 days in June, between the end of classes and the beginning of exams). And the academic year, remember, ends for everyone on 15th July (and for me as Coordinator on 31st). And, well, we need a holiday like everyone else (which, I know, we spend reading).

Fay Weldon used to say that the short story was the perfect genre for women, particularly for housewives, as their daily routine never allowed them for the long periods of concentration needed to write longer texts. So, here it is: it’s the blog for me. It’s either that or leaving home one semester a year, with all that implies in terms of personal cost to my private life, without mentioning the perfect nightmare of having to teach four subjects in one semester.

I’ll leave it here, I need to mark some exercises delivered out of deadline…

THE WORK I’VE TAUGHT MOST OFTEN: KAZUO ISHIGURO’S THE REMAINS OF THE DAY (AND STEREOTYPES)

I haven’t been able to find a better title for this post possibly because this is it: I want to write about the work I have taught most often throughout my 21 years as a university teacher. It used to be Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights until I took a break from it to teach Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a little tired of seeing my female students fall for Heathcliff despite my presenting him as a downright villain (I know I’m not done with him…). Ironically, I only started teaching Ishiguro’s masterpiece at UAB recently, to first year students, after having taught it every semester since 1998 at UOC. Now it’s the 27th time, 28th (or possibly 29th) if I consider my UAB teaching.

I cannot keep tabs on how many students have read The Remains of the Day because of my classes but they must be over 1,000. A few years ago, I even wrote a letter to Mr. Ishiguro, asking him whether he’d be so kind to acknowledge my devotion to his novel with a message to my UOC students. He never replied, which I thought was very bad PR. I must explain that I don’t like any other novel by Ishiguro. I even had a sort of misencounter with him, a few years before the letter, because there is no way I can hear the voice of the narrator in When We Were Orphans (a problem, it seems, shared by other readers). I asked him, please, to read for us his fans (meeting him at the British Council in Barcelona), a passage from the book and he declined, arguing that if the novel didn’t work for me or any other reader, there was nothing the author could do. I do regret that this is the novel he autographed for me, and not The Remains. And, no, this incident is not the reason why he didn’t answer my letter.

It seems that back in the mid 1980s Ishiguro was annoyed by being called by a critic an ‘Anglo-exotic’. He responded by deconstructing the most English of all English stereotypes: that of the perfect butler. His butler, Stevens, is given the first person narrative voice in The Remains of the Day and it’s a marvel to see how Ishiguro manages to have us, readers, dislike and sympathise with the man simultaneously. In comparison, the film adaptation by James Ivory is just melodramatic trash, despite Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, who are great.

My UOC students, usually what you would call ‘mature students’, enjoy this novel much more than their 18-year-old UAB peers, who find it, guess what?, too boring (meaning too slow). The Remains is, rather, a very subtle book which invites you to read between the lines and indeed against the grain. I ask my UOC students two questions: how Ishiguro criticises the role of Britain in 20th century History and how Stevens’ personality is conditioned by his Englishness. Yes, this is the kind of novel that seems written to help teachers explain all that to students –and I thank Ishiguro for that. The answer to the first question shows a certain difficulty to understand class issues, for since Marxism went out of fashion it seems as if class has become more tabooed than sex. I have to point out semester after semester that Ishiguro’s critique is focused on the cheeky alliance between the British upper classes and the Nazis. The answer to the second question always baffles me…

Most students choose a passage in the novel in which Stevens declares that only the members of the English ‘race’ make good butlers, dismissing the Celts (Scottish, Welsh, Irish) and the ‘Continentals’ as unable to “restrain their emotions”. Ishiguro is clearly exposing this man as a chauvinist specimen, and hinting that he has built for himself a tailor-made sense of Englishness that fits (and suits) his own emotional shortcomings. Well, it’s amazing to see how many students buy the stereotype and tell me that Stevens is ‘typically English’. Have we lost the battle against stereotypes, then? Is it still five o’clock tea and ‘siesta’? I usually reply that we need to see beyond this ‘typicality’ and see human beings as individuals, as Ishiguro suggests. Yet, it’s very hard. I catch myself using stereotypes all the time (women do this, men do that…) and it’s difficult to stop, they’re such good crutches for lazy thinking.

So, thanks to Mr. Ishiguro I have to rethink this matter every semester, which is very healthy. I guess this is what keeps the book alive for me. In these times in which identity matters so much, we must indeed consider why stereotypes still survive and, possibly, rule.

LET’S SUBLIME: A POLITICAL READING FOR THE HYDROGEN SONATA

I have devoured this week Iain M. Banks’s new Culture novel The Hydrogen Sonata (see http://www.iain-banks.net/). As I wrote last year in the post on Surface Detail, I hesitate to recommend his novels either as a mainstream or as an sf novelist for I know this is an acquired taste. I read complaints in Amazon.co.uk that he’s past his prime and that The Hydrogen Sonata offers nothing much, in terms of new ideas or space opera. Well, I have been a very happy reader during the hours I have spent reading it, marvelling at what kind of mind can hold together such a vast literary universe, and thanking him for the sense of humour, which I always appreciate. In this one, there’s a male character which overdoes it by having dozens of penises implanted all over his body –he needs four hearts to pump up all the required blood!! So much for the post-human body…

Banks has always maintained that as a Scottish sf writer his allegiance is to the genre not to the nation and, so, that his universe should not be read in political terms in connection with Scotland’s history and culture. His claim has always been that he created the Culture as a utopian response to so much American dystopian SF. I have always followed his lead in this, until now. I’m sure that my reading of The Hydrogen Sonata is contaminated not only by the forthcoming Scottish referendum on independence in 2014 but also by the independentist madness that has gripped the otherwise sensible nation where I live, Catalonia, because of the deep economic recession.

Consider Banks’s plot: his universe has reached a point in which entire civilisations may choose to Sublime into a higher state of being. One of these, the humanoid Gzilt, have decided to follow this path as a consequence of their veneration for their main religious icon: the Book of Truth, handed down to them by a long-Sublimed civilization. The Book has so far accurately predicted their whole progression as a species and seemingly suggests Subliming as the final target. Subliming can only be undertaken on the basis of a majority vote and those few who choose to be left behind must face the consequences of the ensuing planetary loneliness (and loss of significance as members of a extinct culture). A few weeks before Instigation (the beginning of the final process) the doubt arises of whether the Book of Truth might be just a pack of lies. Are the Gzilt committing a tragic mistake of epic proportions? The Culture, as usual in Banks’s novels, is faced with the tough decision of letting things be, or plunge their friends the Gzilt into chaos at the very last minute.

All this rang a bell as I read, which does not necessarily mean that Banks intended The Hydrogen Sonata to be an allegory. I do not know whether he’d be annoyed or amused by my paranoiac reading of his sf novel, I’d like to believe he’d be amused indeed. I realise that I am projecting my own fears, as no matter how in favour I may be of Catalan independence, I am worried sick that matters have gone too far, too rashly and, what bothers me most, with little Catalan sense of ‘seny’. Those who Sublime in Banks’s novel do not usually return while the very few who do are too overwhelmed to be minimally coherent. This contributes to the impression that the grass is indeed greener on the other side, but none really knows for sure. The alternative choice, though, the almost complete loneliness that the female protagonist Vyr considers is equally scary.

So much for reading sf to escape from the worries of daily life here on Earth…

GILBERT AND HEATHCLIFF, AGAIN: PREVENTING ROMANCE

About a year ago I wrote an entry (20-X-2011) connecting Anne Brontë’s Gilbert, the hero of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Heathcliff, the hero-villain of her sister Emily’s Wuthering Heights. I still think that Anne bore Emily’s novel in mind as she wrote her own and that Gilbert is a more civilised version of Heathcliff. What puzzles me, and this is the question I asked my students, is why Gilbert is not a more obviously attractive character, like Heathcliff himself or Charlotte’s Rochester.

One of the girls answered that she found him soft, or bland; my personal view is that his manifest passion for Helen and even his brutal attack against her protector Frederick Lawrence belies this view. In the end, we agreed that his moderate attractiveness is the inevitable result of Anne’s choice to narrate the story through first-person voices (or, rather, written documents). This makes it impossible for Gilbert to qualify himself as attractive (it would be ridiculous for him to comment on his own appearance in eulogising terms). Helen’s diary is interrupted precisely at the point when she meets him, for she tears off the pages she’s written on Gilbert before giving him the diary. She does describe her falling in love with a handsome man, but he turns out to be the villain of the piece, her abusive husband Arthur; thus, we female readers are prevented from forming the deep emotional attachment with a male character that Emily forces us to face in Heathcliff’s case. Anne made the choice of not allowing Helen to narrate her falling in love with Gilbert and, so, without the expression of her desire for him we, as readers, cannot love him. It’s either that or, as another girl said, we women actually prefer the bad guys, an opinion that, nevertheless, clashes badly with the fact that no reader loves Arthur.

As a female reader I must confess that it’s embarrassingly easy to manipulate our desire for a male character, as I have found out when reading Iain M. Banks’s new Culture novel The Hydrogen Sonata (see next post). The female protagonist, Vyr, is accompanied in her adventure by the organic avatar of an AI, the Mind that runs a spaceship. The avatar, Berdle, assumes a male human appearance that Vyr perceives as “handsome”, strikingly so. Despite Berdle’s annoyed response that he’s not male, female or anything remotely gendered, Banks’s omniscient narrative focalised through Vyr insists that he is desirable. She’s hooked and so are we as readers female (I’m not sure, but I’ll assume that gay readers, I mean men, also react to this manipulation of readerly desire). In contrast, nobody tells us in The Tenant that Gilbert is sexy.

I believe this is Anne’s deliberate choice. Her novel deals with the dangers of falling in love for the wrong reasons and with the wrong person. Through Helen she advices us (female) reader to make choices based not only on irrational desire but on a rational examination of our prospective partner’s behaviour. This diminishes no doubt the romantic substance of the story and the hero but stresses Anne’s point: that true love may be kindled by desire but can only survive if fed by solid companionship. I agree. Still, I miss the sexiness… of the good guy.