THE MANY LIVES OF THE ARTFUL DODGER

I have finally read Terry Pratchett’s Dodger (2012), a novel oddly marketed as young adult fiction and, yes, closely related to Dickens’ Oliver Twist. I was going to write a post specifically on it but, when checking Wikipedia for more information (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dodger_(novel)), I’ve come across a strange literary phenomenon: the recent resurrection of Jack Dawkins, a.k.a the Artful Dodger.

Dodger has appeared, according to IMDB, on 28 occasions on the big and the small screen, the earliest in 1912. As Wikipedia claims, the first volume of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s comic series League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (1999), placed the Dodger in 1898 London, as Fagin’s successor in the business of running a gang of boy thieves. He must have been in his late 70s…

There is, though, a considerable time lapse between that glimpse of the Dodger and The Further Adventures and Life of Jack Dawkins, Also Known as the Artful Dodger by Alan Montgomery (2010). This has left no trace among Amazon readers, a sure sign of its low impact. Tony Lee published next Dodge & Twist: A Sequel To Oliver Twist (2011), which, despite being also little noticed is now, as IMDB confirms, in development as a film. In Lee’s story, a ruined Oliver and his former pal Dodger conspire together to steal the Crown Jewels (?). Then came Pratchett’s Dodger (2012) and Jack Dawkins (2013) by Charlton Daines, with a handful of positive comments on Amazon. Also in 2013 James Benmore published another Dodger, which, like Daines’s, imagines an adult Jack returned from Australia. Benmore’s novel has 22 five star reviews on Amazon.uk: either it is truly attractive or the author has 22 very good friends.

Both US and UK Amazon readers award Pratchett’s Dodger a 4,5 star rating (out of 5). The very negative opinions are about one dozen in total and include a terribly cruel voice. Pratchett is suffering from the worst possible form of Alzheimer’s disease, which makes any new book a little miracle. A displeased reader, however, has the bad taste of attributing the novel’s faults (in his view) to the muddled thinking caused by the disease. He even has the gall to call for the author’s retirement…

Dodger is a quite competent piece of ‘historical fantasy’ (the author’s own label). He stretches historical chronology quite a bit by having Queen Victoria already on the throne although Oliver Twist started publication in 1836 when her predecessor William IV still lived. Charlie Dickens, the street-wise journalist, could hardly have got his inspiration for his Dodger from the Dodger he meets in Pratchett’s London. Still, this doesn’t matter. Pratchett concocts a heady, delicious brew which I truly enjoyed. There is a scene when Dodger is measured for a suit by tailor Izzy when I had the funny feeling of believing I was reading a Dickens novel.

Also present in Dodger are Sir Robert Peel, Benjamin Disraeli, Henry Mayhew, Mr. Tenniel and even Sweeny Todd (in a very attractive character rewrite). And two discoveries: philanthropist Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts and Joseph Bazalgette, the civil engineer that tidied up London’s sewers. For Dodger, you see?, is a tosher here –a sewer rat, or scavenger. Pratchett explains that he actually got his inspiration from reading Mayhew’s massive London Labour and the London Poor (1861-2, four volumes), where toshers appear. Dickens himself was well-acquainted with Mayhew, both the gentleman and his work.

Even though Pratchett is undoubtedly Dickens’s disciple, if not living reincarnation, he corrects the master’s appalling anti-semitic bias by totally recycling Fagin. His Solomon Cohen is not a criminal but a refugee who has fled not one but many pogroms in Eastern Europe. He makes a living by repairing delicate mechanisms, the clockwork fancies of the very rich. He has good sense and good connections, from which Dodger benefits. Cohen is a more than a heavy hint that Dickens’ needn’t have linked Jewishness and criminality though, of course, if Fagin had been as generous as Cohen, Oliver’s story would have no point.

This leads me back to my own point: why Dodger? Sweet Oliver Twist is found to be too self-righteous, his story too sentimental. We prefer instead the Dodger’s in-your-face cool –who can forget his speech to the judge that condemns him to be transported for life (which Dickens seems to have borrowed from a real-life boy)? In Pratchett’s version there is not even an Oliver and the only focus is the picaresque adventure that Dodger’s life is. Or struggle for survival, probably the same. No rich Mr. Brownlow for him, though Pratchett does rescue, after all, the Dodger, by means of much more powerful gentlemen –maybe this is what has irritated a few readers. And maybe what won my heart is that Pratchett supposes Dodger deserves being rescued from extreme poverty because, practically out of instinct, he does the decent thing: rescue a battered wife from an appalling marriage. Poor Nancy, if only she’d been so lucky.

Sir Terry asks his readers to read Mayhew’s oeuvre –now waiting in my Kindle. What a challenge for a teacher of Victorian Literature.

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THE CLAPTRAP, I MEAN THE MOUSETRAP: IS THIS THE ULTIMATE POST-MODERN JOKE?

Last evening I saw ‘La ratonera’ at Teatre Apolo, here in Barcelona, the Spanish translation of Agatha Christie’s very famous The Mousetrap. I am really mystified that this absolutely mediocre play, to call it something polite, is still on 62 years after its opening night. That is the real mystery and not what the plot narrates…

The Mousetrap, presented as a “comedy-thriller,” was judged a “middling” play in which “coincidence is stretched unreasonably” when it first opened at the Ambassadors’ Theatre (I’m reading the original Guardian review of November 1952). In 1974 it transferred to St Martin’s Theatre, where it remains –a tourist trap, as denounced by the 11 brave souls who dare say so on TripAdvisor (of a total 321 opinions: 142 excellent, 117 very good…). The author herself, Wikipedia claims, declared in her autobiography that she only expected the play to last for eight months at the most. Christie, by the way, presented her grandson Matthew Prichard with the rights to the play for his 9th birthday. He must be quite rich by now as the play reached its 25,000 performance in 2012, the longest uninterrupted run of any play anywhere in history.

Wikipedia informs that the play, originally a short radio play, was inspired by the real-life case of poor Dennis O’Neill, an orphan who died while fostered by a couple of farmers. Technically, The Mousetrap is a revenge play as the murders hinge on the efforts of the murderer to make those responsible for a child’s death pay for their cruelty and sadism. This is, from my contemporary perspective, possibly the only plot point worth commenting on (there is also a gay man, much laughed at, and a lesbian, less laughed at). However, not much is made of the sad issue of child abuse –for the simple reason that everything is as shallow as it can be.

I’ve never been a fan of Mrs. Christie, whom I find to be a clever but fairly mechanical writer. Here her plotting is not just mechanical but truly amateurish. Forget about the improbable coincidences, the glaring gaps and the utter failure to explain what the characters are doing in the small rural hotel where events take place. Let’s just say that someone who could and should have prevented a crime does nothing to stop the murderer, and that someone who should have declared their identity at once to the said murderer (and thus prevent not one but two crimes) remains silent. Appalling, really. (All plot details available from the published edition of the play… or Wikipedia, I wonder why they ask audiences to keep the murderer’s identity secret).

My admired Tom Stoppard wrote in 1968 The Real Inspector Hound, a parody of The Mousetrap. I read it long ago and have forgotten the details but I recall that the action progresses as two critics discuss the events onstage and are themselves trapped into the plot. It might not be the first case of the spoof being much better that the spoofed but I do wonder how come The Mousetrap has ever reached the status it has. John Thaxter has called it “a beautifully preserved example of a country house murder mystery, a throwback to theatregoing in the thirties (minus the matinee tea-trays)” (2004, http://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/2406/the-mousetrap). In the usually very witty blog A West End Whinger, we are told that criticising is like “going to Madame Tussauds and being surprised to find that it’s crap.” (http://westendwhingers.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/review-the-mousetrap-st-martins-theatre/). Fair enough, it’s the same category of trash. Crap. Whatever. The odd thing is how abundant the positive criticism is and scant the negative voices.

Three years ago I saw an excellent Spanish production of J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls with Josep Maria Pou in the title role. I wrote on it here, comparing it to Shaw’s Pygmalion, odd as this may sound. As I endured Christie’s trash yesterday I could not help thinking (very fondly) of Priestley’s 1946 masterpiece, wondering why it hadn’t been so lucky. In the end, as I said as the beginning, the real mystery is the very endurance of the play. A jealous Noël Coward congratulated Christie on her success but I wonder what Samuel Beckett and company thought all along (Waiting for Godot was first seen in France in 1953, in England in 1954).

There’s a joke I’m missing here, but it’s so ultra post-modern we might need Derrida to decode it… None seems interested, though.

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THE WARRIOR AND THE CIVIL/CIVIC NARRATIVES OF MASCULINITY AND WHY HARRY POTTER’S SUCH AN UNCOMMON HERO

One doesn’t read doctoral dissertations for pleasure, I’m sorry to say, but I have very much enjoyed reading Linda Wight’s Talking about Men: Conversations about Masculinities in Recent ‘Gender-bending’ Science Fiction (2009, http://researchonline.jcu.edu.au/11566/1/02whole.pdf). She had the very good idea of taking a selection of winners and nominees to the James Tiptree Jr., a prize awarded to SF with a progressive gender issues stance, and consider to what extent these texts were actually forward-thinking. The results are mixed.

At any rate, what interested me very much is that Linda Wight based her thesis on the idea that plenty of SF (and fantasy) is still focused on the ‘warrior narrative’ for masculinity, whereas in real-life the avant-garde, anti-patriarchal narrative is the one she called ‘civil’ and I have started calling ‘civic.’

I emailed Linda to check whether the label ‘civil narrative’ was hers. It seems it is. She kindly explained to me that she drew extensively from Ellen Jordan and Angela Cowan’s “Warrior Narratives in the Kindergarten Classroom: Renegotiating the Social Contract?” (Men’s Lives, Michael S. Kimmel & Michael A. Messner, eds. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998. 127-40). Paraphrasing her own explanation, it seems that the authors described how in kindergarten the ‘warrior ideal’ all little boys enjoy in games and fiction, is being replaced by a “masculinity of rationality and responsibility.” Linda mixed this with Carol Pateman’s ideas regarding fratriarchy as the actual basis of patriarchy and she came up with the ‘civil narrative of masculinity.’

Last week I discussed with my class the nature of Harry Potter’s heroism and why they dislike so much the final duel with Voldemort as (SPOILERS AHEAD!!) Harry does not use ‘Avada Kedrava’ to kill his arch-villain but very cleverly uses ‘Expelliarmus’ to have Voldemort, essentially, terminate himself. I argued, persuasively I hope!!, that although Harry is naturally inclined towards the ‘civil narrative,’ Voldemort’s rabid emergence and Dumbledore’s interested grooming (argh!) force him to take up the ‘warrior narrative’ if only until the threat is over.

He, thus, becomes proficient at duelling (I had to explain how important this pathetic practice had been in the past for men), the rules of which he happens to understand much better than the quite stupid Voldemort. Once the duel to end all duels takes place, Harry, as the epilogue shows, is happy to return for good to the ‘civil narrative’ and become the kind of hero Rowling loves best: a loving, caring family man. ‘Petty bourgeois’, yes, indeed, but thank god for that in a world of Hitlers, Stalins… and Putins.

I’m sure the ‘warrior types’ our there are disappointed –an Austrian student kindly explained to me that in his homeland many young men regard Harry a bit of a ‘douchebag’. Even my students (men and women) are a bit disappointed that Harry did NOT kill Voldemort. I am myself, however, quite happy that the ‘civil narrative’ dominated.

I don’t like quoting dictionaries very much, but I do need the Oxford Dictionary to show how ‘civil’ and ‘civic’ overlap and intersect. ‘Civil’ refers to citizens, as opposed to ‘military’ or ‘ecclesiastic’ (you get the oxymoron ‘civil war’ from that, also ‘civil law’). ‘Civil’, interestingly, also means ‘courteous and polite’, which goes very well with my pet idea that gentlemanliness should be brought back. ‘Civic’ connects more closely with the ‘city or town’, both its administration and the citizens’ duties and activities. ‘Civil’ and ‘civic’ refer, then, jointly, to active, non-warriorlike citizenship.

Back to Harry. I’ll argue that Rowling is to be praised for defending ‘civil’ over ‘warring’ masculinity. Yet, she falls short of defending ‘civic’ masculinity. Harry, poor thing, is too young to carry this immense weight on his shoulders. Yet a truly ‘civic’ man would have arrested Voldemort and demanded from the Ministry of Magic a complete upheaval of its very dubious justice system to guarantee just punishment for Voldemort. My students told me that a living Voldemort would escape Azkaban, start the Death Eaters again, etc, etc. Fair enough.

I just think we need that story in which the hero (and now I understand why Rowling thought of a boy, not a girl) undermines the patriarchal warrior narrative from the inside to replace it with a masculine narrative based on civic duty, that is to say, on the defence of justice on behalf of the community. That Harry has to accept becoming a killer (even though technically he’s never one) is a sad comment on his (and ours) society’s inability to trust justice –acknowledging here that justice in the world of wizards and witches is only marginally better than Voldemort’s injustice.

Thanks Linda!

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HIGH-FLYING PLAGIARISM: NO PUNISHMENTS, NO LIMITS

A friend explains to me that a tenured senior lecturer from another university has ‘borrowed’ her PhD dissertation –acknowledgements included– and submitted it as his own research for an award. How was he found out? Just by chance: someone in the judges panel had read my friend’s dissertation… This started a very paranoiac conversation about how many articles and books must be out there published twice or more. She added to her astonishing revelation that someone told her she was a high-risk researcher for potential plagiarism, as she has published plenty and her work is easy to find.

A quick Google search reveals that a) Germany is the country where plagiarism is taken most seriously (the minister of Education lost her doctorate for that and had to resign), b) in Spain the most common case of high-flying plagiarism seems to be committed by full professors unduly benefiting from their doctoral students’ work. I’ve come across information on two similar cases with a very diverse resolution. And it’s funny that I hesitate to name the culprits even though they should be shamed for all eternity.

In one case, the Spanish Supreme Tribunal fined a full professor (‘catedrático’) 5,000 euros for plagiarising his student’s PhD dissertation twice: for an article in a collective volume, and for a booklet. He also had to pay the judicial fees and, wow, the cost of publishing the sentence in a national newspaper. To my horror, he had been previously condemned for sexually abusing the same female student –but absolved. The fine in that case was 9,000 euros. The victim was told she had not made it clear to her supervisor that his advances were not welcome and that the actual offence was minor. He is still teaching. Fortunately, so is she.

In a second case, a male student denounced his PhD supervisor for having plagiarised in four occasions research produced during the postgraduate courses he took with this person. A problem in this case is although the student could prove that this teacher (another full professor) had been plagiarising his work since the mid 1990s, the university concluded that the four offences had legally expired (they did so after only two years…). The plagiarist, by the way, argued that the student’s work had been produced following his own teaching, therefore, the contents were also his. A sad conclusion to this case is that the student never found another supervisor and never finished his doctorate.

I’ve also come across many comments on the booming internet market for BA, MA and PhD dissertations –I remember reading once that this started in Harvard about 100 years ago, as soon as typewriters started being used commonly. In the case of bought research, technically nobody is committing plagiarism as the real author, the ghost writer, has agreed to charge a fee for his or her work. This practice might explain how politicians I will not name suddenly become doctors overnight, when, as everyone knows, a PhD dissertation takes about three full-time years, usually more.

Technically speaking, the person who has presented my friend’s PhD thesis as his own research has not committed plagiarism, as this consists of inserting text from unacknowledged sources in your own work. He has committed the cheekiest theft, of a kind I thought simply nobody dreamed of committing. Even though I know of a famous case in which a candidate for tenure submitted as his own the very report written by his board’s president for her state examination. In that case, the offender got hold of a text that had been circulating, it seems, anonymously, and he simply didn’t know who he had stolen it from…

When I hear of cases like the ones I’ve summarised here I wonder with what authority we can demand that our student refrain from plagiarising. In my Department we take this problem very seriously and we’re failing students for plagiarising parts of sentences, provided, of course, we can prove the offence. Now think of someone stealing a complete dissertation… Do I need to say more?

A last comment: we, researchers, have been told that an ‘open access’ policy guaranteeing the maximum visibility and availability of our work is the only way to go in our internet-ruled times. I’m going that way myself, with the web, Academia.edu, etc. Now it turns out this increases the risk of being plagiarised… Catch 22…

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THE TWELVE STEPS: HARRY THE HERO, A COMMON MISTAKE ABOUT WRITING ON HEROES AND A SCARY MONSTER

This week my friend Bela Clúa has visited to introduce my students in the Harry Potter class to the basics of writing about heroes. She spoke to them about how heroic narratives have been famously studied by psychoanalysis (Carl Jung, Otto Rank) and by scholars interested in myth (Joseph Campbell, Northrop Frye).

Next she mentioned Christopher Vogler’s twelve-step break-down of the widespread hero narrative in his well-known The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers (1992, see http://www.thewritersjourney.com/), inspired by Campbell and a must for any aspiring screen writer. She took Vogler’s twelve steps and contrasted them with the plot of Rowling’s series (I was thinking all the time of how Alcoholic Anonymous also uses twelve steps in their own heroic narrative…). They matched reasonably well.

Vogler’s own website offers a presentation of the twelve steps, accompanied by another list of in this case 10 steps for The Heroine’s Journey (adapted from the 1990 eponymous book by Maureen Murdock, a Jungian psychotherapist). The rationale behind Vogler’s steps is that since they appear so frequently in our myths and favourite hero narratives, a good knowledge of them will guarantee successful screen writing. After all, I’ll add, George Lucas knew his Joseph Campbell fine and look at Star Wars

This is a very common mistake. Jung, Rank, Campbell and company took an immense corpus of extant myths and stories (mostly Western) and extrapolated from them a series of (dubious…) universal features that seemed common to most. Something in the human psyche, they argued, makes us retell a similar ur-story in many different variants. Vogler applied this to Hollywood scripts and the sad result is that what used to be part of the mystery of being human is now reduced down to trite formula. Even worse is the mistake that stories that match the formula are derived from the formula, when actually they’re new blood added with great pains to the hero’s journey: see The Lord of the Rings, Dune, Star Wars, Terminator, The Matrix and Harry Potter.

Rowling is, then, telling us the ur-story that we know from so many other instances in a new way: Bela Clúa stressed how much the hero’s search for his own identity matters and the post-modern insistence on textuality in the construction of the characters. Rowling’s claim that Harry materialised in her mind all of a sudden on a delayed train has been resisted by my students who quickly saw that no 20th or 21st century writer can claim an absolute ignorance of the other heroic narratives. I joked that perhaps she had had a direct insight into Jung’s collective subconscious and maybe I’m not that wide off the mark. I proposed to my class as homework that they took Vogler’s twelve steps and wrote a story –they all saw this might most likely lead nowhere… without that insight.

So, suppose the insight theory is valid and, somehow, Jung help us, each new hero narrative taps directly into that mystical source. What the theory should also clarify is that, as Bela Clúa noted, the hero narrative is far from universal and has its own cultural markers. The clearest one is patriarchy for, as you can see, the heroine’s journey is narrated differently (by the way, it should be the female hero’s journey in current American-inspired parlance, for which a ‘heroine’ is just a female protagonist).

Many years ago as I did research for my doctoral dissertation on monstrosity (http://www.tdx.cat/handle/10803/4915) I learned about the oldest hero story: The Enuma Elish (ca. 1100 BC, perhaps earlier, Bronze Age), or Babylonian creation myth, discovered in the 19th century. In its thousand lines, we witness how the hero Marduk slays the ferocious sea female serpent Tiamat, from which later dragons descend. This combat has received metaphorical and allegorical interpretations but it’s clear to me that it is part of the Aryan and Semitic patriarchal religions onslaught against femininity, as Jules Cashford and Anne Baring argue in The Myth of the Goddess.

Still, the Bronze Age seemed not old enough. Thanks to Bruce Chatwin’s beautiful travel book The Songlines, about the myths assembled by the Australian aboriginals, I first read about the theories defended by palaeontologist C.K. Brain regarding how we stepped out of the predatory chain to become the hunters. In The Hunters or the Hunted?: An Introduction to African Cave Taphonomy, Brain (1981: 266-274) concludes that the fossils found in the Sternfontein caves in South Africa hint at a correlation between the appearance of the first men and the extinction of a carnivore which preyed almost exclusively on hominids: ‘Dinofelis’, a big feline similar to the sabre-toothed tiger, which lived in dark caves and hunted at night.

There is no definitive evidence as to why and how Dinofelis disappeared; however, Brain’s hypothesis is that its prey learned somehow to repel its attacks, at first possibly with fire until a more aggressive defence brought the first death of the beast. This supposition opens the way for Chatwin’s speculations (1988: 252): “Could it be, one is tempted to ask, that Dinofelis was Our Beast? A Beast set aside from all the other Avatars of Hell? The Arch-Enemy who stalked us, stealthily and cunningly, wherever we went? But whom, in the end, we got the better of?” Or not…

Could it be, I’ll add, that the first death was brought about by a young prehistoric man of unknown origins who appeared one day to free the tribe from its night horrors? Could it be that this was Harry Potter’s original ancestor and that Dinofelis became somehow humanised once gone, first as female goddess Tiamat, later as the arch-villain –from Sauron to Voldemort?

Perhaps, just perhaps and speculating wildly, wildly, wildly if the hand that slayed Dinofelis had been female, the world would be a matriarchy (unfair or not, I don’t know).

But then, that’s another story.

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A WOMAN HERO WHO DESERVES MORE HONOURS: EMMELINE PANKHURST (AND MERYL STREEP…)

I’ve read back to back Frederick Douglass’ autobiography Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, revised 1892) and Emmeline Pankhurst’s memoirs My Own Story (1914), just by chance. The first page of her volume already shows how closely connected both books are, for Pankhurst (1858-1928) was the daughter of British activists and she writes that “Young as I was—I could not have been older than five years—I knew perfectly well the meaning of the words slavery and emancipation.” The American Civil War was her childhood school in civic values and she learned from the cause of the slaves what the cause of women needed.

Pankhurst (née Goulden, in Manchester) not only enjoyed the good luck of having illustrated parents that educated her in the struggle to achieve justice for women, but also the good luck of marrying a staunch feminist man, barrister Richard Pankhurst (24 years her senior). He was himself very active in the fight for women’s suffrage. A widow and a mother of five children –two of whom, Christabel and Sylvia became famous suffragettes on her own– Emmeline founded in 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

Led by Emmeline, suffragettes ran a ten-year campaign in favour of votes for women that today would be described as ‘low intensity terrorism’ (or kale borroka…) and which took many of them to prison (including men). Their hunger strikes were broken by methods that can plainly be described as torture. When WWI broke out, the WSPU stopped its guerrilla warfare (against property, never persons) to support the Government. Women were rewarded in 1918 for their efforts with the vote for those over 30. Those over 21 should have to wait until 1928, the year Pankhurst died, when women finally enjoyed equal franchise rights with men.

Pankhurst was included by Time Magazine in their list Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century (1999). She has been honoured in many other ways. However, as I read My Own Story and found myself appalled by the intensity of the misogynistic policies of the Liberal Party in power and of so many men during the suffragettes’ campaign, I wondered why Pankhurst’s political activism does not have a more prominent public profile. The word ‘suffragette’ does not bring the word ‘heroism’ to mind, but quaint photos of ladies in 1900s hour-glass dresses arrested by moustachioed policemen. In contrast, the IRA hunger strikes, not so different from what Pankhurst’s women endured and perhaps even milder, are regarded as the stuff heroes are made of (see Steve McQueen’s film on Bobby Sands, Hunger [2008]).

Ironically, as I wondered when someone would think of making a biopic of Pankhurst’s life, one had already started filming. According to Screen (February 19), Meryl Streep is to play Mrs. Pankhurst in a film scripted by Abi Morgan, who also wrote The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011, with Streep as Thatcher). Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane) directs. The film is called Suffragette and it is not quite a biopic but a story focused on a young woman in the movement, played by Carey Mulligan.

I was going to write that, happily, Streep did not win an Oscar this year for playing the bitter matriarch of August: Osage Country, as she has better chances for next year. Yet, I’m not quite sure at all that a film with that title and written by someone who simply could not deal adequately with Margaret Thatcher is good news. I read elsewhere, I cannot find where…, that Streep is quite worried about what kind of accent Pankhurst, a Mancunian partly educated in France, spoke with. In the end, Suffragette runs the risk of reducing Pankhurst down to a challenge for brilliant Meryl Streep, which is by no means what Pankhurst deserves.

Also, though I’ll sound quite a misogynistic note here, the film is in the hands of a woman director and a woman screen writer, which means that it will be seen as a woman’s film and will fail, as usual, to attract a large male audience. I still haven’t seen Hannah Arendt, directed by Margarethe von Trotta and written by herself and Pam Katz, and I don’t want to be unfair really. Yet, how come that already in the 21st century women heroes are still deemed to be women’s concerns?

One of the aspects that I have enjoyed when reading My Own Story is the evidence that many men, beginning with Richard Pankhurst, were active in the women’s suffrage cause. Emmeline describes brutal misogyny resulting in actual verbal and physical assault but she also names many acts of resistance to these shameful policies coming from men. In the end, men also fought their own struggle to give women the vote against other men (the recalcitrant patriarchs). I do hope that Suffragette does not forget to address the descendants of the pro-suffrage men in the audience for we need them (more than Streep needs another Oscar).

As for Emmeline, the best homage you can pay is reading My Own Story (614 downloads from Gutenberg, in contrast to the 15,690 for the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave).

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‘LET THEM INVENT!’: THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF CSIC?

We live in the darkest times. As I wait for Putin to start WW III in Crimea, an article in El País catches my attention: “La caída de personal y financiación hace regresar al CSIC una década atrás” (http://sociedad.elpais.com/sociedad/2014/02/24/actualidad/1393271163_538095.html). CSIC, the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, the sub-heading announces, has lost already 2,200 workers and will offer neither contracts nor grants (pre- or post-doctoral) until at least 2016. The article claims that having lost 32% of its state funds since 2009 and 49% of private contributions since 2011, CSIC will soon revert to 2007 levels. Only 2007?? 1997 seems more accurate, if not 1987.

More figures: total staff (end of 2012) 12,795 employees of which 3,034 full-time researchers (my university, UAB has 3,262 researchers, who also teach). 50,7% women researchers, 1,583 research groups. Average age: 53!!! No young blood, clearly. Budget: currently 453 million euros (731 in 2007…), as opposed to 3,415 (German Max Planck) and 1,530 (French CNRS). Publications 2007-2011: 49,873 (up 6% since 2012 in range A journals), not so bad in comparison with CNRS (54,200) but in embarrassing contrast to Max Planck’s 215,261. The Germans have 18 Nobel winners, the French 17, CSIC none. Principal problem apart from funding: researchers are tenured, too little hiring flexibility, too much centralization. Apparently, the scientific programmes run by the regional governments work better: CERCA (Catalan), Ikerbasque or Imdea (Madrid).

Unamuno’s famous boutade, “Let them invent!”, comes, according to Spanish Wikipedia from a long-lived debate (1906-1912) with pro-European José Ortega y Gasset. Unamuno wrote an essay for La España Moderna titled “Lo europeo moderno o lo africano antiguo… ¿por qué no ser africano como lo fue San Agustín?” in which the argument, I gather, is that some fuzzy kind of religious mysticism makes Spain essentially anti-scientific… The famous sentence comes, it seems, from a letter to Ortega (1906) in which Unamuno declares his anti-Europeanism. The idea is that rich Europeans invent and that we passively benefit from their inventions.

This idiotic stance has conditioned since then the work of poor Spanish scientists and, generally speaking, researchers, as we need to justify at each step why we do what we do. Ramón y Cajal, after whom the major research fellowships are named in Spain, obtained his Nobel prize for Medicine in 1906, the same year when Unamuno’s mysticism was razing to the ground the shallow foundations on which Spanish science lay. There’s some irony there. And tragedy as, unfortunately, Unamuno and not Cajal seems to have been since then the main inspiration for the successive Spanish governments. Perhaps with the exception of the few years back in the early 2000s when Spain even started to lead research worldwide (I’m thinking of Mariano Barbacid and María Blasco’s research on cancer at the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Oncológicas).

I do not know CSIC first hand and it might well be that its structure is in dire need of reorganization, that it is a house of Usher showing serious cracks. Rumours abound about its being a clumsy, slow dinosaur in our international world of fastest science (if my friend Carme Torras is reading me, maybe she can offer her own insider’s opinion…). What I know is that no institution, scientific or otherwise, can progress with reduced funding and the constant threat of annihilation.

Perhaps, in view of how things are, CSIC researchers should work on a single common project: bulding the time machine to fly back to the few pre-crisis years when their house seemed on the way to be, one day, another Max Planck. And when Spain seemed to be a European country capable of inventing and …of thinking.

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BEYOND COFFEE: WHAT IF…?

As I assumed it would happen, someone asks me what happens if during coffee with the teacher something else comes up. Actually she tells me her own story with an ex-teacher, now her romantic partner. This is my answer… the public one, the private is for her eyes only.

I was once a member of a very short-lived research project, Pedagogías alternativas en la enseñanza de la literatura y el arte, directed by Prof. Manuel Asensi, of the Universitat de València. We read René Schérer’s controversial La pedagogía pervertida (published in Spain in 1983) with the aim of responding to it in a collective volume. I ended up writing “Leyendo a René Schérer desde la óptica de la educación superior: Ambigüedades y silencios en la perversión de la pedagogía universitaria española” (http://ddd.uab.cat/record/113503?ln=ca). This remained unpublished after the group’s sudden ending and I never got around to choosing an academic journal to publish it. Pedagogy is not my field and I decided the article would not be welcome by the experts. Hence self-publication. Have a look, if you please.

Schérer defends the idea that pedagogy has been perverted by the politically correct readings that demonise as sexual all emotional contact between teachers and students. I extrapolated this to the Spanish university, a context which, in general, keeps silent about these matters. I argued in the article that I agree with Schérer as regards the need to find and maintain an emotional connection between teachers and students, beset as this inevitably is by power issues (I grade you, I have power over you).

However, as I wrote in my previous post, I totally detest the idea that teachers (usually male) may take advantage of that power to coerce students (usually female) into having sex with them. The additional problem with consensual sex in the university, the typical case of the 20-year-old pretty girl and the 45-year-old ageing male teacher, is that it may well turn out to be exploitative, without the girl (who’s no longer a minor) being really aware of the man’s serial abuse of his position for purposes which are purely sexual. Of course, the opposite case, the young girl who is a serial seducer of male teachers, is also well known though, to be honest, I couldn’t name one. And I’m thinking of a particular male colleague of mine, very popular among the ladies, who, poor thing, simply cannot ask any student for coffee as gossip would be impossible to manage –no matter how clear he made his position as a devoted family man.

But what if romance blossoms and it is in earnest? Let me begin with sex: adults should face the consequences of their acts and also be honest about them. If it happens, it happens but if there is any reason for it to happen beyond pleasure (say higher grades), then it is corrupt –not in the sexual but in the academic sense of the word. I insist that if a teacher realises he (em, she?) likes a student and this student requites, then the academic bond must be severed at once. As publicly as possible, for in these cases there is nothing worse than secrecy.

Let me continue with romance. At one point there were in my Department four male teachers married to female ex-students. First lesson: serious, long-lasting romance does happen but mostly on the basis of the clichéd May-December age gap, with no female teachers that I know of marrying (or living with) male ex students. And, mind you, the age gap needn’t be that big. Think Shakira (35), 10 years older than Piqué. But, then, she’s a very pretty, famous singer which is fine by younger men, it seems, a taste not extended to female teachers apparently. Or, perhaps one thing I’ll discover after writing this post is that there are indeed some Shakira-Piqué pairings in the Spanish university, though my impression is that the Flavio Briatore-Elisabetta Gregoraci model is more common (without the tons of money, I must say, but with the intellectual cachet).

I understand that every case is singular and that relationships that may seem perverse from the outside may be truthful and committed from the inside, no matter the age gap and the original setting of the first encounter. I’m not vindicated here, either, for God’s sake, female teachers’ ‘right’ to bed or marry their male students, for this can never be a ‘right’. I’m just wondering why both inside and outside the university the age/gender pattern of couples still remains so unchanged.

And, a final piece of advice, teachers don’t ask students for coffee if you smell trouble. Students: don’t accept coffee if unsure of the consequences. Or do it… for what is life if not trouble? Just please, please, please separate your new friendship or romance from your academic bonds and obligations as quickly as you can. Honesty, as in all, is the best policy.

Hey, this was fun to write. Now for the gossip…

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