COMBATING SPIRITUAL NUMBNESS: COVID-19 AND THE NEED FOR UTOPIA

This is my forty-third day at home, which means that technically I have passed quarantine, a period which used to mean forty days, and not as it does now a variable period of time extended by Government decrees. Today, Sunday, children have been allowed to take a one-hour walk for the first time in weeks, and this feels as a turning point of sorts, even though there is no way we can predict what lies ahead of us. Minister for Universities Manuel Castells announced this week that the new university year should be started in September with caution, taking into account the high probability of a second bout of infection. He spoke of classrooms that should be occupied only partially to guarantee social distancing (why is this not called personal distancing?) and that would be disinfected between sessions. This is so impractical and preposterous that I think Castells meant that in practice we’ll stay online for at least one more semester. I personally prefer that to taking overcrowded trains to travel to UAB, or speaking to colleagues and students from a distance of six feet, and wearing a facemask.

For those of us fortunate enough to continue working at home, this is a ghostly crisis. Life maintains a certain level of normality until the ‘other’ world appears. This consists of the persons working to guarantee our everyday routine: supermarket cashiers, bakers, food market sellers, sanitation workers, workers at factories and fields, employees of tech companies that guarantee we can work online, those who make sure we can still get water, power, gas, petrol… etc. For them, the changes caused by Covid-19 must be very different from what they are for persons like myself, but, then, where are they supposed to discuss them? Twitter, I guess. And, then, there’s the really scary ‘other’ world, the one we see grossly misrepresented in the media and, if we are less fortunate, in person in the hospitals. It’s hard to imagine the level of terror that doctors and nurses, patients and relatives, have been putting up with while the rest of us discuss the boredom caused by lockdown or the limitations of the Netflix algorithm. That, I think, is a key problem: the experience we have of Covid-19 is communal as no other experience can be except a war but, as it also happens in wars, personal experience is very different. Some self-isolate in total comfort and will suffer no significant trouble, for others the virus is the end of life as they knew it before, or the end of life full stop.

Raül Magí, who writes the blog Les Rades Grises: Una Mirada a la Literatura Fantástica, asked me recently to write a few words about the future of dystopia after Covid-19. You can find my contribution and many others by persons I admire very much in the Catalan SF/fantasy circuit here: https://lesradesgrises.com/2020/04/19/com-seran-les-noves-distopies/. I believe that making predictions of any kind makes very little sense. Nobody making predictions about 2020 back in December 2019 would have imagined the catastrophe we are now going through (even though Wuhan was already in deep trouble). On the other hand, it takes time for traumatic experience to be fully understood and even though we now rush to discuss new events as soon as they begin to happen (Netflix already has a documentary series about Covid-19), what this crisis really means will only be grasped perhaps in the 2030s, supposing it is over by then. The best fiction and autobiography about WWI started appearing in 1929; the Holocaust only became the topic of countless publications from the 1960s onward. I told Raül this and then I added that I hope to see many utopian fantasies of reconstruction (Slavoj Žižek has already written a book proposing a new form of communism, though I’m not sure I would support that) and also an end to dystopia because, I wrote, “this is a genre we can only enjoy as long as we enjoy a safe, comfortable lifestyle, which is what we have lost now”.

I am very much aware that this lifestyle has been so far enjoyed by a privileged minority in the world, to which I belong as an academic but also as a citizen of the Western world (though I’m not forgetting the millions of fellow-citizens who have lost all safety nets). The crisis caused by Covid-19 has so many angles that covering all of them is practically impossible but try to imagine what it is like to be a refugee, a person in a war zone, homeless or poor and then have the virus threaten your life on top of that. What is at stake right now for us, the privileged, is, leaving aside the brutal economic impact for all, a sort of spiritual numbness. Spain has been very hard hit not only because the early signs of the pandemic were disregarded (that has happened in many other countries anyway) but also because our lifestyle involves plenty of personal contact. We touch each other a lot in comparison to other cultures, tend to be gregarious, and think of our lives as extended networks beyond home. Now we are asked to obey personal distance and that is a main ingredient of what I am calling spiritual numbness. Online contact has many advantages but it is not the same as face-to-face contact. What the virus has brought is a total suspicion of proximity which must be already having a devastating impact on intimacy at all levels. If the Government decreed tomorrow that we can go back to normal in about one month, I fear that my own personal sense of abnormality will persist and it will take me time to get close to people again. On the other hand, I think of the Germans demanding that the Government of the Balearic Islands opens up the territory to tourism again this summer and I realize that their selfishness is also part of this spiritual numbness I am describing. Who are they to say that our lockdown measures are unnecessary, I wonder? How can they be so unfeeling?

The other reason why I dislike dystopia, apart from its inherent hypocrisy about privilege, is its destructiveness. What we’re going through is a mild form of dystopia in comparison to what a far more aggressive virus could have caused; a scientist recently claimed that Covid-19 is but a poor apprentice in comparison to HIV, though, of course what makes the new coronavirus so effective is its very simple strategy of contagion. Anyway, in dystopian fiction when a society is devastated and needs to focus on pure survival, it soon becomes apparent that all the skills developed since prehistory are useless. Only hunters, farmers and, if the post-apocalyptic society is lucky, low-level technicians are necessary (I mean smiths, weavers, and so on). In dystopia doctors become gradually useless because they require high-tech machinery; you only need to think of how the lack of basic protective gear has resulted in the death of many doctors and nurses, and how many patients have been lost for lack of respirators. Dystopia is a most potent generator, in short, of spiritual numbness for it makes you feel that if worse comes to worse, we’re done for. It also makes you feel your own intrinsic worthlessness. Why should I survive? Who needs academics in dystopia? What can culture contribute? One thing I regret about this crisis, though, is that it is not having the impact I expected in questioning celebrity. Musicians, for instance, are proving very convincingly that they do have a place even in current dystopia, but not even Covid-19 is helping us to get rid of all the superfluous celebrities that still persist in sharing their parasitical lives. Of course, they might think the same about me and my academic peers.

Utopian narrative of the kind I hope authors feel motivated to write, has the opposite effect: instead of making you feel useless, it asks how you might contribute to building a new society and it provides ideas about how to do it. This is why we hardly have any utopian narrative. Writing dystopia is very easy because it consists of imagining how a privileged world can be dismantled layer by layer: the aliens invade, the climate changes, a plague goes rampant, the economy collapses and one by one the comforts that we know vanish, from voting in democratic elections to eating every day. Dystopia consists of thinking how things could be worse, but for that things have to be good enough, otherwise the loss is not felt, the suspension of disbelief does not work. Many are reading or watching dystopia now for the sake of comparison (was the Spanish flu of 1918 worse than Covid-19?) but this is, I insist, numbing. All energies should go now to taking advantage of this horror and imagine a new way of doing things. Many others are asking for utopia now but I think that the impulse could be best consolidated by potent new utopian fiction. Otherwise, we’ll go back to that false sense of security that made us doubt climate change or the use of vaccines. That recent but already lost time when we felt that we could afford the luxury of enjoying dystopia because it would not happen in our lifetime. Well: here it is, now see how you like it.

Covid-19, I insist, is killing many persons and will kill many more but, above all, it might kill our ability to act in humane ways, which is a result of all-pervasive dystopia. My pharmacist told me that considering the world’s population (7.5 billion) and the average mortality rate, we should expect at least 3,000,000 deaths. The 1918 flu, caused by a virus of avian origins, is estimated to have caused 50 million victims; WWI caused about 40. Those 90 million are the breeding ground for what came next: spiritual numbness so deep that fascism grew out of it and then WWII. 3 million, even 10 million, might seem a relatively low figure but it is gigantic if we think of how unnecessary this crisis is. By this I mean that this is the 21st century and we should be moving towards a utopia with no biological warfare (supposing the virus came from that), minimal animal farming and no wet markets (if eating a wild animal was the cause), and little interfering with nature (third hypothesis). We humans are naturally vulnerable to infection and viruses appear to be far cleverer than we had assumed, but we have increased our vulnerability a hundred fold by following spiritually numb, selfish ideas in our relationship with our so-called civilization. Now we’re paying the price of having abandoned utopia because, guess what?, it is supposed to be boring… It is supposed to be participative, and that is the real reason why it has been abandoned both in narrative and as a political project (with the main exception, I think of feminism).

I hope that by next year, I can reread this and laugh at my fears and anxieties because Covid-19 will have disappeared, or be at least under control. I also hope that by then we will already see a change in the perception of dystopia and utopia, with the latter beginning to dominate over the former. That however may be in itself just a utopian hope, in the sense of pure wishful thinking.

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/

AS WE DEAL WITH THE ALIEN INVASION: GREAT PRE-21ST CENTURY DOCUMENTARIES TO ENJOY DURING QUARANTINE (1966- 1996)

Second week of confinement, already. The situation as a friend tells me, feels surreal. Here we are working a long day at home as we often do, which feels completely normal. Then we sign off our virtual world and the real world punches us in the face with enormous figures for casualties, reports on overcrowded emergency services in hospitals, elderly people dying in scores in underfunded homes, and an extended quarantine (if this means ‘forty days’, that’s what we should be ready for, if not longer). The novelty in relation to last week is that it seems now unlikely that schools, from kindergarten to universities, will reopen. And for the record, yes, I think it was absolutely wrong to allow the feminist demonstrations of last 8 March, and any other mass event. But, then, the world looked very different. Only the day before, I had lunch with my friends and though I avoided the demonstrations, I spent a cheerful Sunday morning enjoying an exhibition of William Klein’s photography. Those were happy times.

As announced, here is a second list of great documentaries, from 1966 to 1996. Again, most of these films can be found online one way or another. As you may imagine, the difficulty is that documentary films have proliferated in recent decades for the very simple reason that equipment has become cheaper and, thus, more generally available. Anyone can now make a documentary film with a smartphone and basic editing tools, though the real boom started in the 1980s when video was introduced. We tend to forget that in earlier periods image and sound were recorded separately, which required at least two persons carrying rather heavy equipment to shoot film. Of course, modern documentaries can be as sophisticated as the budget allows it (just think of David Attenborough’s astonishing nature series for the BBC, any of them!) but they are always on the whole much cheaper to make than fiction movies. Beyond this, documentary films seem to have taken a major leap in abundance and cinematic prestige in the 1990s, which is why my selection for that decade may seem quite poor. I also grant that international representation is here limited.

1967 Don’t Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061589/ This is the documentary where you see a young Dylan holding a series of cardboard notices which he drops one by one as the lyrics in song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” progress. Pennebaker followed the singer-composer during his first major tour in the UK to offer a candid portrait. If you’re a fan, this will make you happy; if you’re not, you will also feel happy: the film confirms that Dylan was, at least at that point, a pretentious egomaniac.

1967 Titicut Follies, Frederick Wiseman, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062374/ Wiseman has 47 credits as director to his name and is a major institution in the field of American documentary. Funnily, he has won no Oscars except an honorary award (2017). Titicut Follies, his first film, is quite uncomfortable to watch: it asks you to consider what life is like inside a rather improvable mental health institution. Curiously, Wiseman made next High School (1968) perhaps because he found that institution another type of madhouse.

1969 Salesman, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0064921/ The Maysles brothers, kings of the uncomfortable documentary above Wiseman, team up with Zwerin to follow four rather obnoxious luxury Bibles salesmen as they play all their tricks to convince poor Catholic families to buy their products. The filmmakers pass no judgement, but audiences squirm.

1969 Le chagrin et la pitié / The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophüls, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066904/ French ‘chagrin’ does mean sorrow or grief, but ‘chagrin’ also exists in English as a synonym for ‘mortification’. This is what French audiences were asked to endure for more than four hours, as Ophüls narrates the collaboration of the Vichy Regime with the Nazi occupiers in the extermination of the French Jews.

1970 Woodstock, Michael Wadleigh, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0066580/ A three-hour long documentary summarizing the three-day epic concert that defined the hippy era. This is a must-see for anyone interested in both aspects: the music and the youth culture of the time, at its happiest.

1970 Gimme Shelter, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065780/ The Rolling Stones missed Woodstock and they decided to offer instead a free concert on a California highway. What followed was major chaos, including the murder of a man right before the stage where the Stones were trying to restrain the anarchic crowd. The Maysles brothers and Zwerin were there to document the sorry mess.

1973-74 The World at War (mini-series), Jeremy Isaacs (producer), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071075/ I’m breaking my own rules here by including a series, but the 26 episodes of Isaacs’ production are simply astounding. I did see the whole series as a little girl on Spanish TV’s second channel, then called UHF, which says much for what public television used to be like.

1974 Hearts and Minds, Peter Davies, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0071604/ This American documentaries tries hard to offer a balanced view of the Vietnam conflict, asking all sides for their view. Made in the later stages of the war, the film offers now in hindsight a very complete reflection on the reasons why the United States lost that war. General Westmoreland, head of the US forces, has the gall to say that Vietnamese people do not value life ‘as we do’.

1975 Grey Gardens, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, and Muffie Meyer, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0073076/ Talk about discomfort… The Maysles brothers and their co-directors document the life of elderly Edith Bouvier Beale and her middle-aged daughter Little Edie in their derelict mansion. Mother and daughter seem a duo out of a Tennessee Williams play but they happened to be Jackie Kennedy’s aunt and cousin. It’s hard to say which aspect of this documentary is more exploitative. Perhaps watch instead the perfect parody in the series Documentary Now!, Sandy Passage (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4943628/ )

1976 Harlan County U.S.A., Barbara Kopple, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074605/ American Factory, 2020’s Oscar award winner, is heavily indebted to Kopple’s pro-union activism in this film. She documents the miners’ strike against the Eastover Mining Company in Harlan County, Kentucky, in June 1973, a conflict of remarkable virulence in which the bosses did not hesitate to use hired guns against the workers.

1978 The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077838/ The Band were a Canadian-American rock ensemble of great fame during their first period (1968-1977), though I confess that I only learned they existed because of Scorsese’s film. He documents, with taste and beautiful unaffectedness, what was supposed to be their last concert. They returned for a second period of lesser fame in 1983.

1982 Sans soleil, Chris Marker, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0084628/ Marker is known for his avant-garde short film La Jetée (1962), which inspired Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995). In Sans soleil he follows a woman’s journey beginning in Japan, offering a sort of personal travelogue filmed in Marker’s unique poetical style.

1982 Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0085809/ Reggio’s film (followed in 1988 by Powaqqatsi) is a plotless documentary that asks the viewer to enjoy a collections of beautifully photographed scenes showing how everything in the world is interrelated. Others have followed a similar path but this was the pioneer. A real beauty.

1984 Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088178/ Demme won an Oscar in 1991 for The Silence of the Lambs but he appears to have had a far more joyful time filming a concert of The Talking Heads, led by the volatile David Byrne, at a time when the band were at their best. The minimalist style works surprisingly well and it’s just great fun to watch.

1985 Shoah, Claude Lanzmann, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0090015/ Even though it is nine and a half hours long, Lanzmann’s very personal account of the traces left by the Holocaust in Europe is not a series. It is an indispensable work but at the same time a problematic one. Lanzmann has too much visibility and his confrontational style is at points awkward. Enjoy, if you have the patience.

1988 Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie, Barbet Schroeder, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0095341/ In contrast to Shoah, the four and a half hours Schroeder takes to tell the story of Nazi executioner Barbie are fully justified. This is a tale of horror that shows not only, as Ophüls denounced, the connivance of the French authorities with the Nazis but also, as Schroeder adds, how easy it was for these criminals to escape the law for decades.

1989 Roger & Me, Michael Moore, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098213/ The Roger of the title is Roger B. Smith, the CEO of General Motors who closed down the plant employing thousands of workers in Flint, Michigan –Moore’s hometown. Throughout the film Moore chases Smith, hoping to understand the massive downsizing but, as you may imagine, the executive does his best to avoid him.

1989 The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096257/ The thin red line were the soldiers that, according to Rudyard Kipling, saved the nation from disaster. Unformed in blue, not red, policemen fail to bring order and safety in Morris’s classic documentary about the miscarriages of justice. The gradual unveiling of the truth has been copied by countless true crime documentaries.

1990 Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100332/ This film is not at all about the fall of Paris to the Nazi invaders during WWII as one might assume, but about the non-white drag scene in 1980s New York. Livingston films the low-income men doing their best to enjoy themselves in this competitive culture, also closely associated with voguing (which Madonna vampirized for one of her hits).

1991 Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper,
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0102015/ Eleanor Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola’s wife, provided the footage on which Hearts of Darkness is based. The film documents the disastrous shooting of Apocalypse Now! in the Philippines (standing in for Vietnam). Coppola’s film was an uncredited adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, hence the documentary’s title.

1993 The War Room, D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108515/ This documentary connects with Primary (1960) and Street Fight (2005) as great examples of the behind-the-scenes non-fiction film about political campaigns. Here the focus falls on spin doctors James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, organizers of Clinton’s first Presidential campaign (who is not at all the star here).

1994 Crumb, Terry Zwigoff, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0109508/ American cartoonist Robert Crumb is presented here in all his glory (or lack of it) in the context of his disastrous family life. This the kind of film that justifies why an American male genius can also be an utterly unlikeable personality and that never gets made about a woman (who are not really geniuses, are we?)

1994 Hoop Dreams, Steve James, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0110057/ James follows the lives of African-American teenagers William Gates and Arthur Agee for five years, while they struggle to transform their passion for basketball into a ticket out of the Chicago ghettos where they live. The film documents with surprising intimacy the lives of the boys and of their families, offering a sad, stirring description of the difficulties they face. James’s portrait of American high school and university basketball as the key to the NBA’s American dream is not overtly critical but any spectator can see that the road ahead for William and Arthur is a very steep climb.

1995 The Celluloid Closet, by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112651/ Based on Vitto Russo’s book, The Celluloid Closet proves what you suspected: even under the restrictive Hays Code, Hollywood managed to insert in their film plenty of allusions to male and female homosexuality. These become apparent if you only know where to look, which is what Russo did. Epstein and Friedman added interviews with actors who had played key parts in this hidden history.

1996, When We Were Kings, Leion Gast, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118147/ I don’t enjoy boxing at all but this is an excellent insight into the top level of this so-called sport. Gast’s film narrates ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ as the fight between young champion George Foreman and the quite old challenger Muhammad Ali (the former Cassius Clay) was known. This took place in 1974, not in the USA but in Zaire, under the auspices of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

Enjoy!!! Stay home, keep safe.

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/

AS WE DEAL WITH THE ALIEN INVASION: GREAT PRE-21ST CENTURY DOCUMENTARIES TO ENJOY DURING QUARANTINE (1895-1965)

Colleagues and friends tell me that they have kept themselves extremely busy this first week in quarantine but this is because for most people in my circle working at home is hardly a novelty. I myself have really no spare time to fill in which means that I will most likely miss the exciting online offer that cultural institutions, professional artists and plain citizens are pouring onto their websites and their social networks. For those of you who still have a little corner to fill in, here is the announced list of great documentaries from 1895 to 1995 (first part!)–the, so to speak, canonical list that I have asked my students to learn about, and enjoy. Most of these 50 films can be found online one way or another (but check first their duration on IMDB, there are plenty of mutilated versions…). I’m discovering these days that the situation changes from day to day, and films impossible to find one week suddenly appear the next one, either legally or illegally. Others remain, sadly, in a limbo, which is a shame.

1895 Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, Louis and Auguste Lumière. The Lumières didn’t know they were making a documentary because the word didn’t appear until 1926, when the British father of this film genre, John Grierson, reviewed Robert Flaherty’s Moana calling it a ‘documentary film’. The Lumières were just testing their camera and simply made a record of their workers leaving their premises, lasting under one minute. The film survives in three versions. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workers_Leaving_the_Lumière_Factory

1922 Nanook of the North, Robert Flaherty, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0013427/ . This is, properly speaking, the first documentary film and also a very controversial starting point. In this film and in Moana (set in the Pacific islands, like the 2016 animated Moana here known as Vaiana), Flaherty had the natives whose lives he was documenting perform scenes staging customs and uses long abandoned. Since then, documentary films are plagued by the question of how close they must stay to the truth.

1927 Berlin, Die Simphonie der Grosstadt / Berlin: Symphony of a Great City Walter Ruttman, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0017668/ The idea has been copied countless times: take the camera and see what happens on one day in a big city. Has it ever been done with better insight and taste? I doubt it! The film is also a beautiful homage to Berlin before the rise of the Nazi regime, during the much happier times of the Weimar Republic.

1929 Cheloveks kino-apparatom / Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0019760/ You might think that this is like the Berlin film but set in Moscow. Yes and no. Vertov’s film is a riot of images full of life with shows the Soviet capital as pure humanity, with a sensuality and a freedom that is certainly unexpected, and exhilarating. Don’t miss the birth scene…

1929 Regen / Rain, Joris Ivens, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0020321/ A short documentary based on a very simple concept: recording one rainy day in Amsterdam. The film, as it turns out, took longer to make than that. It has a lovely, strangely melancholy air, very much like the rain… which is the whole point.

1929 Drifters, John Grierson, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0019838/ North Sea herring fishing may not sound like a very exciting subject, particularly considering that this is a silent black and white film. Grierson, however, shows here in the only film he directed (he was mainly a producer) how little is needed to make a memorable record of life at sea. And show respect for the fishermen.

1930 À Propos de Nice, Jean Vigo, Boris Kaufman, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0021576/ Another silent, black and white film, which offers a slice of life like no other. Vigo and Kaufman show street life in Nice, on the French Cote d’Azur, mocking its richer inhabitants but transmitting the enjoyment of popular celebrations with glee.

1935 Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0025913/ Yes: I’m recommending that you watch Riefenstahl portrait of the 1934 massive Nuremberg Nazi rally. This was a winner for Best Foreign Documentary at the Venice Film Festival and a film that Frank Capra and other American directors studied very closely for its lessons in political propaganda, copied by the Allies during WWII. We must all understand Nazism for it not to reappear.

1936 Night Mail, Herbert Smith, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0250616/ This is one of Grierson’s pro-Government, propaganda pieces –but who cares? The film manages to make the subject of how mail is gathered in one end of Britain and moved at night in trains to the other end a moving portrait of British efficiency, public service, and care. Like Drifters, it pays homage to the average working man, not a very common subject in our days.

1937 The Spanish Earth, Joris Ivens, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0029594/ This is a pro-Republican propaganda film, made in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, narrated by Ernest Hemingway (reading his own texts and others by John Dos Passos). It’s, I’m sorry to say, a truly misguided portrait of Spain in those times, good only for laughs, though it still enjoys great prestige. I was flabbergasted by hearing Catalan sardanas as the background music for village life in Madrid… But do watch it!

1938 Inside Nazi Germany, Jack Glenn, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0131471/ An amazingly brave, bold description of Nazi Germany released twenty months before the beginning of WWII, which shows in all detail and clarity what Hitler and company were doing. Glenn, an American director, did his best but the world was not listening… Or it was, but trying not to have a new world war.

1943 Fires Were Started, Humphrey Jennings, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0035881/ See how firefighters coped with the bombings and the fires in London during the Blitz. Technically this is a docudrama, since most scenes are staged, but the gimmick does not mean it is less valuable for that. An homage indeed to the heroes who endured all kinds of sacrifices for their neighbours.

1943 The Battle of Midway, John Ford, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034498/ Lt. Cmdr. John Ford U.S.N.R made this 18 minute colour documentary in the middle of the real Battle of Midway, with great danger to his life. The purpose was showing audiences back home what WWII aerial combat was like. The problem is that having seen re-enactments (like the 1976 Midway film) this looks less exciting –but remember that men are dying on screen for real.

1946 Let there be Light, John Huston, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0038687/ Huston was commissioned to document the progress of a group of traumatized veterans receiving psychiatric treatment back home once WWII was over but the US military could not stomach this heartfelt portrait of the suffering men. The film, which is a marvel to watch, was suppressed until 1980, when Vietnam had made PTSD a well-known concept. Please, please, please: do see it!

1948 Le Sang des bêtes/ The Blood of Beasts Georges Franju, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041842/ It’s only 22 minutes long but I had to stop watching after just a few minutes –Franju’s camera shows lovely Paris and then what is done to the animals in a local slaughterhouse with no frills. You can call this one the first pro-vegan film.

1955 Nuit et bruillard / Night and Fog, Alain Resnais, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048434/ This may be hard to believe but few people after WWII wanted to hear what survivors had to say about the Nazi extermination camps. Resnais’s short film, made ten years!! after the end of the war, was the first one to bring to light for the benefit of a general audiences what the Nazis did. It completely changed the way the suffering of the Jews and other victims was (mis)understood.

1959 Moi, un noir/ I, a Negro, Jean Rouch, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051942/ This one requires a very patient viewer, but if you can accept the amateurish footage and the poor sound (badly inserted afterwards), you might enjoy this singular pioneering portrait of a migrant’s life. The young Nigerian who interests Rouch survives as well he can in Abidjan, capital of the Ivory Coast, in an interesting case of intra-African migration.

1959 We are the Lambeth Boys, Karel Reisz, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052380/ This is one of the 1950s documentaries recording ordinary British life in the 1950s associated with the Free Cinema movement (Reisz would have a long career as fiction film director). The Lambeth Boys are not a gang, but a youth club –do marvel at how much the young have and have not changed since 1959. And at the local accent!

1960 Primary, Robert Drew, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054205/ Employing a cinéma vérité style Drew films presidential pre-candidates John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey during the Democratic Wisconsin primary (1960). The film inaugurates a political sub-genre later imitated by many others, in, for instance, The War Room (about Clinton).

1961 Chronique d’un été / Chronicle of a Summer, Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0054745/. Authentic French cinéma vérité by the director of Moi, un noir (and Morin). They send their female assistants to ask Parisians randomly met on the street whether they are happy. Their replies lead to a reflection on what we mean by happiness in a quite existential vein.

1964- The Up Series, Paul Almond (as Seven Up!) then Michael Apted, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_(film_series) The Up series is an ITV (later BBC) series, which has been documenting the lives of fourteen British citizens since 1964, when they were aged 7. It has now passed its ninth instalment (in 2019) and will presumably continue.

1964 Point of Order!, Emile de Antonio, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058481/ De Antonio does here something marvelously clever: he edits down to 97 thrilling minutes the TV footage of the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings (Senator McCarthy was accused of seeking to obtain from the Army special privileges for a Private he was using as a spy). Along the film, which has no voiceover, we see the infamous McCarthy dig his own grave with increasing arrogance and cruelty. No need to add any comment…

1965 The War Game, Peter Watkins, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0059894/ The BBC asked Watkins to make a docudrama showing the effects of a nuclear bomb dropped on an average British city (Rochester in Kent). The result was so scary that the film was not shown until 1985 (though it did win an Oscar). Can a low-budget, black and white film be so frightening? I was absolutely terrified –please watch it!

Enough for today… the rest next week! Stay safe, keep well.

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

THE END OF LITERARY CRITICISM?: ON GEORGE STEINER’S PASSING

George Steiner passed away a few days ago and the culture sections in the media have been abuzz with contrary opinions about his immense influence. Together with Harold Bloom (who died last October), Steiner was one of the last voices left from the time when literary criticism was not subservient to literary theory, which often means in practice to other disciplines such as philosophy or sociology. I cannot have much personal sympathy for Steiner as a patrician intellectual who seems to personify the ivory tower protecting privileged white men, but I mourn with his passing the death of a type of intellectuality connected with deep reading that will never return. His was the class of mind I was asked to admire by the scholars who trained me as an undergraduate student in the early 1980s, and something of my youthful awe remains, even though his academic style was at odds with my own scholarship.

I did see Steiner in the flesh, though my memories of the event are very poor. This must have been at the Universitat de Barcelona, possibly in 1985, and I recall being in the first row of a very crowded room, amazed at how deftly he moved his withered left arm (a birth defect) with his right hand. I remember being impressed by his lecture, but I don’t recall the topic (the Greek hero Cadmus?). It was clear to me that I was in the presence of one of the Minds in ways that I have hardly ever felt listening to other big names, for he commanded immediate respect. That feeling is now still intact but also, paradoxically, altered because I am much better aware of the academic context than I was then. Today, I would listen to him with more scepticism.

If you read the diverse articles which El País has published these days you get a sort of snapshot of that old-style European intellectualism that Steiner embodied, the kind I was told to bow down to, which exalted reading the classics at the cost of ignoring all of Modernity, and which did not take into account each reader’s background. In his last interview, with Nuccio Ordine, Steiner claims that he regrets not having understood the depths that the best cinema can reach, and not foreseeing the impact that feminism would inevitably have on all fronts of life (at least, he claims to have supported it). How, I wonder, can a person be one of the greatest cultural critics without understanding these two crucial elements of the 20th century and beyond? But, then, it seems to me that the ability to ignore whole areas of cultural experience was also part and parcel of what fine literary criticism used to be. It was a dialogue among the peers of a very exclusive circle, who never really wanted to invite outsiders in but to perpetuate their own conservative view of literature.

While Bloom was at war, precisely, with the American academia emerging in the 1970s after the establishment of identity politics, in Steiner’s case a rather more subtle war against him was waged by the rather provincial British academia (yes, Oxford and Cambridge) that never accepted him and his multilingual, comparative, pan-European approach to literary interpretation. Indeed, his longest-lasting position as a lecturer was at Geneva. His own personal war was fought against American culture from the 1960s onwards, in which he overlapped in many ways with the American Bloom as the last defenders of a world quickly collapsing around their respective pedestals. Both, incidentally, were Jewish though the one to have been most vocal about the importance of understanding the Holocaust was Steiner (and no wonder, since his Austrian parents were exiles from Nazism). By the way, let me recommend the obituary at The Guardian, not so much for the obituary itself but for the readers’ comments; some were Steiner’s much daunted students at Cambridge! (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/feb/05/george-steiner-obituary).

I am much divided in my views of what someone like Steiner meant. On the one hand, I miss the presence of voices like his in defence of reading and of the need to think as deeply as possible as critics. Where are the true intellectuals today, I wonder? I have been complaining loudly about how any chance of using a truly personal voice that resonates with a wide readership has been killed by the cookie-cutter paper and by shallow, hyper-productive scholarship. On the other hand, Steiner (much more so Bloom) did not have a voice I associate with dialogue. Obviously, I don’t know enough about Steiner (or Bloom) to discuss his achievements and opinions but, in essence, his literary criticism consisted of analysing the conversations that literary texts have with each other, according mainly to his own uniquely cultured criteria, ignoring all the rest. Authority can be built on the basis of only listening to one’s fine voice but, as it is happening with F.R. Leavis (or has already happened), this may mean a quick posthumous outmodedness. I have very rarely come across quotations from works by Steiner in thirty years as a literature researcher. Either that is already a sign of his obsolescence, or I am not reading the right bibliography.

Among the comments by Guardian readers that I have mentioned before there was an exchange that caught my attention. “These scholarly, deeply educated people” a reader claimed, “are almost extinct. It is impossible today to achieve the level of deep learning Steiner acquired. The future is very bleak”. Someone else replied “That’s simply untrue; there will always be a genuine old-fashioned elite”. Here is in a nutshell what irks me: the connection between being ‘deeply educated’ and belonging to an ‘old-fashioned elite’. The collective aim of any society should be having as many deeply educated individuals as possible, so that there would be no need for any elites in possession of the one and only true culture. What I imagined as a young girl listening to Steiner, among others, was a future in which erudition of the kind which he possessed would be as coveted as being slim is today –this was not as naïve as it sounds, for you should recall the quite high cultural level then of public television in Spain (at least the second channel) and of the post-Francoist new media. I supposed that the intellectual elites would inspire a constantly rising level of education among all classes as access to education grew but, instead, we have youtubers and influencers who lack any understanding of intellectual training and, possibly because of that, are the opposite of humble. We also have unexpected kinds of narrow erudition, such as the erudition of the football fan or that of the tabloid reader interested in Kardashian-style celebrities Of course I was stupid, I should have known better than suppose that people really want to be educated, for they don’t, and this includes many university students of working-class roots who are not really doing their best. Not that the upper classes are doing much better, I should say, and they have all the opportunities. Where is the Steiner of the ‘genuine old-fashioned elites’ now? Busy with their Instagram accounts most likely.

Having said that, it would be very wrong to assume that the conservative teaching and research model passed on by Bloom, Steiner and company is over, despite the high impact of theory and identity politics on literary studies. It is really hard to say who is in the minority since we tend to gravitate towards those who share our academic viewpoints. When we need to mingle –as happens in Department workshops– it’s easy to see that the divisions run very deep. There is still a prevalent view that texts can be analysed on their own, without context or politics, for we do literary criticism and so what matters is only textuality. This extreme formalism is accompanied by the misguided impression that if you take context into account, then textual analysis is contaminated and, thus, invalidated. I also marvel at how my colleagues (all over the Spanish university I mean) manage to function without paying attention to what articulates current Western and even global culture, whether you like it or not. Can one really claim to be in the world without knowing the basics of Star Wars, I wonder? And I say this despite being guilty of ignoring whole fields of culture that matter today (rap, which I dislike) and also the fields that are specialised interests but part of high culture (opera, out of pure ignorance).

I am beginning to feel stranded between Scylla and Charybdis, between old-school literary criticism and post-theory, post-identity politics scholarship. I do not think we can ever go back to that elite scholarship based on reading the classics, though I’m sure that many scholars are happy with it, because we have known for decades that in this way the experience of most readers alive today is ignored. I don’t see any sense in that and I will certainly dispute the claim that reading Dante is essential for any living person. On the other hand, I very much miss the fine writing of the old school of literary criticism, a feature that explains why the sales figures for the books by Steiner, Bloom and company were so high. Their prose appealed to many outside academia, whereas most of the academic work we write today is full of unintelligible prose, an unforgivable sin when dealing with any type of literature. As a doctoral student I much embarrassed myself when one of our teachers introduced the works of Mikhail Bakhtin (in English translation, I mean) and I asked him why the prose was so ugly. I expected the fine prose I had been reading as an undergrad to be extended to all topics of interest for literary and cultural criticism, not ugly prose to flood all corners of academia but this is what has happened.

I mourn, then, Steiner, as one of the last big figures who saw a direct link between fine reading and fine writing in literary criticism. We are all writers but we seem to have forgotten how to write essays, conforming instead to the rules of a straitlaced rhetoric that feels like a Victorian corset. I grant that few people, if any, still have the capacity for deep reading that comes from a bottomless erudition but ours is a different time which calls for different skills. I don’t see, however, why the skill of producing elegant prose transmitting a personal voice should be neglected, but then of course this would call for a revolution in academia which I don’t see happening right now, or in the near future.

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/

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO CLOSE READING?: A CALL TO BRING BACK TEXTUAL ANALYSIS INTO LITERARY CRITICISM

My latest misadventure in peer reviewing has possibly marked a turning point in my career. I had written with much effort and in all loving detail and care an analysis of robot Daneel Olivaw’s masculinity in four novels by Isaac Asimov: The Caves of Steel (1954), The Naked Sun (1957), The Robots of Dawn (1982) and Robots and Empire (1985). I am aware that the novels are well known in SF circles but I wanted to examine a series of points that would highlight Asimov’s clever handling of gender issues. I also wanted, indeed, to show where he had lost control of these issues though in ways that, paradoxically, turn out to be productive. For that I found it necessary to make comments on plot turns that connect the four novels and which, I argued, had been missed by previous scholarship.

To my complete mortification my article was rejected outright, with no chance of peer reviewing, by a journal editor who had published my work before, on the grounds that it had too much plot summary. My defence, arguing that this was close reading and not mere plot summary, was dismissed and I was (very kindly) told that perhaps my article should be placed elsewhere. It is not the first time I am accused of the same heinous crime, and of others even worse, though usually by the peer reviewers and not by an editor. Needless to say, I spent a couple of days smarting under the effect of the rejection (much more so because it came from someone I deeply respect and admire), but after 25 years in the publishing circuit my skin is thick enough. Or just thickish, otherwise I would not be writing this post. I have found another home for the article and have proceeded to write something quite different for the same journal, with less plot summary and more theory. But even so…

This was a few months ago. A little bit later, I was asked to peer-review an article on a science-fiction novel in Spanish, which I will not name to protect my secret identity as academic informer. Very cloak-and-dagger, like my last post. My co-reviewers and I agreed that the article was well written and well researched but needed serious revision. Why? Because the novel analysed was buried under a mass of theorisation which, besides, was only tangentially related to it. If, suppose, you come across an article on Hamlet, you have more room for theory since you can safely assume that all readers know the text as a matter of general culture. If, however, you read an article on a relatively unknown text –old, new, minor, foreign– then I should say that an introduction to the author and their work is mandatory. At least, I teach my tutorees that their dissertations should include that type of material. I must add that the comments on the novel analysed in the peer-reviewed article were so oblique that I had to check a few reviews to understand what was going on. I was amazed to discover that this is a technically dashing novel, of a post-post-modern kind, an aspect on which the article author did not comment at all!

Pure close reading with no use of a theoretical framework is no use, for it assumes a total consensus on the nature and values of the text analysed which can only lead to a rather bland reading. On the other hand, excessive theorisation suggests that the author is actually uncomfortable with literary criticism and would like to be writing something else. The author I peer-reviewed was very clearly far more interested in climate change than in the novel they was analysing but, for some strange reason, had decided to publish their work in a journal about Literature and not about, say, Environmental Sciences. As a peer reviewer, then, I had to highlight this discrepancy between interest and aim, hence the request for revisions. When I told a colleague about this, he told me that it was about time we returned to a more traditional style of doing literary criticism but I’m not sure that I am defending any traditionalism. I believe that I am asking for a new balance.

When my article on Asimov was rejected, I was told that I should consider rewriting it from a perspective that emphasized the main cultural issue raised in it (sex between humans and robots, or robosexuality). I had tons of bibliography dealing with robosexuality but all this refers to events that have been happening after Asimov’s death in 1992 and that he could not have been aware of. I could have written an article about how these recent developments colour our reading of Asimov today but I very much wanted to deal with how he built his four novels, and why he had to stop between 1957 and 1982 (the time was not ripe until the 1980s for a story about a woman who falls in love with a humanoid male robot). I wanted, in short, to explain to my potential readers how Asimov had worked as a writer, not as a cultural prophet, for (believe me!) nobody has used that angle before in relation to his novels. I honestly believed that any SF reader would enjoy the exposure of the electric homoerotic current accumulating around Daneel Olivaw’s beautiful non-human male body but this was not wanted. Too old-fashioned, perhaps, too fannish, maybe. I don’t know. I can only say that as a literary critic I care very much for how authors put stories together, although as a cultural critic I also enjoy writing about the context from which they spring–as I build my own theorization.

When the discussion about how much theorisation literary criticism should absorb started, some time in the mid-1980s I think, most sided with theory but also with a style of writing I have never been comfortable with. Just then I was being trained as a second-language undergraduate student in the techniques of close reading, which were necessary for a person learning at the same time a non-native language and the texts written in it. As an undergrad I was woefully lacking a training in theory, which I only got, in fits and starts, as a doctoral student and, later, through my own reading. I have never, however, got rid of the instinct to dissect and explain the text, which I need, anyway for my teaching. I can hardly teach my own second-language students any Literature if I don’t teach them how to read first. This entails plenty of close reading and, yes, even plot summary.

Anyway, whenever I allow myself to go into the texts I am analysing in depth, as I like doing, my academic work is rejected –usually by Anglo-American native speakers who were trained in a completely different tradition and circumstances, which allowed for theory to have a much bigger impact and presence in their academic work. I have never heard anyone voice the same concern I am expressing here but I frequently hear among my Spanish peers the same complaint: ‘I don’t get it, I’m offering theorisation built on my own close reading but I’m told that this is not theoretical enough and has too much plot summary’. Beyond my own faulty scholarship, could it be that there is some kind of cultural clash at work that remains unexamined?

Just consider this anecdote. Since I am a serial committer of the same crime, I had been already told about one of my articles that it had too much plot summary. In that case, my focus was Anne Brontë’s The Tennant of Wildfell Hall, which I ‘retold’ following the thesis that it is actually articulated by the love story between Arthur Huntingdon and his mistress Anabella, and not just by his marriage to Helen. For that retelling to be convincing, I had to provide a detailed alternative reading of the novel, which my American peer reviewers rejected as unnecessary. So, I uploaded the rejected article onto my university’s repository and just the following day I got an e-mail message from a Spanish academic congratulating me on it. I have now submitted the article to a new (Spanish) editor, who has welcome it. Is this beginning to look like a pattern?

Let me insist on plot summary from another angle. When my PhD supervisor asked me to include in my dissertation an appendix with brief summaries of the 75 novels and the 125 films it covered he did so on two grounds: a) my examiners would need a quick guide for reference, b) summarising each text would help me to focus on what I wanted to say about them. He was 100% right. I later used the same technique for the 200 episodes of The X-Files which I explored in my book Expediente X: En honor a la verdad: I first wrote the summaries, then I wrote the book (still out there, see https://ddd.uab.cat/record/118437).

Re-reading these days Brian Attebery’s Decoding Gender in Science Fiction, I came across yet another argument in defence of plot summary (he alludes here to “Rapaccini’s Daughter”): “Having now summarized the same story four times, with four radically different results, I can conclude that there is no such thing as a simple plot summary. The very thing literature teachers tell students to avoid, as distraction from real critical work and a waste of the reader’s time, may actually be at the heart of critical interpretation” (2002: 26, my italics). The question is that I have never heard any teachers in all my years as a student or an academic in Spain to dismiss plot summary–look at what my (English) supervisor taught me! That Attebery felt the need to defend the link between plot summary and literary criticism in the early 21st century is an indication that something precious was lost in the 1990s.

Actually, I’ll stake the claim that two things were lost at the same time: not just the ability to produce and enjoy engaging close reading, but also the ability to generate new theorisation. The sequence ‘close reading of beloved literary text > critical insight > new theorisation’ was replaced by the sequence ‘choice of theory by big name > application to random text which is not really appreciated as writing > production of by-the-numbers paper with no new critical insights’. This is a model that, if you ask me, seems designed to do two things: 1. curb down any spark of critical originality, 2. offer the mass production academic model required by the hyper-productive but empty Humanities of the 21st century. I’ll add something else: when I started working on popular fiction in 1994 one of the arguments I insisted on is that plenty of Gothic, fantasy and science fiction is presented in very solid prose, and in elaborately complex narrative structures. What I meant is that the writing in those genres deserves the same attention to detail as the writing in literary fiction –I never meant that they could only be studied from a Cultural Studies perspective because they lacked literary quality. It seems to me, though, that many of my colleagues show a certain failure of nerve in their defence while, simultaneously, shying away from making negative judgements whenever they are required. Hence, the overwhelming use of theory.

I’ll stop my ranting here, or I will end up hurting myself…

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/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homo Sapiens is, definitely, not progressing at all.

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

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

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/

A BOOK CO-AUTHORED WITH MA STUDENTS, GENDER IN 21ST CENTURY SF CINEMA: 50 TITLES

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/

LORD BYRON: APPROACHING DECANONIZATION

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/

ALL THAT RESENTMENT: UNIVERSITY TEACHERS AND SPANISH SOCIETY

My post today refers mainly to the article in El País, “La Universidad afronta la salida del 50% de sus catedráticos en siete años” (https://elpais.com/sociedad/2019/01/09/actualidad/1547044018_002135.html). As it is habitual in the Spanish media, El País mistakes ‘catedráticos’ (i.e. full professors) for tenured teachers (i.e. those with positions as civil servants until they retire, but not necessarily ‘catedráticos’). The point raised is the same, though. By 2026, 16200 of the current full-time university teachers will have retired (almost 17%) but, here’s the nub: the current hiring system will not allow to fill in the vacant positions. The Spanish university will dramatically shrink though, in view of the constant demand, it might have to offer in a rush a high amount of tenured positions. Most likely, as we fear, 2026 will be the date when many Departments might disappear.

Allow me to comment on some on some points raised by the article, and then on some comments by the always angry readers of El País.

Point 1: the average age for teachers in the Spanish public university is 54. This refers only to full-time tenured teachers for, as we know, the average age for part-time associates is much lower (but also rising towards 40 since no tenured positions are being offered). I am myself 52 and was hired full-time aged 25 (yes, 27 years ago), so I am of the privileged best-paid, best-positioned teachers that aspire to retiring before 2026 (I certainly don’t want to be teaching 20-year-olds when I am past 65). Whenever I read this kind of news, I feel guilty that I am so lucky and profoundly annoyed that my professional group is presented as unusually, or even unfairly, privileged. This is the trick that the Spanish Government (and many others around the world) have been using to antagonise the different generations: the problem is not that the young are being grossly abused (they are!!) but that we, the ageing parasites, cling to our privilege.

Point 2: Pedro Sánchez’s current Socialist Government does not want to offer “an avalanche of tenured positions” that might bar access to the following generations, as happened in the Orwellian 1984. What happened then? Well, 5000 teachers with five years of experience and a doctoral degree were offered tenure in quite accessible state examinations. This, it is said, was a serious error as a blockage was formed that prevented the next generation from accessing tenure. The information, however, is not correct. In 1984, the year when I myself became an undergrad, there was a massive influx of students with working-class backgrounds (me again) thanks to Felipe González’s Socialist policies. This influx made it necessary to improvise the hiring of the new teachers; at the time, nobody thought of an alternative to the tenure system because this is how the university traditionally worked.

By 1991, when I was first hired as a teacher, the system still ran quite smoothly: you were employed full-time, with the expectation that you would write your doctoral dissertation in three years, and next face the corresponding state examination one or two years later. I should have been tenured, then, by 1997 or 1998, at the latest. What interrupted the quite acceptable ratio of generational replacement was not the bottleneck allegedly formed in 1984 but the new restrictive policies by the conservative Government headed by José María Aznar, which started to brutally attack the public university by destroying its hiring system. Thus, to use my own example, I did between 1996 and 2002, when I finally got tenure, the same amount of work as a tenured teacher but on the basis of temporary, poorly-paid contracts, while I waited. In 2008 the full-time contracts to hire junior researchers, as I was in 1991, were withdrawn. Then started the agony of the system and of the individuals who, like me, only aspire to doing their best for the Spanish university. Incidentally: replacing 17% of all employed teachers in seven years is a very acceptable ratio below 3% each year. This should liberate money that would suffice to pay for new tenured positions, which would be anyway cheaper as teachers would not be receiving money for any extra merits as after a long career. As things are now, though, this is considered too much and here lies the main problem.

Point 3: the function of ANECA and the accreditation system. Since the university system no longer could absorb the junior researchers, for lack of tenured positions, the Government raised the amount of qualifications needed to apply for one about ten years ago. The agency founded to grant national accreditations, ANECA (and other regional equivalents) guarantees the possession of those qualifications but has also created a fantastic amount of frustration. El País reports that ANECA has certified that 15000 Spanish doctors qualify for tenured positions (both ‘titular’ and ‘catedrático’) but this is far more than it is offered. Once you’re ANECA-approved, the waiting can take many years, during which, if you’re an associate, you might easily be dismissed by your university. I see that many of my colleagues have started signing as ‘catedrático acreditado’ or ‘titular acreditado’, which, in my modest view, is very sad.

By the way: I totally disagree with the opinion that, when we retire, there will be no sufficiently qualified personnel. It might well be that the Spanish university goes up a few notches in the international rankings, since the patient ‘anecandos’ know very well how to be competitive. What I see is that the 70-year-olds will be replaced, at the rate we’re going, by 50-year-olds with waning energies, past their prime in some specialities which require the stamina of the 25-35 young. After a time of restrictions, in which only 10% of the positions occupied by tenured teachers could be offered again, the Government has finally allowed universities to replace all their teachers. Yet, without better funding, this cannot be done. What I say: many brilliant researchers now in their 40s will still have to wait long years for tenure. Only 2.3% of all current ‘titulares’ like myself (i.e. senior lecturers) are younger than 40. Of course, many researchers in the 40-50 bracket are hired rather than tenured, but, even so, the case is that students aged 18-22 are being taught by their grandparents’ generation!

Now, three comments from readers (there are 270).

Comment 1: some countries, a reader says, would take the chance as a “golden opportunity” to replace the “endogamic, stagnant” Spanish teaching body. Thank you very much on behalf of the generation currently doing our best to educate students who are amazingly reluctant to being educated and to do, besides, research at levels never known in Spain before the 21st century. It is extremely satisfactory to receive so much support from the society that we serve and to be told, besides, that anyone younger would be better prepared. By the way, dear reader: the article does not refer to the massive dismissal of currently employed teachers but to our retirement. We do expect to be replaced by much better personnel, of course, but the point the article is making is not that we should retire but that the younger generation should be employed in adequate conditions. Not the same.

Comment 2: who cares, a reader writes, if the public Spanish university disappears? There are not sufficient students, anyway, to maintain a “bunch of lazy, overpaid guys, while the mass of workers lives in miserable conditions”. Thank you again, on behalf of my colleagues and myself. The whole point of the 1984 university revolution was to guarantee the higher education of the working classes so that they could be critical with their life conditions, including employment, and socially mobile upwardly. The 2008 crisis was used to destroy the university hiring system following the same abusive economic policies that have reduced the life of those born after 1985 to a constant struggle to survive. I am well aware that I am a luxury but what we should be demanding is not an end to the Spanish public university but an end to all the ultra-capitalist policies that are making the rich richer and the poor poorer. You might say that a university education does not guarantee any upward social mobility (the upper classes have done all they can to hinder it) but imagine for one moment a Spain with only ultra-expensive private universities and a paltry scholarship system, possibly much worse than what we have now. How’s that an improvement on the lot of the working classes? The upper and the middle classes can choose between the public and the private university, either in Spain or abroad. But, how do you allow the talent of working-class individuals to flourish? Aren’t you interested?

Comment 3: (with this one I must agree). “Spanish society does not value research”, nor any merits attached to it. This is possibly the key to the whole matter: the comments elicited by this article show a colossal miscommunication between those of us who take university research and teaching seriously and those who, unaware of what we actually do (or in some cases rejected by the system), show enormous hostility at what they assume to be our privileged positions. Reading the comments you can see how the colleagues that try to explain our job face an adamant dislike, even hatred, based on immovable premises: we get tenure aided by a close circle of accomplices though we lack sufficient merits, and the little we do does by no means justify the enormous salaries we are paid. Of course, to someone paid 800 or 1000 euros a month, a salary of between 2500 and 4500 (these figures are public) might seem stratospheric. Also, the very idea of tenure. It is funny to see, though, that nobody disputes what football players, top models, influencers of all kinds and the CEOs that kills thousands of jobs at the drop of their hat are paid. Supposing, then, that in the next seven years a new generation is given tenure, this is what they’ll find: generalised resentment. Just what one needs to offer good teaching and progressive research.

We’re trapped, then, in a vicious circle: any defence of the Spanish university as a necessary public service and of their under-50 workers as unfairly exploited sounds to lay ears as a defence of privilege. I do acknowledged that some of my colleagues shamelessly abuse their positions but a) they are the minority and will be out by 2026, b) the same can be said about many other workers–we’re not saints, and nor is anyone else. The resentment poured on us is a product of envy, the ‘national sin’ as many call it, but also of the low educational levels in Spain. Germans, Britons or Americans do not seem to hate their university teachers, though they’re possibly only socially respected in places like Japan (my guess). Long gone are the times when being a ‘catedrático’ or a simple senior lecturer elicited respect and I keep no illusions about that. But why we are so misunderstood baffles me. Also, why instead of urging the Government to solve a situation that can be indeed solved with a minimum good will the solution offered is getting rid of absolutely the only institution that can bring some social change to our chronically backward nation. Unamuno’s ugly “¡Qué inventen ellos!” still has us in thrall.

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/

CAMERON AND SIMON: LESSONS IN COMING OUT

[Warning: Spoilers ahead!]

I first heard about The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2012), a novel by emily m. danforth (without capitalized initials), and Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (2015) by Becky Albertalli reading reviews of their film adaptations. The former, directed by Desiree Akhavan from a screenplay co-scripted with Cecilia Frugiele, has the same title as the novel. The latter, directed by Greg Berlanti and adapted by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, has a different title: Love, Simon. Both films were released last year, 2018. Miseducation won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, which is why it has attracted more critical attention; its IMDB rating is, however, only 6.7, in comparison to Love, Simon’s 7.7. Since I haven’t seen the films (yet), here I focus on the novels.

Both books are debut novels (winners of the William C. Morris Debut Award) originally published by Balzer+Bray, a HarperCollins label which specializes in young adult fiction. And both deal with the coming out of an American teenager. They seem to me, however, very different texts in style, content and approach. Miseducation is a literary novel, which is not surprising given the author’s training: an MFA in fiction (University of Montana) and a PhD in creative writing (University of Nebraska–Lincoln); she teaches creative writing and Literature (at Rhode Island College, Providence). In contrast, Becky Albertalli used to be a clinical psychologist specialized in children and teens before becoming a full-time writer. Her Simon is far less ambitious as a literary novel though, surprisingly, it made it to the National Book Award Long List (for Young People’s Literature). A major difference, and the source of much controversy, is that whereas danforth is a lesbian narrating the coming out of a lesbian teen, Albertalli is a heterosexual woman telling the story of how gay Simon comes out. Cameron’s story is rather bitter, Simon’s bubbly and happy.

Danforth’s novel has some autobiographical aspects, as she has granted, though she denies that Cameron’s experience mirrors her own. Author and character are natives of Miles City, in Montana (population a modest 8410), where the novel is mainly located. I usually read this as a negative sign: intense descriptions of one’s own small town in a debut novel tend to mean that the author has no other story to tell. We’ll see.

Danforth uses 470 very long pages to tell a rather simple story: Cameron Post is 12, in the early 1990s, when her parents die in a car crash–while she kisses a girl for the first time. Her unacknowledged, untreated sense of guilt prevents her from properly mourning them, and also from defending herself when she becomes the ward of her conservative maternal aunt Ruth. A heterosexual girl Cameron gets entangled with, when both are about 16, reports their first and only sexual encounter to her mother and, appalled, Ruth sends Cameron to a religious institution which offers conversion therapy (the novel’s implicit addressee is a progressive person, of course, and we know this cannot work). The last third of the novel concerns Cameron’s stay in this place, subjected to the increasingly absurd sessions with her bigoted therapist, Lydia, as she plots her escape with fellow sufferers Jane and Adam. Cameron eventually visits the site of her parents’ accident, finding closure for her mourning, though it is unclear whether the escapade with her new friends will come to a happy end.

This is a rather flimsy plot that could have been told far more efficiently in 350 pages, as many other readers have noticed. The prose is beautifully crafted but it often hinders the advancement of the scant plot. It screams at every page ‘look at me, I’m a sensitive, nuanced writer’, who learned her lessons well. Two caveats, then: I wonder why no editor cut this extra-long text and, more importantly, I wonder how much damage creative writing courses are inflicting. Reading Cameron this seems obvious: the subject matter asked for an acerbic style, less prettiness, and more insightful storytelling. Plot, tone and message end up muddled. I expected rampant villainy to colour the characterization of the obnoxious Ruth and Lydia but I was left instead with a confusing impression that they meant well but were misguided by their Christian values.

I have not read yet Boy Erased: A Memoir, by Garrard Conley, and the object of a yet another recent film adaptation (directed by the truly interesting Joel Edgerton) and cannot say how the memoir and the novel compare. Conley tells the story of his own religious conversion therapy, forced upon him by his father (at that time about to be ordained as a Baptist Minister). One thing I can say is that I learned practically nothing about this totally discredited way of ‘curing’ individuals of their own natural sexual inclinations reading danforth’s novel. She reduced this bizarre but important issue to the personal quirks of Ruth and, above all, Lydia, without providing in any way her young readers with information, and much less guidance, to resist being ill-treated in this way. This fuzziness was even more horrific to me than what they actually do, also because Cameron Post is very far from being a rebel in a way a real teenager might recognize. If the novel had focused more narrowly on the ugly issue of conversion therapy, it might work, but as it is everything gets diluted by danforth’s artistic ambition. My personal impression, then, is that this is a failed novel containing two possibly great novels: one about conversion therapy and the other about Cameron’s process of mourning–which in the end seems to be the main issue.

I also found in The Miseducation of Cameron Post much coyness in the treatment of lesbian sex. Once you read Sarah Waters, anything else seems coy but Cameron’s sexual awakening is so limited that you wonder whether the word ‘miseducation’ also extends to this. 1993 is pre-internet prehistory but, even so, Cameron seems vey little informed about lesbian sex. Her Seattle girlfriend, who boasts of being a progressive, well-connected lesbian, is not really much better informed. Whether you are a lesbian or another kind of reader, you are left pretty much in the dark about the many pleasures of this kind of sexuality. When interesting things finally happen, the encounter is terrible for Cameron, both in its development and its consequences. I wonder how many teen lesbian girls must have felt saddened and even scared, rather than encouraged, in view of this tepid approach and also because conversion therapy is not sufficiently described, or opposed.

Albertalli is much more fun but even worse at describing sex. She reminded me of J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter, and her awkwardly limited way of narrating the sexual awakening of the Hogwarts teens. I’m very much aware that Rowling is far, far worse since she completely excluded gay sex from Harry’s universe, a pathetic oversight which countless readers have corrected with their abundant slash fiction. Albertalli’s novel is quite different in that sense but her openly focusing on a gay teen does not mean that she is comfortable describing gay sex. The worst moment happens when Simon finds himself alone for the first time with his love interest (I won’t disclose the name, for this secret is the core of the novel). Believe it or not, they kiss and caress their naked chests as they lie on Simon’s bed. Yet, rather than masturbate each other, as one would expect of two 17-year-old gay boys (I think), Albertalli has each go to the bathroom separately. The words she uses are not very different from my own plain phrasing.

These are novels for young adults and the case is that adolescents–or teenagers, whatever you prefer–usually have their first full experience of sex (i.e. attempting to give each other an orgasm) around the age of 16 or 17. What Cameron and Simon do at that age corresponds to an earlier age, which is puzzling. Or one of the unstated rules of young adult fiction: discuss sex but describe it only coyly. Do I sound like an adult, heterosexual voyeur asking for some teen porn? I hope not! The point I’m making is that, in my view, the experience of coming out as narrated in fiction must be focused not only on acceptance by the corresponding social circle (or rejection, as happens to Cameron) but on the presentation of homosexuality as fun, pleasing and sexy. Sarah Waters does this–why can’t danforth and Albertalli do it? Are they bound by narrow YA codes? Or by the same irksome American puritanism that has Katniss and Peeta spend chastely so many nights together during the Hunger Games? Is Rowling a sign that this YA puritanism is not just American?

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is a very nice novel–not necessarily a term of praise. I do prefer stories that end well for their gay protagonists and I frankly enjoyed sharing time with adorable Simon (a word frequently used by Albertalli) than with bland Cameron. The plot, however, completely lacks the tension one is supposed to find in romance. The story, again, is very simple: Simon replies to a post on Tumblr by a gay high-school fellow, calling himself Blue, and what follows is a sincere, friendly correspondence, only mildly complicated by this boy’s reluctance to give his real name. The game the author plays with her reader is straightforward: you need to guess Blue’s real identity, which is not so difficult. In romantic comedy, typically protagonist A meets protagonist B, they start a promising relationship, and then a mistake leads A to lose B. Subsequently, A and B are gradually brought together, the mistake is cleared and eternal happiness follows. Shakespeare fixed this productive model in Much Ado about Nothing and Jane Austen polished it in Pride and Prejudice. Simon’s and Blue’s romance, however, goes through no crisis: it’s nice to see it unfold but not thrilling. As for Simon’s coming out, it also lacks a significant turning point. His blackmailer cannot really hurt him and his loving circle of friends and family is welcoming and accommodating. This might be the reason why Albertalli’s novel is popular: it’s an uncomplicated tale, what teen readers need to come out and the rest to learn tolerance. It seems, however, disingenuous, to take this simple road in view of the horrors that danforth narrates (or tries to).

At one point, Simon says that everyone should come out, including heterosexuals. I have done that a few times: whenever I start teaching a Gender Studies course, I declare explicitly what I am. This is not easy because coming out as a heterosexual should never be about clearing out any suspicion that I might be gay. If I do it, this is because I want my students to feel comfortable and speak frankly about who they are. I find that declaring yourself asexual is hardest since everyone assumes that all individuals are interested in sex. But I digress. Cameron and Simon teach us that there is a happy and an unhappy way of coming out as gay and that both need to be discussed, in fiction and in life. Hopefully, one day teens won’t have to come out at all, for there will be no closet and all persons will be free to be whatever they are.

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/