Archive | January 2013

The Encounter with Beauty and the Self

IMG_3645_2The large tradition of Confession in the Western culture is developed by Michel Foucault in his History of Sexuality from a very challenging approach as he usually does. According to him, the confessional pattern goes from a religious practice to a medical one highly developed in the 19th century. Sexuality has always been one of the main victims of these two methods becoming thus scrutinise until the minimum point. Narratives of sex have been usually presented as “confessions” of intimate experiences, not because the narrator could feel himself as a sinner or deprived -in psychoanalytical terms- but because of the strong powerful tradition of confessing something unusual which is attached to the will of knowledge.

The structure of confessional narrative can be seen as well in works such as Frankenstein or The Turn of the Screw, where a story is explained inside the story in an epistolary form. There is something there which should be told, which cannot remain as an individual experience. It is the necessity of confession detached of its religious aims but still surviving as a path towards knowledge. The same kind of narrative is presented in The Immoralist by André Gide; in this case it is a sexual one, which links the text again with Foucault’s theory.

In this short novel, Michel encounters his best male friends to confess his truly self, that is, his homosexuality. The novel was published in 1902, its themes are indeed very modernist ones. Together with homosexuality, the importance of the body and sensuality as paths towards self-knowledge, beauty and art, are some of the topics one can encounter in it. In fact, homosexuality is not explicitly expressed until the very last sentence of the novel. What arouses in Michel in his twenties is the apprehension of beauty. While he is extremely sick, he finds out in Africa beauty, something that he had not discovered earlier. It is through the beauty of healthy manly bodies that he experiments a strong desire for life. The setting in this part of the novel, Africa, evokes colour, smells, sounds, all what can be perceived by the senses, and it is in fact through them that Michel experiments life. The body thus becomes a medium for knowledge, it is what is first experimented. The importance of the body is present along the novel as far as it expresses the inner state of Michel. He is in fact sick until he is able to find beauty around him, and this beauty is primary found in men. As he discovers himself, his healthy situation improves. In Freudian terms, the body and its sickness work as a metaphor of the self and express it.

In Chopin’s  The Awakening, sensuality is also a path towards self-awareness. Edna discovers her body and its sensuality and beauty when she begins to realise of her own identity apart from social conventions; it is a similar experience of that of Michel’s.

In this kind of self-realizations, the importance of nature as something which calls for the sensual impressions is crucial. The self is in relation with the whole at the moment of its own encounter. Nature and beauty are close to each other and the last one is especially crucial to relieve one self.

The Other and My-self

Poe_william_wilson_byam_shawYou have conquered, and I yield. Yet henceforward art thou also dead – dead to the World, to Heaven, and to Hope! In me didst thou exist – and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself. That’s the ending of “William Wilson” (1839) by Allan Poe, a short story which shows the dreadful life of someone who introduces himself as William Wilson, and who is horrified by the presence of someone identical to him. This “other” has his same name and appearance and, according to the narrator – which is William Wilson-, his objective seems to be that of interfering with all what William attempts to do. The terrible whispering of the “other” tortures William every time it suddenly appears along his life, since he’s a child. Indeed, the “other” seems to become the whispering which actually unmasks every unfair action William pretends to achieve. While the weary presence of the “other” increases, William’s dreadful desires do too. He escapes all through Europe (Oxford, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, etc.) from the tormenting whispering however impossible it results to be.

This disturbing presence in fact reminds Sartre’s theory of the Other in Being and Nothingness (1943). William Wilson becomes catch by the “other” every time he tries to achieve a goal by suspicious means; he is shamed by the presence of the “other”, who, moreover, interferes with his will. Both William and the “other” incarnate a fight to impose their respective wills on each other:

Thus far I had succumbed supinely to this imperious domination. The sentiment of deep awe with which I habitually regarded the elevated character, the majestic wisdom, the apparent omnipresence and omnipotence of Wilson, added to a feeling of even terror, with which certain other traits in his nature and assumptions inspired me, had operated, hitherto, to impress me with an idea of my own utter weakness and helplessness, and to suggest an implicit, although bitterly reluctant submission to his arbitrary will (…) I began to murmur, -to hesitate,- to resist. And was it only fancy which induced me to believe that, with the increase of my own firmness, that of my tormentor underwent a proportional diminution? Be this as it may, I now began to feel the inspiration of a burning hope, and at length nurtured in my secret thoughts a stern and desperate resolution that I would submit no longer to be enslaved.

The dialectical relation “master-slave” is explained by Sartre, among others, to argue that the encounter with the Other takes place in terms of competition among different personal interests; just one will can win. That seems very likely to the relation William expresses regarding the “other” which in this case is “his other”. And it adds a challenging point as in Poe’s story the disappearance of one seems to imply that of the other, or the other’s, that of the one’s. This fact brings back again the importance of the “other’s look” in Sartre. It could be argued that William needs to be looked at in order to exist, as the “other” tells him to be living in the other’s self. So William can just survive in relation to the Other, acquiring a position regarding the Other, which turns him in the other’s object.

In William’s case this dialectic is enhanced by the ambiguous fact of the other’s identity; at the same time, it’s very nicely presented as a metaphor of the double or the split self which is presented as the own’s other. It gives a wide range for interpretation together with Sartre.   

Eastern European Hamlets at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London

hamlet-dorobantu-dan-vivianThe panel discussion on Eastern European Hamlets will address the question of how the staging of Shakespeare’s Hamlet develops a socio-political potential in different cultural contexts in Eastern Europe post-1989.
On the basis of an interdisciplinary discussion between literary criticism, translation studies and performance analysis, the following questions shall be addressed during the discussion panel: What are the mechanisms of appropriation of Hamlet within different cultural contexts in Eastern Europe post-1989? How do such appropriation processes influence a self-understanding of Eastern Europe as the so-called ‘new’ Europe and how do they construct cultural identities? Does a phenomenon such as anEastern European Hamlet exist?
We are happy to announce that the panel will feature Prof. Dr. Boika Sokolova, Dr. Nicoleta Cinpoes, Dr. Marta Minier, Dr. Aneta Mancewicz, Dr. Sonia Massai, Dr. Duška Radosavljević and Alexandra Portmann, presenting on Bulgarian, Romanian, Hungarian, Polish, Lithuanian and Yugoslav Hamlets respectively.
Due to limited space, we would be very grateful if you could register online for the event:

Across the Mirror

6206545106_6f3c6fedfc_zThe Others (2001), a film by Pedro Amenábar, is an interesting adaptation, though a very personal one, of Henry James’ novel The Turn of the Screw (1898). If in the film, the two children are alive and the two apparitions represent to be death, in the novel, the two children are death and the supposed phantoms are not so but alive intruders in the house. This difference makes a kind of mirror effect between the novel and the film, both being highly thrilling in their respective forms.

The main point of the story remains in both sides: the role of the children in the relations between death and life. That’s exactly what the first narrator in James’ novel affirms to be “another turn of the screw” as two children in a scary story becomes more dreadful than just one. In fact, the first inhabitants of the house to be aware of the presence of the others are the children. But in this case there is as well another mirror effect. In the novel, the little boy is more liable to see the phantoms, while in the film, it is the girl who first realises of the presence of the others.

Both the novel and the film present together a similar story from different points of view. If true that Amenábar did not offer a faithful adaptation, his creativity is nonetheless valuable. In fact, the best way to approach the film is keeping in mind the novel and vice versa. Moreover, both mediums writing and film making are also complementary which provokes a nice encounter between two different periods of time.     

Beyond the Wall

florMuroNikolai Gogol (1809-1852) was a Russian writer  who deserves to be noted as a Modernist pioneer. Donald Fanger, in his book The Creation of Nikolai Gogol, describes some of Gogol’s writing features. It is surprising to see how, in a predominant Romantic and Realistic period, Gogol is concerned with form and words merely. As Fanger says, the detail is the main figure in Gogol’s narrative where the argument is absent. Gogol was concern with the fact of artistic creation as it will be for Kafka and Woolf a hundred years later.

Gogol wrote, “Only that came out well, which I had taken from reality, from data known to me. I could only divine the man when the smallest details of his exterior were present to me”. However Realistic it could seem, the attention to the smallest details reminds as well Joyce. In fact, the absence of plot is quite significant as it is prominent in writers of the 19th century.

The pre-revolution Russian literature is a source of discoveries. One is startled by the surprise of finding there, in a culture traditionally far away from the European continent, numerous innovative literary techniques as well as writers of high value such as Dostoyevsky and  Tolstoy, among others. It looks like a buried culture during the 20th century, which should be rediscovered in this new millennium.

A Romantic Ecstasy

20080925_friedrich_ruins_of_a_monasteryGeorge Büchner (1813-1837) was a Romantic German writer whose short story “Lenz” (1836) is really a beautiful piece of work. Lenz is an extremely sensitive man able to experiment beauty in an unusual degree. Nature, childhood and religion give him a high sense of spiritual communion in the most holistic sense. The detailed descriptions of nature and his feelings towards it remind Wordsworth’s Preface, which in fact is a a very Romantic approach to this realm. The idealisation of nature, childhood and religion remind as well the Enlightened ideas of Rousseau. In fact, these three realities are the only ones able to calm down the suddenly mood changes of Lenz, which go from ecstasy to depression. Their power to redeem Lenz’s tormented soul is linked to their primitive and innocent beauty.

This story, far from being comical, provokes a feeling of compassion towards Lenz’s madness and an empathy with his sensibility.

Modernism? What is really all about?

tumblr_lhyqmwpHVj1qcg92oo1_400Roger Griffin, in his article “Modernity, modernism and fascism”, affirms Fascism to be a form of political modernism. To agree with this idea or not, it’s necessary, first of all, to clarify the difference between modernity and modernism. Modernity is a period of time mainly related to a highly industrialisation and use of technique; one of the most common examples of it is the First World War which became the maximum expression of a technological society through military tools and massive destruction never seen before. The highly dehumanisation of this war weapons marked, among other things, a change of mentality in the Western society. Modernism then is the reaction to modernity, to this new cultural phenomenon of highly mechanisation.

However, modernism is a quite contesting term as far as it is full of contradictions and ambiguity. Griffin explains how modernism looked for a regeneration of the Western culture in a period of important decadence especially outlined by Nietzsche. This view lead to a seeking for an elite to guide society into new values , a defence of eugenics or a protection of the pure race in different European countries. A very important example of that is the Bloomsbury Group. It should be noted how this aspect of modernism is usually kept apart. But modernism seems more a kind of cultural monstrosity, nor less interesting, where a writer such as Virginia Woolf could both defence eugenics and produce a work full of sensibility like To the Lighthouse. (It could not be forget that later on, nazis will be one of the most cultivated elite).

Griffin says fascism to be a political modernism, it means then, fascism is a reaction against modernity and its main treats such as mechanisation. But was not the whole Holocaust a very highly technical process of extermination? An extreme rational plan to renew the Western culture? Was not Nazism a new elite like the ideas of the Bloomsbury Group? But was not UK the great ideological enemy of German?  It seems we have here modernity and modernism (in its aims to “save” the European culture) at the same time.

All this casual politically incorrect connections seem to put in question the first part of the 20th century. I would suggest we need research and a lot of courage to look at things and understand them.