From the Greek Anthology

Concert programme 4 June 1988, Club Voltaire, Catania
Concert programme 4 June 1988, Club Voltaire, Catania

Yesterday I came across an old cassette tape of a concert I gave at the Club Voltaire in Catania, Sicily on the 4th of June 1988. What a shock to hear this after more than a quarter of a century!

The first half comprised a selection of pieces by Scriabin, while the second half comprised a piano suite I composed myself “From the Greek Anthology”.

The concert was very kindly recorded informally by a friend and the sound quality is very poor, especially of the first half. Here indeed are only the first few seconds of that first half, displaying a rather voluptuous approach to Scriabin’s sound world. The rest of the recording of this part is like mud and not worth reproducing here. For some reason the second half was recorded in much better quality, if hardly professional.

from the University of Tasmania http://eprints.utas.edu.au/8712/
from the University of Tasmania http://eprints.utas.edu.au/8712/

The second half of the concert comprised a set of nine short portraits of friends and acquaintances, imagined as though poems from the collection of often scurrilous as well as grave epigrams, the “Greek Anthology“. The suite was written in a playful code that makes reference to a host of works in the orchestral and operatic repertoire (with some piano music too).  While conveying secret messages, I also wanted to bridge the popular and the elite through postmodernist mash-ups, emphasising the sensuous and physical side of performance with violent contrasts and virtuoso techniques, mobilised by lucid – even very strict – musical form.

As I explained in the notes I wrote to accompany the concert, I wanted to emulate in sound the poetic techniques of the Greek Anthology and the centos of late antiquity which happily – and often very cleverly – used ready-made phrases borrowed from previous poetry. Their work was also the precipitate out of – and glue between – friends, neighbours and enemies. I wanted to create a personal, situated, non-institutional, occasional art like theirs. I was also aware at the same time that if I was to write musical epigrams, I would necessarily strip people of their complexity and reduce them to types (I was thinking of Theophrastus at this stage). In that respect my pieces were satiric even when they appear most sentimental and sympathetic.

Now I can see these pieces as normative and utopian, even moralistic: there was in them an element of criticism, a desire to correct. Now I would prioritise their stories over ther Theophrastian “character”. I wonder, rather, what happened to the addressees – to the princess whose extraordinary beauty could not hide her terrified grasp on love which she hoped would prevent her falling into the abyss, a terror all too clear in her nightmare of being smothered by bees that I’ve tried to represent in the piece dedicated to her.  What happened to the braggart soldier to whom she clung as though to a branch over the abyss, even while knowing he could not stop her falling? Did the feigned vestal live out the comfortable life of public virtue she craved as much as private sensual indulgence? Philosopher 1 I have discovered turned to analysis of the surface of things, eschewing all depth, as I predicted here.  The failed stoic, alas, I know now had a far stronger pull to a minor key than I presented, but I caught him at a good time and this is a happy memorial of that. The lady lives on as charming as ever, but philosopher 2 – what was or still is the story there? As for the curse tablet, the body it referred to is quite forgotten.

from http://www.sott.net/article/178457-Sound-of-long-lost-Ancient-Greek-instruments-recreated-by-computer-experts
from http://www.sott.net/article/178457-Sound-of-long-lost-Ancient-Greek-instruments-recreated-by-computer-experts

A single file of the whole second half of the concert would be too large to upload, so here it is in two parts along with some notes. First,the 5 pieces to “Defixio” (just over 8 minutes). The opening has an unfortunate hum, but that becomes inaudible very soon.

from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/56.171.38
from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/56.171.38

1) To a philosopher 1 – a pale, still, very disciplined piece  in Gm /B flat which nonetheless can’t avoid sentimentality even if it aspires to do so. Aspiring higher and higher, it keeps falling back. It’s strictly based on the first four notes of Holst’s chaste “Venus” from the Planets suite played in a variety of combinations and sequences (even the final chord comprises the notes played simultaneously).

2) To a feigned vestal – a passionate but entirely conventional – even banal – answer in E flat to the first piece, as if they were a couple unable to talk together. Most of “To a feigned vestal” is based on two themes, each from Strauss operas: the first subject is Arabella in search of “the right man” and the second Christine (from Intermezzo) who dreams of a glamorous alternative to her workaholic husband. They are woven together in a mini-sonata form whose coda quotes a coquettish version of the heroine’s theme from a third opera by Strauss, Salome, before an inconclusive end (a bland version of the terrible dissonance at figure 361 at the climax to Salome), broken into by …

3) To a married lady / matron– a bad-tempered, quixotic and querulous piece, whose main theme is a slow, cabaret-Satie-esque waltz in G minor, which tries to cheer up, but which eventually collapses  into the funeral march  from “The Farewell” from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The piece ends with a nod to Debussy’s Jeux. This was a portrait of my dear friend Nini Floreale, who died in 2005.

Red figure vase in British Museum from Classical Art Research Centre, University of Oxford, http://www.beazley.ox.ac.uk/tools/pottery/painters/keypieces/redfigure/meidias.htm
Red figure vase in British Museum from Classical Art Research Centre, University of Oxford, http://www.beazley.ox.ac.uk/tools/pottery/painters/keypieces/redfigure/meidias.htm

4) To a failed stoic – another passionate torrent of notes, this time based on Scriabin’s opus 11 C minor Prelude, of which, turned very definitely into C major, only the melodic shape remains. Other key references are to the theme of redemption in Wagner’s Ring and the interrupted cadence from the final , happy, movement of Mahler VII, whose key it shares. Structurally reminiscent of 1) – an A-A form – it is also a  solar answer to (or aspiration for) 3).  The two pieces share an interest with two adjacent notes at key moments, though used for different purposes.  The failed stoic is fact a portrait of my friend Lawrence Razavi of whom I have fond memories not for his  problematic research on genetics  (long before genetics were fashionable) but for his passionate and humane engagement in art.  The piece is counterposed by….

5) To the infernal powers / Defixio. A defixio was for the ancient Romans a lead tablet on which a curse was inscribed before being thrown into a sacred spring. I tried to create the sound of hellish water bubbling up from the underworld at midnight using chords I found originally in the funeral march from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet; the melody by contrast is a dark parody of the main theme of Debussy’s sensuous waltz, La plus que lente, for of course this is a curse by a frustrated lover on a faithless or unobtainable beloved. The melodic line eventually gets trapped within the devil’s interval – the tritone –  and the curse comes true, with terrifying consequences, even if it ends in B flat major. An A-B form.

Here are pieces 6-9 (9 minutes).

6) To a lady. In the nonchalent, carefree style of popular songs of the early twentieth century – Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” is nearby. The melodic line is, though, built up of a host of references to other music, from Stravinsky’s Firebird and Scriabin’s Sonata no 5  to Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Another simple strophic form, this time centred on G major.

Red figure vase, from http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/archives/siias/artifacts/project12.html
Red figure vase, from http://www.library.csi.cuny.edu/archives/siias/artifacts/project12.html

7) To a princess. A mirror of the first piece in its compositional technique and an echo of 5) in its sound world, this seeks to represent the nightmare of the princess smothered by bees. What the bees represent is suggested by how the piece is obsessively based on the first two bars of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (which becomes clear only towards the very end, when it is quoted in recognisable form). On the whole though the notes of Tristan are jammed together in extreme dissonance, the last chord comprising all the notes of the two bars played simultaneously in the bass (except for the previous pathetic rising 6th). There is also a passing and rather hopeless reference to the Falcon’s warning cry from Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten – and a Messiaen-esque ornithological screetch towards the end still based on the Tristan semitone cluster. A-B-A. Atonal with hints of F minor.

8) To a braggart soldier. A mirror of the second (and again in E flat), but even more empty of content, whose main melodic line is built on a simple descending scale. There is mock-military version of Wagner’s Siegfried which even falls short in its final phrase (a rising 5th instead of a 6th), some Beethoven III shoehorned into march tempo, a moment from the apocalyptic 4th movement of Mahler VI, and lots of gesture without content on one note – the musical equivalent of hot air or a military side drum – that eventually peters out because it has nowhere to go. A-B-A but something of a mess in its determination to aurally manspread.

from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/56.171.38
from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/56.171.38

9) To a philosopher 2. The Siegfried-derived theme is taken up again (but now quietly in A minor – as far as possible from the soldier), in a style distantly recalling the Poulenc of “L’aube” from Les animaux modeles and Parsifal). The opening chords from the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony move the piece into the atonal B section and quotations from Berg – the Lulu Erdgeist motiv and “Wir arme Leute” (“We poor people”) from Wozzeck. The climax cadence  is a version of the defixio chord. This resolves into the A section again, now more insistently repeated in a slow march (the soldier is not as Other as the philosopher thinks). The A-B dialectic is repeated until the New World chords eventually break free into the coda, a tiny syncopated dance that soon ends back with the New World chords calling for new ways of thinking — while at the same time recalling the devil’s tritone of the defixio. The chords fill out, eventually sounding simultaneously, clusters of the black notes of the piano beating rhythmically high up while all the white ones reverberate in the air after a double glissando from middle C simultaneously up and down to cover the length of the keyboard.

And finally the encore (3 minutes).

598px-Komast_Louvre_F125
a drunken, ecstatic reveller, from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Komast_Louvre_F125.jpg

This was my rather over-excited and not entirely accurate version of the famous Scriabin Etude opus 12 no 8 – except with even more notes tumbling over the keyboard than in the already full original. I always justified such excess to myself on the grounds that Scriabin used his piano scores as palimpsests for improvisation. My musically purist friends just thought all this sort of thing vulgar, and always made sure I knew it – so much for postmodern dissolution of aesthetic value in 1988. Now I think they were right.

The Army Surgeon – some comments

“The Army Surgeon”

Sydney Dobell

Over that breathing[1] waste of friends and foes,[2]

The wounded and the dying, hour by hour,-

In will a thousand, yet but one in power [3] ,-

He [3] labours thro’ the red and groaning day.

The fearful moorland where the myriads lay

Moved as a moving field of mangled worms. [4]

And as a raw brood, orphaned in the storms,

Thrust up their heads if the wind bend a spray

Above them, but when the bare branch performs

No sweet parental office, sink away

With hopeless chirp of woe, so as he goes

Around his feet in clamorous agony

They rise and fall;[5] and all the seething plain

Bubbles a cauldron vast of many-coloured pain.[6]


[1] This immediate emphasis on breath not only suggests breath as a theme but as a corporeal sensation for the reader – for the poem itself offers various challenges to the reader’s control of her or his own breath: it starts with pretty regular rhythm (iambic pentameter), but especially during the epic simile from line 7 onwards, the convoluted syntax spreading over clever enjambements and caesuras strains the reader’s own breathing as well as the rhythm.

[2] The rhyme scheme gives the impression of being broken, befitting the damaged bodies the poem describes. As with the rhythm, the syntax fights the rhyme scheme, making it difficult to discern. When split into two sestets the scheme seems less awry — abbccd, d[eye rhyme]cdcac [pseudo rhyme], ee — but the rhythms, especially the strong pause at the end of line 4 and the recall of that line’s rhyme at line 8 suggest a tough yet ghostly tension with an organisation of the poem into the more traditional 3 quatrains which is never realised.

[3] Death and its proximity unite all into one undifferentiated nameless mass. This is a particular example of the sublime, as defined by Edmund Burke. Today we might be tempted to regard the use of the sublime here not for aesthetic purposes but for political — in describing and enacting the horrors of war, we might assume the poem is against war. However, other readings are certainly possible: quite what the poem’s politics are depends on how we read the poem. Read in isolation, it is true that its violent sensationalism seems to oppose war. Yet when read as an element of  the whole collection it might be regarded as indicating the depth of sacrifice necessary to make Britain Great. This latter was a reading of the collection certainly made at the time by critics and newspaper editors.

[3] The final line of the first stanza introduces the single character into the undifferentiated mass of humanity. Both are unnamed: neither the mass nor the surgeon are individuals, but effects of their jobs. We might also regard the surgeon as the poet who surveys and dispassionately reports. Given the emphasis of the poem on painful suffering this might be a surprising suggestion, yet we should not forget the sheer skill of the poet’s pen here mirroring the surgeon’s own expertise with the scalpel. In neither case can professional knowledge alleviate suffering (see also below, note [5]). What the poet can do, however, is in a curious way comfort readers by reminding them that, like the surgeon, both he and they have survived. This is quite consonant with the Burkean understanding of the sublime, which was based on the perceiving subject’s realisation that he or she had survived death even though death had been encountered.

[4] The fallen seem already to have become prey to being eaten by worms: time, in this case the future and the present, has been collapsed in ways typical of the sublime. Simultaneously, a point is being made about the unity of living creation, a notion reinforced by the following comparison of the wounded to chicks desperate to be with their mother who will never come, and the surgeon to the tree branch which the chicks believe to be her but which cannot, by its nature, help them. We are all mortal animals dependent on the rhythms and failures of breath.

[5] The suggestion is of a wave – a rhythm – that rises and falls uselessly. The surgeon can do nothing for the dying. Here is the limit of the professional’s ever-increasing pastoral role caring for his flock (cf. King para 31). Scientific rationality cannot have a purchase here: the only language adequate for such suffering is that of flesh itself – the body and its breath, fragile, easily interruptible: in short, corporeal sensation, the spasmodic. This is not representation so much as presentation that produces in the reader the same sensations felt by the described.

[6] The last line shockingly introduces the language of the kitchen, suggesting a parti-coloured stew of boiled meats and vegetables seen from the point of view of the meat rather than the cook (whether the reference is to a witches brew leads to the same conclusion). Suddenly in this line we are presented with a space  where damaging flesh, even if not human, is the norm. This normalisation and naturalisation of suffering, legible in the epic simile too, confirms a preoccupation for how suffering is to be represented (or presented) rather than politically or ethically dealt with. Death is natural and normal, however painful and horrific, and it is the poet’s duty to communicate it. How to communicate death and dying is both the “scientific” and aesthetic point of the poem. Whether the suffering is to be valorised or condemned – that is, read politically and ethically – is, however, for the reader to decide, at least in this poem.


Publication and Reception Note

the army surgeon sonnets on the war 1855 title page

sonnets on the war 1855 title page

Sydney Dobell’s sonnet “The Army Surgeon” was originally published in Sonnets on the War, a joint collection with Dobell’s friend Alexander Smith that is now freely available or archive.org.

No manuscript source seems to have survived (see National Archives entry on Dobell). The one contemporary reprinting (see below) offers no variation of the text. While Dobell used only ‘the Author of “Baldur” and “The Roman”‘ on the title page, contemporary reviews show that his name and identity were already well known.

Frontispiece from 1856 edition

Smith and Dobell’s slim volume (of just 48 pages) was published in the first days of January 1855 by Bogue of Fleet Street as a shilling paperback (we can date the publication from a reference to it in a letter from Dobell to one of his sisters dated 5 January in which he says he hopes to send her a copy the next day – Life and Letters of Sydney Dobell, p. 396). Presumably Smith and Dobell’s usual publisher, Smith, Elder and Co (who published Dobell’s later and more expensive hardback collection England in Time of War) was unable to insert publication of the volume into their schedules, whereas the lower-status Bogue was more flexible. The poem was republished without emendment in The Poetical Works of Sydney Dobell (2 vols, Smith, elder & Co, 1875)  on p. 226, where Dobell’s contribution to “Sonnets on the War” are precipitated out from that volume, enabling us to distinguish them from Smith’s. The Poetical Works of Sydney Dobell is also available through archive.org.

Although “The Army Surgeon” can certainly be read as a self-standing commentary on (or description or enactment of) generic horrors of war, it in fact forms part of a narrative sequence that very firmly locks the poem into its historical context. The borders of this particular sequence are porous since the entire volume begs to be read as a whole, but one can see a distinct set of poems centred on the Battle of the Alma (20 September 1854, generally considered the first major battle of the Crimean War), comprising the sonnet “Alma” that immediately precedes “The Army Surgeon”, and the following three, two entitled “Wounded” and the last “After Alma”. Dobell only wrote “The Army Surgeon” amd the two “Wounded” poems but the arrangement of the pages certainly asks the reader to think of the Surgeon at the Alma.

Even though I have been unable to locate specific examples in newspapers before the collection appeared, I nonetheless think it helpful to regard the collection as comprising a specific type of what Natalie Houston has called the “newspaper poem,” that is, occasional poetry responding to or commenting on contemporary events reported in the press. The most famous Victorian example of this is Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade”  first published in The Examiner on 9 December 1854 in response to a Times article.

Andrew Hobbs has persuasively argued that the provinciual press was a major locus of poetry publishing in the nineteenth century,  and poems from “Sonnets on the War” is no exception. But rather than reprint all of them equally, there is a decided preference by newspapers for some over others. “The Army Surgeon” was not amongst those favoured at the time, perhaps because its imagery was too strong or its sentence structure and long and tortured central metaphor were considered too difficult.  The Aberdeen Journal (10 January 1855, p. 6) reprinted six sonnets: “Alma”, “After Alma”, the two sonnets on “The Cavalry Charge”, “Miss Nightingale” and “Cheer.” This is a selection that offers a reassuring narrative arc and avoids too much horror. The first three are reprinted again by  The Blackburn Standard on 7 February (p. 4) along with “Sebastopol” with a similar effect.

The politically more radical Lloyd’s Weekly, full of praise for the collection (14 January 1855, p.8), offers a different selection. Starting with “Alma” again, it continues with the second “Wounded” poem (a startling choice given the poem’s poetically very new technique of assembling fragments of everyday speech and follows it with “America”, “Freedom” and “Volunteers”. Again, however, despite a selection emphasising the politically and aestehtically radical, the arc remains comforting: for even if poetic novelty is admitted in Lloyd’s pages, the most shocking, visceral poems are omitted.

The volume was greeted with a mixed reception at the time. The lengthy review in the Inverness Courier (1 February 1855, p. 2), the only contemporary newspaper where I have found “The Army Surgeon” reprinted, regarded the collection’s level as of “respectable mediocrity.” But it did praise the the poets for “producing work on a practical subject, which, if its poetry is not of a very high order, contains nothing visionary, absurd or impracticable”. It singles out “The Army Surgeon” as one of the best according to these criteria. The review of the collection in The Sheffield & Rotherham Independent (5 May 1855) is likewise very lukewarm. Its principle bone of contention is that the sonnets are not musical: “In the hands of of a master the sonnet gives exquisite music;but strung by a tyro the sounds will be discordant.”  Ironically, of course, it is precisely the violence the authors of “Sonnets on the War” do to the traditional expectations of the sonnet that today constitutes one of the collection’s main interests. The review ends  by reprinting two of the more conservative poems (both ideologically and formally): “Miss Nightingale” and “Good Night” which they assume to have been written by Smith and Dobell respectively. It thus rescues the collection for patriotism just as the other newspapers had done.

Interestingly the London Lancet (the American edition of the British medical journal Lancet)- which reprinted the poem in 1856 – uses the isolated poem as an example of “all the heroism and self-denying devotion of which we have spoken” (p. 222), suggesting not only a reading of the individual poem through the lens of the self-abnegating professional (cf. King para 34) but also a reading of “The Army Surgeon” through other poems in the volume. Whatever our own views, this is a reading made possible by the poets’ interest in the problems of communication rather than in the politics of the described action.

That said, when the poem became detached from its collection, the alternative anti-war reading became more easily available. This is certainly possible for example in the New Zealand Herald (10 February 1917, p. 1).

The context of the poem in the Crimean War and has been well covered elsewhere: Kathleen Béres Rogers “Embodied Sympathy and Divine Detachment in Crimean War Medical Poetry” is recommended as offering an attentive reading of the poem which places “The Army Surgeon” in a slightly different context from what I have offered here.

Illustrated London News double page spread Battle of the Alma, 14 October 1854
Illustrated London News double page spread Battle of the Alma, 14 October 1854

University of Macerata Final Report: Collaborazione, bilocazione, internazionalizzazione

2014-12-08 12.23.24RELAZIONE FINALE

10 dicembre 2014

Come alcuni di voi sapranno, sono Andrew King dell’Universita di Greenwich di Londra, luogo dove ricopro l’incarico di professore ordinario di letteratura inglese e direttore del gruppo di ricerca LAD  – Literature And Drama, cioè letteratura e teatro, nel Dipartimento di Letteratura, Lingue e Teatro.

Sono stato vostro ospite qui a Macerata per 3 mesi come visiting scholar presso il collegio Matteo Ricci, grazie a un progetto, organizzato quest’anno per la prima volta, il cui scopo è quello di far crescere la cooperazione e la collaborazione tra Macerata e le università straniere.

Purtroppo per voi,  fa parte del mio contratto spiegare, non solo in forma scritta, ma anche in forma orale alla vostra presenza, ciò di cui mi sono occupato durante il mio soggiorno. Nonostante il mio pessimo italiano, motivo per cui leggo questa relazione invece di improvvisarla spontaneamente, conto di non farvi perdere troppo tempo – 5 minuti al massimo – e, di conseguenza, non elencherò proprio *tutto*!

Voglio, innanzitutto, ringraziare la professoressa Colella e tutti i colleghi di lingua e letteratura anglo-americana per la loro generosa ospitalità e sopratutto per il loro umorismo e le indimenticabili lezioni di dialetto napoletano.

Tra i risultati più rilevanti nella fattispecie, c’è il mio blog, che riflette sulla mia esperienza di insegnamento qui a Macerata. Non lo riassumo, perché potete trovarlo facilmente tramite google cercando “andrew king Greenwich” – Il post specifico si chiama “teaching as pasticceria” – “l’insegnamento come pasticceria”. È in inglese ma con, ad esempio, google translate  potete farvi un idea anche senza conoscere la mia lingua.

Un altro mio blog scritto qui a Macerata e di rilevanza generale, parla delle difficoltà morali nello scrivere una biografia quando si tratta il soggetto della biografia come un ospite, un’idea evidentemente ispirata dalla mia presenza qui come ospite vostro. Una versione audio-visiva si trova qua.

Più centrata sul mio campo di studi vittoriani è stata la sottomissione alla casa editrice americana del primo volume del Ashgate Companion to Nineteenth-Century British Periodicals – un’impresa titanica sulla storia della rivista nel Regno Unito nell’ottocento, di cui sono il curatore principale: comprende 45 saggi scritti da esperti inglesi, americani, giapponesi, australiani e europei – il chiaro risultato di una cooperazione internazionale. Ho portato a termine qui a Macerata anche la seconda fase del secondo volume – cioè la prima recensione dei saggi.

E poi ancora tanto altro che non elenco per non annoiarvi troppo.

Due cose voglio aggiungere.

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La prima è una confessione. Confiteor che anche se la mia università mi ha molto generosamente concesso un periodo sabbatico perché potessi venire da voi, ho dovuto emulare alcuni santi per la necessità di bilocazione. Ho continuato, infatti, a presentarmi alla mia università a Londra tramite tipi di proiezioni astrali, email e Skype, a scrivere relazioni, e a intervenire in comitati e consigli come questo.

Soprattutto ho continuato, nel mio ruolo di direttore di ricerca,  ad aiutare e consigliare da lontano i miei bravi colleghi e i dottorandi. Sono molto fiero dei risultati della nostra continua collaborazione intellettuale e ve ne do un solo esempio: una mia dottoranda, Ann Hale, ha vinto di recente due premi internazionali. Mi dice che senza l’aiuto non solo mio, ma anche dei miei colleghi fisicamente presenti a Londra,  non avrebbe vinto niente. La sua vittoria è la nostra; risale  alla collaborazione del gruppo, risulta nel successo del gruppo, e quindi nel successo di ciascuno di noi.

Per concludere, che cosa ho imparato dalla mia permanenza qui per quanto riguarda l’internazionalizzazione? Che la collaborazione con le università straniere è più importante che mai. In questo clima reso ostile da chi contesta la mancanza di  profitto immediato o almeno prevedibile entro date precise, reso ostile anche da chi ha paura e, imbarazzato, maschera la sua paura dietro la rabbia, il disprezzo o il garbo, tutti noi studiosi delle scienze umane non possiamo che collaborare, essere solidali, condividere esperienze, sapienze.

Bilocation of St Antony of Padua, Urbino, chiostro di Santa Maria del Paradiso
Bilocation of St Antony of Padua, Urbino, chiostro di Santa Maria del Paradiso

Dobbiamo essere in grado di almeno bilocarci, quando non multilocarci. L’epoca del locale, degli interessi individuali e del piccolo gruppo chiuso e singolo ci ha portato nella difficilissima situazione in cui tutti ci troviamo adesso, da Roma alle universitá inglesi orientate verso il profitto economico, e ci costringe a compiere passi impegnativi. In base alla mia esperienza e alla mia ricerca ormai da quasi 40 anni in diverse università di 6 paesi europei ed extra-europei, il vero successo si raggiunge tramite le pazienti collaborazioni, superando i limiti dei localismi, sia temporali che geografici e culturali.

“No man is an island” scrisse il poeta inglese John Donne – nessuno è un’isola. S’intende. Ma vivere veramente quel concetto nel contesto accademico è ora di importanza vitale se vogliamo mirare ad un futuro migliore sia materiale che morale. È difficile, lo so; ma non impossibile per persone dedicate, come voi, ad un umanesimo che innova.

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Questa è la lezione principale della mia presenza come ospite tra di voi, una lezione di cui sono, e rimarrò, infinitamente grato al collegio Matteo Ricci e ai cari colleghi.

Vi ringrazio per la vostra pazienza ed accoglienza, e vi auguro un felice e fiorente proseguimento collaborativo.

A Big Thank You to my old friend and Italian teacher Francesco Gulizia for checking the grammar and vocabulary of this. 

All remaining faults are of course mine, including the mention of Google Translate which Prof. Gulizia, a translator himself, expressly asks to be dissociated from.

Teaching, pasticceria, and the purposes of education.

What is university education?

What is university teaching? What is its purpose? What should it be?

downloadIf the questions have preoccupied many of us in the UK even before students started to be conceptualised as customers, they were recently brought back to me anew and with unusual clarity, as for the first time for some years I was privileged to teach, in an unfamiliar setting, students of a kind who had been through a very different education system from my students in the UK.

Over ten days in November I was lucky to teach six 2-hour sessions at the University of Macerata to 1st year undergraduates, and 1st year MA (“magistrale”) students in Languages in the Department of Humanities.

The sessions were divided equally between three longer courses, two on the nineteenth-century novel and one on modernist women’s poetry. Unlike in the UK, there are neither elaborate course booklets nor dedicated virtual learning environments such as Moodle   or Blackboard; rather there are basic directions to the students about what set the set texts are and what the general aims of the course are, as follows:

(1st year MA ) http://docenti.unimc.it/silvana.colella/courses/2014/13256 and http://docenti.unimc.it/marina.camboni/courses/2013/12192

1st year undergraduate http://docenti.unimc.it/silvana.colella/courses/2011/9153

Such elegant indications of course content give the teacher great flexibility and, importantly, the ability to keep absolutely up to date by changing research questions and incorporating new material as it emerges during the teaching year – which of course it will do, produced either by the teacher herself or by other academics. This also means it is easy to insert sessions such as mine even after the course has started.

Naturally, I tried to make connections between what I understood to be the focus of the extant courses and my own concerns and expertise, without risking overlap or duplication of material. Talking to the usual teachers of the courses was helpful. But at the same time, the sessions were (in theory at least) open to the public. The result was inevitably something of a mash-up, and had to offer something attractive. Hence the rather sensationalist titles.

1. IF IT DOESN’T HURT IT ISN’T REAL: REALISM, DICKENS, JOURNALISM

2. SEX AND THE CITY: VICTORIAN WOMEN, POWER, PERIODICALS AND SHOPPING

3. NEW WOMEN, NEW PUBLISHING? WOMEN AND PRINT CULTURE 1890-1914

Example of page 1 of a "preslide"
Example of page 1 of a “preslide”

The fact that the sessions were to be delivered in English to non-native speakers was another issue. I sought to deal with this by making available in advance what I called “preslides” in the “Teaching documents” section of my academia.edu site and /or on the usual professor’s university site: the usual prof informed the students orally in class that they should download the preslides and read them carefully along with the set texts, electronic copies of which I also provided. The preslides were designed to help students take notes. They comprised PDF versions of black and white PowerPoint slides stripped almost entirely of images, 6 slides to a page, and asked questions and provided quotations with gaps where key words should be. They were based on, but certainly not identical to, the much more elaborate PowerPoint slides I showed in class (these were also made available to students after the sessions, again in PDF, 6 slides to a page, on my academia.edu page).

Since I knew the sessions would not be examined, there was no obvious way that I could properly test the effectiveness of my teaching of the class overall (I always think of exams as testing the teaching as much as the learning). As is my wont, I planned abundant interaction from which I would normally be able gauge a class’s understanding, but I also knew that Italian students were not used to this and would probably be shy. I therefore devised a questionnaire for the students to fill in at the end of my time with them (that is, at the end of the second of the two-hour sessions). Such questionnaires are of course always double edged; they not only inform the researcher of the results, but inform the person completing the questionnaire, in this case making the students reflect on what they really had got out of the sessions and how they could get more out of future ones.questionnaire

I had 35 responses from the 1st year undergraduate class, and 22 from the first MA class, and 9 from the second (31 MA responses in total). It was quite wonderful to see the students take this questionnaire very seriously – it seems, from talking to them afterwards, that they are not used to doing this kind of thing, and that is why they spent so much time thinking about it, no matter how much I insisted it was not a test.

Of course one wants to find out what the students think of one – hence my immediate turn to the question of what I could have done better.  Almost of them were embarrassingly positive in their responses to “What could Andrew have done to help you learn better?”, especially the 1st years. “Involving” (= “coinvolgente”?) occurred in 8 of the 35 1st year responses (28%), “catch our attention” in 3 others, along with numerous generic positives.

“he was very involving, so he couldn’t have done anything more to help me learn better than this”

“it was a fantastic and involving lesson! The slides were useful and the explanation was clear”

“he was very involving and funny in his lesson”

There were just 4 suggestions for improved teaching: more on Dickens (x 2) and talk more slowly (x 2). I was delighted that only two students asked for the latter, as it meant that, for the vast majority, the care I had taken over oral delivery – speed, choice of Latinate vocabulary – had paid off.

beignetThe MA students were slightly – but only slightly – less positive on the same question. 11 wrote “nothing” and there were in addition 13 superlatives. There were, however, 8 suggestions for how I could have improved: more history (x 1); more on the concept of satire (x 1) which in retrospect I agree would have very useful (thank you to whoever wrote this – excellent idea!); don’t wait for responses from the class but just give the answer (x 1 – sorry, but my pedagogic tradition wants you to think for yourselves, not be choux buns – beignets – which I stuff with crème Chantilly!). Two wanted more time to discuss the texts, one of these two sensibly suggesting that what turned out to be a 4 hour session be split over two days. One wanted more videos (we saw just one – a Youtube video of the controversial Royal Opera performance of Salome, with Nadja Michaels, naked executioner and very bloody head). I’m a bit sceptical of this given the time constraints and the purpose of the aim of the session, but I take much more seriously the remark of another that “he could have spent more time on some extracts we’ve quickly seen”. This was echoed by another who wanted to concentrate on fewer texts (and indeed by the one who wanted more time in general). For what I had forgotten was the sheer difficulty of nineteenth-century prose and poetry for second-language learners – not only its unfamiliar vocabulary and syntax, but also its cultural references. I was treating them like UK MA students and that was very unfair of me. I really should have put myself in their shoes (as opposed to choux).

What’s the ONE most important thing you’ve learned from Andrew King’s sessions?

“That learning literature is not about studying in books but getting into the text and asking yourself questions and trying to give answers”
“I hadn’t thought it possible to find advertising language in literary works”
“There’s no limit to desire”
“Realism is a contract between author and reader which demands trust”
“Realism is still dominant in Britain today”

The biggest surprise to me, though, was the variety of the responses to the first two questions. Of the 35 1st year responses to the first question “What’s the ONE most important thing you’ve learned,” 28 wrote something about realism (6 were very specific on realism as a contract between reader and text; while 7 more were also specific in a variety of ways; the remainder more generic – e.g. “I’ve learned better realism in a more specific way”). The real delights lay in the 7 alternative responses, two of which are cited above; two others showed a delight in semiotic theory and in the problem of refusing value judgements in literary discussion. A great deal of variety was evinced in the responses to the second question, that concerning what students wanted more of (these don’t add up to 35 as not everyone wrote something – 10 wrote “nothing” while others left a blank; a very few wrote more than one thing). It’s easier to present the results in tabular form:

  • Household Words
    Household Words

    Dickens (x 6);

  • historical context of various types (x 6);
  • Victorian art (x 4);
  • literary context (x 3);
  • realism and crime (x 1);
  • theory (x 1);
  • effects of journalism and literature on lower classes (x 1);
  • realism (! x 1);
  • comparison of British realism with Italian verismo (x 1);
  • close reading (x 1)

There’s no pleasing a class completely of course. For in response to the question about what the students wanted to study less and why, 9 of the First Years didn’t want Dickens at all as they thought him “boring”; 5 found the theory of realism too hard; 1 wanted less history and 1 didn’t see the relevance of looking at the details of Victorian art. The rest said “nothing” or similar, or left the question blank.

Rather than look at Dickens journalism then, I should perhaps have looked at some short and simple contemporary newspaper articles, perhaps culled from the British Newspaper Archive. I should certainly have omitted the part of the lecture most interesting to me, the part concerning semiotic theory and realism’s aspirations faithfully to represent the world. Yet the students were perhaps right: I wonder now if that part is just me being clever, playing a kind of cadenza, with surprising trills and scales and leaps over the intellectual keyboard. It may be ingenious and of course it IS thematically integrated  – but removing it won’t weaken the overall argument. The students helped me realise that while it is integrated it is not integral. I shall accordingly drop that section in future.

Thank you 1st years at Macerata!

Herod seeks to persuade Salome of the value of his pearls, using techniques derived from contemporary advertising
Herod seeks to persuade Salome of the value of his pearls, using techniques derived from contemporary advertising, including incremental analogy and royal endorsement.

Although less effusive in their praise, the 31 MA students also wished to change less: 5 said they wanted less history, 1 wanted less on women in print. This ties in with students’ desire to focus more on the texts (though on individual questionnaires there was not necessarily a correspondence). In short, I concluded that the MA students wanted help with reading strategies. I don’t think it was just a question of not understanding syntax and lexis but of interpretative frameworks and how to test these frameworks against specific texts through close reading. I sought to remedy this in the last session with the MA students, in which I offered a framework and pretty rigorously tried to apply it to texts and historical data. Explicit feedback from 5 of the 9 students in this session suggested that that worked, but of course there is a severe limit on what it is possible to teach in such a short time. Any significant development of reading strategies requires, I think, at least 20 hours of contact time.

While I am a great believer that questionnaires which indirectly ask students to reflect on their learning have great pedagogic value, perhaps the most valuable of all is the last question: “What could you have done to help you learn better”? The undergraduate class was actually delightfully talkative and responsive, but still 7 wrote that they could have been less shy and talked more. No fewer than 19 confessed that they should have prepared in advance(about 55%) , including printing out the preslides; 10 wrote that they should have paid more attention, including two who said they should have slept the night before and 1 who, with charming candour, admitted that she should have turned off her iphone and not read messages from friends! The MA students were much more tentative and perhaps alarmed by this question: in the first, larger, of the MA classes, a slightly smaller proportion (50%) said they should have prepared for the class, but a larger proportion (25% as opposed to 20%) said they should have talked more in class. One said that the texts couldn’t be unzipped and another said that s/he should have come to both sessions, not just the second. In the second MA class, of the 9 students, no fewer than 8 said they should have come prepared; no-one said they should have talked more as in fact the smaller group did encourage more interaction.

crostata di castagne (chestnut tart)
crostata di castagne (chestnut tart)

What wasn’t captured by the questionnaire, but which I think very important indeed, was the pleasure I felt as a teacher of such socially skilled and charming students. There was a great deal of social stroking of the teacher. From my shoes, this is a great danger, whose nature is visible in the apparent difficulty students had in arriving at conclusions based on evidence independently of the teacher. I found at times compelled to make ridiculous statements to try to get the students to contradict me, even to the point of confusing the gender of the people they saw on the screen. It was hard to get them to dare to draw their own conclusions without a clear guide from me! This was especially notable amongst the larger MA group, who seemed to have been very thoroughly socialised into agreeing with what they perceive to be authority at the expense of evidence.

This certainly does NOT occur only in Italy: the rather exasperated account of an American university teacher here shows that. But I do think that it Italy it is performed with an unusual charm and subtlety. Perhaps it is even connected with the form the students’ self-criticism took (I am interpreting “I should have talked more/ prepared better ” as what they thought I as authority figure wanted them to do). It may also be connected with a short but significant discussion with the first years on the differences between the breakfast news shows on television in Italy and the UK, 1Mattina on RAI1 and its UK equivalent, BBC Breakfast. While we agreed that both involved evidence-based reasoning and the maintenance of human relations and, importantly, of social hierarchy, the balance seemed to be in favour of the latter in Italy. In other words, hierarchy determines knowledge more than disinterested reasoning. This leads me on to a speculation about the different social functions of education in Italy and the UK.

ciambellone maceratese stuffed with chocolate
ciambellone maceratese stuffed with chocolate

Does the teacher in Italy perform less the part of a model of how to draw conclusions from evidence than that of a master patissier who creates and fills beignets and other delightful pastries? An important role that of the pastry chef. I’m a great fan of beignets as well as crostate and ciambelloni maceratesi – but I do worry about how delightful it is to consume them. My concern is not with my waistline in this context. Rather, if students treat themselves as beignets that teachers fill or bake, my worry is who will use them up, and for what end? Do students perhaps need to be taught to be more rebarbative, less consumable, more overtly and independently critical of authority, more self-moving, rather than taught to sit on a shelf oozing charm and creme Chantilly, resigned to their fate? Do students need careful and phased training in specific skills of independent problem identification and solving rather than stuffing with information?

But then, putting myself in their shoes, I wonder if such a powerful focus on distanced, rational problem-solving is really a life-skill that is, or will be, useful for students in their cultural context which is very different from mine? Am I fetishising problem-solving too absolutely, too glibly? Perhaps in the lived experience of their day-to-day lives, social skills of a very particular kind are more necessary — charming consumability to ensure cooperation and loyalty from authority and colleagues, and resignation in the face of opposition to one’s needs and demands.

Is, after all, the best Italian translation of “education” perhaps not what the dictionaries tell us — istruzione or formazione? Maybe, even though we learnt it long ago as a “false friend” meaning “politeness,” it is educazione ?  Is this what teaching as pasticceria would mean?

That’s not for me to decide. I remain an outsider to Italy, still wearing my battered old British shoes, even while delighting in the many charms of Italian choux. It would be irresponsible of me to do other than raise such questions, not least because, alas, I have to confess that my pastry has always been on the heavy side. Though I’m a bit better at the picante.

The Vicissitudes of Biography; or, how to welcome an Other

Draft of a talk for the University of Macerata to a general audience at 11am on the 11th of November 2014. The elaborate PowerPoint, contrapuntal with and not duplicative of these words, can be found here, along with a spoken word recording of the presentation.

frontispiece to Elizabeth Lee, Ouida: a Memoir (Methuen, 1914)
opposite p. 89 in Elizabeth Lee, Ouida: a Memoir (Methuen, 1914)

The Vicissitudes of Biography; or, how to welcome an Other

Le vicissitudini del raccontare una vita; o come accogliere un Altro

Almost everyone I meet asks me what I am doing in Macerata. To those in the street I give a simple linear answer: a guest of the new Collegio Matteo Ricci at the University, I’m finishing a biography of the nineteenth-century popular author Ouida,  planning a European networking project with colleagues here, and exchanging ideas about teaching and curriculum design (a reflection on which can be found here) .

But I think you here, kind enough to host me in the University and to welcome me in this splendid nineteenth-century aula, deserve something more than that plain list. And it’s the relation of welcome and biography that I want to spend these few minutes thinking about with you.

In 1908, shortly after Ouida had died in Viareggio after almost 40 years in Tuscany, a woman journalist from New York, a Miss Welch, wrote to an old soldier, now retired and staying in Viareggio, to ask if he could help her with information or letters about this woman author whose works sold by the million all over the world. He replied that, yes, he had known Ouida when he was in the military and, yes, he had renewed her acquaintance recently and exchanged a number of letters with her, and, yes, he would let Miss Welch see these letters. However, he warned, writing the life of Ouida would be very difficult. This wasn’t because of a paucity of information but because of the peculiar qualities the biographer of Ouida would require. Chief amongst these qualities would be what he thought was an already outmoded sense of chivalry towards the subject.

In his next letter to Miss Welch he changed his mind: he wouldn’t let her see the letters after all. Knowing Ouida’s hatred of biographies and the publication of private lives in general, he wanted to respect her wishes. Though he doesn’t say this in so many words, it’s clear that he feared Miss Welch would not treat Ouida chivalrously.

Miss Welch never wrote the biography.1st volume-length biography of Ouida: by Elizabeth Lee (Methuen, 1914) After the many, many obituaries of Ouida after her death on 25 January 1908, the first substantial volume-form biography was published in 1914 by Elizabeth Lee, the sister of the editor of the British Dictionary of National Biography.  This was followed by three more full-length biographies, the most recent of which appeared in 1957.

But the old soldier’s warning still appertains 106 years after it was written. We might regard the term “chivalry” as problematically patronising today, but we can and should think about the moral issues of biography, of writing or telling a life.  To do that, I’m prompted here by something  we have learnt, through what I think of as “Mediterranean” theory, to call over the last 20 years hospitality but which we might well call “welcome” or accoglienza. I’m not going to explore the delightfully tortuous paths of Derrida’s thinking  on hospitality here, now, in this welcoming aula,  or the way it interacts in dialogue with his interlocutor Anne Dufourmantelle, but rather, inspired by his work, to think about the vicissitudes — the perils, pains and transformations — of writing a life.

If we have learnt anything from Derrida, we know that there are many and contradictory ways to write — many ways to approach an Other. I can for example use the life of another to celebrate myself, to parade him or her like a jewel on a breast or on my cuffs or, demonstrating my ouida silver crestacquaintance with her as one of my possessions, to flash her as a claim to my status in a defined community. So, for example, I could write a biography merely to forward my career,  or to claim membership of a specific elite — let’s call them humanities academics — by using the life to promote a specific ideology, or to fulfill a publishing contract. I can do that efficiently, careless of the specific nature of the Other. We’ve all read biographies like that.

We can also “welcome” the Other through biographical rituals, helping them cross the threshold in ways that long use has sanctioned. We can think of these rituals as conventions or characteristics of a genre. I have followed this ritual route myself, as in my chapter last year on the publishing history of Ouida:

Marie Louise Ramé was born on 1 January 1839 to Susan Sutton and Louis Ramé in her maternal grandmother’s house, 1 Union Terrace, in the small provincial English market town of Bury St Edmund’s. Nominally a French teacher, her father was rarely en famille … 

Andrew King, “Ouida 1839-1908: Quantity, Aesthetics, Politics” in Ouida and Victorian Popular Culture, ed. Jane Jordan and Andrew King, Ashgate, 2013: 13-36, p. 13.

But those are both very egocentric welcomes, the first using lives as things, as exchangable commodities (a life in return for a measurable amount of status or pay), the second, ritualistic, incorporating the Other, or perhaps making the life fit our dimensions and rules as Procrustes stretched or chopped the bodies of his guests to make them fit his bed – the biographer as butcher indeed. To those extents, both are problematic. Neither truly welcomes the life of the Other.

How then would we rightly welcome a life?

First of all, it wouldn’t mean the exclusion of the previous parading of the Other I’ve just seemed to reject. How terrible if we were not proud to be seen in the company of the Other! It wouldn’t mean rejecting the Other as jewel, or even as exchangeable object in a social transaction, ideological or commercial. Neither would it mean a refusal of form, though one would hope it not Procrustean.  But it would mean, in addition to and in excess of those, recognising the Other as other — taking the trouble to find out how this person is different from me and from my social groups.

In life, we can ask our guests what they need in ways direct or subtle – and guests can tell us even before we ask; in writing a life of the dead, in welcoming a stranger into our community from not only another place but another time, we cannot ask directly. They not only do not speak the same language as us, they do not speak at all, as Ouida well knew and feared — that was why she hated biography. But we needn’t give up in the face of her opposition. We must, to write a life, learn to read the signs of demand and desire without being able to ask, and without too much imposition. That in turn requires a plan and clear methodology that while organised and strategic, must seek to accommodate, to welcome, to be open to alterity and the unexpected. Without those one cannot expect to see Otherness.  And here lie the vicissitudes: the pains and the transformations.

If these points are relevant to the writing of all lives and all welcomes we give, what are the specific requirements of Ouida’s? Apart from my own short accounts of Ouida of course (!) – the longest just 10, 000 words –  previous biographies have all been problematic.

The best is the first, issued in 1914 by Elizabeth Lee. Since many of the players in Ouida’s life were still alive, both fear of libel and a sense of chivalry to the living as well as dead forced Lee to conceal a good deal. It also meant that she was unclear as to many of her sources, several of which are untraceable, and that she placed Ouida in her context only superficially. Nonetheless, we can see that within the limits of fear and chivalry, Lee did at least try to be responsible to her subject.

The three subsequent major biographies are all, however, examples of treating the other as object—I’ll not name them here because I don’t want to give them the oxygen of publicity. They essentially treat her like this Punch cartoon from 1881.

Punch 28 August 1881
Punch 28 August 1881

For them Ouida is nothing more than a figure of fun, a bag of bright feathers with no hat to put them on, all extravagance and no substance. The three biographies are very amusing and for that reason have been very influential from the Wikipedia entry on Ouida to the first monograph devoted to Ouida’s novels which came out in 2008. But they mistranscribe letters, misspell key names and alter evidence for comic effect just as the Punch cartoon does (Ouida never smoked for example).  For them Ouida remains a thing, an object of ridicule, a piece of meat, a way of extracting money by amusing audiences. There’s no chivalry and certainly no hospitable treatment of Ouida as a welcomed Other or, to use Derrida’s term in On Hospitality, a  foreigner (starniero, étranger).

Like many of the best known women writers of the nineteenth-century, George Eliot and Mary Braddon for example, Ouida was not pretty or conventional. But unlike most of them, neither was she accommodating or charming. Nor did she have a man to help her transact business. She was very assertive, outspoken, as this quotation from the introduction to an 1888 Italian translation to some of her short stories shows.

Si direbbe che Ouida è invasa dalla mania di proclamare ai quattro venti l’infamia di quella classe [mondana], di palesare che tutto, in essa, è fango, orpello, ignavia, ipocrisia, e che quanto havvi di più cretino ed ingiusto pullula in quelle alte sfere ove  … le tignuole rodono l’ermellino e il mondo bacia il lebbroso sulle due guancie.

“Memini” « Appunti critici » in Affreschi ed altri racconti di Ouida, Milano: Treves, 1888: v-xix, p.xi.

What “Memini” could have said, had s/he written 20 years later, was that Ouida refused to respect money, wrote tirelessly in favour of political individualism, animal rights, and the conservation of old buildings. She mercilessly denounced capitalism, militarism and masculine performance, told political leaders that terrorism was their own fault, complained bitterly that Italy had failed to live up to the ideals of the risorgimento, dared to give voice to the poor and exploited, and had a keen sense of the aesthetic, the creation and conservation of which she held up as a necessary moral alternative to the violences of war and greed. Anticipating Bhutan, she extolled gross national happiness over gross national product.

She wrote the first known novel in which a divorced woman ends happily unmarried living with her lover – Moths curiously is the only novel of her 40 in Macerata libraries.  She wrote in both her published works and private letters of unorthodox sexual preferences and practices from male homosexuality to female masochism, and refused to condemn any except when lack of consent and discretion were involved. She solidified the term ‘New Woman‘ to describe the calls for women’s work, political and artistic representation in the 1890s.

A liberal perhaps like the dominant norm amongst humanities academics in the west? She sounds like one of us.

But then not: Ouida hated the New Woman for her hypocrisy in calling for a freedom that she thought would enslave others. Ouida was also anti-Semitic and often misogynistic. She hated doctors, medical intervention and scientific progress in general; she hated democracy as tending to a dull level of conformity. She championed instead an aristocracy of intellect and land – but only as long as both the landed and intellectual aristocrat was cultured, refined and responsible (rather like the hero in her last, unfinished, novel Helianthus).

Ouida could never have been my friend. I disagree with her solutions to the problems she saw and indeed some of what she saw as problems. And she would have been hell to work with as a colleague. She remains very different from me.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t listen to her carefully and try to understand this very other person, above all seeking the right questions to ask: what do you really need to be understood today, here, now? What do you really want? How can I encourage you to tell me so that I do not silence you with the violence either of my desires or of my parade, or cut you on the butcher’s bed of convention, ritual or ridicule? This attempt to listen through the static of the day for the voices and requirements of the dead, this attempt to become an Echo as opposed to a Narcissus — this certainly invites vicissitudes: misfortunes because the project is inevitably fraught, fated to imperfection and sacrifice on both sides, but also, I dare hope, vicissitudes in the sense of transformations both of the past and of the present, and hence a new path into the future.

So what am I doing at Macerata? Besides writing bids with my esteemed colleagues here, teaching and exchanging ideas, trying to answer these difficult questions, variants of which, despite their vicissitudes, we all answer, consciously or not, every day, in our own ways.

Ouida A Dog of Flanders/ Nello e Patrasche

Ouida, “A Dog of Flanders” (1872)/ Nello e Patrasche (1880)

 editions in English and Italian

1893 Giftbook edition of "A Dog of Flanders", Lippincott's (USA)
1893 Giftbook edition of “A Dog of Flanders”, Lippincott’s (USA)

English edition: A Dog of Flanders edited by Andrew King

Italian translation (large file – be patient): nello e patrasche trans T Cibeo Treves 1880

“A Dog of Flanders: a Story of Noel” was originally written as a Christmas tale for the American Lippincott’s Magazine, where it appeared in volume 9, January 1872, pp.79-98.

Later that year it was published in London, Philadelphia and (again in English) in Leipzig as part of a collection of short stories given various titles but which was (in textual terms) virtually the same: A Dog of Flanders and Other Stories (London: Chapman & Hall) with illustrations by Enrico Mazzanti; A Leaf in the Storm, and Other Stories (Philadelphia: Lippincott); A Leaf in the Storm; A Dog of Flanders; and other stories (Leipzig: Tauchnitz).

In 1873 there was a pirated Australian edition – and soon a flood of translations (some pirated and some not) in various languages. Beyond the usual French and German, there were also Russian, Polish, Finnish, and eventually Japanese, Korean and – surprisingly perhaps given its specifically Christian setting – Yiddish, as well as an enormous number of pirated American editions in English. There are at least 11 film and TV versions (the 1999 film can be found in its entirety here ) plus a documentary made in 2007 on the story’s incredible popularity still in Japan.

There was of course an Italian translation (called “Nello e Patrasche”).  It came out in 1880 with the Milanese publisher Fratelli Treves, with whom Ouida published translations of several of her novels as well as collections of stories.  “A Dog of Flanders” was, however, a makeweight in a volume whose principal part – and the only one mentioned on the title page – was Zola’s short novel / long short story “Nantas” (1878). Besides “Nantas” (pages 5- 177), the volume in fact also contained “Storia d’amor sincero” by Dickens (pages 181-196; actually an extract from chapter 17 of Pickwick Papers – the tale of Nathaniel Pipkin); “Nello e Patrasche” (pages 199-238); “Una Strage in Oriente” (pages 241-313) by the Russian journalist and traveller Lidia Paschkoff (or Lydia Pashkoff and other variant spellings in Roman script).

I’ve made an uncorrected PDF of Nello e Patrasche taken directly from this out of copyright edition. It is a very large file as it comprises images of the pages. It you missed it at the top of the page, here it is again:  nello e patrasche trans T Cibeo Treves 1880

"A Dog of Flanders" in 1906 Roycrofters edition - it's covered in suede and very tactile --like the fur of a dog!
“A Dog of Flanders” in 1906 Roycrofters edition – it’s covered in suede and very tactile –like the fur of a dog!

This translation is significantly different from the English not in its plot (though a significant name is changed) but in its lack of interest in sound and rhythm. Several descriptive passages are simplified it seems to me, which is strange as these were one of the key things Ouida was most appreciated for in Italy as elsewhere. This is how “Memini,” the translator of some of Ouida’s short stories as Affreschi ed altri racconti (Milano: Treves, 1888), described her powers of painting the Italian landscape in words:

I suoi paesaggi sono mirabili illustrazioni descrittive; alcune pagine… raggiungono la perfezione del genere e ci obbligano all dolorosa confessione della nostra inferiorità nello studio e nella descrizione letteraria del nostro paesaggio… (pp. xvi-xvii of the “Appunti critici”)

Why therefore did “T. Cibeo”, the translator of “A Dog of Flanders,” choose not to try to aim for similar effects in Italian? Why too is the title changed from a representative animal to the names of the two main characters? It’s a quite common title change in translations of this tale – try searching for “Nello e Patrasche” online – but we must ask what the implications of such a change might be.

And then there’s another curious thing. “Nello e Patrasche” was not reprinted in Italian so often as other Ouida stories. Her children’s story “La stufa di Norimberga” (“The Nurnberg Stove”) is very easy to find, for example, and has been translated several times, whereas the 1880 translation of “Nello e Patrasche,” buried in a  volume whose main attraction was Zola and not even mentioned on the title page, was the only one I could locate really to exist (others turned out to be mistakes). Why was this story not so popular in Italy when it is so popular elsewhere? That is surely a question for investigation. It can’t be just the quality of the 1880 translation but something about the story itself. What values does it suggest that might prove unattractive to the Italian market? That is something that can and should be discussed in dialogue with Italian native speakers.

We’ll never know how many copies and translations of “A Dog of Flanders” were sold or how many people read this story. Certainly many millions in Japan alone beside the many millions in other languages. All we can say is that it was very successful amongst a very wide cross-section of society in many countries, including not only the general public but also amongst the elite. The artist Burne-Jones wrote a letter to a friend telling a lovely story of how he recalled (the influential Victorian art-critic) Ruskin and Cardinal Manning (Archbishop of Westminster and head of the Catholic Church in England from 1865 until his death in 1892) one day grubbing about on the floor desperate to find a copy of this story they both loved.

There are various free online editions of “A Dog of Flanders” available in English though none in Italian besides the one I’m offering you here. Some of the English texts are digital versions with little indication of what the source volume was, though you can find PDFs of actual books containing the texts through the very useful http://archive.org/details/texts site (see for example the beautiful – and certainly pirated – American Christmas gift-book version with lots of illustrations or the equally lavish 1909 Lippincott version illustrated by the famous children’s illustrator Louise M. Kirk).

The edition that I made is based on the Project Gutenberg text version, which claims to be a checked transcript of the 1909 edition from Lippincott.

I have, however, checked the Gutenberg edition against both the 1909 Lippincott version, the original serialisation and the first British edition by Chapman and Hall (no manuscript seems to have survived). I have edited so as to return the spelling to British standard (which Ouida always wrote in) and also adjusted the paragraphing again to the original (the Gutenberg text was in fact very faulty and didn’t even accord fully with the Lippincott edition, let alone the original).

If you missed the link at the top of the page, here it is again. It’s not a large file as it’s a PDF created from Word.

A Dog of Flanders edited by Andrew King

Cooking a PhD, 1997 style

I’ve just discovered in an old file a jeu d’esprit I wrote for the British Council Family’s Association (BCFA) Magazine in 1997 while I was a PhD student studying in London and living in Warsaw. While it reads as quaintly old-fashioned now – the universe was very different 20 years ago – I know some colleagues will appreciate its mix of cooking and academic research. It even has a few footnotes. So…

mrs beeton dessertsPART-TIME PuDding; or, advice from the kitschen

a confection written over the Christmas festivities,

 over-indulgence in which may go some way to explaining it

To follow up the controversial article that appeared some months ago on representational cooking, the following may be of interest to readers of the BCFA Magazine.

Life is often difficult for a BC spouse who has had to give up career, family, friends and the local Sainsbury’s for the greater benefit of the Beloved Company, or even for the company of the beloved. One of the many ways this deprivation has been made bearable for me has been retraining in the rather drastic form of a PhD – pronounced “PuD” by some of those who know my culinary pretensions.

Since 1994 I’ve been collecting ingredients and stirring them all up in the hope that a further degree will emerge towards the end of 1997. In other words I’ve been PuDding. I’ve had to do this part-time and by distance, living in Warsaw and studying in Birkbeck College, London. I can’t say my PuD has been an easy dish to cook so far, even with BC financial help with the fees. It’s not a Delia cooking-by-numbers, more a Jane Grigson where the quantities and ingredients have been blanked out, but the arcane references left in. Goodness knows the pleasures I have already savoured though – profoundly intellectual of course you understand.

My research concerns popular Victorian culture. I’ve been reading best-sellers from the 1840s to 1880s, pouring over fashion illustrations from the 1860s, licking my lips at accounts of the Great Exhibition and Crimean War, and suddenly, after long, fruitless, and always cakeless, searching in libraries that smell like old dry toast, serendipitously lighting on the element that binds the sauce and gives unity to the dish…

Mrs Beeton cold entrees
Mrs Beeton cold entrees

Mrs Beeton’s menus and my material may occasionally be on the heavy side but each has its own particular delights. Believe me. I’ve tried both. Sometimes simultaneously. But my research is actually more typical of post-modern present-day “New British” cooking than Mrs B’s huge repasts based mainly on local food-stuffs. Today we want freshly imported lemon-grass and star-fruit, not half a pig from the friendly farmer down the hill and a churn of cream from the dairy maid. Just as in Warsaw it’s impossible to get fresh lemon grass when most you need it [1], so it is impossible to get the materials for my research. My supervisor at Birkbeck seemed to realise this only too well at our first interview. In order to prove my commitment she demanded I return to London every 3 weeks to see her and collect fresh ingredients (or was it materials?). It took some persuading to cut this down to three times a year and the promise of written work twice as often. To effect this I went to the registrar and explained my situation. It was only by his being – shall we say – “sympathetic” that I was enabled to begin at all. Let this be a lesson to us. Go through admin. if you have problems enrolling in a course. These days university administrators want your money. Use their greed for your own reasons, just we cooks play on the greed of our guests for representational purposes!

The London Journal Christmas issue 1858 - lots to eat and drink here
The London Journal Christmas issue 1858 – lots to eat and drink here

As for my materials, well, just as you can take dried lemon grass (a pallid simulacrum of the real thing) from Chiswick Sainsbury’s to Warsaw, so you can spend a fortune on blotchy photocopies (of non-copyright works) and on books. If you find that you need cardamom and not lemon-grass after all, you’ve got problems until you come to the UK next time. Of course, you can order that special ingredient from specialist firms[2], but it will almost certainly arrive after that particular dinner for the vice-rector. It’s not the predictable that catches you out but the inspired pinch of spice for that extraordinarily rich footnote you just know will make all the difference to the course (I seem to be getting a little mixed up between cooking and research here…).

Several options face you when the empty space on the shelf catches in your throat. Firstly, suicide, like Vatel when the fish didn’t arrive. When you have been weaned off that by the thought of the smiling eyes and delicious lips of your beloved, as ready to consume your blanquette as comment on your latest chapter, you are left with less operatic possibilities: 2) make an entirely different dish/ chapter; 3) experiment with what you do have and hope you cook up something that will pass mustard; 4) substitute caraway for cardamom, George Eliot for George Lewes, and pray that everyone will have a cold and be unable to notice anything anyway.

Option 4) is not advised. You may be able to count on the cold in Poland and the UK this winter, but not on colds. After all, guests / supervisors may have been in training before and for your offering, intent on bringing to your creation their critical faculties at the acutest pitch. Whether they have done this to catch you out, thinking you a rookie cookie, or because your reputation as a culinary Vivienne Westwood precedes you, is quite irrelevant. Option 4) remains a high-risk strategy. It is only advised when the subtly altered confection has been approved in advance by your most critical tester/taster, who should ideally be your beloved. S/he will no doubt recommend additions and subtractions, as is the duty of beloveds. In which case you will be following Option 3) anyway, not Option 4), and you should copyright your invention before someone else does. Remember the golden rule of culinary and academic hygiene: throw out what you are unsure of then copyright the rest!

Probably the most effective cause of indigestion I have found though is not scarcity of ingredients, but the difference in tastes each culture has. Thai influence may have been a sign of a Refined Tongue amongst the London chattering classes two years ago, but it may still be a wally taste in Walbzych. What if everyone who comes to dinner from Krakow hates coconut milk – but you know you’re only practising on them for a slightly out-of-date supervisor who lives in Camden Square?

There is only one answer. Bilocationism. You have to do what medieval saints found easy. You have to be in two places at once, the place of your research and the place where you live. You daren’t go positively Polish as the Taster/Tester who controls your life in London won’t like it; you can’t cut yourself off from your local culture and refuse to deride Derrida, as you risk isolation and alienation. You have to do the impossible: you have to become something of a cow, with two stomachs. But since you have to be a saint too, so you become a Holy Cow.mrs beeton cuts of beef

This is the only way of dealing with the indigestion caused by PuDding.

Not everyone finds sacred cowishness entirely to their liking. My beloved endures my beastly metamorphoses by perpetually looking forward to the new frock she will buy to wear at the presentation of my PuD to the world. And then dinner at the River Cafe in Hammersmith[3]. Poor dear! She deserves them after years of being force-fed Victorian best-sellers and spinach timbales. But will she still fit into a size 8?

We mustn’t think of things like that or allow such thoughts to occur to our beloveds. Instead we must keep dangling the carrot (or preferably tarte tatin aux poires or papaya and vanilla bavarois rubané) in front of those sensory organs we ourselves have delicately attuned, whenever they demand the real PuDding before it’s done.

After all, as I tell her, who cares about triple-decker doctorates at a time when edible chocolate body-paint has been the best-selling product on the British Christmas market? The proof of the PuDding must lie in the eating.

Bon appetit for 1997!

[1] Doesn’t Delia drive you nuts with her assumption that a super-Sainsbury’s is just down the road? For that reason the post-war books by Elizabeth David are more useful, as they give you alternatives if basil isn’t in the market when it’s colder there than in your freezer.

[2] Dillon’s, Blackwell’s, or if you need out-of-print arts material, the London Library.

[3] Recently voted the best Italian restaurant in the world.

Reading the Olympics 3: the Discobolos Redivivus (1936)

Olympia image
Olympia image

If the previous story of the American student was rather benign, I’m not so sure about Leni Riefenstahl’s quite marvellous 1938 film of the 1936 “Nazi Olympics”. It’s a film that has been claimed rightly as establishing the modern grammar and vocabulary of the moving imagery of sports: cameras were mounted beneath balloons, on rafts, in trenches, on rowing boats, under water  and under saddles to try to capture the kinaesthetic – indeed the kino-aesthetic, or movement aesthetic  – of the struggle towards perfection that governs the overall narrative of the film.

The film opens with a trumpet fanfare calling out into darkness, followed by a short title sequence announcing that the film is a record of the 1936 Olympics. There ensues a long slow sequence of mists and stone over which the camera roves as if searching for something. Eventually the Acropolis is revealed , along with stone statues of Greek deities, male  and female, over which the camera slithers and slides in a langorous eroticism while the soundtrack offers slow chromatic harmonies and fragments of melody recalling the “degenerate” music (Entartete Musik) of, say, Schreker of the 1910s and 1920s.

After 7 minutes the camera comes to rest on – of course – the discobolos, which Riefenstahl, a female Pygmalion,  brings to life in a gender inversion interesting to all students of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century gender.  This is the moment when Riefenstahl breathes into stone so that it becomes flesh, and simultaneously into photography so that it becomes cinematography – kinomatography. This is the moment when stillness becomes action, when Myron’s supposed dream of capturing movement is finally realised. We have had to wait 2500 years for this to be accomplished and it is a woman film director who has had the audacity and vision to do it. Simultaneously, the music shifts to diatonicism with a clear rhythmic pulse and melodic structure, and even at times an almost Orffian folksiness: we have arrived at a form of music which allows for “progression” from one key to another, of symphonic transformation and narrative.

leni reifenstahl discobolos
Leni Reifenstahl discobolos

Riefenstahl was to use the human discobolos as the cover image of her 1937 book of stills from the  making of the film, reinforcing its iconicity as the symbol of the triumph of flesh over stone, of art over nature, of movement over stasis, of regeneration from degeneration.

leni reifenstahl discobolos book cover
leni reifenstahl discobolos book cover

Reifenstahl is taking on the imagery of the early Olympic posters and celebrity photography, intensifying it, universalising it in the typifying spirit of classical Greece, reminding us of the pan-Greek “international games: note in this regard how the image is a perfect history painting, the figure naked, abstracted from setting and any social reality that can anchor it. If the implications of the very historically situated soundtrack belie this, the figure of the discobolos himself (itself?) was also highly politically charged.

The Discobolus Palombara, the first copy of this famous sculpture to have been discovered, had been found in 1781 at the Villa Palombara in Rome. In 1937, the year of Reifenstahl’s book Schonheit im Olympischen Kampf, Hitler negotiated to buy it from the Italian state. He eventually succeeded in 1938, the year Olympia was released, when the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs sold it to him for five million lire. The statue was only returned to Rome in 1948, the year of the first London Olympics. It was clearly on the political agenda for Hitler as a representation of Aryan perfection, and its return in 1948 was an acknowledgement of that which sought to set its ghost to rest.

To return to the film. After the pygmalionisation of the statue, we are shown a sequence of naked or near naked athletes, male and female, as if the original models for the statues we have previously seen: Riefenstahl has turned the whole world of stone to flesh. The narrative continues now through time as a torch is lit in a ceremony invented for the Nazi Olympics, and it’s carried in relay from Olympia to Berlin. There can be no question in this film that it is Germany that has brought the Olympics to life again. The origin of the Olympic torch in Nazi Germany was hardly commented on in the Uk media before or during the 2012 London Olympics – but its televisual and cinematic potential that Riefenstahl invented was certainly exploited to the full.

In some ways the film is historically accurate. It was the Germans who “found Olympia” just as it was German scholarship that vectored the ways the classics were understood in the nineteenth century. Germans had first properly excavated the site of Olympia after a half-hearted attempt by the French in 1829. That said, the modern Olympic Games had been international from the start. De Coubertin, the recognised founder of the modern games that we know, was inspired by the muscular Christianity of Arnold of Rugby – he wanted to learn from the English how to improve the French education system for men. And then we must remember the annual Olympic games of Wenlock Edge founded in 1850 by William Penny Brookes  to “promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the Town and neighbourhood of Wenlock”. De Coubertin certainly knew of these games and was in touch with Brookes.

Riefenstahl deleted all that international history, sucking it out of the imagery. Instead she inscribed the games into a quite wonderful aesthetic narrative, a striving for perfection, a struggle for beauty – beauty in struggle (Schonheit im Kampf ) – that had, in its modern form, in a specifically German genealogy. Now Kampf (“struggle” or “battle”) is highlighted by Riefenstahl in her title. It is a term that recalls German romanticism, Nietzsche and, of course, Hitler.  There is much debate over whether the film conveys Nazi ideology. Whether it does or not overall remains to me uncertain, but there are certainly elements that are impossible to ignore (as in the imagery of the discobolos and the stress on Kampf). In the 2nd part of the film, though, there is an increasing tendency for the events to become a celebration of male physical perfection beyond any idea of nationality or race.

There is a huge amount that can be said about this film, but I want to spend these last few minutes by pointing out not just its easily perceptible  Darwinian evolutionary narrative and its linkage to Nietzschean ideas of the ubermensch – both utterly predictable – but a faith in transcendence of the body through technology that again has its roots in German romanticism – above all in music with its emphasis on the modern technology of sound to create sublime effects. It is modern technology that enables the transformation of stone into flesh, stasis into kinesis.

First let’s consider the opening sequences of the 2nd part of the film,  (“Festival of Beauty”) set in the Olympic village. After an establishing shot, we move from plants to slime on water and then through a series of animals increasing in size and strength until we meet a herd of Aryan men training in the woods and cavorting in the sauna and in the woodland  pool – Aryan men swim quite happily in nature: they are casual masters of it while being part of it (a notorious trope we are familiar with from Heidegger). We then see a series of shots of men from other countries which, intercut with shots of animals, more than risks racism. Clearly we have witnessed an evolutionary progression that mirrors the inspiration of stone to flesh in the first part of the film, along with a visual representation of the risks that degeneration back into less evolved nature may remain with us.

Olympia diver
Olympia diver

This evolutionary narrative is halted for most of the film but is meant to register for the next hour or so, casting the Olympics as an evolutionary struggle for existence. It returns and  comes to a climax in the famous diving sequence (1.20.00 onwards here — or here separated from rest of film).  The soundtrack now seems to recast in serious vein the hilariously camp waltz of the superman in Richard Strauss’s ironic symphonic commentary on Nietszche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. In combination with Riefenstahl’s dazzling visual editing it makes men fly.

We have arrived, at the end of the film, to the divine Ubermench, a condition to which all participants in the Games strive. Here, as indeed elsewhere in the second part of the film, the competitors are stripped of nationality and indeed of individuality as they return to the abstract forms of the gods that Riefenstahl had started with. Flesh is now rendered sublime, borne by air not earth.

Olympia end
Olympia end

In the epilogue that succeeds the sky divers (1.25.00 here), Riefenstahl will progress beyond the earthy mists and the stones, the ruins of classical antiquity, beyond the materiality of nations and of the human body, beyond even the clouds as (1.27.27) national flags will bow down to the pure light of technology. Is the sun shining down or are the searchlights shining up? Either and both: the Light is one. Reifenstahl will fling us beyond the body to the utopia of the machine, to a beyond where in fact it’s the German cinema with its powers of light projection and light play – precisely, Lichtspiel – and manipulation of the image that is in absolute control. Even the human voice will have ceased in the Valhalla-like soundtrack so that the technology of German musical instruments will lead us upward and on (zieht uns hinan as the final words of Goethe’s Faust puts it), just as in the perorations of Beethoven 9 or Wagner’s Ring , or – banned though this music might have been by the Nazis – of Mahler 2 or 8, where instruments alone, musical machinery, propel us into the technological sublime.

No longer throwing a discus into an uncertain future – how far and where will it go? – here Germany, the destination of the Olympic flame, now extinguished,  projects light and sound so far that it seems to receive it. Project, reject come to have no meaning in the final scenes of the film: space and time dissolve and become one, as in the land of the grail in Wagner’s Parsifal (cf. Wolfgang Wagner’s comments on the setting of Parsifal). Sublimity and aesthetic deconstruction avant la lettre rewrite classical antiquity to empty the aesthetic object of specificity, an aim quite in line with traditional art historical understandings.  All this through the wondrous technology and art of Germany – and a woman Pygmalion.

And isn’t it through the lens of the technological sublime that the games are presented to us today as mediated spectacle? Spectacles come in many forms, but isn’t the dominant visual image we are presented with that of  heroic and mainly masculine sublimity? Of course women are prominent too now, but there is little doubt about the sex that remains in charge. This is not subtext but the text itself. This is why the discobolos seemed so very right at the outset.

Perhaps, though, instead of Myron’s discobolus,  this photograph of Riefenstahl directing her visual technology of sublimity might be an alternative image to underwrite the Olympics, lending a poster for a study day on the Games a genealogy less “pure”, less masculinist — and more obviously troubling.

Leni Riefstahl directing
Leni Riefenstahl directing

 

 

 

Reading the Olympics 2: the Discobolos Redivivus (1896)

Robert Garrett 1896 Olympics
Robert Garrett 1896 Olympics

After the set up in the first part of this talk, here, surprise surprise, is a photograph of a discus thrower of the 1896 Olympics. It is the celebrity victory photo of Robert Garrett, who won the discus event on the evening of the 1st day of the first modern Olympics , 6 April 1896. An American athlete, Garrett – so goes the founding myth – had originally not intended to enter the competition at all. Indeed, the American contingent – all from Boston Athletics Association and Princeton University – had almost not been able to go. Senior students from their University – who would have been of the appropriate age – could not attend because they had finals to sit, and the expense of travelling to Greece was high. But Garrett’s father coughed up the funds and in March Princeton University Track Athletics Association sent 4 men, including Robert.

Now discus throwing  was not internationally practised at this time – it was pretty much a reinvented sport by the modern Greeks in imitation of the discobolos statue that Curtius had unearthed. It was a sport that they had designed so that they could win. But Professor Sloane of Princeton, a future IOC member and friend of the driving force behind the 1896 Olympics, the Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin, suggested to Garrett that he enter the discus competition anyway. Not short of funds, Garrett commissioned a Princeton blacksmith to replicate the discus of the Discobolus – it weighed 9 kilos, and was just too heavy to throw in a discus-like way, so Garrett decided that he wouldn’t go ahead and enter.

But, so the story continues, Garrett picked up a  discarded discus used by Greek competitors that he found on the track the morning of 6 April – the very day of the first modern Olympic Games. It was much lighter than the discus he had had made back in Princeton, and there and then he decided to enter after all. Clearly, things were much simpler back then! The Games hadn’t become the highly mediated and orchestrated event it has today – Gale NewsVault for example gives only 145 mentions of the Olympics in its corpus of British newspapers throughout April and May 1896, many of them, as was usual for the time, duplicates of London newspaper commentary on the idea of the games themselves.

But to return to the story of Garrett.

Discus throwing was the last event of the day. After the King of Greece had formally opened the Olympic Games at 2.15pm, there had followed the 100m heats followed  by the long jump  and the first medal of the games – won by a Bostonian – and then there were the 800m heats. Now the sun was going down and the air was cooling. It was time for the discus. The Greeks, unsurprisingly, were considered elegant: they were being measured by Myron’s discobolos and in turn had used it as their measure. It was, as so often, a self-confirming evaluation. The English entrants were apparently nothing short of ludicrous. Nonetheless, in true heroic style, Garrett won the discus event after a couple of false starts. Later in the Games, he came second in the long jump to the Harvard athlete Ellery Clark, and went on to win the shot put. Garrett went on to become a very successful  investment banker – and collector of Egyptian manuscripts (which he donated to Princeton in 1942). He is the very type of ancient Greek athletic aristeia, perfect in body and mind, on the field and in society, who wins and offers a sacrifice (his manuscripts) to the organisation that nurtured him. He is indeed the discobolos redivivus, the Winkelmanian mortal embodiment of the divine, a wonderful extension into sport of the Paterian ideal of the artistic god descended to earth that is explored in Pater’s essay on Pico della Mirandola. Even more, Garrett is the perfect student, the product of University-as-Pygmalion+Inspiration. As a student he is a statue moulded and brought to life and inspired by his institution.

Yet pause for a moment – look at this photograph again. The US flag is the wrong way round. The American hero was left-handed!

Garrett did not therefore accord with the classical precedent of the right-handed discobolos. In ways quite typical of late nineteenth-century celebrity photography, trickery was involved to make the reality conform to an idea. The photograph was turned round so that in this case  the celebrity could be attributed more easily an illustrious classical ancestry. I don’t think we can say this is just an American trick, a US claim on the authority of the classical, a simple usurpation of the ancient Greek ideal or effacement of modern Greek claims to it. It’s not just national propaganda so much as conformity to media propriety. Of course the discobolus redivivus had to come to life from the ancient pattern, and therefore he had to be right handed. This was one of the rules of what was by now the dominant pop-classical discourse about aesthetics that classically derived sport incorporated. We can see its roots in Winkelmann and Pater extended by 1896 to become demotic and general, a notion spread far and wide by an ever more intense celebrity culture: by this stage it’s tacitly accepted that celebrities have something divine about them, as Barthes, 60 years later, was to explore when discussing Greta Garbo.

But clearly, Garrett’s photographer was not entirely in change of the technology: it was in change of him. Unlike so many better celebrity photographers (such as Queen Victoria’s as explored by John Plunkett), he forgot about the details, reminding us all too clearly that the divine is moulded from the same flesh and clay as us. 40 years later, another visual artist will not allow such slips, with more sinister results.

Reading the Olympics: the Discobolos 1

Reading the Olympics Study Day programme
Reading the Olympics Study Day programme
The following trio of blogs comprises the opening plenary  given at the Reading the Olympics Study Day at the University of Greenwich 7 June 2012.  

 It is a great pleasure and honour to have been invited to speak before you all at Greenwich: it’s the first time I have had the opportunity of doing so since starting 5 weeks ago. Even though this kind of cultural history is hardly my core area of research, I want to seize the opportunity to explore some very basic issues that the title of the event and the programme itself raise about how we study and represent history and gender.

The text I want to think about is the flyer before you of this very study day itself: “Reading the Olympics”. Trained to be attentive to the paratextual as much as to words, I looked at this flyer and wondered at its quite literal subtext – the image the day’s organisers chose to placed beneath the words, THE image of the Olympics. Why did this image seem so right to me? What affiliations or genealogy does it suggest that make it seem an obvious image to underlie the programme? What is being rewritten or written out (in every sense) so as to make it seem right?

It is of course the discobolos (or diskobolos or discobolus) of Myron which I recognised from my classical past. What did I know of this statue? What did I know of its association with the Olympics?

Myron's Discobolus
Myron’s Discobolos

The original Greek statue, supposedly by the sculptor Myron, dated from some time around 450-460BC. We know it mainly from a marble Roman copy found in Italy in the eighteenth century; smaller bronze copies have also turned up. It’s famous for having solved a problem in sculpture that the exhibition that opens tonight in the Stephen Lawrence Gallery also addresses (“The Present is a Moment just Passed“). For the statue captures movement through time even while it is, being a  statue, arrested in time. The thrower is about to launch the discus off into an uncertain future.  How far will it go? Where? What will this projection into futurity mean? Victory? Loss? Something else again? And then, who is this man? His nakedness abstracts him from society: we cannot place him other than to say he was almost certainly a Greek free man, not a slave, as only Greek-speaking free men could participate in the Olympic games. He has no name, no individuality. Typically classical, the statue aspires to the type, the idea, not the individual likeness.

But then, I want to ask, how much has this image to do with the ancient Olympics?  Discus throwing was, it is true, one of the five parts of the ancient Pentathlon (discus, javelin throwing, jumping,  wrestling, running). But it was just one of them and, furthermore, it was practised everywhere in the palaestra as part of a general gymnastic training. There’s nothing about discus throwing  per se which is Olympian.

Yet here we find discus throwing on the official posters for the 1920 and 1948 Olympic games (the latter more specifically Myron’s).

1920 Olympics1948 Olympics

Was a copy of Myron’s statue perhaps found in Olympia to validate our association of the statue with the Games?

Well, no. All the copies of the Discobolos I know about have been found in Italy: it does not seem to be connected to Olympia it all.

 

Only two statues were dug up when the Prussian Ernst Curtius excavated Olympia between 1875 and 1881: a winged Victory and the so called “Hermes of Praxiteles” in which the god holds the baby Dionysos. Despite Hermes’ typically perfect body, this statue is hardly a model of the competitive athletic. The original Olympic games were held in honour of the king of the gods, Zeus, and there is a clear connection of this statue to Zeus. Dionysos’s mother was consumed when her lover Zeus revealed himself to her. Zeus saved the unborn child inside her and gave it to Hermes to take to the nymphs to be nursed and brought  up. Here Hermes has paused on his flight to amuse the infant Dionysos with a charm in his right  hand – now missing.  From the direction of this photo Hermes looks serious, but when seen from the left his face is sad, when from the right, smiling.

The Hermes of PraxitelesWhy don’t we use this emotionally complex image of surrogate fatherhood as an image for the Olympics? Perhaps because while Hermes’ body is perfect, the statue is hardly a marker of competitive individualism or struggle  that the Olympic Games seem to valorise above all else.

What’s at stake, then, in using as the icon of international sporting competition a Roman copy of an emotionally blank athlete? I leave that for yourselves to ponder for the moment. What I will say is that the very idea of the discobolos and discus throwing as the embodiment of the Olympics started at the very first international Olympic Games in 1896. I’ll talk a bit about those first Games before going on to discuss briefly the most famous of all movies about the Olympics, Leni Riefenstahl’s amazing 1938 two-parter, Olympia, as a way of setting up and contrasting with the talk that will follow mine, a discussion of the 1948 London Olympics by our colleagues from History.

Part 2 is here.